[09/22/17: This post has been updated with a transcript, courtesy of Open Transcripts]
Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:
TECHNOLOGY, DISABILITY, AND HUMAN AUGMENTATION
‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’
The outline looked a little like this:
- Foucault and Normalization
- Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
- Starts with Medical tech but applies Everywhere; Facebook, Phones, Etc.
- Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
- Zoltan Istvan: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks
- Exoskeletons rather than Infrastructure
- Istvan’s use of the phrase “Bandage Culture”
- Exoskeletons rather than Infrastructure
- All Lead To: Ashley Shew’s “Up-Standing Norms”
- Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
- See the story Shew tells about her engineering student, as related in the AFWTA Essay
- Inspiration Porn: What is cast by others as “Triumphing” over “Adversity” is simply adapting to new realities.
- Placing the burden on the disabled to be an “inspiration” is dehumanizing;
- means those who struggle “have no excuse;”
- creates conditions for a “who’s got it worse” competition
- Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
- John Locke‘s Empiricism: Primary and Secondary Qualities
- Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
- Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
- Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
- “Fixing” people to make them “normal, again”
- Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
- Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
- Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
- Natalie Kane‘s “Means Well Technology”
- Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
- The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
- William Gibson’s quote “The street finds its own uses for things.”
- The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
- Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
- Against Locke: Embrace Phenomenological Ethics and Epistemology (Feminist Epistemology and Ethics)
- Lived Experience and embodiment as crucial
- The interplay of Self and and Society
- Ship of Theseus: Identity, mind, extensions, and augmentations change how we think of ourselves and how society thinks of us
- See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay
The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.
Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”
The audio transcript is below the cut. Enjoy.
Damien Williams: The conversation that we’re going to be having today is about technology, disability, and human augmentation. We’re going to be looking at the areas of—as Ari said—where tech and personhood intersect. We’re going to be talking about the ideas of how our technology is embraced in our society, and how that embracing of that technology reflects on how we see ourselves and how we view others. The kinds of expectations that we place on people, and the expectations that we place on both behavior and lived experience as a result. So this is going to involve a lot of really complicated topics, a lot of complex interplay of ideas. But just bear with me. We’ll get to something really really cool through the process of it.
So one of the first things I want to talk about is this idea of the normalization of technology. And the term “normalization” as we’re going to be using it finds its origin in a lot of the work of Michel Foucault. The idea behind normalization as Foucault uses it is that what happens as we engage an idea or as we engage a piece of technology or a system (in Foucault’s usage usually a system of control) is that it becomes a part of us. It becomes a part of not just who we are individually, but a part of society.
So Foucault uses the term normalization, and the deployment of the term normalization tends to find its heart in medical technology and the discussion of how what we think of as medical interventions gets to be seen as widespread, normal, and expected. So the ability or the availability of things like pacemakers, the availability of interventions such as certain types of medicines or even crash carts within hospitals becomes normalized, becomes expected. And these kinds of things when they are not present become burdens on those who would otherwise need to use them.
Now, this idea though it starts in medical technology and though we’re going to be coming back around to it within medical tech, doesn’t just exist within the use of medical tech. It exists in all of our technological usage. We engage in new tech and we then think of it as having always been a part of our lives. So as far back as—well literally everything, but we can go back to writing and the usage of writing, the intervention of writing in everyday life.
How many of you have some familiarity with the writings, the thoughts of Plato and Socrates? Many of you. Plato actually stood against writing. When the technology of writing was introduced to Greece as widespread and thorough usage for everybody and not just for a specialized few, Plato said that writing would destroy memory. That writing would cause us to not be able to retain concepts and to engage them thoroughly and well. As all of you can currently attest, that’s not quite the case. Everyone in this room is currently doing some kind of writing or is using a writing implement of some type, in some way shape or form. And if not right now then you will be at some point.
This happens again with the technology of well, the printed word. As we disseminate printed technology, the idea became that the habit, the focused attention that’s given to the copying of manuscripts by hand would be lost and that some element of it would be devalued in its engagement by being able to simply set a machine to do for us what someone otherwise would have to do by hand, piece by piece, over and over again. That there would be some essential nature lost to it.
But as we all currently experience, we make use of the printed word and have a sense of essence with the books that we engage as it stands, again. This is all to say that the technology that we use, over time as we use it becomes not only accepted but seen as normal. This process of adaptation is simply that. We adapt to the new. We adapt to change.
This normalization process however also has something of a drawback. It’s got a downside in that when we start to think of things as normal, we start to think of normal as good. We think of what is as being what ought to be. This is the naturalistic fallacy in philosophical speak, or the is-ought gap, as David Hume puts it. This is the idea that because something is the way that we’ve come to expect it, that something happens to be what we encounter, that it should be that way. That it’s obvious that that’s the “right way” for it to be. We get to a place where we conflate the existence of a thing with its rightness or its value.
And so once we start to think of a technology as “normal,” once we start to think of its ubiquity in our lives as a given, we start to think of it as good that it should be so. And as we start to think of it as good that it should be so, we start think of its absence as bad. The negative valuation gets placed on its lack. The fact that in order to do anything in life right now you have to have some kind of small-scale electronic computer, laptop or smaller. If you want to be able to get a job, the access to a cell phone is pretty much necessary. The ability to engage at a moment’s notice with the Internet. These things, not twenty years ago, were hardly heard of, much less widely disseminated and assumed to be necessary in our lives.
But now, 2017, they are required. In order to live a full life within human society in the West, you must have these things. That’s normalization. It has become a thing that you absolutely must have to live. And if you don’t have it, you will be ostracized and penalized for it. Sometimes outright and sometimes simply as a result of the way society will move around and without you. If you don’t have a phone, then certain things will simply be unavailable to you. If you don’t have a phone of a particular type, certain things will be unavailable to you within our society. If you don’t have the Internet, certain things will be unavailable to you within our society.
There was even a period in time at which if you didn’t have a Facebook profile, then your application for a job or your attempt to engage with the wider working commerce world was seen as flawed. There was about a six-month period, and it was a very short window, but it was about a six-month period where there were a number of articles going around about the notion that people who didn’t have Facebooks might be sociopaths. Facebook. This is putting aside all of the more recent things that we’ve come to understand about how the pressures of Facebook and the usage and the leveraging of Facebook in our society both affects and is affected by our behavior as people individually and in groups. But this is just the mere fact that it’s a social networking site. And the idea that your not engaging in it, if you chose to say, “Ah, I don’t feel like doing that thing,” might mark you out in our wider society as being of an abnormal psychological makeup.
This normalization process applies to everything we do. To all of the things that we work with. All of the things that we think. When it comes to medical technologies, when it comes to the intervention of tech on disability, these kinds of things play out in weird ways, and ways that are oftentimes unexpected. This unexpected nature of normalization, we’re going to come back around to it when we talk about “means well” technologies in a minute.
