Future Tense

My Severed Thumb and the Ambiguities of Technological Progress

My severed thumb and its nemesis
My severed thumb and its nemesis.

Photo by Torie Bosch

A fruit fly without wings isn’t necessarily sick if it lives in a very drafty place, according to French philosopher of medicine Georges Canguilhem. The wind, he suggests, is bound to carry the fly to the apples and oranges that provide it with nutrition. Close the kitchen window, however, and it’ll need to find another way to move. As Canguilhem explains in The Normal and the Pathological, health is not a constant. Instead, he argues, we call ourselves healthy when we are able to adapt to the demands of our environments.

Today, technology is the wind that buffets us most powerfully, at once helping us meet old needs and producing new ones. We often greet technological innovations as unambiguously positive, and they can be. As a diabetic, I have benefited immensely from portable glucose monitors that allow me to adjust my insulin dosages in response to my current blood sugar levels. Without question, I am healthier—no matter how you define the term—for these devices than I would be without them. Nevertheless, certain developments challenge us in ways both large and small. A freak accident when I was a child, for example, had surprising ramifications for the way I use technology today.

Consider this: When I was 5, I severed the top of my left thumb on the Fourth of July, scissoring it clean off in a collapsing folding chair. At the children’s hospital, the doctors were able to reattach it without complications. In the weeks that followed, I received regular checkups and even visited a plastic surgeon to help the tissue heal smoothly. Ultimately, their real goal was to ensure that I would still be able to feel with the damaged digit. In one of our follow-up sessions, someone told me about a carpenter who had opted not to reattach a severed finger joint, fearful that he wouldn’t be able to detect the screws and nails he was pinching into place. I think this story was meant to make me feel better, though it wasn’t (and isn’t) clear how it was supposed to do so.

While my doctors were ultimately successful, the real problems didn’t manifest for years. Thick scar tissue buffering the top of my thumb distorts what remains of my fingerprint. Sensation passes through it, as does pain, though they do so dimly. Only one thing is really wrong with it, a very small thing, one that would have been no trouble at all in an earlier era. Please don’t laugh, but this is my thumb’s issue: It’s a surprisingly poor conductor of electricity.

It never occurred to me that this was an issue until the release of the iPhone in 2007. The first generation of iPhones was innovative in a variety of ways, but its most important feature may have been its screen. Previous touch screens had mostly been resistive, meaning they responded to pressure. The iPhone’s screen, by contrast, was capacitive, meaning that it holds a constant, low-voltage electrical charge. When something conductive—say, a finger—comes into contact with the screen, some of that charge transfers to the object. The device detects the resulting change in voltage and responds accordingly.

In a world increasingly defined by such screens, my thumb presents a minuscule but still frustrating obstacle. Devices respond to it erratically at best, sometimes leaving me with the feeling that I’m wearing gloves, even when my hands are bare. Where others type with both thumbs, I’m left hunting and pecking, preferring reliable feedback over speed. Where my surgeons tried—and succeeded—to prevent one form of impairment, I was left with another, one that they couldn’t have prevented precisely because it didn’t exist at the time.

Let me as clear as possible: Though my thumb inconveniences me, it doesn’t constitute a disability in any meaningful sense. My body’s inability to process insulin, by contrast, shapes everything from what I eat to the way I exercise. Where diabetes is actively disruptive, my thumb merely slows down my typing now and then. It does, however, speak to the ways in which futurology finds a critical limit in forms of impairment. When we ask whether technology will bring an end to disability, we almost always mean the disabilities that we’re living with now. But new technologies change the ways we interact with our environments, and as those forms of interaction change, so too do the meanings of ability and disability.

If nothing else, my thumb is a pointed reminder that progress is rarely unambiguous. Innovations that improve the lives of some always threaten to introduce new difficulties into those of others. In the process, they provide striking reminders of just how changeable our understandings of health can be. It seems possible that future surgeons will aspire to correct for conductivity as well as sensation when they perform procedures like the ones I underwent. When they do, they’ll likely open the door to other problems, problems great or small, but always as yet unimaginable.