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Image: Sishir Bommakanti

How the Personal Computer Broke the Human Body

Decades before 'Zoom fatigue' broke our spirits, the so-called computer revolution brought with it a world of pain previously unknown to humankind.
May 12, 2021, 1:00pm

Late in 1980, Henry Getson of Cherry Hill, New Jersey wrote in to his favorite computer hobbyist magazine, Softalk. Getson described himself as a computer user of “less than expert status,” and expressed his appreciation for Softalk’s introductory tone and accessible articles, especially for someone like him, who had recently bought a personal computer and was just learning to program. His letter closed with a short question, a stray thread dangled from the hem of heaping praise: “P.S. Have any remedies for tired eyes?”

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Softalk’s editors knew exactly what Getson meant, and responded at length to this “problem that many computerists share.” 

“Some relief comes from double folding a washcloth, saturating it with warm water, and holding it against your eyes for several minutes,” they wrote. In later issues, fellow readers volunteered their own tips for dealing with eye strain. A reader from Texas recommended Getson modify his screen with a piece of plexiglass covered in “the sun screen material found in auto stores.” Another reader, from Malibu, California, suggested buying light green theatrical gel sheets, the kind used to color stage lights, and taping one over the monitor. We don’t know how Getson resolved to treat his tired eyes, but certainly he had no lack of homespun options volunteered by computer users negotiating similar issues.

What Getson was discovering, like all the rest of the personal computer early adopters of the 1980s, was just how much using computers hurt. Turns out, monitors caused eye strain. Or, to put it more accurately: living with computers routinely strained eyes. Vision problems were the embodied human residue of natural interactions between light, glass, plastic, color, and other properties of the surrounding environment. 

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Visual Display Terminals, 1980

When overhead lighting, strong task lighting, or daylight cast from behind a user hit the curve of a CRT monitor, the result was a glare, or reflection, over the display’s specular surface. The 20th century’s tradition of strong overhead lighting—optimal for paperwork, accounting, reading, all the traditional tasks of office labor—produced a variety of lighting issues that negatively affected human vision when that human sat down in front of the dark glass of a computer monitor. 

Decades before “Zoom fatigue” broke our spirits, the so-called computer revolution brought with it a world of pain previously unknown to humankind. There was really no precedent in our history of media interaction for what the combination of sitting and looking at a computer monitor did to the human body. Unlike television viewing, which is done at greater distance and lacks interaction, monitor use requires a short depth of field and repetitive eye motions. And whereas television has long accommodated a variety of postures, seating types, and distances from the screen, personal computing typically requires less than 2-3 feet of proximity from monitor, with arms extended for using a keyboard or mouse. The kind of pain Getson experienced was unique to a life lived on screen, and would become a more common complaint as desktop computers increasingly entered American homes over the course of the 1990s and into the early 21st century.

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Forty years later, what started with simple complaints about tired eyes has become common place experience for anyone whose work or school life revolves around a screen. The aches and pains of computer use now play an outsized role in our physical (and increasingly, our mental) health, as the demands of remote work force us into constant accommodation. We stretch our wrists and adjust our screens, pour money into monitor arms and ergonomic chairs, even outfit our offices with motorized desks that can follow us from sitting to standing to sitting again. Entire industries have built their profits on our slowly curving backs, while physical therapists and chiropractors do their best to stem a tide of bodily dysfunction that none of us opted into. These are, at best, partial measures, and those who can’t afford extensive medical interventions or pricey furniture remain cramped over coffee tables or fashioning makeshift laptop raisers. Our bodies, quite literally, were never meant to work this way.