But for now, there’s a piece by a person named Zoltan Istvan. And he wrote this article a few years back called “In the [Transhumanist Age, We Should Be] Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks.” The idea that he puts forward in the piece is that we have the ability to make people better. That is, better both in terms of above a baseline or an assumed baseline, and also better in terms of “fixing” what’s wrong with them. He says in our current state of technological and biotechnological capability, we should be focusing on things like exoskeletons for people who don’t have the use of their legs, not making roads more accessible to wheelchairs, not creating ramps and accessibility infrastructural interventions, but in giving those people back the use of their legs.
He says in that case, when we do these kinds of infrastructural applications, what we’re doing is—he says this is bandage culture. We’re just papering over a problem rather than going to the source and fixing it. We should be able to simply say, “This person is disabled. This person has lost the use of their legs, the use of their eyes, the use of their ears, the use of whatever. This person has fallen below our accepted baseline. And so let’s fix them.”
There’s a major problem with this idea. And that problem is that there’s this assumption that there’s something there to be fixed. That within that assumption there’s the further assumption that there’s a right kind of way for a body to be, in the first place. That there is this “baseline” at all that says “acceptable human functioning is here, and we can either be better than it up here or worse than it down here.”
And that kind of thinking gets us situations where we start to make decisions for people. We make decisions for people with disabilities in, say, the instance of people with paraplegia and we say, “Okay so, you shouldn’t have to worry about ramps. You shouldn’t have to worry about whether the sidewalk is well enough for your wheelchair to work. You should just be able to just walk.” But we don’t ask those people whether that’s what they want. Whether that’s what they need.
Several replies to Istvan’s piece came out, and one was from a disability theorist named Kim Sauder. The piece was called “When Celebrating Accessible Tech is Just Reinforcing Ableism.” And this peace talks about the idea that what we are actually doing is we are saying these people (big scare quotes around “these people”) should just, you know, not be a burden. If we have to make infrastructural changes, if we have to sort out ways for all kinds of different bodies to have access to all kinds of different scenarios, how much more of a burden on society is that than just you know, fixing them?
Again, this comes from this place of saying what we’re doing, what we all are, has to be a particular way. And Sauder says this is ableism in and of itself. This is the heart of ableism. This is thinking that one type of ability, one range of ability, is right. And all others are wrong. That a disability is an error. That it is fundamentally a failure on the part of the person and that they need to be fixed.
Another response to the piece came from Rose Eveleth, writing in The Atlantic, and it was called “The Hidden Burden of Exoskeletons for the Disabled”. Rose Eveleth also does a podcast called Flash Forward where she investigates all kinds of scenarios for the future; the near and not so near. Does a lot of thinking about what it means to engage these kinds of things long-term.
And all of these responses kind of come together in one major response by Dr. Ashley Shew. And Dr. Ashley Shew writes this piece called “Up-Standing Norms.” And in this she talks about the idea that what we have normalized and what we have come to expect is that people when they function “correctly” look like this. That is, they stand up. They use their legs, they use their body in a particular way. And they engage the world from here. Roundabouts. Like, there’s variance, right, within a seven to four-foot kind of range. There’s variance. But usually, everything that happens in human life happens here-ish. Right in this middle area [indicates middle torso extension of the arm, outward].
And so if you’re here [sits down in a chair], you’ve got to do this all the time [reaches up and over]. And so rather than bringing this here [mimes dropping the top of a table down], or making this alternately accessible from various places, let’s just bring the people who are down here up here. Let’s just, you know, fix this [indicates whole body].
Shew says what this is again a fundamental failure to listen to the needs and the desires of people with disabilities. People with disabilities don’t actually, in many cases, desire the kind of technological interventions that people without disabilities create for them. Think about how many interventions have been created for people with disabilities, and think about how many of them have been created for them by people without disabilities. The answer is most of them.
Shew tells a story about an engineering class that she taught. And she was teaching about engineering and design for disability technologies. And she’s teaching specifically about exoskeletons. And we like to use exoskeletons when we talk about these kinds of tech because they’re the the flashiest, right? They’re the biggest thing. They’re huge. You can put on an exoskeleton, and somebody who doesn’t have the use of their legs now has the use of their legs. They put on tech, and now they are functional again, for this value of “functional” that we have. That means that ultimately, if the people who don’t want this—this way of standing, this way of engaging the world—haven’t been consulted, then the things that we’re going to do aren’t going to reflect their needs and their desires.
So in this class she’s talking about one of her students. She says teaching all these engineering students that most people with paraplegia of some kind for some reason, people who do not have the use of their legs, don’t want exoskeletons. They don’t want all-terrain wheelchairs. Because those are classed as vehicles and they’re not covered by health insurance. So if you need health insurance to cover the cost of your wheelchair, which is—I don’t know if you know—really high. Wheelchairs are ridiculously expensive. And so if you need your insurance to cover that cost and here’s this fancy motorized wheelchair that can do all terrain, all access, all kinds of stuff… But your insurance doesn’t cover it because it’s technically a vehicle? You need car insurance for it? That’s not exactly going to be helpful to you.
So Shew says what most people who don’t have use of their legs want is to have access to the same things that people who do have the use of their legs have. Because ultimately, in around the time it takes for Apple to come out with a new iPhone—around about eighteen months—a person who has developed a disability—lost the use of their legs, the use of their sight, the use of their hearing, the use of their arms, whatever—will come to engage and to adapt to that new lived physical reality as normal. We think about this as this life-altering, world-changing thing. That it takes absolutely forever and nothing will ever be the same for you. But the fact the matter is that humans are plastic. We adapt. We are malleable. We learn how to live around what we are. And we learn it very quickly.
And so in the time it takes for you to live the new reality of using a wheelchair; to be comfortable with it; to be engaged in it; to be able to access the world through it as a piece of technology that is an extension of yourself, to have someone then come along and say, “Okay, now use this new tech instead.” That’s another new process. That’s another set of engagements. That’s another eighteen months that you have to spend devoted to this thing.
She says, when she tells her students this in this particular instance, one of the students gets up looking visibly distressed, leaves class, comes back sometime after the class is over and says, “I’m sorry I left but I had to go call my brother.” I think the student’s brother had spina bifida. He says, “I called my brother because my brother is the reason that I got into biomedical design. The reason I wanted to start working with exoskeletons. And I called my brother and I asked him, ‘Do you actually care about the fact that I’m working on these exoskeletons? I’m doing this for you. Is this a thing that you need? Is this is a thing that you want?'”
And his brother’s response is, “No, not really. I mean, it’s cool that you’re interested in it. And I’m glad that it’s a thing that you’re invested in and that you like. I’m glad that you want this. But I don’t need it. Don’t do this for me. I mean, if it’s something that you believe in, do it for you.”
That’s not to say that there are not any people who use wheelchairs who want other technologies. What it is to say is that don’t assume that what a person in a wheelchair wants is to walk. Don’t assume that there is this desire to be “normal” again. Living with a wheelchair as a piece of extensive tech, a piece of built and designed intervention, the application of science to allow you to engage the world, that is a thing that becomes your normal. It is your reality. It is how you live in the world. And the realities of it will shape how you engage and experience the world.
Shew talks about the idea, also, of inspiration porn. And that’s in the sense of where a lot of our desire for how we think people with disabilities ought to behave. We want them to be these kind of triumphant, overcoming, brave people fighting against adversity. And then we can use that as an example and we can say, “If they can do it… If even this person with this disability can get up and can climb Mount Everest, then what’s stopping you?”
