Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, August 22, 2011

“Fixed” — A New Documentary on Disability and Transhumanism

I recently attended a rough-cut screening of Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, a new documentary by filmmaker Regan Brashear. Her film tackles the vexed relationship between transhumanists and disability advocates.

The film is framed around interviews with a number of members of the transhumanist, bioethics, disability, and robotics communities, such as Rodney Brooks, James Hughes, and Marcy Darnovsky. But it focuses primarily on three figures, each of whom is disabled (apparently all by paraplegia [SEE UPDATE]): John Hockenberry, an accomplished journalist and a Distinguished Fellow of the M.I.T. Media Lab; Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and bioethicist at the University of Calgary; and Patty Berne, a disability and LGBT activist.

Through these interviews, Fixed weaves a subtle and challenging story. If it has a specific conclusion you are meant to take away, it is not interested in simply presenting it and telling you to believe, but nonetheless you can’t come away from it without your thoughts on these issues deepened. What the film presents is the paradox that comes from entering into any other person’s life — the discovery of how profoundly different we each are, and yet how essentially the same.

That tension between sameness and difference is particularly crucial to understanding how transhumanism relates to disability. As the film shows, transhumanists seem keen to co-opt the disability movement, arguing that people with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs are the first cyborgs, and that they show why we should embrace departure from “normal.” The film gives the impression that this is only a rhetorical move by transhumanists, who are less interested in honoring and respecting the disabled than in using them as a steppingstone on the path to self-modification and techno-transcendence.

That much is obvious; but what’s so challenging about Fixed is that transhumanists and disability advocates (some of whom are the same people) can’t seem at all to figure out how to feel about each other — and don’t seem to realize it. “Abolish normal” and “Embrace difference” seem to be the common rallying cry of both movements. Yet many of the disability advocates in this film seem to think that this is a cry against transhumanists even more than against the strictures of society itself.

“Transhumanism is just the logical extension of ableism,” says one interviewee, and many seem to agree that the quest for ever more strength, intelligence, and ability, will devalue the lives of the disabled. And indeed, where John Hockenberry and others are seen praising how happy, valuable, and loved by their families are people with Down syndrome, the film also shows a discussion between James Hughes and Gregor Wolbring in which Hughes claims:

Our society is far too ready to encourage parents who have disabled children to bring them into the world, with this logic of “You know, oh, I have a Down syndrome child, and he’s the greatest gift to my life, and he’s had so many special gifts.” Well, if you want to just have a child to enrich your family, why don’t you get a dog?

The charge that the lives of the disabled will be devalued, even discarded, by those who celebrate their own tolerance is far from hypothetical. (Note that Gregor Wolbring, an accomplished scientist and eloquent speaker, is paraplegic due to being a “thalidomide baby” — so a little advance in prenatal diagnosis of the sort that the enlightened Hughes calls for might have averted the burden of Wolbring’s existence.)

There are useful distinctions on these issues that are not made by any of the interviewees in this film: between “normal” as inclusive versus exclusive; between difference as given versus chosen. Without these, it remains unclear what might come of the relationship between transhumanism and disability — whether “tolerance” might not end up being perverted into the rallying cry of the powerful against the weak. But Fixed offers a fascinating and insightful look into the lives of the people for whom these questions are more than academic.

I hope the project will get to see completion, and the film will have a public release. If you’re interested, you can help the film reach that goal at its Kickstarter page. And for more reading on this subject, see Caitrin Nicol’s “At Home with Down Syndrome” in our pages.


UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention by filmmaker Regan Brashear that I’ve gotten some things wrong about Fixed in this post. So I’d like to clear a few things up about this post.

First, contrary to my claim, the three people featured in the documentary are not all paraplegics. The version of the film I saw doesn’t state the nature of their disabilities; I simply inferred this because the film offers some glimpses into the personal lives and struggles of these figures, including that all appear to lack use of their legs. Because the film includes these personal elements, it seemed important to mention them, though I did not mean to imply that any of the people mentioned should be defined by their disabilities.

I should also make clear that my parenthetical comment about the “burden” of existence of one person with a disability was meant ironically; one of the things the film’s main interviewees all suggest is that if we view the lives of disabled persons this way, then the fault lies in ourselves.

The larger problem, though, is that I may have given the misimpression that the film shared my own particular critical stance on its subject. I meant to make clear that the film, in the version I saw, does not seem to be pushing any particular stance towards transhumanism one way or the other, but neither is it simply informative; the ideas and persons presented are challenging. More to the point, I didn’t sufficiently emphasize that many of the people presented in the film seem pretty clearly to be pro-enhancement, and so one could reasonably interpret the film itself as having either a pro- or anti-enhancement message, or something more agnostic. So, to be clear, the film presents both sides of this story; my aim was to indicate that there is one side we ought to find much more compelling.

Most importantly, it may not have been sufficiently emphasized in my post that the version of the film I saw was unfinished. So, I hope my commentary will be viewed in that provisional light. I maintain that the film offers an insightful and compelling look into the relationship between transhumanism and disability advocacy, and will challenge anyone who views it to think more deeply about ideas like “disabled,” “normal,” and “enhancement.”

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