Friday, December 21, 2012

Review of Joe Corn's User Unfriendly: Consumer Struggles with Personal Technologies, from Clocks and Sewing Machines to Cars and Computers

Joseph J. Corn, User Unfriendly: Consumer Struggles with Personal Technologies, from Clocks and Sewing Machines to Cars and Computers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2011.
It seems the older we get the more we wrestle with the new technologies that we acquire. And particularly when it comes to digital technologies, including systems found on new car dashboards and consoles, the experience can turn us into technophobes. Personally, I can handle the tuning and synchronization of Weber carburetors and the setting of Porsche 944 cams, but just attempting to understand the controls of an Audi A5 results in high levels of frustration and defeat. Thus Joseph Corn’s easily read and sometimes amusing User Unfriendly struck a chord with this reader. And while this study covers a rather broad array of consumer technologies that includes clocks, sewing machines, appliances, and personal computers, at its heart is the automobile during its period of diffusion, namely to the 1930s. Historians have spent the past two decades examining the process of consumption in considerable detail. Yet, as Corn points out the consumption of technological devices is rather different, and beginning in the mid-19th century, posed difficulties to its owners. Learning about those technologies in historical context, then, is the subject of this book.
The introduction of the automobile proved to be a daunting challenge to its first generation of owners. First and foremost was the issue of what car to purchase, made especially difficult by not only the plethora of manufacturers and models but also the lack of knowledge on the part of consumers concerning the technologies associated with the automobile and the performance and quality of the various makes. On this topic the author is at his best, drawing on popular literature, trade magazines, manufacturers sales manuals directed towards the training of salesmen, and advertising. In the subsequent chapter “Running a Car,” however, little new is brought to the reader.  Corn discusses the difficulties of hand cranking, fixing flats, steering, shifting gears, braking, and “supervising performance” once the vehicle was underway. Suffice it to say that driving automobiles before the 1930s was as much an intuitive art as a skill, and the process of making controls and instrumentation less idiosyncratic and more uniform took several decades to achieve. By the Great Depression, however, American automobiles were far more reliable and safer than the first generation of vehicles that hit the road. And of course the fact that roads became better changed the entire equation.
What follows are chapters centering on maintenance, repair, and operation.  Drawing on a wide variety of sources including popular and scholarly literature, numerous owners’ manuals, and archival material, Corn’s engaging narrative brings in the insights of a good number of historians of the automobile and technology without bogging down in esoteric academic prose.  If you have worked with old cars and done restoration, these chapters will be familiar, but nevertheless freshly packaged. Perhaps what is missing in the author’s discussion centers on generational issues. Namely, young people have no difficulty in adapting to new technologies; however, as one gets older learning becomes increasingly difficult.  Was that the case at the beginning of the automobile age as it was with the coming of personal computers? If so, what does that mean in terms of reexamining the early history of the automobile?
John Heitmann
University of Dayton

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