Are Humans More Disabled Than Ever?

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!

13 Responses to “Are Humans More Disabled Than Ever?”

  1. FTC Says:

    Nice! Too many things to discuss here to write in this comment, so I’ll save that for some other time. :) In the meantime.. just a question: Is the term “second nature” taken from Murray Bookchin, or do you use this term in some other way?

  2. goto80 Says:

    Never heard of him, so I guess not. :) What I mean is that the idea of progress has been normalized and embedded into our way of talking about and relating to computers, in general. Even if it’s easy to be ‘against’ progress, it’s a lot more complicated to rationally explain who you use things that are so-called obsolete.

    What would Bookchin say?

    • FTC Says:

      Bookchin is rather talking about “second nature” in the sense of those parts/aspects/whatever of our reality that are somehow (at least in part) products of human “minds” (e.g. culture and such). He uses the concept to point out that this stuff (culture) is in one sense also part of nature as much as anything else that exists, while at the same time also retaining the observation that such aspects of nature are in some ways different from the more primordial kind of “nature” that he calls “first nature”. First nature is rather referring to nature as it is/was independent of “minds”, before humans got to the point where they started “counteracting” various aspects of nature in a deliberate manner (clothes, tools, methods of crop cultivation, etc). I don’t think he is claiming that there is a strict boundary between the two, but he still uses these concepts to keep some things apart, instead of just referring to everything as “nature” in a (even more) blurry manner and also instead of making a division between nature and culture which views culture as “merely constructed” without connection to the natural world.

  3. goto80 Says:

    I think you can consider ‘digital technologies’ as second nature. In modern life, they are just as ‘exnominated’ as nature once was. Digi-tech could even be considered as *more* natural for inner city geeks, who get scared by unpredictable systems and prefer a world of discrete numbers, objects and processes.

    Although I never read anything by Bruno Latour, I think he’s an inspiration for me here. You might like him. He likes ethnomethodology!

    Also, I’m not so sure that humans can counteract nature because we are nature’s bitch.

  4. FTC Says:

    I know Latour, yep!

    Then you agree with Bookchin (I think).. One of his point is precisely that “second nature” is contained in first nature, so to speak.

  5. Victor A Says:

    Thanks for a very inspiring text. Did you know that Marshall McLuhan, who is mostly known (and often looked down upon) for describing media as “extensions of man”, also considered all media to be amputations of functions of the human body? In his view, the more we “extend” our bodies with the help of media, at the same time we also disempower them. The prime example is probably when we “amputated” our feet by replacing their function with wheels. He is not arguing that this is something “bad”, but he explores the effects on human perception and how fundamentally different our environment becomes when we hand bodily functions over to machines. And he shows very well how we are forced to adjust to these new milieus, these “second natures”, rather than just picking up tools to extend our power.

    Might be a possible path for thinking further about this.

    • goto80 Says:

      I had no idea, thanks for letting me know! I haven’t read much of him — is there a particular book/part where he talks more about this?

    • FTC Says:

      I come to think of the good old debate of whether pocket calculators are good or bad for children who learn math, where some focus on the “extending” side of things, and others (the critics) focus more on the “harm” that this may do (potentially make the children less able to calculate stuff without calculators etc). …and other such debates in school (“is it ok not to know lots of stuff in these days because we can easily look it up on the net?” etc) Seems to me to be quite closely related to precisely this issue, although it is perhaps more about “mental abilities” than primarily bodily skills/activities, in a way.

  6. Victor Says:

    I agree with you FTC, and in all cases asking “is this good or bad” leads nowhere… The interesting question is rather what “natures” these developments force us to live in…

    What I really like about McLuhan is that he is obsessed with media but he couldn’t care less about information. For him media are all about worlds, milieus, environment, ambience. It’s something we live in, not something we “use”.

    goto80: I have only read (parts of) Understanding Media, I think it’s a very rich book. Well written, too, highly entertaining, if a bit too “cozy” at times.

  7. Dragan Says:

    Picking on the small point of “High Fidelity” vs “Low Fidelity”: fidelity describes how faithful to the truth something is. So, 1080p video is considered being a more faithful reproduction of reality than Super 8 film. But this refers, smiliar to your example with the blind soccer players, only to something that can easily be quantified, like an amount of pixels, frames per second, etc. It is difficult to enumerate the “creation of a world” in somebody’s mind, like it happens with the audio-enabled soccer ball and the blind players — or a low fidelity image that leaves more to the imagination of the viewer.

    When you look at the image of the Apple][ in your article, it is clear that the Apple][ wasn’t able to let unicorns, dolphins and rainbows of such a quality come into existence on its screen. But the image also shows that the figures leave the screen, the landscape expands beyond the monitor’s borders. This is a thing that users looking at a 8×8 monochrome sprite needed to do themselves, differently from high fidelity technology that is designed to overwhelm and overpower — and as a side effect standardizes imagination.

    • goto80 Says:

      Yeah there was a small section in Get Lamp that discussed that really well. Can’t remember the details. But that the search of the ultimate immersion would ultimately lead back to text adventures, since your own imagination is the best HI FI STEREO FESTIVAL!

      But would that mean that a black screen is the best thing? What would Buddha say? Is he on Facebook?

  8. Realtime Text /1/ Why Did it Disappear? « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] and when it’s not. There are many more real-time text services, often involving so called disabled people. Actually, there is even a Real-Time Text Taskforce […]

  9. A Rant on Limitations | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] slaves of technology. Underdogs. We often portray ourselves as suffering artists – or even handicapped – who make stuff despite technology. And yet, that once again reinforces the idea that hi-fi […]

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