And that seems somewhat innocuous at first blush. It’s inspiration, right? Like, “even somebody who’s trying has got to try even harder than a person with their legs can do this. Than a person with their eyes. They can do this. I can do this.” But how thoroughly dehumanizing is that? To say “this disability should end you. Should stop you and block you from any and all things. But you overcame.”
At that point, that person’s life and their experience becomes about their triumph, about their overcoming, rather than being about the fact that they are a person who had a desire and sought to realize it. It becomes about the fact that they are “less than you.” And “even they” can do this. To use them as inspiration, to hold them up as “what’s your excuse?” is as much to say “be an inspiration.” Be an ideal. Be something I can hold up and I can reference and I can say, “whenever I’m feeling down, at least I don’t have it that bad.” And even if they have it that bad, look what they did. It’s placing their disability on a pedestal and erasing the person.
All of this, these ideas of the ideal kind of person, the right kind of body, this ableistic kind of thinking about how we “should” be, kind of finds a lot of its home… Going pretty far back, you can look at a lot of the 18th-century Enlightenment, going back to to John Locke. John Locke was well-known as the father of empiricism. This is the idea that said that in order to know anything in the world we have to experience it. We have to use our senses to learn about it. And one of the things that Locke talks about in the course of his empiricism is this idea of primary and secondary qualities.
And for Locke what this means is that certain things, everything, has a set of primary qualities. And they give rise to the secondary qualities of that thing. So the primary qualities of this water bottle. Its atomic structure. Its general composition. What it is made of. It’s rolled aluminum, brushed on the outside. It is then treated in a number of ways.
Those basic factors, those primary qualities, give rise to the secondary qualities about this water bottle. Its color. Its weight. Its shape. The secondary qualities could not come to be without the primary qualities. Not in the same way, not through the same mechanisms. You might be able to make a water bottle that looks like this, or a water bottle that feels like this, out of something other than rolled aluminum. But it’s very unlikely that you could get all of the things that this water bottle is without the primary qualities what make it up. That’s how Locke thinks about the physical world.
The thing of it is that he also then goes a few steps further and applies the notion of primary and secondary qualities to people. And this is part of what gives rise later down the line to the notions of scientific racism in the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea that certain types of people, certain races of people from certain parts of the world, have primary qualities that make them better or worse at thinking, at developing culture. These are the secondary qualities of people. The thoughts we have. The culture we build. The societies we create. Based on our primary qualities, the compositions of our physiology, what our brains are like, what our biology is like.
The definition of the primary qualities that Locke gave, that he said were best suited to thought and the creation of culture were white European men. Like if you just look at the breakdown, he basically describes himself. White European dudes of Germanic descent is really what the description looks like. And he says for that reason that African slaves deserve to be—should be—must always be slaves. Because their primary qualities suit them not to the creation of culture but to the creation of labor, to the fulfillment of work. This notion gets paired with misapplied Darwinism. The notion of fitness. Fitness to type. And these ideas, as I say, give rise to the kind of racism that we tend to think of as inhabiting and embodying the majority of the 1800s and 1900s.
From here we get not only racism, though. We get ableism. And we get the unfortunate, horrifying logical byproduct of ableism and racism, which is the eugenics movement. If there is a “right kind” of body; if there is an ideal way to be; if there is a “complete” person; an ideal, perfectable person; if evolution moves towards a pinnacle, as many people believed it did— Again, completely misunderstanding what Darwin was actually saying. Evolution doesn’t move toward a pinnacle, it just moves. Change happens and the bad changes get edited out eventually. And by bad we mean they don’t get to have sex as often. But there’s no value judgment there. It’s just what reproduces more.
But people took that, and in the same way that we normalize everything else, the same way that we normalize the word “normal,” what’s normal becomes what’s good. What’s fit becomes what’s best. Not best for purpose but best in terms of value. In terms of moral application. In terms of human valuation. And so if there is a best kind of person, if there’s a fittest kind of person, if there will be the fittest that survive, then what we must do as a species—humans—knowing this, recognizing this, what we must do is ensure the fitness of our species. Which means weeding out those who are less fit. And the mechanisms we used, and in some cases still use, to do this were kind of brutal.
Forced sterilization. Inmates in asylums and mental facilities were given forcible hysterectomies. In some cases were castrated. There were also certain people who were simply put to death because they were seen as unfit to reintegrate with society. The deaths of children. Killing babies with genetic disorders, specifically for the fact that they had those genetic disorders. Not that those genetic disorders would’ve necessarily placed a “burden” on their parents or their lives or had any kind of impact on the kind of fullness that they might have lived at a certain point later down the line. But because they were deemed defective. And those defects might lessen the fitness of our species.
Eugenics was all about—is, unfortunately, because it still exists as a movement and as an undercurrent within what’s known as transhumanism… It’s about making sure that we are the absolute best we can be. With the notion that there is progress towards an end. That there is a “best” that we can be.
This plays out not in just these dramatic ways, but it also plays out in terms of how certain people are treated within the medical establishment. Henrietta Lacks. How many of you are familiar with the story of Henrietta Lacks? Only a few of us. Okay, so Henrietta Lacks was a woman whose cells were seen to be able to kind of infinitely reproduce. This is a very short, very small…like, me summing up this story. And her cells were used without her consent to study the effects of various medical treatments, to study cancer, to study all kinds of massive medical interventions and scientific breakthroughs that we never would have had the opportunity to discover were it not for her cells specifically. They are known as HeLa cells. They are Henrietta Lacks’ cells. They’re named after her.
She was never asked if this was okay. She was never, while she was alive, credited. And it was only long after her death that it came to be known that these were the cells of a particular person. Data within science and tech is generally anonymized, specifically so that no one person can be picked out as having specific traits because of all of the kinds of things that we’re talking about. If I can identify the specific traits of a specific person from within a specific population and say, “These type of people have these particular types of traits and that makes them good, bad, better, worse,” that becomes deeply problematic. And so in medical science what we try to do is we try to say okay, let’s strip that data out.
But HeLa cells only come from one place. They are only Henrietta Lacks’ cells. It’s a medical miracle. Like literally a medical miracle. We have no other source for this. And so eventually somebody said, “You know, we kinda have to just in the name of decency say that this person is responsible for all of the breakthroughs that we’ve made.” But in the name of decency, what does that mean that we owe to her family? Literally billions of dollars have been made thanks to Henrietta Lacks’ cells. Her family has never seen any of it. It may surprise you not at all to know that Henrietta Lacks is a black woman. And it never occurred to anybody to even think to say that this person should be consulted.
And again this is a wide medical practice. So ethnicity might have nothing to do with it here. But we can also point to the Tuskegee syphilis trials, wherein over a hundred black men with syphilis at various stages were basically allowed to just keep havin’ syphilis and then go about their lives, to see what would happen. Because we’d never had a population of untreated syphilis to study the long-term effects before. We’d never seen it. And here was one. We also did this in Guatemala. We actually like, gave people syphilis in Guatemala to study that.
