Essays on Technology and Culture

Tech Shouldn’t Hurt

My neck is killing me. Too much time staring down at the glowing rectangle in my head, or the glowing rectangles on my desk at the office. It makes it hard to get any work done in my off-hours, like writing. “Tech Neck” is a legitimate issue, though be careful when searching for it, as the term is also conflated with neck skin wrinkles caused from looking down into phones.

On top of the neck pain, my optometrist recently prescribed me special short-focus, blue-light blocking lenses for when I’m using a computer screen—in other words, all of the time. The lenses block the high-frequency blue light that causes eye strain, and the focal length helps prevent that issue as well. They have helped, and I think they’re even helping me sleep better, that is when I remember to use them at home.

I do my best to make sure my ergonomic situation isn’t too dire. Though I’m still a seated desk hold out, everything is placed in a fairly ergonomically sound position, and my chair is at the right height. That’s, of course, at home. The less said about my work setup, the better. Still, it could always be worse. I think about Phoenix Perry, a game designer and activist, who spoke of a four-year struggle with severe carpal tunnel syndrome at the recent Facets conference. The pull-quote I took away from her discussion was this:

The user should never be forced to conform their body to an interface.

So many of the tools we use on a daily basis are designed with functionality as the primary focus, not ergonomics. The exception to this is, of course, Apple—who designs many of their peripherals to look better than they work, as Phoenix related in an anecdote about meeting the designer of the Magic Mouse. [1] These tools should adjust to us, and how we use them—not the other way around. Okay, perhaps we also shouldn’t be walking along city streets, head down into the screen in our hands, but it’s a problem that extends far beyond handheld devices.

I suppose one of the advantages to the Thinner and Lighter Movement is that it makes arranging and rearranging the devices and accessories we use for maximum comfort easier. As for phones, will an Apple Watch or Moto 360 help reduce Tech Neck from constant looking down and checking a phone during the day? One can hope, though one can also hope that they won’t need a $350 accessory to protect their physical health from the $600 device in their pocket.

Tech companies need to start looking into harm mitigation. A good place to start might be the blue light issue. If they can put a coating on my glasses to keep the bad blue light from getting into my eyes, why can’t they coat the screens with it too? Okay, it’s pricey, but Apple’s margins are big enough to make it work without causing them to raise the price of a MacBook or an iPad. I’m sure Tim Cook can spin it on stage: “A lot of people love using their iPads in bed. This new screen coating helps prevent blue light keeping iPad users from a good night’s sleep.” Hopefully that’ll keep iPad numbers on an even keep through Q4.

Until then, it’s blue-blocking computer glasses, regular breaks, the occasional Tylenol, and grumbling about why we let our tools hurt us. Something’s gotta give before my neck does.

  1. For what it’s worth, I use a Magic Mouse and find it very comfortable, though it would be an absolute hell to use if you had any sort of physical disability, or even a visual one. This is a problem, but one out of scope of this essay.  ↩