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.
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.