We look at certain groups and certain populations of people as better or worse. As more or less suited. As more or less deserving of our regard. Of being informed and of seeking their consent. And this is as a result of these kinds of interplays of again racism, ableism, the notions of who is the right kind of person. The “right kind” of person stands and uses their legs. The “right kind” of person fits within Western society in a particular way defined by roles of gender and roles of ethnicity. The “right kind” of person uses their eyes in this way or that way. The “right kind” of person uses their ears. Uses all of their senses. Uses their body. Engages the world physically in a “right kind” of way.
And so the tech that we use, the tech that we create, tends to be interventions to fit that assumed right kind of living. Natalie Kane wrote an essay called “‘Means Well’ Technology.” This idea that we create tech. And when we create these things we mean well. We create the Internet of Things to try to make our gadgets more accessible to us, to try to make them more connected, to give more data and more functionality, and we mean well. We create biomedical interventions, and we mean well.
But what we mean well and what we do well are different things. Because what they end up doing is playing out in ways completely other than the designers intend. Our normalization of tech is not really ever precisely in line with the designer’s intention for the long-term use of tech. And so, though we may mean well, what ends up happening is that those usages fall down in the face of actual lived experiences.
The Internet of Things, we find, is, though it means well, porous, hackable, broken on a number of levels. And so thought we meant well by creating a WiFi-enabled pacemaker that a doctor could check on the status of at any time and know how a patient’s heart was doing… That’s brilliant, right? All you need is to be near a WiFi connection and your doctor can know how you’re doing. Except if you forget to put a firewall or any kind of safeguards on it, then I can overclock your heart, and literally give you a heart attack from keyboard.
We meant well to have driver-assistive technologies within Jeeps and other cars. But when we forget that the connections between the radio signals in the actual radio and the radio signals that govern the WiFi boards in the car and the driver-assistive technologies… Yeah, they’re not separated. Then I can hack your radio and drive your car.
The way that we make use of these things, the things that we think of, the implications that we play out, they need to be more comprehensive. We need to get better on the whole at thinking about what it actually means to create these interventions. Looking against Locke, one of the main things that we have to think about is the fact that this kind of empirical experience, this knowledge of things from the outside like their primary and secondary qualities, specifically forbids knowledge via lived experience. Which seems somewhat paradoxical, right? We’re saying, “I have to experience that desk in order to know anything about it,” right? But there’s a difference between saying that I have to experience that desk, and that what I am has to experience what that desk is.
Locke says there’s an objective reality that is that desk. It has primary and secondary qualities and we can come to know about its secondary qualities through its primary qualities. And what you experience and what I experience will be the same thing. We will learn the same thing about that desk. Because there’s an objective truth about it.
If you are from a particular part of the world, particular parts of the South American jungle or African jungles, around Congo areas, native tribes in those areas, that desk and the one behind it will not be “blue desk” and “green desk.” They will be the same word for that color. Because there is no difference in those colors for those people. The lived experience of what that color is is “shade of same color.” Just like for you this (my tie) is a different shade of this (my suit). They’re both plays on gray of some kind.
But for you and I, in our experience, our lived reality, the society in which we live, the words that we use, the language that we deploy to talk about reality, to talk about the world, that’s blue and that’s green. That’s kind of a sky/baby blue, and that’s kind of a mint green. We have specific words for the differentiation of these realities. And it changes how we think about them. It changes how we engage them. I would arrange a room completely differently if I was using those two colors and I had to play off of the interior design of those things. And that’s me with like no background in art. For somebody who’s entire lived experience is about color, the differentiation of hue and shade and tone, brightness, it’s going to get even deeper than that.
So lived experience; who I am, how I intersect with the world, how I engage the world, matters for what I would do with the world, what I will learn from the world. And what that knowledge that I gain will be able to reproduce for others. If I live in the world a particular way, if I learn certain things as a result of how I live in the world, then what I do with that is going to be different from your productions of knowledge. How you think, what you think, why you think that way. My embodiment and my lived experience are crucial. They exist as this interplay of my personal self, my lived identity, and my social identity. Because how you see me and how you categorize me will change what you do in relation to myself. And how I see myself how you see myself will shape and mold each other.
So these notions of identity, selfhood, mind, the extension and the modulation and manipulation of self, all of these things change how we think about ourselves and how society thinks of us. Going back to Ashley Shew, she told me another story about a friend of hers who had a hemipelvectomy, which means that half of their pelvis was removed. And so as a result they don’t have use of one of their legs. It’s not there anymore. They use, depending, either a wheelchair or crutches. The reasons that they’ll use either a wheelchair or crutches, for themselves, are more about what they have to do that day. What it is that is actually before them as tasks to accomplish in that day. And what kind of mode of existing will be required in order to do them.
But the way that everyone else in the world engages them, depending on which of these modes they use, is strikingly different. If they’re in a wheelchair, people generally treat them as close to normal as anybody in a wheelchair ever really gets treated. But if they’re on the crutches, people treat them like they’re recovering from something. She’s been using these technologies for eighteen years. That’s as recovered as they’re ever going to get. But if someone sees you on crutches they think, “Oh, that’s a temporary intervention. That’s something that’s for now.” They see you in a wheelchair, that’s forever in their mind. That’s just how that’s going to be for you from now on.
And so the last thing I kinda want to think about here is again this kind of social and personal interplay of identity. For a person in a wheelchair, that wheelchair is an extension of themselves. It is how they engage the world. It is a mechanism by which and through which they engage the world. For a person with a prosthetic limb the same is true. And so to seek to change that for them, without consulting them, is as much as if I were to say to you, “I’m going to cut your arm off and give you a better arm. Why do you use these dumb arms? They’re flappy and meaty and kind of generally weak. Let’s have this whole new thing over here. It’s made of carbon fiber. It’s ridiculously strong. It can lift at least three times as much as your current arms can lift. Let’s just get rid of those old arms and pop some new ones on you. Let’s just do this.”
Our sense of self, for most of us, is bound up very much in how we are embodied in the world. This goes back to the Ship of Theseus problems in philosophy, this notion that if I remove parts of a thing and slowly repair them, is it still the same thing? The Ship of Theseus—Theseus the Greek hero traveling around the Mediterranean Sea—loses a board. If we replace the board is it the same ship? If I replace the sail because it got a tear in it, is it the same ship? If I replace the masthead, I replace the steering wheel, I replace the rudder, I replace the hull. How much do I have to replace on the ship until it’s not the same ship anymore?
The problem is that for most of us, if it happened slow enough over a long enough period of time, it’s never not the same ship. But if I [snapss fingers] burn that ship to the ground and rebuild a new ship in the same shape and the same place where that ship used to stand, that’s suddenly a brand new ship to you. Even if at the end of the day I replaced exactly as many boards, nails, pieces, and components, either way.
The way we think about ourselves, the things that we replace, the things that we repair, the way that adapt to the changes in our functionality. There is no singular right way to do this. No singular right way for our bodies to be. No baseline, particular, specific human function that needs fixing to. And if we’re going to create interventions, assistive technologies, to help people with disabilities, then perhaps we should actually ask them what they want and need. Thank you.
