a public amateur’s story

There is so much that’s wonderful about Sara Hendren’s talk here that I can’t summarize it — and wouldn’t if I could. Please just watch it, and watch to the end, because in the last few minutes of the talk things come together in ways that will be unexpected to those who don’t know Sara. Also be sure to check out Abler.

One of Sara’s models is the artist Claire Pentecost, who sees herself as a public amateur:

One of the things I’m attached to is learning. And one of the models I’ve developed theoretically is that of the artist as the public amateur. Not the public intellectual, which is usually a position of mastery and critique, but the public amateur, a position of inquiry and experimentation. The amateur is the learner who is motivated by love or by personal attachment, and in this case, who consents to learn in public so that the very conditions of knowledge production can be interrogated. The public amateur takes the initiative to question something in the province of a discipline in which she is not conventionally qualified, acquires knowledge through unofficial means, and assumes the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.

Public amateurs can have exceptional social value, not least because they dare to question experts who want to remain unquestioned simply by virtue of accredited expertise; public amateurs don’t take “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” as an adequate self-justification. But perhaps the greatest contribution public amateurs make to society arises from their insistence — it’s a kind of compulsion for them — on putting together ideas and experiences that the atomizing, specializing forces of our culture try to keep in neatly demarcated compartments. This is how an artist and art historian ends up teaching at an engineering school.

There are two traits that, if you wish to be a public amateur, you simply cannot afford to possess. You can’t insist on having a plan and sticking with it, and you can’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you’re the sort of person whose ducks must always be in a neat, clean row, the life of the public amateur is not for you. But as the personal story Sara tells near the end of her talk indicates, sometimes life has a way of scrambling all your ducks. When that happens, you can rage vainly against it; or you can do what Sara did.

bluetooth shoes

I often think about a passage from Umberto Eco’s book Kant and the Platypus in which he records a debate he had with Richard Rorty about philosophy as a way of “redescribing” the world:

In a debate held in 1990 with regard to the existence or otherwise of textual criteria of interpretation, Richard Rorty … denied that the use made of a screwdriver to tighten screws is imposed by the object itself, while the use made of it to open a parcel is imposed by our subjectivity.

In the oral debate, Rorty also alluded to the right we would have to interpret a screwdriver as something useful to scratch our ears with. This explains my reply … : A screwdriver can also serve to open a parcel (given that it is an instrument with a cutting point, easy to use in order to exert force on something resistant); but it is inadvisable to use it for rummaging about in your ear precisely because it is sharp and too long to allow the hand to control the action required for such a delicate operation; and so it would be better to use not a screwdriver but a light stick with a wad of cotton at its tip.

Exactly. The world resists our redescriptions. I was moved to think about this point again this morning as I was reading Sara Hendren’s interview with Georgina Kleege, who describes how she, as a blind person, uses her white cane:

Since I need to rely on my hearing to get around, I tend not to use my phone when I’m in motion. I sometimes use GPS navigation with turn-by turn directions spoken out loud, but it can be tricky if I’m also listening for traffic sounds and other people I might walk into. When I use GPS, I prefer to get the maximum amount of information; I want to hear all the street names, all the businesses I pass. I retain a memory of this for future reference: “Oh, there’s a Thai restaurant across the street from that movie theater,” that kind of thing. 

Not long ago, I came across a project: “bluetooth shoes for the blind.” The designers put sensors in the soles of a pair of shoes; a blind person would then type in a destination into the smart phone’s GPS, and the shoes would vibrate to tell you when to make a turn. The inventors admitted that these shoes would not help with maneuvering through crowded city streets. Also, they don’t make a distinction between a curb and an open manhole. So I say — who are they kidding? It’s an example of a kind of technology that’s supposed to be attractive because it would replace the cane, making the blindness less visible, and allowing the blind person to “pass” more successfully as sighted.

If Kleege is right, then the concept of “bluetooth shoes for the blind” is meant to help sighted people deal with blindness at least as much as it is meant to help the blind themselves. It gets the blind out of the way, out of our visual field; plus they take up less space.

