Disability and Destiny in a Technological Age
Stephen L. Talbott
Introduction: Finding Ourselves in a Technological
Technology and disabilities -- bring them both to mind and the phrase
"enabling technologies" will very likely occur to you. These are the technologies
helping us to overcome the various "defects" afflicting human beings.
From dentures to artificial limbs to eyeglasses to hearing aids, prosthetic
devices have restored normalcy to millions of individuals who otherwise
would face serious limitations. The ongoing battle between technical genius
and the powers of death, disease, and accident has occasioned many of
our greatest technological triumphs.
What is not so obvious to most people is that we also have disabling
technologies -- often the same technologies we rightly think of as enabling.
A device that opens up new possibilities almost certainly closes off others,
even if, as a society, we are less inclined to notice the loss than the
gain. Concerns about negative effects date back at least as far as Plato,
who worried (with obvious justification, we now know) that the new technology
of writing would tend to disable human memory, and with it all those crucial
functions of a traditional society depending on memory.
In our own time, the machinery of rapid transportation (such as the
automobile) has helped to cut us off from a living relation to the natural
world. Insulated in our bubbles of metal and glass, we pass through the
countryside much too quickly to take notice of the ecological wonders
around us -- or the disruptive effect upon those wonders of our chosen
means of travel. The environmental crises of our day can hardly be seen
as unrelated to our technologies of transportation.
More fundamentally, the entire modern history of technology reflects
the extraordinary refinement and sophistication of certain human abilities
-- in particular, our abilities to pursue analytic clarity, mathematical
precision, and mechanical efficiency. Many have noticed a certain one-sidedness
in our exercise of these abilities, a one-sidedness leading us to reconceive
every human problem in instrumental terms. That is, we reconceive the
problem so that we can manage it in the way a machine manages its task.
This is a much more comfortable approach than listening to what the problem
may be telling us. We prefer an unambiguous algorithm, or recipe for action,
to the uncertainties of respectful conversation. For example, when considering
the role of the computer in the classroom, we often begin by talking about
"what the computer can do" rather than by asking, "Who is this child,
and what, in his deepest self, is he asking from us?"
As we find ourselves adapting more and more to the ubiquitous machinery
in our midst, it becomes increasingly urgent to ask, "If technology is
an expression of certain valuable but one-sided human capacities, and
if this technology in turn reinforces our one-sidedness by encouraging
us always to think in technological terms, how then can we escape the
circle of positive reinforcement? How do we regain a proper human balance
except by resisting the one-sided pull -- or (in more positive terms)
except by countering this pull with an opposite movement expressing our
One needn't be enamored of subtlety or paradox to say: a healthy acceptance
of technology will always be the flip side of a healthy resistance to
technology. Neither such acceptance nor such resistance will be doctrinaire;
both will be the natural result of looking first to ourselves and asking,
"What do we really want?" When we know ourselves well enough, we will
know when a technology truly serves our needs and when it only distracts
or damages us. We will know how to resist and overcome a technology even
as we employ it.
This knowing of ourselves is most urgent where so-called "disabilities"
are concerned. These often challenge our sense of who we are -- challenge
us to become more than who we thought we were. But the invitation of the
various technological assists on offer may well be to become less than
we were. It is an invitation to define ourselves by our lack -- a lack
that technology can only more or less make up for.
But, as the stories in this little book suggest, there is another path.
It begins with acceptance of the strokes of destiny, not as limitations,
but as opportunities, as signs directing us toward the distinctive and
deepest meaning of our own lives. Once we have entered into such a positive
conversation with the indications of our destiny, we are in a position
to make our own, highly individual choices about which technologies are
fitting for us. Without the positive conversation, we can only drift with
the larger society toward ever greater machine-dependence -- and ever
less awareness of our dependence. Then all our other disabilities will
fade into insignificance beside the overwhelming limitation of our life
as mere assistants to our machines.
This book about technology and disabilities is primarily about people.
That is why I hope it also informs us about the proper place of technology
in human affairs.
Copyright 2003 The Nature Institute
Steve Talbott :: Introduction: Finding Ourselves in a Technological World