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.

crabwise

Umberto Eco always makes me think:

I once had occasion to observe that technology now advances crabwise, i.e. backwards. A century after the wireless telegraph revolutionised communications, the Internet has re-established a telegraph that runs on (telephone) wires. (Analog) video cassettes enabled film buffs to peruse a movie frame by frame, by fast-forwarding and rewinding to lay bare all the secrets of the editing process, but (digital) CDs now only allow us quantum leaps from one chapter to another. High-speed trains take us from Rome to Milan in three hours, but flying there, if you include transfers to and from the airports, takes three and a half hours. So it wouldn’t be extraordinary if politics and communications technologies were to revert to the horse-drawn carriage.

Rortyan hacking

Cathy Davidson:

A “hack” is a reconfiguration or reprogramming of a system to function in a way different than that built into it but its owner, designer, or administrator. The term can run the gamut from a clever or quick fix to a messy (kludgy) temporary solution that no one’s happy with. It can refer to ingenuity and innovation — or sinister practices that border on the criminal. We hope to avoid the kludge and don’t plan on breaking any laws. But reprograming traditional learning institutions so they function in a different, more original, and more efficient way than is intended by current owners and administrators? Sign me up!When David Theo Goldberg and I came up with our incendiary definition of “institution” as a “mobilizing network,” deconstructing the very solidity and uniformity of “institution” by emphasizing the potential for unruliness among its constituent members, we were hacking the institution.

Cathy Davidson has some good ideas at times, but heavens! — the self-regard is pretty thick. Saying that you’re going to define “institution” as a “mobilizing network” — not actually doing anything, but just choosing in your own conversations with people you already know to redefine a term — is “incendiary”? And is “hacking”?I blame Richard Rorty, because it was Rorty who argued (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and elsewhere) that the chief task of philosophy is not to make iron-clad arguments but to redescribe the world. “The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior.”Nice work if you can get it, because this “method” never asks you to change how you live one iota. all you have to do is talk, and leave “appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior” to the “rising generation.” So all Cathy Davidson and Theo Goldberg have to do is to say “an institution is a mobilizing network,” and Shazam! — the university is incendiarily hacked.It’s always good in this context to note Umberto Eco’s account, in Kant and the Platypus, of a debate he had with Rorty on these matters:

Rorty also alluded to the right we would have to interpret a screwdriver as something useful to scratch our ears with. . . . A screwdriver can serve also to oen 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 requires 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.

Words may not be particularly resistant to redescription, especially if you’re among like-minded people; but screwdrivers and institutions (such as the university) and other things are much more recalcitrant. Genuinely hacking them is harder and riskier, which makes it tempting to follow the safer route of redescription. Leave the hard labor of tangible change for the “rising generation.”
As for me, I’m putting more trust in the alt-ac crew to actually, you know, do things differently.