To consider the history of computing through the lens of computer pain is to center bodies, users, and actions over and above hardware, software, and inventors

Of course, computer-related pain existed prior to the arrival of the first consumer-grade personal computers in the late 1970s. Mid-century mainframes and large-scale minicomputers, with their high energy consumption and cooling needs, whirling tape drives, and clackety teletypes and teleprinters, were known to cause stress on the auditory system. Given the proportionally small number of people who worked directly with computing installations prior to the 1970s, such information is largely anecdotal. However, trace evidence can be found in a New York Times article from November 23, 1969 titled "Noise is a Slow Agent of Death,” which listed "computers and typewriters and tabulators" as just a few of the myriad machines polluting the noisescape of New York City. In the summer of 1970, computer magazine Datamation reported that the National Bureau of Standards released a report on the dangers of hearing loss and computer centers.

Yet as we see with Getson’s later, and later research into human factors, the locus of health concerns would shift from auditory to visual once computing systems began converging with CRT monitors in the 1970s. Replacing crisp type on paper with the fuzzy resolution of a screen prone to glare, the so-called “glass teletypes,” “teletype terminals,” “dumb terminals” (because they contained little to no processing power of their own) or even just “computing terminals” compounded the occupational health deficits of repeated use.

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The DEC VT52 computer terminal. SUCH TERMINALS ALLOWED USERS TO ACCESS THE CENTRAL PROCESSING CAPACITIES OF NETWORKED MINICOMPUTER SYSTEMS; LACKING INDEPENDENT PROCESSING CAPACITIES, THEY WERE NOT “PERSONAL COMPUTERS” AS WE UNDERSTAND THEM TODAY. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

With the advent of microprocessors, early microcomputing designers began experimenting with computer designs that converged a central processing unit, monitor, and keyboard into a single consumer good. Steve Wozniak’s 1976 Apple 1 circuit board was one of the first manufactured microcomputers to include a video display adapter as part of its design, as did Processor Technology’s SOL-20, released that same year. 

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Advertisement for Apple’s first computer, released in 1976. It came with no peripherals, but included onboard adapters for a video terminal and keyboard. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

While the Apple 1 did not come with a monitor or keyboard as part of its purchase price, the fact that adapters for such peripherals were built into the board was a technological innovation compared to prior hobbyist computing systems like the Altair 8800. 

The SOL-20, however, did include a keyboard as part of the computer, all manufactured in a single metal and wood case. The indebtedness of this form factor to glass teletype terminals is attested to in the fact that these microcomputers were sometimes known as “terminal computers” or “intelligent terminals.” 

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By 1977, the standardization of a keyboard and monitor as essential peripherals to a central computing unit was set in stone by the concurrent release of the first wave of truly mainstream consumer microcomputers—the Apple II, the TRS-80, and the Commodore PET. 

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The TRS-80, Apple II, and the Commodore PET. Images: Wikimedia Commons

It was at this moment, at the tail end of the 1970s, that computer usage became identified with “desktop” computers, and took on the bodily postures we associate with it today: the constant bend of wrist over a keyboard, the staring at a monitor, and slightly later, the nudging of a mouse. As both desktop computers and networked terminals proliferated in offices, schools, and homes over the 1980s, chronic pain became their unanticipated remainder: wrist pain, vision problems, and back soreness grew exponentially. Desktop computing required dramatic affordances among the population at large, whether those be changes to household and office lighting, tolerating chronic discomfort, or the circulation of new domestic and occupational imaginaries.

So while Getson’s small query might be easily overlooked in the hundreds of letters and articles that cycled through 1980s computer magazines, the question of “tired eyes” offers an alternate terrain for mapping the dramas of computational life in the late 20th century Western world. To consider the history of computing through the lens of computer pain is to center bodies, users, and actions over and above hardware, software, and inventors. This perspective demands computer history to engage with a world beyond the charismatic object of computers themselves, with material culture, with design history, with workplace ethnography, with leisure studies. For all those computerists with “tired eyes,” computer culture was not what happened on-screen or in-box, but rather what happened everywhere else: with, on and around keyboards, televisions, joysticks, desks, offices, kitchens, tables, beds, hands, glasses, lightbulbs, windows, back supports, surge protectors, power supplies…and on and on.

