WMU Medical Humanities Conference 2016

I’m pleased to have arrived in Kalamazoo for the annual Medical Humanities Conference, organized by Western Michigan University. 

I will give a paper on Friday on the topic of access to technology. Read the title and abstract, below!

“3D-Printing the Neo-Liberal Subject: Mere Access to Emerging Technology is Not Enough”

Emerging technologies and hacker communities have disrupted old paradigms of access to knowledge and technology. With the advent of additive manufacturing (for instance, 3D printing) and distributed manufacturing (for instance, parts sourced on the internet and assembled at home) low-income women, transwomen, and others without reliable access to needed medical services have begun to create medical devices to engage in at-home gynecological exams and at-home labs to process tests and synthesize hormones (motherboard.vice.com, “Meet the GynePunks Pushing the Boundaries of DIY Gynecology,” 2015). “Gynepunks” claim to hit the “opt-out” button on major pharmaceutical companies and multi-national information technology and computer companies, even seeking to develop feminist servers to store and control information outside already-existing networks subject to censorship and monetary interests (calafou.org, “TransHackFeminist Convergence Report,” 2015). These activists no longer want to seek life-changing technology in traditional capitalist frameworks where they argue access is regulated by prejudice and political exclusion. An integral part of these and similar efforts is the lowered cost of access to sophisticated technology—including, for example, Raspberry Pi computers, highly-manipulable basic units which cost less than $50, and open-source access to relevant tools and knowledge. Disabled people, too, are benefiting from cell phone mapping services, inexpensive applications, and other personal technologies not necessarily intended to increase accessibility but easily hacked for those purposes. Indeed, access to technology has been radically disrupted.

Some may speculate that these radical engagements could herald the further disruption of the exclusionary hierarchies of the capitalist production of knowledge and technology. Yet, I propose that merely increasing access to and the proliferation of the means of production through additive and distributed manufacturing does not yet rise to the level of challenging the basic conditions of our capitalist patriarchal contexts. Crucially, the overarching neoliberal discourse of empowerment and happiness through the use of technology—a techno-optimism which yearns for an increasing array of options in an ever-wider field of choice—is perhaps even furthered as individuals clamor for personal, at-home access to physical change. Indeed, what does for disruption mean when expressed this way? Perhaps a troubling concession to the techno-optimists—without access to the products of masculinist capitalist production, we are worse off.

If increasing access to technology is to be meaningfully transformative (that is, liberating), I claim we must think around the imperative to chase after choice and the requirements to express ourselves and seek fulfillment through the tools of capitalist production. Classic Marxist analysis focused on collective ownership of the means of production may miss the problem, but contemporary critical theory and recent thinking from Louis Althusser (The Reproduction of Capitalism, 1995/2014), Nancy Fraser (Fortunes of Feminism, 2013), and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (Inventing the Future, 2015) can assist in viewing relevant issues differently through critiques of neoliberalism. Additive and distributive manufacturing brings the factory and the clinic home at just the time we might be able to take these social forces apart altogether. Increasing access and efficiency in the use of technology is not equivalent to democratizing science.

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