RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Is this thing a brace or badge of courage?

December 12, 2005

It's amazed me for a long time how we create technology that shapes our world, then it returns the compliment by reshaping us. Steam power gave the business world the factory, which put a premium on people who could maintain and run factories, and made ordinary people servants to the clock. Modern computers have made the technogeek a valuable commodity and created a vast new business expense in hardware, software and upkeep.

We think we are creating a new world, then we find our new world has created us in its own image. Until recently, I thought of all this as interesting philosophy. Now, it's personal. After decades of partnership, the technology I've used for so long has eaten away at my very being. I have carpal tunnel syndrome, and I have to wear a brace.

Carpal tunnel is just one of many repetitive-stress injuries visited upon workers in the technological vineyard. A nerve bundle runs through a conduit called the "carpal tunnel" in the wrist. Constant wrist motion eventually leads to swelling of the tunnel and subsequent pinching of the nerve bundle. The fingers tingle, go numb and can begin to hurt. You can learn more at www.ctsplace.com. I have it in both hands, but it's worse in my left. I learned to type around age 14 and I've been keyboarding enthusiastically ever since. The tingling started a few years ago. I began doing special exercises and I switched to an ergonomic keyboard. Both helped and the tingling receded.

A few weeks ago, my condition suddenly worsened. I had to immobilize my wrist for long periods, and the only way to do it was with a brace. It's a foot-long, tapered and flexible tube with a thumbhole at one end and three straps encircling my arm that keep the whole thing snug against my skin. A couple of long pieces of steel slide into pouches alongside the brace to hold my wrist straight out. It feels more like armor than therapy. Despite being a kind of putty color, it doesn't match my flesh well. I hide it in my shirt sleeve whenever I can.

These things are not fun to wear. It's not like a cast. I can take it off whenever I want to. But it's of benefit only when it's on my arm. The trouble is that I never realized before just how a small, innocuous piece of low-level technology could change how I did things.

For starters, I can't wear my watch on my left wrist when I wear the brace. I tried switching my watch to my right arm, but it feels awkward. I've never worn a watch on my right wrist before, and I can't seem to get used to it now. I can't wear gloves, either, so when it's cold I have to decide whether to wear the brace or my gloves. I can't type with any speed when I'm wearing it. My wrist is forced into an angle that doesn't suit the keyboard.

My arm now behaves more like a cartoon robot than a flesh-and-blood appendage. I tend to gesture a lot, but the brace keeps me from gesticulating naturally. My right arm is free to twist and point; my left one is as expressive as a wooden club.

Sanitation is a challenge, too. The brace seems to be made mostly of soft plastic, with some elastic just for variation. Spaghetti sauce inevitably lands on the elastic, which doesn't wipe clean, rather than on the plastic, which does. There are lots of little hidey-holes in the brace for coffee, crumbs and juice. You can't readily see the desk side of the thing, so pen marks and stains can live there for quite some time before you notice them. You can wash it in water, so the tag assures me, if you take time to remove the metal slats first. There's nothing like discovering mustard on your shirt or a crayon mark on your brace when you first meet a client, is there?

I have to say, though, that the one thing I was worried about hasn't happened. I figured that everybody I knew would have to comment on my new accessory, but almost nobody has. Maybe it's closer to my skin tone than I think, or maybe people are just pitying me from a distance. Or perhaps people pay less attention to me than I imagined. I think they all know why it's on my wrist, because so many of our brethren have to wear them, too. In fact, it's almost a kind of war trophy, a statement that you're taking one for the team.

You might also think it would make me think twice about keyboarding, but it hasn't changed me that much. Someday there might be a breakthrough in voice recognition and I won't have to raise my hands from my lap to write a column, but until then I'll keep pounding keys.

Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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