Questions, comments? Thoughts and concerns? Ari.
Ari: So I know one of the things that you explore a bit and we were talking about before you started your talk is this idea of selfhood. And I wondered if you could talk about that a bit more, especially as it has do with some of the new types of technologies that are out there. Because I know one of the things that philosophers look at a lot is kind of where do you draw the line? And how do you make that decision? Things like that. And even though you make a lot of points in here about the ways that the creation of new technologies without consulting the people who would actually use those technologies, the way that’s dangerous, there’s also the reality that there are these new technologies and some of them are radically altering the way people engage with the world and the way others perceive them. And where where does that line get drawn? Are there certain examples that philosophers of medical ethics have started looking at and saying “this is dangerous” or “this is really cool?” What’s going on in the field in that regard right now? Sorry that was multiple questions.
Williams: It’s okay. It’s a lot to play with. There is this notion of this question of selfhood and this you know, “what is the line of me vs. not-me.” And that’s kind of where I was getting at with the Ship of Theseus question. If I replace my arm with a cyborg arm, am I still me? How much of me can I replace how quickly before you don’t think of me anymore?
But at the same time, as you said, there are these technological interventions that are happening to all of us, right now, without our consent and without our direct input one way or the other. So there’s a specific way in which this question isn’t really limited to people with disabilities so much as a question of how technology gets applied and deployed. We didn’t ask, we didn’t have input, on whether CRISPR/Cas9 tech was going to be widely deployed within the field of biomedical research, and yet here we are right now. There’s the ability to really very quickly edit gene lines and do all kinds of things that were honestly about fifteen months ago science-fictional.
We can make hybrids in biology that seemed like they were never ever ever going to be to real or actual. And that’s a thing that we all live with in the world now. That’s something that is true for all of us and it changes a number of things about how we engage the world. Am I still myself if somebody can take CRISPR tech and make a clone of me, but not just a clone of me, like a clone of me that’s part cheetah. Like, is that in any real way me? Is that what makes me me? Is that just an abomination? What do we call that, you know? How do we get to the sense of what is a self?
And the fact of it is is that there are wildly competing ideas as to what makes a self a self. If there even is such a thing as a self to begin with. Some people, theorists like Daniel Dennett, don’t believe that the self is a real thing per se. He believe that there’s a thing called the self but that this is this kind of epiphenomenal occurrence. It basically arises out of this interplay of factors and features, and what we are (so much as we are) is the physical stuff of us. So, if that physical stuff of us remains moderately unchanged, or changed with enough of an ability to recognize that change and the direction of that change, then it’s still us.
But by that same token, anything that could replicate that change, and anything that could replicate that existence and that change over time, and the recognition of that change, would also be us. So that becomes the question of if I can place everything that you are, everything that you know, everything that you think, into another form of you, biological or perhaps digital, is it you? If it still has Ari’s memories, Ari’s reactions to things, you ask the digital Ari, “Hey, we’re going to go grab a snack. What do you want?” and it gives the exact same reaction as Biological Ari would give, are they the same person?
What if the whole thing that is Digital Ari is fed by the constant stream of input and feeling and response as biological Ari has and in fact Digital Ari is a memory repository because Biological Ari has problems with memory, let’s say. You lose the ability to remember things with this [indicates brain]. So we create an outboard digital memory for you. It has your responses, your knowledge, everything you’ve ever done. Is it you?
Many many people will say “absolutely not! Never you. Just a box with some stuff going on in it.” But I don’t necessarily agree with the response that could be given that says that that’s all we are anyway. But it is a response. It is something that we have to consider. But what I am is a collection of biological responses so far as things we can point out that I am. You want to get into the question of the notion of a non-physical soul or a spirit, it’s a different question. But for things I can point at that I am, things that make me up… A lot of electricity floating through meat, water, and fat. And those intersections and interactions give rise, complexly, sometimes ineffably, to this. If I can somehow manage to know that well enough to reproduce it, how is that not then also me?
Doesn’t get as fully at the heart of your question as I would like but that’s because it is still a wide-ranging and weird question to address at all. We flail at it, a lot. We see that there is something there to be asked and something to be considered but we don’t have the full range to kind of wrap our everything around it, you know.
Insofar as specific tech that’s out there that’s being deployed or being engaged with in this way, CRISPR is one of them that’s going to be something that is challenging for our notions of selfhood, our notions of personhood. If I can make a biological chimera out of you and several other creatures, is it a person? Does it deserve consideration under ethics, rights, personhood, legal considerations? People realized that they could create chimeric embryos. They could basically take DNA, replicate it, modulate just enough to bring it further along in its development than our current embryonic stem cell research allows for. But because they’re not technically human they can do more with them as long as they don’t reach what’s I believe the fourteen-week mark. Because for embryonic stem cell research, when you hit the fourteen-week mark of gestating or incubating an embryo, that’s the point at which we start to think about things like pain, brain activity, and personhood.
Mostly for the chimeric embryos, there’s that as well, but it’s because we don’t want to have to think about those other questions like personhood. Like if we allowed one of these to come to term, if we allow it to be implanted, born, what is it then? Is it a person? And then we get into the question of designer embryos and all kinds of stuff like that.
Ari: Yeah, I was just going to do a quick follow-up to add on to what you were saying that when was it in the 1970s? I think the late 1970s, when they were starting to figure out how to successfully do IVF, in vitro fertilizations, the same questions were happening. Would a child conceived through, would a fetus created through in vitro fertilization, when it was gestated and born be a human? And it’s interesting how much we’ve normalized that now.
So the thing I was thinking as you were talking about chimeras and stuff is like, oh! is it just a matter of once we figure out how to do this we’re going to normalize it really quickly—
Williams: Almost certainly.
Ari: —and have an eighteen-month reversal where we’re like oh, we started out like “This is terrible!” and by the end it’s like, “Hey, here’s my cat-human friend.”
Williams: Right. That’s pretty much exactly— I mean, if past performance is any indication of future behavior, then yes. That’s not to say that it definitely is, but it’s how most of our technological engagement has gone. If it has gotten widespread enough to be introduced to the mainstream consciousness at all, then at some point it becomes a part of our lives. It becomes normal. Like it used to be, as you said, that IVF tech was radically just railed against from all corners from people who said, “How dare you make these abominations?” People on the religious right who were like, “You can’t play God. You can’t create people like that. It’s unnatural.” People who were like, “Those aren’t really people. IVF babies are fake humans.” All kinds of stuff.
And now, IVF is not only accepted by all corners, it’s embraced and endorsed by many on the religious right who want people to be having more babies. People who believe that it’s a human responsibility to have as many children as possible. By all kinds of people who otherwise, again just thirty, forty years ago, were completely against it.
And now we look at it and we say, “Yeah okay. Oh, I had baby. I had to have fertility drugs and I had to go through a process and did IVF,” and it’s like, “Oh, that must’ve been rough. I hear those hormones can be a little intense.” That’s really all we ever say to anybody about that kind of thing. It’s not, “Oh God. Don’t you feel weird having a fake baby?” That’s not a question we would ask. It’s just a baby. We had to use some tech to have it.
