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.