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collection:

Transhumanism, Technology, and Disability: A Critical Perspective

Curators: Sharon Caldwell, Digital Culture & Media Lab (Decimal); Danielle Rydstedt, Phd student in Social Dimensions of Health, University of Victoria | November 2019

Collection Editor: Isabel Pedersen
Collection Archivist: Sharon Caldwell

In this collection, we aim to use critical disability studies as a lens through which to interpret transhumanist discourses and assistive technologies in general. Geoffrey Reaume notes that "critical disability studies views disability as both a lived reality in which the experiences of people with disabilities are central to interpreting their place in the world, and as a social and political definition based on societal power relations”. The Social Model of Disability is a structural approach that believes that people are more ‘disabled’ by an inaccessible and discriminatory society than by their individual bodies and diagnoses (Young).
 
In contrast, transhumanism is often presented as a utopian, de-politicized concept, one that typically does not acknowledge the existence of personal and structural oppression (Hamilton; Wolbring). The transhumanist rhetoric of ‘perfection’ is often infused with a sense of urgency and fear – fear of the future, vulnerability, perceived human limitations (Pedersen & Mirrlees), and even of death itself (Khazan). The core belief behind transhumanism is that humans should be able to transcend the limits of biological embodiment through the use of science and technology – whether through genetic engineering, prosthetics, exoskeletons, or brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). This has the potential to act as a kind of techno-medical gaze - building on Foucault’s concept of the medical gaze - one that pathologizes disability and strips disabled people of their humanity by viewing them solely as a body-machine to be altered and enhanced. Some transhumanist advocates imagine a future that has eradicated disability altogether, their prejudices masked under the guise of concern for disabled people's "suffering" (Istvan). Disability activists, like Emily Ladau, have responded critically to these narratives that evoke past eugenics practices. 
 

As curators, we are cognizant of the fact that this is a very complex subject that involves a diversity of perspectives and lived experiences, so we tried to include a variety of voices, privileging disabled narratives as much as possible. Our aim is not to construct technology itself as something “bad”, but rather to disrupt and deconstruct the dominant discourse around disability as something that needs to be "fixed", primarily through the use of these technologies.


Ableism, also known as disablism, is the personal and systemic oppression of disabled people*. We live in a society that privileges and caters to those who conform to (or in the case of transhumanism, outperform) social and bodily ‘norms’. Regarding this cult of normalcy, it’s important to ask ourselves: what is ‘normal’? And who gets to define ‘normal’? Ableism is threaded through the very fabric of our society and therefore rarely questioned or challenged. We can see this most prominently through examining the physical environment that is often built for non-disabled people (e.g. stairs), thereby excluding disabled people from participation in everyday life. We can also see it via the media’s (mis)representation of disabled people through the use of dichotomous, objectifying tropes that paint them as either ‘inspiring’ (e.g. ‘superhuman’ athletes) or ‘victims’, instead of more nuanced understandings (Sauder) that relate to difference, diversity, and identity. Those in the Deaf community view being Deaf as a cultural identity, with its own social norms, history, and language.

Accessibility does not only refer to full physical and social participation, but also financial access. Technocapitalism (Tucker) and neoliberalism prioritize profits over people, which can create a hierarchy of access based on financial privilege. Will everyone have the same access? Gregor Wolbring speculates whether those who cannot - or choose not to - participate in the drive to ‘perfection’ will be relegated to a lower social class, creating a dystopian reality not unlike the one depicted in the sci-fi film, Gattaca.


Technology can play a positive role in improving access as well as reimagining representations of disability. Wheelchairs (motorized or manual) are themselves a kind of technology that have given people more freedom and flexibility. Assistive technologies, telepresence robots, and prosthetic and robotic limbs have increased physical accessibility for those who choose (and can afford) them. Prosthetics have also been embraced as an outward expression of self and identity. Some people have rejected realistic looking limbs in exchange for works of art that shatter the boundaries of normalcy, which prosthetics designer Sophie de Oliveira Barata has termed aesthetic prosthetics. The inclusion of representations of disability and ‘cyborgs’ in pop culture via films and music are important as well, though science fiction has a history of using the technology-as-cure trope (Allan).



When viewing depictions of technologies, such as stair-climbing wheelchairs, exoskeletons, or sign language gloves that are included in the collection, it is important to consider: 
 
  1. Who is creating the technology and what are their intentions? 
  2. Were disabled people involved or consulted in the design or production?
  3. How is disability framed or represented in the media and marketing that surround these technologies? 
  4. Who gets access and who gets left out? What implications do these inequalities have for both the present and the future?


Additional References

Allan, K. (2013). Disability in science fiction: Representations of technology as cure.  doi: 10.1057/9781137343437. 

de Oliveira Barata, S. (2015). Expressing identity with aesthetic prosthetics. Talk presented at TED MED. Retrieved from 
https://www.tedmed.com/talks/show?id=293048

Foucault, M. (1973). The birth of the clinic: An archaeology of medical perception. New York: Pantheon Books.

Pedersen, I., & Mirrless, T. (2017). Exoskeletons, Transhumanism, and Culture: Performing Superhuman Feats. IEEE Technology & Society Magazine, 36(1), 2017, 37-45. doi: 10.1109/MTS.2017.2670224



*Although some people use Person-First-Language (i.e. people with disabilities), we chose to use Identity-First language (i.e. disabled people) because it politicizes disability and is aligned with the social model of disability.  
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