Technology, Transhumanism, and Disability: A Critical Perspective
Curators: Sharon Caldwell, Digital Culture & Media Lab (Decimal); Danielle Rydstedt, Phd student in Social Determinants of Health, University of Victoria | June 2018
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. The field of 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” (Reaume, 2014). The Social Model of Disability is a structural approach that believes that people are more ‘disabled’ by an inaccessible and discriminatory society than rather by their individual bodies and diagnoses (Young, 2014).
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 (based on ability, race, gender, sexuality, or class), and the detrimental effects it has on those on the margins of society (Hamilton, 2015; Wolbring, 2009). 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, 2017), and even of death itself (Khazan, 2017). Although transhumanism is a diverse, varied movement, 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. In some instances, transhumanist advocates call for the elimination of disability altogether, their prejudices masked under the guise of concern for disabled people's "suffering" (Istvan, 2015).
With this collection, we want to give the readers’ resources and tools to critically examine these issues. We attempt to do this not only through the words of disability theorists and activists, but also through posing a variety of questions meant to illicit the reader’s own thoughts. We are cognizant of the fact that this is a very complex subject and involves those with multiple perspectives and lived experiences. We therefore tried to include a variety of voices in the collection, 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 ‘pitiful’, instead of more nuanced understandings (Sauder, 2016) 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 (Canadian Association of the Deaf, 2015).
Accessibility does not only refer to full physical and social participation, but also financial access. “Technocapitalism” (Tucker, 2017) and neoliberalism prioritize profits over people, which can create a hierarchy of access based on financial privilege. If transhumanists believe that everyone has the right (or “morphological freedom”) to enhance their bodies, will everyone have the same access? Will those who cannot, or choose not, to participate in the drive to ‘perfection’ be relegated to a lower social class (Hamilton, 2015; Wolbring, 2009), creating a dystopian reality not unlike the one depicted in the sci-fi film, Gattaca?
Despite critiques, we also want to highlight the ways that 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 (rather than “confining” them, as many ableist media narratives claim). Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) technologies, telepresence robots, and prosthetic and robotic limbs have also enhanced the lives of those who choose (and can afford) them. Prosthetics can be used not just for physical access, but also be embraced as an outward expression of self. Some people have rejected realistic looking limbs in exchange for works of art that shatter the boundaries of normalcy – called “aesthetic prosthetics” (de Oliveira Barata, 2015). The inclusion of representations of disability and ‘cyborgs’ in pop culture via films and music are important as well.
When viewing depictions of technologies, such as the variety of stair-climbing wheelchairs that are included in the collection, it is important to consider:
- Who is creating the technology and what are their intentions? (For example; to sell products and make money, to enhance image, or do they have disabled people and their needs in mind?)
- How is disability framed or represented in the media and marketing that surround these technologies? (What model of disability informs the narrative? What verbal and visual languages are used (e.g. evoking the ‘tragic’ or the ‘superhuman’ trope)? Is it empowering or objectifying? Is the focus on accessibility or eradication of difference?)
- Were disabled people involved or consulted in the design or production? (For example, those in the Deaf community accused the makers of a Sign Language Smart Glove of failing to take into account the complexities and intricacies of their communication (Erard, 2017)).
- Who gets access and who gets left out? What implications do these inequalities have for both the present and the future?
*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.