This long post will provoke some of you, and feel free to lave a comment. I just want to clarify something first. The purpose of this post is to examine the similarities between how we talk about lo-fi computing and human disabilities. It is not about comparing machines with humans, but rather about the dominant discourses surrounding limitations and capabilities in general.
I was watching football 5-a-side, where more or less blind people play soccer in teams of five. Blindness, as you know, is considered as a handicap because visual culture makes it difficult to live without the small part of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans call light.
Playing blind football might seem absurd at first, but I was completely fascinated by it. The TV makes it look clumsy as the players stumble, fall, look for the ball, etcetera. But from a sonic perspective (sic) there is something very different going on. The players are navigating with sound, as the ball makes noises and your team shouts instructions for you. They create a small new world on the field. And it’s inaccessible to us who look at it.
Just like I initially valued 5-a-side as a less elite form of football, lo-fi computing is often seen as something less worthy by most people. Or perhaps it’s more worthy – “the results are good eventhough the tools are bad”. It doesn’t matter – it’s all centered around the same basic idea. Hi-fi is more useful, expressive or productive. It is the norm from which we value other things, just like with the human body. Perhaps some of you find it offensive, but I see many parallells between the mainstream discourses of low-res media and human handicaps. Specifically, the political discussions about them are often polarized between the “objective” and the “social”.
Social vs Objective
The objective model sources the problem to a single entity (human and/or machine) and is as such an ahistorical, essentialistic or psychological understanding. According to the social model, the physical ‘impairment’ is a problem mostly because society is not willing or capable to deal with it. This seems to be the dominant model today, adopted by e.g World Health Organization. But there is much confusion in terminology, and there doesn’t seem to be a term that will work in all contexts (disability, handicap, impairment, etc). And why should it? Why should there be a word that grouped together blindness, autism, crippled people and cerebral palsy?
The conflict that the two models are organized around is obviously an on-going process with very real consequences for people’s well-being, of which I’ve had some experiences during the past four years. I’ve seen how hard it is to deal with bureaucracy and daily life.
Are we more disabled than ever?
According to WHO, fifteen percent of the world’s population is disabled. That’s an increase of 5 percentage points since 1970, which is quite noteworthy. It’s not a fact – it is an estimate that varies with the choice of methods and terminology. Nevertheless, we seem to think of ourselves – in general, in the developed world – as more ‘handicapped’ than before. We need drugs to be normal. We require digital tools to organize our daily life. Our knowledge has become prosthetic. And our lifestyle affects the prevalence of certain diseases and diagonses.
It could be argued that humans are handicapping themselves by creating machines that do the things we want to do, but cannot do ourselves (see this documentary). Or – are humans and machines working closer together to create a better world?
Whichever perspective is taken, it seems that in a techno-consumerist society, normal humans are not good enough in themselves. Post- or transhumanism is perhaps a taste of what is to come when we further develop glasses, hearing aids and artificial organs (btw, new aesthetic is back).
One possible consequence is that we accept more kinds of sensory perceptions and lifestyles. Perhaps we can learn to to respect and take advantage of the unique characteristics of each so called disability. Deaf police are better at video surveillance. There
is (was :() a blind kid who relies mostly on sonar navigation. Deaf people perceive sound and make music. And so on.
But it is probably naive to think that the conflicts will disappear. There are norms to relate to and those norms grow from limitations of human perception and, in the case of computers, from progress as second nature. The conflicts concerning human disabilities is a much more pressing matter than legitimizing low-res computing. Perhaps this post has contributed with something, without offending too many people.
But the main purpose is to build a background for a future post about limitations in computing. Coming soon!