You had your hand up.
Audience 2: I’m going to ask you after, I feel like it’s…not appropriate.
Williams: Fair enough. We’ll go with that for now. Intrigued, but we’ll move on. Anybody else?
Audience 3: I have sort of an idea, but it sort of seems like we submit to this technology, and I know we talked about like normalization and things like that. But it’s sort of like it just compels us, like we can’t stop but continuing to create, and I don’t know how you feel about that [?]
Williams: This is going to be kind of a just-so story. Are you guys familiar with the idea of just-so stories? The idea that… It was Rudyard Kipling who puts forward the just-so story. We tell a story that fits the thing that we see, and that story will get us to that point. Just-so stories like how the elephant got its long trunk and how the tiger got its stripes. And we make up a story that fits the end point. So this is going to be kind of a just-so story for this, but it’s from an anthropological and biological status.
Humans as a species are terrified of change, because change might mean that we are about to get eaten. But once a change has proven, to our species, beneficial, we are very adaptable and quick to integrate it. So first, Thing is new and scary; might kill us all; might be a cheetah in the bushes; might devour us. Not a cheetah in the bushes; actually, really delicious gazelle in the bushes. Hey everybody, those bushes have gazelles in them. Everybody go to those bushes.
That’s generally how humans as a species work. If a thing is not deadly to us, if it is in fact entertaining, if it’s enriching, if it makes our lives what we think of as better and easier, if it eliminates some element of having to think about a thing or worry about a thing or do something, then we latch onto it very easily. We flock to it.
And then, once we see that others have flocked to it, we then follow. Because that thing might be great. That thing must be amazing, because so many people are flocking to it. So many people are using it. I must be missing out on something. So let’s everybody go over here to these bushes because there’s gazelles over here. Let’s everybody get an iPhone 7 because it’s an iPhone 7. I mean, who cares it doesn’t have a headphone jack and that on the whole it’s not exactly an improvement in functionality in any real meaningful way. But, it’s the iPhone 7 and everybody seems to be having a really great time with it.
Once the tech is there and once it has proven not to actually kill us all, we get pretty used to the idea of it. And we start to embrace and accept it.
Audience 4: That reminds me of microwaves. I lived in the pre-microwave era. I remember my son was probably just born, and they came out, and everyone was like, “We’re all gonna die.”
Williams: We’re putting radiation in our homes!
Audience 4: Thought they were just gonna kill everybody. And now, who doesn’t have a microwave? Everybody does.
Audience 5: I don’t have a microwave.
Williams: You don’t have a microwave? Interesting.
Audience 5: My brother’s worried. He won’t allow one in his house. So yeah I know. There’s certain people…
Williams: “There’s radiation that comes from this box, why would you put that near you,” was the response to microwaves.
Audience 4: It was.
Williams: When really all microwave radiation is, unless you are in it, is a way to excite molecules to a high state. It boils things. That’s really all a microwave does, it boils things. Don’t be in it and you’ll be okay. Don’t be in the path of it and you’ll be fine. Once it has been microwaved, there’s no lingering radiation. There’s nothing that lasts about microwave radiation. And yet, it terrified us.
Audience 4: They made a big deal out of it—
Williams: Huge deal. And that’s the way it is with a whole, whole lot of things, and again it’s the nature of how we do tech. And so once we gets past that threshold of “it’s terrifying,” then that you know, “but wait it actually makes our lives ridiculously easy and it doesn’t actually kill me. So let’s everybody do this,” becomes the thing that follows very shortly after. We like pattern. We like predictability. We like ease. And so that’s basically my just-so story about how the two sides of that play out for us. Maybe it’s not exactly precisely the way it is, but these two factors rule a lot of how we behave.
Ari: So when we talk about the way that we normalize technology, and I’m thinking specifically of human augmentative technologies, how we normalize them so much that they do become parts of our sense of selfhood, right? And that in a lot of ways that’s kind of accepted, but in a lot of ways it’s not, too. Like when I think about disability and technology, what I often see is a kind of struggle over how much it’s a part of oneself that should be acceptable or not.
I’m thinking for instance of the controversies that have happened with several runners who use prosthetic legs. Should they be able to compete with fully-legged people? So it seems like there’s kind of this paradox that happens, that on the one hand it’s so much a part of ourselves that we don’t think of it and it’s very accepted as a part of ourselves. But on the other hand like, no that is not a part of yourself. Is that right?
Williams: I think that there is that tension, there is that kind of dichotomy in that yeah… Oscar Pistorius, who was referred to as “Blade Runner” before the murder trial in South Africa; he shot his girlfriend.
Ari: And there’s another new runner.
Williams: I haven’t heard about the new runner. Amy… [Aimee Mullins] I cannot remember her last name and it’s bothering me. But she did a series of talks where she talks about the fact that her legs and her prostheses in many ways act as not just assistive and augmentive tech but they act as basically…they put her over and above “normal” human functioning. She can change her height. She can change her speed. She can change basically anything about her, in terms of the functionality of her body, by changing her legs.
And that’s something that me, with my stupid biological meat legs, I don’t get that option. I don’t get to choose how tall I am day to day. I don’t get to choose how fast I am, how strong my legs are. I don’t get to choose whether I can make a new set of legs to fit a particular outfit that I want to be wearing. That’s not a thing that I get. I get these legs and they do what they do. And I can maybe make them stronger if I feel like taking some time and putting some effort into it. It’ll take me a couple weeks. Sure, I can get better (“better”), but it’s not the same.
And so once we see that— And this is something that I’ve thought about quite a lot. We have this problem not just with the “is that you?” but the “are you better?” If I make you “better” than a “normal” human, is that okay? Is that acceptable? Is that allowable?
If I—and again, we always come back around because we think about the normalization of these technologies. If I as a person with an ostensibly fully-functional body decide that I don’t like my stupid meat legs and I want the ability to change my height and change my speed and change my strength, so I’m just going to cut these off and I’m just going to get prosthetics, is that acceptable? If I can make myself faster. Like, I don’t feel like training. I don’t feel like putting in time at the gym. I’m just going to cut these off, get some legs. It’ll take me a couple weeks to learn how to balance on them, sure. But I’ll get there. And them I’m going to be really really fast. And I’ll be faster than I ever could’ve been by training with these things. Did I do that? Did I achieve that speed, in a meaningful way?
And so that disconnect that we have between what our tech is and what it isn’t, how much of it is a part of us and how much of it is not a part of us, that is a tension that we don’t know how to deal with very well. It’s a thing where we think it’s not really you, even though it’s a part of you. Even though it is the thing that we give to you so you can be like “normal.” If you are then better than normal, then it wasn’t you, it was the tech. We get to this place where we… Again, these value judgments that we place on the kind of functioning our body can do. If I can make myself “better” than baseline without having to work for it, without having to “earn” it, then it’s not valid. It’s not meaningful, in a particular way.
If I, on the other hand, lose my legs in a horrifying car crash and I get them replaced with prosthetics, and I take the time to train, and I take the time to build up my abilities again, and then I run, well then I’m an inspiration. Then I’m a shining example of the triumph of the human spirit.