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But this is not just a move about getting away from the usual suspects of computer history. It is also about going towards something—in our case, an expanded knowledge of the relationship between the body and the many constructed environments it occupies, between who had the freedom to build their world and who was saddled with enduring it. 

As is so often the case, those who did the enduring were women, and in many cases, specifically, women of color. Despite a history of invention that has rendered the ascent of computing as a uniquely white male activity, women were there, everywhere—for it was their bodies that would be on the frontlines of the dramatic transformations in workplace automation wrought by computing terminals in the 1970s and personal computers in the 1980s. Unlike hobbyist and leisure users of home and personal computers like Henry Getson, both white women’s and women of color’s use of computing typically happened in a workplace context, as computing technology was pushed upon the clerical and administrative labor traditionally siloed to pink-collar workers doing clerical work, data entry, word processing, book-keeping, and other administrative tasks.

By turning away from the computer to the body, the assemblage of computer history changes. There is no grand narrative here, just fragments and scraps from a decentralized archive, but ones that might, through juxtaposition, elucidate something about how we learned to live with computers. This is not the history of killer apps, wild hacks, and the coding wizards who stayed up late, but something far quieter and harder to trace, histories as intimate as they are “unhistoric”: histories of habit, use, and making do. That pain in your neck, the numbness in your fingers, has a history far more widespread and impactful than any individual computer or computing innovator. No single computer changed the world, but computer pain has changed us all.

Documenting Computer Pain

In 1981—just 16 months prior to Time magazine declaring the personal computer 1982’s Machine of the Year—the journal Human Factors published an entire issue dedicated to the issue of computers in the workplace, noting that “the number of workers using display terminals [computer monitors] is large and is increasing rapidly.” (Throughout the issue, the term “video display terminal,” or "VDT," is used as a synonym for what we would today call a computer monitor.) Prior to the 1980s, computing terminals had never been in wide enough circulation within a worker population to generate such complaints; this research paper offers a window in time upon the workers who first negotiated the arrival of computers into their offices. 

Included in this collection is the research paper “An Investigation of Health Complaints and Job Stress in Video Display Operations,” which focused on the relationship health complaints and the use of display terminals in clerical work. 

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To conduct their analysis, the researchers held interviews with and distributed questionnaires to both “professional” and “clerical” workers at several companies where video display terminals were used. To produce a control group, the researchers also held interviews and distributed the same questionnaire to workers who were engaged in the same kind of work but did it manually, using typewriters and traditional indexing. Aside from gathering basic demographic data and asking a range of questions related to job stress, the questionnaires asked the participants to document an exhaustive range of visual, musculoskeletal, and emotional health complaints. Of those employees who reported their sex, 47 percent were women—though when considering clerical workers apart from professional, white-collar VDT workers, women comprised 67 percent of the employment base. Furthermore, clerical VDT workers were disproportionately women of color (46 percent of all clerical workers who reported demographic data). The distinction between professional and clerical VDT workers is significant, as clerical workers had less control over the type of work they did or the management of their time on the terminal.

In analyzing their data, the researchers found “Clerical VDT operators showed much higher levels of visual, musculoskeletal, and emotional health complaints, as well as higher job stress levels, than did control subjects and professionals using VDTs.” In every category of health complaint—from fainting to stomach pain to neck pressure to hand cramps—the percentage of complaints went up among clerical workers stationed at computer terminals, often doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in number. 

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TABLE 8 FROM "AN INVESTIGATION OF HEALTH COMPLAINTS AND JOB STRESS IN VIDEO DISPLAY TERMINALS," DOCUMENTING THE REMARKABLE INCREASE IN HEALTH COMPLAINTS FROM CLERICAL WORKERS USING VDTs.

