Platypus blog post

The Com­mit­tee for the Anthro­pol­o­gy of Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy & Com­put­ing (CASTAC) and Rebekah Cul­pit kind­ly gave me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to write a piece for Platy­pus (the CASTAC blog).
Titled “Becom­ing More Capa­ble”, the blog post sketch­es out some of the ear­ly ideas I’ve been think­ing with in con­nec­tion to dis/ability. Specif­i­cal­ly, it takes up a gen­er­a­tive (fem­i­nist inspired) posi­tion, that under­stands capa­bil­i­ty as col­lec­tive­ly achieved, as a ‘becom­ing-with’. The Platy­pus post is here, or see a longer un-edit­ed ver­sion below.

We need to exer­cise the imag­i­na­tion in order to elbow away at the con­di­tions of im/possibility.

Ingunn Moser & John Law (1999: 174)

What is it to be capa­ble? How might we elbow away the con­di­tions that lim­it abil­i­ty, to become more capable?
In this short piece, I take seri­ous­ly Rebekah’s invi­ta­tion to account for “dif­fer­ent ways of doing, act­ing, and liv­ing in the world”. The anthro­po­log­i­cal imper­a­tive to “take into account dif­fer­ence” and con­sid­er how objects “inter­sect with social worlds, imag­i­nar­ies and emer­gent social prac­tices” speaks to my ongo­ing efforts to engage, pro­duc­tive­ly, with the long and trou­bled rela­tion­ship between tech­nol­o­gy and dis/ability. Specif­i­cal­ly, it res­onates with work I’ve been under­tak­ing that asks what, if any­thing, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) might offer the blind and vision impaired.
What I want to do in the fol­low­ing is give some space to an idea of capa­bil­i­ty that I’ve found espe­cial­ly gen­er­a­tive in rethink­ing this pair­ing of abil­i­ty and tech­nol­o­gy, and in ask­ing what AI could be good for. I find works like that of Shree­harsh Kelkar’s (pub­lished on the CASTAC blog) to be valu­able here in crit­i­cal­ly exam­in­ing what AI intro­duces to the technso­cial assem­blages of work, enter­tain­ment and leisure, and the bound­aries enact­ed in/through such fig­ur­ings. Like Shree­harsh, I hes­i­tate to define, again, what counts as AI. Turn­ing things around, my con­cern is for a capa­bil­i­ty that is achieved with oth­ers, and what the pos­si­bil­i­ty of becom­ing capa­ble togeth­er might mean for design­ing AI-with-dis­/a­bil­i­ty differently.
Think­ing with dis/ability, I’ve found myself return­ing to a mix­ture of writ­ings in dis­abil­i­ty stud­ies, sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy stud­ies (STS), and fem­i­nist techno­science. I’ve drawn par­tic­u­lar inspi­ra­tion from Charles Good­win and Ingunn Moser who have, in dif­fer­ent ways, pro­vid­ed exam­ples of the care­ful study of prac­tice; both show a com­mit­ment to dis­rupt­ing those sed­i­ment­ed “dis­tri­b­u­tions of pow­er and agency” which seem to come too eas­i­ly when work­ing with dis/ability (Moser 2005: 667). Also, offer­ing a some­what tan­gen­tial per­spec­tive have been Don­na Haraway’s writ­ings and Vin­ciane Despret’s man­i­fold accounts of ani­mals. I’m con­scious Har­away and Despret may seem pecu­liar ref­er­ence points with their shared con­cerns for speculative/science fic­tions and sto­ries with com­pan­ion species, and I’m sen­si­tive to what may appear to be the prob­lem­at­ic con­nec­tions I am draw­ing between such ‘fab­u­la­tions’ and human dis/ability. How­ev­er, my inten­tion here is not to insist on direct par­al­lels but to use the pro­duc­tive and uplift­ing works of Har­away and Despret to intro­duce a dif­fer­ent point of view and, I hope, new ques­tions around capability.
