Wired Utopia: Expanding Technocapitalist Disability Rhetorics

In her article published just a few weeks ago in Enculturation, Bonnie Tucker lays out a theory of what she refers to as technocapitalist disability rhetoric.  Technocapitalist disability rhetoric (what I’ll call TCDR), in Tucker’s conception, is a familiar representation trope in which technology and engineering corporations utilize depictions of disability in an attempt to associate their brand with sentimentalist, aspirational social activism.  These companies overtly disguise profit-seeking motivations with superficial pleas promising the power of technology to “fix” the supposed “broken” disabled body.  The rhetorics included within this discourse serve to undermine empowering, socially-based models of disability and a-typicalities, and instead rely upon familiar tropes– the savant, the “supercrip,” the heroic revelatory electronic device– to establish technology as the solution to disability.

TCDR connects disability and technology on a basis of cure, reinforcing ableism and medical models that charge disability as abnormal, problematic and fixable through technological innovation.  Tucker’s analysis attempts to demystify and debunk TCDR by evaluating the spoken and visual rhetorics of two Microsoft advertisements aired during recent Super Bowls.  The commercials, to varying degrees, situate two different technologies developed my Microsoft (eye-gaze speaking technology and prosthetic limbs) as solutions to problems experienced by Steve Gleason, a former NFL player suffering from the motor neuron disorder Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and a young boy born without tibia and fibula bones in his legs.  These representations are problematic from a disabilities studies perspective for a variety of reasons, but none more so than their seeming disregard for two central tenets of the social model of disability: (1) The disabled person must be allotted a chance to speak for herself, and (2) the commercials situate disability as a lack or a problem that their technological innovation is able to fix.  In this way, they remove agency and empowerment from the human bodies in question and instead place it on their profit-gleaning technological tool under the guise of charitable good will toward those considered to be less fortunate.

In both of these cases, Tucker argues, Microsoft subverts the agencies of disabled people to instead position itself as a heroic savior in the minds of viewers.  TCDRs are a profitable innovation that neoliberalism harnesses for expansion into new markets or to intensify their grasp on existing ones.  Corporate involvement in social activism campaigns such as the disability rights movement conflate technology with the real, concrete, on-the-ground advances made by disability activists to subvert discrimination and social stigmatization.  Corporations frame discussions on disability to position their brand and products as solutions and equalizers, when really it is disability activists who utilize these technologies that perform the real advocacy labor and spur the resulting social change.

In this short blog post, I’d like to propose an addition to the Technocapitalist Disability Rhetoric concept outlined by Tucker.  Utopia has long been a staple within discourse originating in and circulating around the tech sphere. When Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook attempted to supply India with “free” internet infrastructure, they did so with the intent to bring high-speed internet access to hundreds of thousands of underserved and underprivileged peoples who would otherwise never have access to the benefits an internet connection affords: information, education, global opportunity, political influence, greater reach into realms of citizenship, democracy, access.  This type of utopia rhetoric, seen time and time again in the interfaces, discourses and public initiatives kindled within the tech sphere, converges with technology and disability by connecting them on grounds of cure, in this case not to particular individuals as in the Microsoft advertisements but instead as cures to pluralistic society itself, corporate-supplied technology serving as the remedy to various ills plaguing the globe.

More analysis and explication is needed here, but an indisputable characteristic of tech discourse emerges: utopia rhetorics are, nearly universally, represented as elixirs and antidotes with the potential to remedy the social sicknesses that plague society, with everything from global poverty to educational access situated as characteristics of the utopia tech companies promise to consumers. When we examine the popular crises that have been sensationally pushed by mainstream media outlets in recent decades– in regards to literacy, attention, education, social media– various forms of technology are inevitably proposed as alleviating these profoundly unfamiliar (and occasionally scary) cultural developments.

It is our job as academics, as watchdogs, as the critical thinkers of the world to seek out this bullshit, to borrow Harry Frankfurt’s usage, and expose it for what it is– a sham that trades charity for quarterly reports, good will for profit, and real humanitarianism for its shiny, corporate cousin: marketing.


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