Blurred vision, blurring eyes, and eyestrain were reported by 70 percent to 90 percent of the sample, and some of the strong disparities between the clerical workers and the control subjects—such as with changes in color perception or stiff or sore wrists—were clear indicators of the impact of the soft repetitive strain of computer terminal use. As the workers with the least degree of autonomy over their labor, the bodies of these women found themselves most directly impacted by the physical toll of computer technology.

Yet there was another component to health complaints and stress that the social scientists documented in their research, but didn’t quite know what to do with. In assessing levels of stress and job satisfaction between clerical workers placed at a computing terminal and those in the control group doing tasks by hand, the researchers determined that clerical employees using computer terminals reported higher degrees of monotony and fatigue and general job dissatisfaction versus those performing the same kind of work by hand. As they put it, “stress problems reported that were by the clerical VDT operators are not solely related to the VDT viewing, but are related to the whole VDT work system.” Tasked with boring, repetitive labor, clerical VDT workers reported “low ratings of job involvement and job autonomy,” and felt they had little control over their job requirements. For the women pressed onto VDTs for clerical work, the problem was not simply the computer, but the way the computer’s so-called productivity diminished the satisfaction they took in their labor.

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But what was it, precisely, about computers that caused work to hurt so much more? What these researchers were encountering in their data was the kind of residue that quantitative analysis isn’t well-suited to explain. Answers would have to wait until the publication of Shoshana Zuboff’s landmark 1988 monograph In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, an ethnographic account of the impact of computer usage in work environments in the early 1980s. 

What Zuboff’s investigations revealed were the psycho-physical costs that shadowed the computer’s entry into the workplace. In her grimly titled fourth chapter, “Office Technology as Exile and Integration,” Zuboff documents the time she spent time observing two administrative office sites where computers had just become integrated into clerical work practice (while Zuboff doesn’t offer quantitative statistics on the employees she studied, she does note they were predominantly women). Prior to the arrival of computer terminals, the women who handled these tasks described having a very material relationship to their work. They retrieved actual files and filled out physical pieces of paper; they moved folders back and forth between filing cabinets, they updated files by hand and left notes for themselves, and manipulated the intricacies these files based on their personal knowledge of their clients, their accumulated know-how on the job, and through consultation with their fellow clerks and managers. The arrival of computing terminals onto the desks of these workers was done so with the intention of streamlining and speeding up the work these women engaged in by evaporating all of the small physical habits associated with their work—the walking and talking, the shuffling of paper, the flipping of pages, the personalized practices self-annotation. 

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But in this effort to “simplify” these routines by making the office paperless, Zuboff found that the implementation of computers wound up eradicating the basis of the clerks’ situated knowledge. Suddenly, making changes to a client’s account meant simply inputting data in an order that was constrained by the computer itself. Work became a process of filling in blanks; there was no longer anywhere for the clerks to experience decision-making in their jobs. What Zuboff observed was that as intellectual engagement with the work went down, the necessity of concentration and attention went up. What the computer did was make the work so routine, so boring, so mindless, clerical workers had to physically exert themselves to be able to focus on what they were even doing. This transition, from work being about the application of knowledge to work being about the application of attention, turned out to have profound physical and psychological impact on the clerical workers themselves. 

Zuboff was able to track the extent of this toll by asking the clerical workers to draw pictures of themselves at work before and after the computer. These images reveal themselves, embodying a kind of juvenile terror in their simple lines and stark contrasts. The workers depicted themselves as happy in the times before the computer, and frequently in the company of others. 

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Figure 4.8 from Age of the Smart Machine, pg 145

What the computer brings to them as a kind of desolation: a worker who has become nothing more than the back of her head; hair, ripped from the scalp; a deep sense of being alone. One of the most detailed drawings is accompanied by the caption: “no talking, no looking, no walking. I have a cork in my mouth, blinders for my eyes, chains on my arms. With the radiation I’ve lost my hair. The only way you can make your production goals is give up your freedom.” The side of the desk is marked by the ascending arrow of a productivity chart. Another image depicts the worker in the striped uniform of a convict. A phone ring ring rings on the desk and a flower in a vase droops beside the computer. The calendar is empty, and her supervisor watches from above. A sign, intended to be inspirational—“keep up the MPH”—suggests the new emphasis on speed that the clerical workers have been asked to internalize. 

