Programming with Bodies

There’s nothing like a change in work setup to make you notice your body. Normally I work with an iMac on a desk, but this week the iMac died, so I’ve been using a laptop instead, on the desk and the couch, and really anywhere that has a place for my butt. Smaller screen size aside, what’s sticking out to me like a sore thumb is my body’s role in my work.

We tend to think of programming as this kind of disembodied activity — you look at the screen with your eyes and you type and mouse with your fingers, and the rest of your body doesn’t move much while this is happening. Lots of sitting, usually, or sometimes standing, but in either case you’re not moving around much. But even within this limited realm, I’m still noticing a difference. On the laptop I’m much more hunched over, my neck is strained, my wrists are twisted, my legs contorted in a futile hope of propping the laptop up to me just a little closer. (Despite Apple for years calling them “notebooks” instead of laptops, these things often reside on the tops of laps)

This will probably sound obvious, but it’s worth noting that the body is attached to the mind — indeed they’re the same thing. So straining my body over a laptop is straining my mind too. When my back hunches and my neck aches, I feel emotionally hunched and achy too (you know when someone says they’re “feeling low?” well, that’s related to your actual physical posture, that’s where that metaphor comes from). This will also probably sound obvious, but it’s hard to concentrate when your body is hurting! hard to do deep, thoughtful work when it hurts to move.

I know we like to think of programming as “knowledge work” but I think that distracts us from the fact that people are doing this sort of work with their bodies (at all different levels of ableness, I might add). Deep down I think we all know this, but I feel like almost all discussion of programming ignores the body in favour of some abstract astral plane of knowledge.

So what does this mean? I don’t entirely know. Take care of your body, of course. Beyond that? I guess I’d encourage people making programming environments to at least consider the human body. Same goes for people making computers and operating systems. My inclination is to say an iMac is better for my body than is a laptop; might there be a computer that’s better than an iMac? What does it look like? How does it work? I think Dynamicland is a step in the right direction, but what else?

Speed of Light