With this back­drop, the first thing to say is that the com­mon­ly referred to deficit mod­el in dis­abil­i­ty stud­ies presents an espe­cial­ly wor­ry­ing ver­sion of capa­bil­i­ty. This ver­sion places the indi­vid­ual along a spec­trum of abil­i­ty, where what he or she can or can­not do defines them as more or less capa­ble. Thus, blind­ness and vision impair­ment are indica­tive of an absence of abil­i­ty. Worse still, if being human is defined some­how by a set of pre-defined abil­i­ties that con­sti­tute a ‘pro­to­typ­i­cal body’, then an absence of some sort or anoth­er con­jures up the image of an actor who is less-than-human.
It’s this ver­sion of capa­bil­i­ty that Charles Good­win trou­bles so con­vinc­ing­ly in his care­ful analy­sis of the con­ver­sa­tions between an apha­sic man, Chil, and his fam­i­ly. Chil has only three words in his vocab­u­lary, ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘and’. In a ‘for­mal lin­guis­tics’, Good­win argues, Chil, with such a lim­it­ed reper­toire of words, “might seem an atyp­i­cal, mar­gin­al fig­ure for the study of human lan­guage, a defec­tive actor who can be eas­i­ly ignored with­out the­o­ret­i­cal loss” (2004: 152). The “psy­cho­log­i­cal and neu­ro­log­i­cal struc­tures nec­es­sary for lin­guis­tic com­pe­tence are to be found” in the “men­tal life” of the speak­er, and thus Chil is defined by a bod­i­ly absence, an indi­vid­ual deficit (2004: 153).
How­ev­er, in actu­al talk, Chil shows him­self to be a com­pe­tent and adept con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. Good­win details how com­mu­nica­tive fea­tures such as ‘non­sense’ syl­la­ble use, prosody, into­na­tion and turn tak­ing, and inter­ac­tion­al, embod­ied resources like gaze and pos­ture, are used by Chil to not just par­tic­i­pate in ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al talk, but ini­ti­ate and direct such talk himself.
The trou­ble with the deficit mod­el of dis/ability then is it presents a ver­sion of capa­bil­i­ty that pre­sumes a ‘nor­mal’ human, and a devi­a­tion or absence of some abil­i­ty, such as a lim­it­ed lex­i­con, to be an indi­ca­tion of a “defec­tive actor”. Yet this cap­tures noth­ing of the mutu­al accom­plish­ment of capa­bil­i­ty where such things as talk must be under­stood as an emerg­ing phe­nom­e­na, achieved in con­cert, with the involve­ment from oth­ers and a range of sit­u­a­tion­al resources in-action. You might say, with the deficit mod­el, capa­bil­i­ty is judged com­par­a­tive­ly, always against some notion­al nor­ma­tive fig­ure, always with an absence or lack of some­thing that detracts from a ‘pure’ or ‘gen­uine’ pres­ence in the world. No room is giv­en for capa­bil­i­ty as it is achieved: how we—all of us—might just come to be capa­ble in and through worlds strewn with ‘con­ti­nu­ities and dis­con­ti­nu­ities’, and through ‘good and bad pas­sages’ (Moser and Law 1999).
This takes me back to some­thing a field­work infor­mant, Jer­ry, told me. Com­par­ing how peo­ple ‘take in infor­ma­tion’ who have been blind from birth (as he has) with those who have recent­ly lost their vision, Jer­ry thought­ful­ly comments:

