In today’s age of information abundance, people can easily neglect to keep track of what’s happening in their own backyard. One example is in Plainsboro, where an internationally acclaimed author — whose writing often deals with technology and its consequences — has lived and worked for almost 20 years.
Edward Tenner has written two international best-sellers — “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences” and “Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology.” Tenner, a writer and historian on the cultural aspects of technological change, will speak at the Plainsboro Public Library on Sunday, July 27, at 2 p.m.
“As a frequent contributor of opinion pieces to publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic (blog and magazine), I often have to complete research on a tight deadline, under 24 hours in the case of the South Korea ferry tragedy,” he says. “So I’ve had to learn efficient search for reliable information online.” (Read his South Korean ferry op-ed at www.nytimes.com/2014/04/19/opinion/learning-from-koreas-disaster.html)
“The challenge of being a writer on the web is to make sure your ideas get attention and not let the world of social media absorb your time,” says Tenner. “It takes your time away from writing that will make a more permanent impact.”
“As a writer you need a presence on the web with links continually appearing that link to your works,” he says. “If you are not present in the news then the world slowly forgets about you and your books.”
Tenner was born and raised in Chicago. “My parents complemented each other,” he says. “Our home was always about people having fun with ideas.” It was sometimes like improvisation, he says. “There was an atmosphere of commenting on the news and joking about things.”
His father was a professor of accounting and a consultant for an accounting office. He wrote a textbook on government accounting, and Tenner remembers him working on the galleys when he was growing up. A railroad fan, he was often on the road and brought his son maps of railroads. “You could see the broad band across the country,” says Tenner. “Chicago is the center of the national railroad system, and it is an essential part of the city’s identity.”
His father put himself through graduate school during the Depression, specializing in municipal accounting. “It was not a fashionable topic but grew in importance after World War II, and his textbooks dominated the field,” says Tenner. “He was the embodiment of work ethic.”
“One thing I learned from my father is that when you’re writing you can do something once and keep getting paid for it. You’re creating residuals and stream of income if you’re lucky,” says Tenner. “Even a highly paid professional does something once and that’s it.”
His father died when he was 12, and his mother, who had a degree in social work, returned to work with the State of Illinois. “She made friends with everyone and was well matched with what social workers do,” says Tenner. “She was also enthusiastic about reading.”
Tenner has two brothers. Both in Chicago, one works for the government and one is an independent lawyer. “Chicago was a terrific place to observe all kinds of practical activity,” says Tenner. “It was a human encyclopedia.”
He attended the same high school as Bob Fosse, who went on to become an actor, dancer, director, choreographer, screenwriter, and film director. “At least one teacher remembered teaching Fosse, who was better known for skipping classes and working in a burlesque house.”
“Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s was a living industrial encyclopedia,” says Tenner. “I read Chicago yellow pages for fun. If it couldn’t be made in Chicago it probably couldn’t be made.” Tenner remembers passing factories when taking elevated trains.
“Chicago never had the high tech culture that Silicon Valley has; it was more of a classical industrial city,” says Tenner. “It is best at mass marketing and distribution of merchandise.”
“My mother encouraged me to aim high and go to Princeton,” he says. “I owe so much to her, and I wish I was able to send her what I’ve written.” Tenner’s mother died about 10 years ago.
He attended Princeton University as a history major and graduated in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree and received his Ph.D. in European history from University of Chicago. “I hit the job market at the wrong time, and I was under the illusion that I could become a professor,” says Tenner. “I see now that I never could have done it as I was not meant for the life of a professor of German history.”
Tenner’s first work with computers was as the science editor of Princeton University Press in 1975. The Press used the TRS 80, one of the first personal computers on the market. “The word processing program is as good for writers as what is out there today,” says Tenner. “By the late 1970s there were a variety of PCs, but once students started going to Macs it was the new standard.”
When he was freelancing as a writer for Money Magazine he used an IBM electric typewriter and word processor. “It also had enough memory to store reviews for the Wall Street Journal and produced beautiful print at a time when dot matrix was not accepted.”
He decided to buy his own PC around 1979. “There are some writers still loyal to the typewriter but I was not able to get it right on the first pass,” says Tenner. “I always loved to revise, and I still do.”
When IBM introduced its PC, there was a price drop in the TRS 80. “The discounted TRS 80 could do everything I wanted it to do,” he says. Tenner also purchased a “daisy wheel printer that could produce acceptable copy.”
“When I reflect on it, the ease of sending an MS attachment or using Dropbox, it’s amazing how elaborate things were in those days,” he says.
When Tenner was a guest at a Soviet academy, he realized that they were “always a few years behind with computers, but the lack of computing power stimulated them to be more adept at making more inventive programs,” he says. “They were really clever in getting things done, including Tetris, a really addictive game written to be used in early computers.”
Charles Simonyi, a trustee at the Institute for Advanced Study, developed MS Office Suite. “He came out of the Eastern European computing culture and had worked on mainframes, an incubator of a certain style.”
“I’m glad that I was educated in the time of information scarcity,” he says. “Like the Soviets I am able to work better with the flood of information.”
Tenner was the editor at Princeton University Press for 16 years beginning in 1975 and was always looking for new sources. He monitored weekly bulletins in the U.S. and overseas. “Information was scarce, and it was difficult to get the phone book for universities. Some institutions treated it like a CIA codebook. Now it’s generally available and everyone has access to it. It’s harder to get a competitive advantage.”
“Very few scientists write books, and information was scarce,” says Tenner. “They must be found through a peer review process and be able to persuade them to go with your imprint. Once they receive an award it’s too late.” Tenner was able to find Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist, early on and was responsible for several of his books. Tenner left publishing in 1991.
Tenner’s lecture on “How to Get the Most Out of Google,” geared for teens and adults, will cover how to thoughtfully search and weed out useless or inaccurate information from the millions of webpage hits that a single Google search can muster.
“Google originated in the concept of elite science to see which papers were published. It’s not optimized for a direct search for quality in part because the results depend on previous searches and where you are,” Tenner says, noting differences in similar searches when traveling to other countries.
He also warns of one of Google’s top-listed websites, Wikipedia, as the voice of many people — who often do not know what they are saying. “It’s difficult to get a grasp when there are so many voices,” Tenner says. “An article in Wikipedia is the result of many people contributing pieces and they don’t fit together like a puzzle,” Tenner says. “[In contrast], an article in the encyclopedia gives information from many sources.”
As an example of his own esoteric research, Tenner once wrote an Encyclopedia Brittanica article about pins. Including information on a variety of pins, including safety pins, sewing machines, and needles, he turned to original sources — even checking with the patent office to read everything that was ever printed about them.
“The paradox that goes back to the ancient Greeks is, ‘How do you learn something without already knowing it?’” says Tenner. “The more you already know about something, the easier it is to tune out what you know is wrong.”
Though Tenner has plenty of fond memories of growing up in Chicago, he has happily made Plainsboro his new home. “I enjoy Plainsboro and it’s really marvelous from many points of view,” he says. “I came here because I couldn’t find the kind of place I wanted in Princeton. It is an ideal place for a writer and the library is great. There is transportation to New York and it is close to other things. Plainsboro is getting better all the time.”
How to Get the Most Out of Google, Plainsboro Public Library, 9 Van Doren Street. Sunday, July 27, 2 p.m. Edward Tenner, author and historian. For teens and adults. Free. 609-275-2897. www.lmxac.org/plainsboro.