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Figure 4.12 from Age of the Smart Machine, pg 147

These images betray what sat at the heart of the computer's arrival into the office: premises of efficiency, productivity, the old chestnut of automation. If computers could change how much data a worker could process, then the human body no longer intervened on profitability with its pesky physiological limits.

Working Against Computer Pain

Keeping computing profitable, however, meant finding ways to mitigate, negotiate, and address rising complaints of physical pain from its users. Beginning in the mid-1980s, specialists in ergonomics, human factors, and physical health began turning their attention to desktop computer use. This is testified to by the publication of books like Zap!: How Your Computer Can Hurt You and What You Can Do About It, which presents the office or home office as an ecology, in which relations between monitors, keyboards, lighting, chairs, air quality, and work schedules had to be endlessly manipulated to acquire one’s “perfect workstation” for safer computing. Even physical fitness specialists could cash in on America’s new attention to the ailing bodies of its workers—merely consider Denise Austin’s late 1980s Tone Up at the Terminals: An Exercise Guide for High-Tech Automated Office Workers. Austin, a popular fitness personality with a workout show on ESPN, promoted an entire corporate fitness program, for which this free instructional booklet, published in a partnership between the New York State Library and Denise Austin Fitness Systems, served as both a government resource on ergonomics in the workplace as well as a marketing tease.

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Denise Austin's Tone up at the Terminals, late 1980s.

Austin’s role, and her own booklet, is to serve as an enthusiastic guide for the reader, modeling how “high-tech automated office workers” can reduce tension and “nervous fatigue.” Shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, waist, back, legs, ankles, feet, and posture are all addressed through a series of increasingly absurdist positions Austin manages to maintain while remaining seated in a knee-length tweed skirt. Austin never stands; surely employers did not want to see images of workers stretching their hamstrings on a walk to the water cooler. In Austin’s feminine decorum, we are reminded of the women from Zuboff’s study: the emphasis on being nondisruptive, on not taking up space, of maintaining the possibility of continuous work. And, of course, you end with a hug—after all, “YOU DESERVE IT!”

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And we know whose bodies such a document was designed to discipline. Just as Zuboff documented in her ethnographic work, the arrival of computers into offices was often done as part of an initiative to automate clerical, feminized labor like data entry and word processing. Furthermore, knowing how to type, which was a prerequisite skill for using a computer, had been the domain of clerical work throughout the 20th century; it was a skill taught to women in school, but not to men (anyone who has ever seen an older male programmer do “hunt-and-peck” with their index fingers has seen these histories in action). Typing was seen as fundamentally secretarial—not something a male manager or executive should be doing on a computer. As computing historians such as Paul Atkinson and Jesse Adams Stein have noted, advertising reflected these anxieties about gendered occupational roles throughout the 1980s: women were depicted typing on computers, while men pointed at screens, looked over a woman’s shoulder, or merely posed with a computer on their desk. It was not until the mainstreaming of the mouse in the late 1980s that these tensions began to ease. With a mouse, a male executive could operate the computer without adopting the presumably demeaning posture of his secretary. 

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Ad for the Cummins KeyScan System. Prior to the personal computer, women were routinely depicted as the primary users of many business-facing computing systems. This reflects the influx of computing in the automation of clerical and administrative work. Datamation June 1976 pg 91

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Advertisement for the Apple Macintosh. The male executive sits leisurely beside his computer, touching neither mouse nor keyboard, avoiding feminized associations with secretarial work.