Audience 6: What about the overpromising of technology? So in the 70s when I was in high school, we were all going to be absolutely paperless by this point. No money…
Williams: Screens and computers forever.
Audience 6: Yeah. And I was thinking of this, an exoskeleton, okay that would work for a year. And you know, the computer would crash. You’d have to upgrade to the next exoskeleton, Exoskeleton 1.2, to fix all the bugs that were in 1.0.
Williams: Yeah, the bugs that “just happened to be there,” by the way, planned obsolescence being what it is in our society.
Audience 6: What about that overpromising of technology? Technology promises to solve all of society’s…
Williams: Absolutely. And we do that a lot. We do that in every vein. Like you said, the completely paperless society. We’ve talked about in our society having virtual reality that would completely revolutionize the way we saw and thought about the world. In fact that was something that was just around the corner since the 1980s and we’re only just now getting to something that’s even kind of maybe like that? And even then not really.
Yeah, technology overpromises all the time. It oversells. It overcompensates for what we think we need or what we think we want. One of the things that we do need to think about is the fact that yeah, eventually a piece of assistive technology is going to wear down. It’s going to wear out. And if that’s a prosthesis that I put on, that’s one thing. If that’s you know, Exoskeleton 1.5 comes out and I do need to get a new set, that’s another thing. It’s a bit more involved. I’ve got to learn some new things about it. But if that’s—
Audience 6: And you have to call the Geek Squad.
Williams: Right. Get them to get the bugs out, you know. But if we’re talking about not just things that I put on. If we’re talking about implants. And if we’re talking about things that are attached to my bones, my muscles, my nerve endings. If we’re talking about things that are my eyes, that are drilled into my bones behind my ears. Then as that wears down, as that wears out, it wears down and wears out inside of me. We’re going to need to think about what that means.
We’re already talking about somebody who has sustained damage to a particular area, which means that they’re already thinking about and we’re already thinking about how that particular bodily intersection works differently than it does on a “normal” person. Now you want to attach biomechanical, electric components to it? A lot of us is salt water, which is why implants of a baseline tech like a hip or pelvic replacement, a ball-and-socket joint, it took us years to develop the right kind of materials, to figure out what wouldn’t rust out inside of a human body. And now you want to put things that beep and boop in there? That’s going to be a different level of concern. So yeah, we need to be aware that no this isn’t necessarily going to solve everything. It is much more likely going to create new problems. And we need to be very very careful and aware of what they might be.
Audience 7: Yeah, to comment on that my mom had two sort of different situations where that type of thinking failed her. First it was, “Don’t get surgery on your back. We’re going to put plates and screws and such.” And that actually gave her nerve damage.
And then afterwards, like maybe ten years later, she had a pain pump installed. And it’s something so she wouldn’t have to take so many oral medications. So every two or three months we would go and she would get a shot and it would last for that long and it would be so she didn’t have to take as much.
But then it kind of got to the point where she had to have it replaced, but the surgery to replace it has a high mortality rate. And it would beep. Every two minutes it would “beep, beep.” […] I was like no, please don’t replace it because of you know, the side-effect of dying while just trying to replace it. So yeah, now she has to live with that in her. And just the idea that technology will evolve and then we’ll be like “oh yeah, you shouldn’t have done that.”
Williams: It’s like, “At the time we thought it was the absolute best thing we could’ve done.”
Audience 7: Yeah. And she was an RN so she trusted all the doctors saying “Oh, this is cutting edge,” for the first back surgery. And so it’s just kind of interesting. It made me also think about how technology evolves even just in our entertainment like TVs and before that 8-tracks and all these different things. And even the idea— One of my advisors that I worked with in my undergrad institution, she had her dissertation on a floppy disc? How can you even—
Williams: Where do you put that?
Audience 7: The idea that it’s always evolving out of…
Audience 6: You know, the floppy disc symbol is still on like Word when you save something. It’s still the floppy disc.
Williams: Yes. That’s our “save” icon.
Audience 6: That’s our “save” icon, yeah.
Williams: And we don’t even think about that fact. The fact that the iconography that we have come to accept— And that’s this weird paradox of all of this normalization, right? We’ve normalized and we’ve accepted, we’ve used as the symbol-for “save here, make this safe, make this somewhere that will be accessible forever,” a thing that we do not use and in fact unless you go through great specialized lengths, cannot use anymore.
How does that play out for us? Again, we get so inured to, so tied to these things, these ideas, these concepts, these symbols, that we will then take them and then we will apply them to things that don’t resemble them at all anymore.
Audience 6: Because we’e moved on. So fast.
Williams: Exactly. So in that same vein, the symbol for power on a computer. It is on the power button of literally every laptop, be it Mac or IBM PC-based. It is the power symbol. It is [writes on a white board] zero and one. It’s binary. You start on…off. This is a piece of symbolism, a piece of iconography that’s built out of the fundamental underlying component of the thing that makes our electronics work. And so when it was devised, “how do we show that this is the button that turns it on and off?” “Well, I mean everybody who’s using this is gonna know binary. So you just put a one and a zero on it and it’ll make perfect sense to them.” And here we are today, we all just learned a thing.
Audience 8: So the kids that are being born right now are going to be here in twenty-three years, and someone’s going to be, “The Save button, was a thing that you hold in your hand! Whoa!”
Williams: Right. Precisely that. Like, yes. Because we will be at that point so far removed from the idea of a floppy disk that the idea that it was yes, a thing that you hold, will be mind-blowing.
Technology moves fast. The way in which we intersect with it, the way that we use it, the way that we make use of it total, we adapt but we are always responsively adapting. We make changes and then we then run to catch up with those changes. And so so much of what we do is reactive. We’re like, “holy crap, we created this massive, huge piece of tech. We made this thing that can do all kinds of things. How do we deal with the things that it can do that we didn’t think it could do? How do we deal with our unintended consequences? How do we deal with these implications that we didn’t foresee?”
The only way I know that we are going to be able to really survive and thrive over time is to get better and faster at thinking about those implications, ahead of time. To think, before, as much as possible, “Hey, what might this do once it’s out in the world? How do people use things? How do people live with things? How do we engage these things?”
There’s a quote from William Gibson, a science fiction writer. He says, “The street finds its own uses for things.” The idea being that once a piece of technology hits ground level, once it’s actually in use by the general populace, you’ll find that it does things that its designers never ever…ever intended it to do. Never even conceived that it might do.
Audience 9: Phones are just selfie machines.
Williams: Right. Like the fact that this thing right here [indicates mobile phone] has a camera that you would literally have paid thousands of dollars for twenty years ago. This right here that I’m currently using to record our conversation, that I could look up the entire Internet on… This thing that fits in my pocket, this tiny black rectangle based off of the monolith from the movie 2001… Like, that thing has millions of times more processing power than the computer we used to get to the moon.
Audience 6: I know. Yeah, that’s crazy.
Williams: One of the—
Audience 6: Did you see that Hidden Figures movie?
Williams: Yes. Hidden Figures is beautiful.
