Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Technological and Social Change

Technology has always fascinated me. I vividly recall being a sick child in 1969, the year the Mets won the World Series with my favorite player, Tom Seaver, leading the team. What I remember the most was listening to the games on the radio. Unlike today, in 1969 the World Series was played during the day. Kids had access to the latest information and scores. I have particularly vivid memories of the 1969 World Series because of technology. My father knew I loved the Mets, had memorized the stats of most players, and had a baseball card for each man on the team. He wanted me to feel connected to the games and I suspect distract me from my illness and the pain I was experiencing. To this end, he bought one of the first small transistor radios on the market. The radio could fit in the palm of my hand, truly a technological marvel, and within a day my hospital bed became the command center for the latest information on the World Series. Doctors, nurses, and workers from all over the hospital would stop by the ward and ask "what's the score". Some would ask to look at the radio and shake their head in wonder. I felt like the most important person in the world.

Not much has changed since 1969. We Americans love technology. We have embraced technology with gusto. When a problem arises we invariably seek a technological solution. Doubt me and simply observe college students or teenagers who cannot function without a cell phone, internet access, and text messages. This is not a critique but basic observation about how they access information and problem solve. While technology is wonderful and enhances our lives in a myriad of ways anthropologists have long observed that technological change takes places before social change. For example, the introduction of the washing machine reduced the labor for many women in the household but did not create gender equality. Gender equality has improved greatly but we are still far from true equality. The same can be said for people with disabilities--we are far from equal but have been empowered by technological advances. For example, I have witnessed a veritable revolution in wheelchair technology that has been driven by the bicycle industry. Carbon fiber wheelchair frames and quick release wheels are routinely used. Adaptive sports gear abounds and my life has been improved as a result. But I firmly believe our struggle for equality is not an issue of technology but one of social bigotry. Thus I have mixed feeling when I finish articles like the one I just read in Scientific American about the robotics involved in creating a "smart wheelchair". John Spletzer, an associate professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Lehigh University is building on his work in with autonomous vehicles to create "smart wheelchairs". The wheelchairs Spletzer is designing use artificial intelligence, lasers, sensors, and mapping software technology to operate and navigate power wheelchairs. The prototype wheelchair can navigate sidewalks, parking lots and outdoor areas. The last accomplishment, outdoor areas, impressed me as did a quote from Spletzer: "My work aims to push the envelope in wheelchair autonomy. It will not be limited to structured indoor environments. Instead, it investigates the much more difficult problem of autonomous operations in unstructured environments outdoors".

I have no doubt Spletzer's so called "smart wheelchair" is on the cutting edge of technology. I wish him well but hope he is attuned to the fact most people with a disability do not have significant financial resources. And if I have learned one thing about contemporary technology it is expensive--very expensive. Time will tell if Spletzer's invention will be commercially viable and this is where society fits in the picture. There is a demand, need, for such a technologically advanced wheelchair. In fact millions of people could benefit. But do we as a society value the people that could utilize this technology. In a word, no. Previous examples of technologically advanced wheelchairs have all failed. They did not fail because they were not needed but rather insurance companies balked at the price and refused to purchase them. Why empower a person with a disability with a wheelchair that costs thousands of dollars when one that costs a few hundred dollars will suffice. This is a social problem that must be addressed and cannot be solved by technology. Spletzer's overall goal, "unprecedented levels of autonomy", is admirable but the barriers to equality are deeply rooted in the way society perceives people with a disability. Society may love technology but is socially selective in how it is utilized. Sadly, everything I have experienced in the last thirty years leads me to conclude society does not think we people with a disability are worth the expenditure. Expensive technology is better of being utilized elsewhere. This may be wrong and may over time change but is the world I live in.


emma said...

Disheartening is the word. In other areas of technology - I also know many people who have been turned down communications devices, or even assessment for one, on the basis of "he/she can communicate his needs, he doesn't need a device". For someone to have the power to decide what a persons "communication needs" are, is simply frightening.

william Peace said...

Emma, The number of people denied needed adaptive equipment is vast as are the conditions they have. Amputees denied appropriate prosthetics, SCI people given a grossly inadequate wheelchair, and the list goes on and on. The answer is not be found in increasing technological complexity but in the social structure and the way we perceive using such technology. What we need is a social revolution.

Matthew Smith said...

Hi there,

I thought you might be interested in this article by my friend Kimberley, regarding the term "wheelchair bound" and her relationship with hers (she doesn't mention how she fell out of love with her first Quickie, though). I mentioned her in that discussion and, well, here she is.

william Peace said...

Matthew, Thanks for the link. Most people I know who use a wheelchair and are remotely familiar with disability rights hate the term "wheelchair bound". I for one find it offensive. The relationship for lack of a better word one has with a wheelchair is complex. Color and function are important. On an odd note my son asked me a few months ago what should he do with my wheelchair when I die. I did not know how to reply.

Matthew Smith said...

On an odd note my son asked me a few months ago what should he do with my wheelchair when I die. I did not know how to reply.

Find it a good home! I'm sure there's someone out there who's about your size and needs a wheelchair, and can't afford however much you paid for it (I know Kim paid over $3,000 for hers in 2007).

william Peace said...

Matthew, Yes, a good home is the correct answer. Wheelchairs are grossly overpriced and poorly constructed. Mine is made by a motorcycle guy who left the wheelchair industry 25 years ago. The frames last 15-17 years and bearings and wheels are changed yearly.