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  • Foto van schrijverPieter Derycke

Reverse Ergonomics: from Rousseau, African tracks, and lazy animals to ingenious architects

For starters, a quote from the philosopher J.J. Rousseau (from Discourse on the origins of inequality):

“The body of a savage man being the only instrument he understands, he uses it for various purposes, of which ours, for want of practice, are incapable: for our industry deprives us of that force and agility, which necessity obliges him to acquire. If he had had an axe, would he have been able with his naked arm to break so large a branch from a tree? If he had had a sling, would he have been able to throw a stone with so great velocity? If he had had a ladder, would he have been so nimble in climbing a tree? If he had had a horse, would he have been himself so swift of foot? Give civilised man time to gather all his machines about him, and he will no doubt easily beat the savage; but if you would see a still more unequal contest, set them together naked and unarmed, and you will soon see the advantage of having all our forces constantly at our disposal, of being always prepared for every event, and of carrying one’s self, as it were, perpetually whole and entire about one.”

Funny thing, he wrote the above quote in 1754! I wonder what Rousseau would say about the human predicament in 2017… I particularly like the last part of the quote: “the advantage of having all our forces constantly at our disposal, of being always prepared for every event, and of carrying one’s self, as it were, perpetually whole and entire about one.”

It touches the same theme as the slogan of the Méthode Naturelle: ‘être fort pour être utile’ (be strong to be useful). No wonder, because George Hebert was apparently influenced by Rousseau, I found out after a little google searching…

Rousseau, whose ideas on the ‘romantic primitivism’ have been critiqued many times, here, in my opinion, correctly describes an important idea. The combination of human technology and the biological need to be efficient, to conserve energy, creates a situation that is problematic: humans moving less and less and thereby getting weaker, in many senses.

“One directive has dominated locomotory adaptation more than any other, and that is the push for maximum efficiency, aka the “get as much as possible for as little as possible” principle. Our motor learning is clearly founded on this precept. (…) How ironic that the same impetus now all but stops us walking at all.” Matt Wilkinson in ‘Restless Creatures’

Energy conservation and behavioural efficiency are extremely important in evolutionary biology. I remember the first time this concept really hit me.

It was in Africa (of course, it had to be in Africa), in southern Tanzania, back in 2003. Our guide was driving our archetypal white Landrover along a dirt track in the vast wilderness of the Selous game reserve. As you can imagine, the track consisted of two parallel lines, from the left and right side of the cars using it. At a certain time, our double track was obliquely crossed by a single line, and I remember thinking: “Hmm, a motorcycle track?” Nope, bikes nor other two wheeled vehicles were responsible for the track, it was an animal trail! (see first picture of the actual track) And suddenly, I could see more animal trails, heading in different direction. Since then, I’ve been seeing animal trails in nature. Deer trails in our local forest are very obvious in the snow, but also faintly visible in summer, if you look for them.

Of course, just like homo sapiens, African animals are lazy bastards too. Or if you prefer, animals are very energy efficient. They choose the path of least resistance. And by taking that path, they trod down the vegetation and it becomes even less resisting, until you get real and distinct trails. Our inherent tendency to conserve energy used to be balanced by an external force compelling us to move: nature and the need for food, shelter and reproduction. I’ve written about this before.

But I want to seize the opportunity to talk about a concept that is very much related: ‘reverse ergonomics’. At least, that’s what I call it. Let us take a look at two definitions/descriptions of ‘regular’ ergonomics I found on the internet:

  • Ergonomics: the adjustment of the environment to man. User-friendliness and comfort are important.

  • Ergonomics: The science of the design of equipment, especially so as to reduce operator fatigue, discomfort and injury.

And this is how I would define/describe my ‘reverse ergonomics’:

‘Reverse Ergonomics’: The science of the design of equipment, especially so as to reduce operator fatigue, discomfort and injury.

If you read it carefully, you have noticed that there’s no difference between mine and the last one above. Reverse ergonomics is about making things less comfortable, in order to reduce operator fatigue, discomfort and injury. There’s a sweet spot, no, rather a sweet zone, where comfort and health are both optimal, but there’s most certainly a zone where comfort causes discomfort, pain and injury. So reducing comfort will increase comfort, in a way.

Actually, of course this is something that’s already being applied: ‘active sitting’ on a swiss ball, promoting taking the stairs instead of the elevator, etc. This is all good, but I think we need to take this idea a bit further. People will only move more if you make movement obligatory (or more fun). We need the ‘pulling of the environment’ again, like all animals. And I think that design and technology are here to serve us, so let’s use them in this principle of reverse ergonomics. I found a few examples of design:

Look at this way of entering your house! George Rodger, for his beautiful little book ‘Village of the Nuba’, took these photographs in the 1950’s (along with the famous pictures of the stick fights and the winner being carried on the shoulders). Now, these Nubians probably didn’t make the entrances because of the principles of reverse ergonomics, more likely to keep out rats and other unwanted guests. Admitted, this example is not very realistic for your average western situation, but I wanted to share these pictures 😉

Another one, more recent and especially made for the reason of ‘reverse ergonomics’.

“What if instead of disconnecting the human body from the man-made landscape, architectural design used creativity and reorientation to create spaces that challenged our physical skills and encouraged, rather than minimized, a range of movements that supported better health?” (Lauren Friedrich, click here for source and article)

Please take the time to read all the captions in the illustration. Also, click on the link and read the whole article. What a great idea by this architect!

And this one, from an the architect and painter Hundertwasser:

“The flat floor is an invention of the architects. It fits engineers – not human beings.” From a natural movement point of view, we could even take this ‘uneven floor’ principle one step further and make it even more interesting.

These were more design examples. I’d like to give a few technological ones too. Both are from movies (Minority Report and Iron Man), and apparently, the technologies to work like this already exist (more or less). That would be a game changer: instead of being bound to a screen, tapping the keyboard while sitting, we would be standing, doing much bigger movements…

A last, a fictive example I recently thought of. Since many people (in this corner of the world) are wearing these fit-bit, health-wearable-things, we could probably use them even better. Now people know how many steps they’ve made, and are stimulated to do more, e.g. 10.000/day. This works, a bit, but I would suggest making it more compelling to move. We could make the elevator in the office building ‘smart’: you can’t take it unless you’ve done your daily movements. Or we could make your computer stop working if you haven’t done the amount of steps required. Maybe even this: the front door of your house won’t open if you haven’t moved enough. Or for the people with e-bikes: no electric support if you haven’t had your exercise.

You get the idea, I guess. Realistic? Probably. Will people like it? I don’t know… The goals should be set by the person him/herself, not by the company boss or so, that would not be nice. People need to be compelled to move, but they have to chose their own ‘targets’ autonomously, maybe helped by someone, but not compelled by someone…

So Rousseau, by an African detour, took me to a man flying in a kind of robot-suit, all to suggest using the principle of reverse ergonomics. What is it again? Simply changing the environment in a compulsory way to make humans move more. Less immediate comfort for more comfort on the long term…

Do you have any reverse ergonomic ideas?




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