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Extraordinary Lives: Disability and Destiny in a Technological Age
Stephen L. Talbott

Introduction: Finding Ourselves in a Technological World

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 highest humanity?

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

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