And there’s another aspect of this: the white cane is clearly a superior technology here, but connectivity is just what we do now, technologically. Bluetooth is cool in a way that Lucite is not. People want to offer digital solutions to problems — or pseudo-problems — that are not really digital in nature. It’s like rummaging around in your ear with a screwdriver.

technology as prosthesis

As I said I would, I’ve been thinking more about Sara Hendren’s recent essay on assistive technology, and her claim that “all technology is assistive technology.” The key variable is what we’re trying to assist.

These thoughts are consonant with the view articulated by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which he explicitly speaks of technology in prosthetic terms, though he doesn’t, as far as I can discover, use the terms “prosthetic” or “prosthesis.” He writes, “Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex,” and his goal in Understanding Media, is to explore these effects.

McLuhan sees all technology in these terms, not just electronic ones. Riffing on W. H. Auden’s identification of the 20th century as The Age of Anxiety, he writes,

If the nineteenth century was the age of the editorial chair, ours is the century of the psychiatrist’s couch. As extension of man the chair is a specialist ablation of the posterior, a sort of ablative absolute of backside, whereas the couch extends the integral being. The psychiatrist employs the couch, since it removes the temptation to express private points of view and obviates the need to rationalize events.

Like so much of what McLuhan writes, this is simultaneously ludicrous — the “ablative absolute of backside”? — and provocative. But all I want to note at this point, and in this post, is that McLuhan’s description of our movement from the “mechanical age” to the “electronic age” is somewhat misleading, because it is increasingly obvious that electronic technologies do not obviate mechanical ones but enhance and supplement them. They are extensions of extensions, as the varying phenomena that go under the label internet of things indicate. People like Hugh Herr — about whom Sara Hendren has written here — are exploring technologies that establish an intersection of the mechanical, the electronic, and the biological: Herr calls this field biomechatronics.

I have no conclusions here — I don’t know enough to draw conclusions — but I know that I am especially interested in how these convergences will affect our technologies of knowledge. More about that in future posts.

on assistive technology

I was talking with some friends on Twitter the other day about the ever-shortening definition of what gets counted as a “long read” — it’s enough to make me more sympathetic to those shrinking-attention-span arguments that I tend otherwise to be skeptical towards. Medium tells me, in its highly annoying way, that this essay by Sara Hendren should take me fifteen minutes to read, which I guess makes it a long read by many current definitions.

But whether you call it that or not, the key thing is this: I could read this essay in less than fifteen minutes, but it leaves me with a great deal to think about that will occupy me for considerably longer. (I won’t hold my breath for Medium to estimate how long I’ll be thinking about what I read there.)

Hendren’s interests, here and on her website, Abler, revolve around the various forms of disability, the languages we use for disability, and the objects (with their overt or covert artfulness) we design to aid disabled people — the kind of objects that are generally lumped under the category “assistive technology.” But it’s just that term that Hendren wants to call into question:

Well—it’s worth saying again: All technology is assistive technology. Honestly—what technology are you using that’s not assistive? Your smartphone? Your eyeglasses? Headphones? And those three examples alone are assisting you in multiple registers: They’re enabling or augmenting a sensory experience, say, or providing navigational information. But they’re also allowing you to decide whether to be available for approach in public, or not; to check out or in on a conversation or meeting in a bunch of subtle ways; to identify, by your choice of brand or look, with one culture group and not another.

Making a persistent, overt distinction about “assistive tech” embodies the second-tier do-gooderism and banality that still dominate design work targeted toward “special needs.” “Assistive technology” implies a separate species of tools designed exclusively for those people with a rather narrow set of diagnostic “impairments”—impairments, in other words, that have been culturally designated as needing special attention, as being particularly, grossly abnormal. But are you sure your phone isn’t a crutch, as it were, for a whole lot of unexamined needs? If the metrics were expansive enough, I think the impact of what’s designated as assistive would start to get blurry pretty quickly.

Please read the whole thing. And then think about it for however long it takes. There are a great many implications here, some of which I hope to take up in a later post.