Chapter 4. Can Technology Make the Handicapped Whole?
If, along our passage to a tolerable, technology-permeated future, there lies a single narrow stretch where we will have to sweat drops of blood in order to stay the course, surely it will be that stretch peopled by "the handicapped." Here is where, no matter how radical or uncertain or dangerous a technology promises to be for society at large, we will be overwhelmingly tempted by our own generous impulses to grant exceptions for the disabled. And, from retinal or cochlear implants to machine-harnessed brain waves to wholesale fiddling with the nervous system, this is probably enough of a beachhead to bring the technology into general use. Who could deny any possible technical assist to the tragic victims of a major functional deficit?
In The Age of Spiritual Machines Ray Kurzweil makes the argument as explicit as possible. Repeatedly reminding his readers that we are on a "slippery slope," he plunges into the downhill slide with resigned abandon. Eventually, he assures us, we will replace the entire human body and its intelligence with vastly more capable digital technologies.
Kurzweil displays remarkably little interest in the possibilities of human choice. These possibilities, however, are exactly my own interest, and I wish to suggest (combining metaphors a bit awkwardly) that the narrow passage mentioned above is our only alternative to Kurzweil's slippery slope. This chapter is my attempt, not to traverse the passage, but at least to point it out. I may not have sweated drops of blood while writing these words, but I don't think I have ever written a piece under a more compelling sense of urgency, or with a greater awareness of my own inadequacy.
The chapter takes the form of commentary on a book, And There Was Light, by Jacques Lusseyran (1998). The book was originally written in 1953, and does not mention computers. Nevertheless, I do not know any work more germane to the matter at hand. And I count the book among the handful of the most significant productions of the past century.
In Paris in the spring of 1941 the sixteen-year-old Jacques Lusseyran stood in front of fifty-two carefully chosen boys and young men. His panic of a few days before panic at the thought of carrying this responsibility was now behind him. In assured tones he explained to the fifty-two that
they would not be able to close the door they had opened that night. What we were making, they and I together, was called a Resistance Movement. The fact that the oldest of us was not yet twenty-one, and that I was not quite seventeen, though it did not make all our operations simple, made some of them possible. So long as people thought of us as kids, they would not suspect us, at least not right away.
So it was that Lusseyran created the Volunteers of Liberty in Nazi-occupied France. Growing to six hundred members over the next year or two, it published and distributed an underground newspaper, created a network for the protection and repatriation of downed English airmen, and later joined forces with the Defense of France to publish what would eventually become France-Soir, the most important daily newspaper in Paris.