Audience 6: After that, that’s crazy. We went to the moon~
Williams: We go to the moon with a piece of technology that by today’s standards is a calculator at best. It’s literally like, it’s not even like a TI-83 calculator. I’m talking it’s like one of those ones with like a solar panel strip on it.
Audience 6: And they had punch cards.
Audience 6: They had punch cards, yeah.
Williams: Right. And you had to have a human program and then check the punch cards, because we were still so unsure about whether that computer… Digital computer, sorry. The word “computer” originally references a human being. A living person. Whether the digital computer was actually doing the computing job correctly.
So, these things, these implications, the things that these change and become over time, we can’t foresee all of them. And that’s not to say that we should never ever again make any technological innovation because who knows what it might become. It is to say that we have to get better and faster at thinking about these things sooner and more completely and thoroughly. Because a general, understood truth about tech and us is that the faster we create it, the faster we adopt it, the faster we move towards creating the next thing. And that we’ve shown to be an exponential increase.
Audience 6: And that’s what Stephen Hawking says. Machines are going to kill us.
Williams: Well, he says machines are going to kill us because…he’s a little bit reactionary
Audience 6: Yes.
Williams: Love Dr. Hawking, no disrespect, but he’s a little bit reactionary when it comes to artificial intelligence. But the idea of Moore’s Law gives rise to transhumanist thinking, gives rise to what’s known as the the Singularity. This idea that at some point the speed and capability of our technology is going to be so small and so powerful that it will basically be the air we breathe and there will be no distinction between our technology and nature. Which, Moore’s Law is the idea that every eighteen months a processor gets twice as powerful and half as large. I can’t remember his first name, but he was working out of Xerox PARC and IBM and Intel. And he noticed that that’s about the pace of our increase and decrease when it comes to computer processors. Roughly every eighteen months, we make it twice as powerful, half as big.
Audience 6 My first computer was in 1981. I was the first person I knew that ever had one in the house. 64K…
Williams: Oh yeah! Sixty-four kilobytes, yeah!
Audience 6: We paid like $4,000 for it.
Audience 6: And we had a program disk. And it was a huge floppy disk.
Williams: Oh yeah, it was one of the five and a half inch ones?
Audience 6: Yes it was. You put the program disk in, you took it out, then you put a blank disk in for your data. Y’know So from 1981 till today, you see how that has changed.
Williams: This has 32 gigs of space on it. And that’s before I put in an expansion SD card that could bump it up to about 128.
Audience 6: There you go.
Williams: That’s roughly the size of my last laptop in terms of storage space. And the processor on here rivals that of my current laptop.
Audience 6: And it didn’t cost $4,000.
Williams: No it certainly did not. It was on special. I got it for about forty-five bucks. So.
We have to be very very cognizant, intentional, about how we engage the tech we make. Because as the saying goes, life moves pretty fast. We have to be able to see it. We have to be able to look at what’s going on. And we have to be able to do it while also in motion.
Audience 6: I don’t think we had email or the Internet back then.
Williams: No. We didn’t get Internet and email widespread until…1988… And then that was mostly message boards, BBSes.
Audience 6: Compuserve.
Williams: Compuserve. Ah, Compuserve Online. And then…
Audience 6: AOL.
Williams: Then, AOL comes along. And AOL democratizes the Internet for everybody. For better and worse.
Audience 6: You didn’t know you were going to get technological history along with—
Williams: Yeah. I’m full service. I do philosophy, tech, tech history, science. A little bit of everything.
Audience 6: It moves fast.
Williams: It does, it has, and it will continue to do so. Like I said, I think we’re we’re going to keep moving faster and faster, and we’re going to have to get better and better at moving faster and faster.
Other thoughts, comments, questions?
Audience 10: When you were talking about cutting off your stupid meat legs, what’s the difference between that, which is like it makes your legs better, and getting like I don’t know…liposuction or fake boobs, like breast implants?
Audience 10: These are new and improved, and they’re nice, and they stand up and they’re wonderful. But I feel like there wouldn’t be as much skepticism or controversy, when someone’s like…
Williams: There wouldn’t. That kind of cosmetic surgery, that kind of cosmetic augmentation, we have completely normalized. There was definitely a time in the not-too-distant past where those interventions were seen as completely shocking. Why would you choose to do this to yourself? Unless it was medically necessary, why would you have surgery of this type on yourself, is how those things were seen as recently as the early 90s.
And now, if somebody wants to get breast augmentation or reduction surgery, if they want to get liposuction, if they want to get a new nose, if they want to get their eyes a different shape, whatever. You look at those things as…okay, it seems weird but whatever. Do whatever you want it. It’s yours. It’s your body, do what you want with it. And that, again we see that as completely run of the mill. Any day of the week there’s thousands of people getting that stuff done right, right now.
Audience 10: Maybe in like 2040.
Williams: Who knows? Roughly 2040 we’re like eh, this arm’s worn out. Doesn’t work like I want it to. Just get rid of it. Take it. Throw it over that way. Give me a new one.
Ari: Well as you pointed out, people already do that with their joints.
Ari: Right? I mean, people get hip replacements, knee replacements…
Williams: Elbow replacements.
Ari: And they do it, incredibly, because like, “Oh, I can ski anymore.”
Williams: Right. It’s like, “I can’t dance like I used to.” And I’m like, o…kay.
Ari: You’re 70, and thats what happens.
Williams: Right. And that’s how that goes. That’s like, the human body, it does that. But here we are. And so to that point, we have to also think about the other question, and this is something that we kind of dance around the whole time, which is the superficiality question. If it looks different than you, how much more likely are we to say that it’s not you? If you hip replacement’s internal, I’m not seeing your hip replacement. I don’t think about that as not you because that’s in here and unless I’ve got an x-ray machine I’m not going to know that.
If you literally cut off your hand and replace it with a very obviously nonhuman hand, if you lose an arm in an accident and your prosthesis is very clearly a biomechanical augmentation, then that’s something I see. That’s something I engage with all the time. And it’s shocking to me. It’s shocking to us. That comes back around to that intersection of self and society. If I see that you decide to change your nose. If I see you decide that you want your ears to do a different thing. Even so far as altering your hair. That’s something that I see but it’s something that we have come to expect. It’s something that we have come to—within the range of normal human ability and behavior, that is okay. But that’s your leg. That’s your normal, supposedly totally okay leg. Why would you cut it off?
But what if the response is that it’s not normally totally okay, to you? What if you don’t feel that kind of sympathy and comfort within your own body? And that in order to do, to reclaim that, you need to take what others might see as a drastic measure? In order to be what you think you ought to be. In order to be what you think you should be. You need to take steps. Is that okay? “Will that ever be seen as okay,” is a more difficult question.
My instinct is to say definitely obviously yes. But to watch it actually play out, again we’re kind of bad at predicting exactly how these kinds of things impact us, long-term. So, maybe 2040? Maybe never. Maybe five years from now.
Ari: Should we call it?
Williams: Yeah, we’re running up on two hours, actually.
Ari: You’ve been standing up there on your meat legs for a while.
Williams: My meat legs are used to it. I do this for a living.
Ari: Thank you so much.
Williams: Thank you. Thank you all very much. I appreciate it.