We have a shared method I sup­pose of tak­ing in infor­ma­tion… It’s not… I don’t have to spend that time imag­in­ing the visu­al switch… They refer to the world that they live in as being like liv­ing in a fog, you know, nothing’s very clear. But I nev­er had that feel­ing that my world is a fog. It’s the world.

I’m struck here by Jerry’s allu­sion to a world that is not for­ev­er placed in con­trast to anoth­er. The ‘shared method’ is about com­ing to be capa­ble, col­lec­tive­ly, about liv­ing a life not dom­i­nat­ed by a loss, a fog, but by being/becoming capa­ble in/with the world. Anoth­er infor­mant, Sarah, described some­thing sim­i­lar but in more con­crete terms:

I was quite young when I learnt to take oth­er cues. You know, people’s voice, what they sound like, how much they’re talk­ing, are they sud­den­ly real­ly qui­et [when] they’re nor­mal­ly real­ly chat­ty, that they’re just not quite them­selves. And quite often that’s an easy way. But! For exam­ple, the idea of catch­ing someone’s eye across the room, that’s a for­eign lan­guage to me. I just don’t even know what… I can in the­o­ry know what that means but in prac­tice even if your head is fac­ing towards me I don’t know who you’re talk­ing to necessarily.

For Sarah, a visu­al cue—catching someone’s eye—is for­eign, is oth­er world­ly; this could be used to high­light an absence in Sarah, the fog she lives in, a deficit in abil­i­ty. But to me it feels more gen­uine to say she has become capa­ble in/with a world that is oth­er-than-visu­al. Dis/ability and what ren­ders one more or less capa­ble is afford­ed through a con­tin­u­al attune­ment in a world with others.
Jerry’s and Sarah’s reflections—that say so much to me about worlds that are other-than-sighted—bring to mind two relat­ed threads of work. One is a mov­ing series of works from the artist Sophie Calle. In pho­tos, videos and sto­ries, Calle has peo­ple pon­der on colour (“La Couleur Aveu­gle”) and beau­ty (“Les Aveu­gles”), and first and last sights (“Pour La Dernière et Pour La Pre­mière Fois”). Not all of those peo­ple Calle col­lab­o­rates with are blind—some are see­ing things for the first time (“Voir la mer”)—but in each case the audi­ence is invit­ed to rethink the rela­tions between per­son, expe­ri­ence and sight, and imag­ine worlds that are more-than-sight­ed and active­ly brought into being.
A sec­ond relat­ed thread that reminds us of our active pres­ence in the world is one which res­onates with “the arts of fem­i­nist spec­u­la­tive fab­u­la­tion” (Har­away 2016) and pro­vides sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sions of capa­bil­i­ty to work with. In par­tic­u­lar, it brings to mind Don­na Haraway’s refig­ur­ings of human-machine entan­gle­ments and mul­ti-species com­pan­ion­ship, and also Vin­ciane Despret’s live­ly sto­ries with ani­mals. Har­away equips us with gen­er­a­tive ways of imag­in­ing worlds active­ly brought into being, of com­pos­ites of actors (of all kinds) defined not by “bound­ed util­i­tar­i­an indi­vid­u­al­ism” (Har­away 2016), but by becom­ing-with each other.

“Becom­ing-with, not becom­ing, is the name of the game; becom­ing-with is how part­ners are, in Vin­ciane Despret’s terms, ren­dered capa­ble. Onto­log­i­cal­ly het­ero­ge­neous part­ners become who and what they are in rela­tion­al mate­r­i­al-semi­otic world­ing. Natures, cul­tures, sub­jects, and objects do not pre­ex­ist their inter­twined worldings.”

Like Har­away, I find this ‘becom­ing-with’ takes on tremen­dous val­ue through Despret’s work. Despret’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty to ‘ask­ing the right ques­tions’ of con­di­tions and actors of all kinds, and of their assem­blages, open up the pos­si­bil­i­ties to so much more, to ren­der us capa­ble in so many more ways (Despret 2016). Just as Chil emerges as a com­pe­tent speak­er and his fam­i­ly “treats him as some­one who has some­thing to say,” (Good­win et al. 2002) Despret is inter­est­ed in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of “inter­a­gency” (Despret 2013), of what actors-togeth­er might be ren­dered capa­ble of. Despret’s project—if it can be referred to like this—is thus an expan­sive one. It is to per­pet­u­al­ly invite the prospect of new ‘devices’, new ‘prac­tices’, new ‘con­di­tions’, new ‘fab­u­la­tions’, and to invite the chance, the risk, even, of becom­ing more capa­ble together.
It’s just such a ver­sion of capa­bil­i­ty that I believe gives us so much more to work with. Dis/ability is not con­strained by the imag­ined lim­its of what it is to be human, but rather made pos­si­ble by the con­di­tions actors (of all sorts) are active in.
So, what if we—those of us who think and live with dis/ability—found our­selves able to work with capa­bil­i­ty along these lines? How might we approach dis/ability, and imag­ine new fig­ur­ings of tech­nol­o­gy and dis/ability? This is not the place to spec­u­late on these imag­i­nar­ies, but it does I hope show that a dif­fer­ent onus is put on emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies like AI. The ver­sions of tech­noso­cial fab­u­la­tions we might begin to tell here are not of the repair or replace­ment of vision (or oth­er deficits in abil­i­ty) but of enlarg­ing what and how we become-capa­ble-with, become more capa­ble.

Despret, Vin­ciane. 2016. What Would Ani­mals Say If We Asked the Right Ques­tions? Lon­don: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press.
Despret, Vin­ciane. 2013. From secret agents to inter­a­gency. His­to­ry and The­o­ry, 52(4), 29–44.
Good­win, Charles. 2004. A Com­pe­tent Speak­er Who Can’t Speak: The Social Life of Apha­sia. Jour­nal of Lin­guis­tic Anthro­pol­o­gy 14(2): 151–170.
Good­win, Charles, Good­win, Mar­jorie H., & Olsh­er, David. (2002). Pro­duc­ing Sense with Non­sense Syl­la­bles: Turn and Sequence in Con­ver­sa­tions with a Man with Severe Apha­sia. In Cecil­ia E. Ford, Bar­bara A. Fox, & San­dra A. Thomp­son (Eds.), The Lan­guage of Turn and Sequence. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press.
Har­away, Don­na J. 2016. Stay­ing With the Trou­ble: Mak­ing Kin in the Chthu­lucene. Lon­don: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press.
Moser, Ingunn. 2005. On becom­ing dis­abled and artic­u­lat­ing alter­na­tives. Cul­tur­al Stud­ies 19(6): 667–700.
Moser, Ingunn and Law, John. 1999. Good pas­sages, bad pas­sages. The Soci­o­log­i­cal Review, 47(S1), 196–219.

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