What all of this adds up to is a decades-long drama between body and machine which, once uniquely gendered, has spiraled out to the populace at large. Probably not since the automobile has there been a technology that is so insistently reorganized how we use our bodies in day-to-day practice—and the long arc of these transformations are still being played out. As those reading this essay are among the first generation of humans to come of age on the computer, the toll of this is persistently being felt in the now commonplace reality of chronic pain and eye strain

The Multitasking of Pain Management Today

Yet like Denise Austin’s office workout routine, many of the interventions we’re asked to adopt demand we internalize responsibility for our physical well-being, while never becoming a burden on the workplace or lowering our productivity. Our pain feeds whole new industries, blossoming in the form of standing desks, walking desks, adjustable keyboards and ergonomic mice of every stripe; our aggrieved bodies have been a boon for voice recognition software (this entire essay was written with voice recognition software). And we’ve sought help beyond our desks too. One of the most popular yoga YouTube personalities, Adriene Mishler, offers multiple videos that conjure Austin’s legacy, including “Yoga at Your Desk,” “Office Break Yoga,” and “Yoga for Text Neck” (more on “text neck” below). Similar topics are popular among many YouTube channels, ranging from mid-tier health and wellness personalities like AskDoctorJo and ModernHealthMonk, to established institutions such as the Mayo Clinic. The fact that so many of these videos were produced pre-pandemic is a clear indicator that however aggravated our bodies may feel working from home, the root causes long precede the need to take Zoom calls at our dining room table. These practices have become critical parts of the way we have long been expected to take work with us—spending our offline, off-work hours repairing the damage done by our jobs. 

And the lure of computer technology hasn’t ceased to bend us to its will in new ways—with the emergence of “text neck” as a new vogue ailment. A quick Google of the term “text neck” brings up an array of links to quasi-medical advice websites, including physio-pedia.org, healthline.com, and spine-health.com. The Text Neck Institute (which appears to be a doctor's office in Plantation, Florida) identified text neck as a “global epidemic” as early as 2015 (www.text-neck.com). At www.textneck.com, you are redirected to www.teknekk.com, the “ultimate parental remote-control app” that allows parents to manage screen time while also enforcing behavioral changes around smartphone posture.

The smartphone’s insatiable demand on our attention is just the latest in a long dance between our psychic and emotional health and the computer. The posture of the head tilt is an index to the encumbrance of multitasking, a term now synonymous with what it even means to use a computer device—to slide between applications, to flick attention from one priority to the next with no delay for contextual readjustment, the seemingly seamless movement we now engage between our personal and our occupational lives. Multitasking was once something that belonged solely to the realm of the computer; it was a technical term, referring to the capacity for timesharing systems to concurrently process the operations of multiple users by switching back and forth rapidly between jobs. It was only over the course of the late 1980s and 90s, with the rise of the graphical user interface and the increasing gig-ification of the U.S. workforce, that the term multitasking came to be applied to human labor, to the idealized state of being able to work on multiple tasks more or less simultaneously. The doldrum of Zuboff’s clerical workers has become the endless noise of habituated computer use. 

So the next time you experience “tired eyes,” wrists tingling, neck cramps, or even the twinge of text neck, let it serve as a denaturalizing reminder that the function of technology has never been to make our lives easier, but only to complicate us in new ways. Computer-related pain, and the astounding efforts humans went to (and continue to, go to), to alleviate it, manage it, and negotiate it, provide one thread through the question of how the computer became personal. The introduction of computers into everyday routines, both at work and at home, was a historic site of vast cultural anxiety around the body. To locate a history of computing that might be otherwise—one embodied, habituated and distinctly spatial—we would do well to think about Getson’s letter, and consider what kind of histories of computing might be lying around the computer, rather than inside of it.

An extended version of this article will appear in Abstractions and Embodiments: New Histories of Computing and Society, edited by Janet Abate and Stephanie Dick, forthcoming from John Hopkins University Press, 2022.