Thursday, May 12, 2016

Disability and technological change

The end of blind culture Source: imgur

That technology changes and sometimes destroys culture and social value is an ancient and morally-complicated fact. For contemporary subcultures oriented around specific physical disabilities, it's especially complex. Take this recent article about a new sign language tool, provocatively titled, Deaf People Don't Need New Communication Tools - Everyone Else Does.

The author makes some excellent points about the value of deaf culture, cognitive diversity, and ways that physical disability interacts with institutions to magnify injustice. We would do well to grok these lessons, and I can only imagine how certain innovations might be understood as implicit attacks on the dignity of deaf culture.

The elephant in the room, however, is not new communications technology but rather new technology that seeks to cure deafness altogether. Perhaps it's possible to be critical of the former and wildly supportive of the latter, but I'm generally wary of anti-technology stances that are mainly focused on culture, which is highly adaptive.

Physical disabilities are bad

Disability and reduced physical capacity are huge sources of injustice today. Medical and transhumanist technologies have transformed the world, and the ongoing human liberation from the harshness of biology is truly a glorious thing. I suspect that for most deaf people (especially those living in poor countries), a medical cure or cheap compensating technology would be highly desirable. Less so for others, whose access to social capital, education, technology, and general economic opportunity provides an acceptable set of capabilities.

While there might sometimes be pragmatic reasons to preserve dying cultures or languages, the world will be a better place when we are able to cure deafness, blindness, cancer, heart disease, alzheimer's. The human cost of deafness is significant enough to make its disappearance (or near-disappearance) via technology a worthy goal, despite the loss of some cultural and cognitive value. We shouldn't forget that technology also enables new cultural value to emerge.

The end of bald culture
Source: LinkedIn
The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was once asked about casting Patrick Stewart as captain, noting that "surely by the 24th century, they would have found a cure for male pattern baldness." Roddenberry replied, "No, by the 24th century, no one will care." This is a perfect response because it highlights how ridiculous and unjust our current social biases are towards a trivial physical disability. Also instructive, however, is Star Trek's treatment of LeVar Burton's blind character, Geordi La Forge. In this case, a significant disability is overcome via his visor, and steps are taken to emphasize his performance equality compared to sighted crewmembers.

In Picard's case, disability is nullified via cultural change. For La Forge, by technology. The difference is that blindness, unlike baldness, is a significant physical limitation on capability.

What's the best way to destroy a subculture?

The process of shrinking--and probably eventually destroying--deaf culture while maintaining its status and dignity will be difficult. Developing a cheap and accessible cure will probably be a slow, incremental process, allowing some time for cultural adaptation. Perhaps some will rationally eschew potential treatments, out of a desire to maintain deaf culture and their place in it. Indeed, a few parents have already sought to intentionally cause deafness in their children for this explicit purpose. Perhaps we'll all communicate telepathically via brain implants before too long, so it won't really matter.

Regardless, I'm drawn to this example because it illustrates the ongoing difficulty of publicly establishing technology and scientific research as tools of social justice. It's easy and fun to make contrarian points about individual technologies and how they might play out culturally and morally. But too often these critiques miss the forest for the trees, and fail to adequately support a broadly pro-innovation, pro-science, pro-technology mindset.

All cultural and social arrangements have value, and technological change destroys some of it. But pointing this out isn't enough. The mere existence of cultural value isn't sufficient to warrant its preservation--many other things matter, not least health and physical integrity. Maintaining a strong default bias towards allowing and encouraging new technology and research is crucial to keeping humanity on the right track.

In a future blog post I'll describe why I think the concept of transhumanism can help clarify many current identity-based social justice movements, including disability and transgender rights.

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