Saturday, January 19, 2008

VP and who we are:
or, the effects of the videophone on the deaf world

It takes a lot to make a videophone work. A 20-minute videophone call requires the transmission of roughly half a gigabyte of information, the equivalent of half a DVD: information that once filled rooms of machines operated by punch cards, now reduced to the processing power contained in a machine the size of a hardcover book. A small, expensive miracle.

Which is free, at least to the Deaf community. This little machine which allows Deaf citizens of America to make video telephone calls to each other or through an American Sign Language Interpreter is often called an equalizer; the videophone is provided by a third-party manufacturer, Sorensen, to any qualifying person with a hearing loss, and similar hardware can be purchased from other computer suppliers around the country - and there's always video conferencing. Subsequently the only cost to the individual is the cost of their internet service, and of course the hidden cost of the government taxes assayed to all taxpaying Americans in order to provide the equipment.

And, too, the sign language interpreters provided, free of charge to the users of the videophone. A far greater cost, which is continually assessed. I was a vegan for a long time, and still believe in thinking about and understanding the cost of the things we use to the world around us - and to ourselves. You think about who you are, what that means in relationship to others, the person you want to be. Some people see goodness in religion, or art, or service, and the pursuit of those paths gives them happiness, because they've decided the meaning of their life is embodied by those pursuits. Other people see meaning in independence, from others and from society; still others see freedom from the mundane trappings of life, and attempt a return to nature. This is what humans do to establish that vital little twang in the human song we call ourselves: the wiggling middle finger of humanity.

And I have to wonder, what does it mean to be the recipient of this much charity, and not see the cost? Not just the cost of the interpreters. Our community rarely discusses the physical and environmental cost of this 'free' equipment, the cost to the Deaf community that comes from taking such value for granted. We talk about the benefits, yes, the freedoms, the sharp intake of power which comes from being able to communicate. With all such power, though, should come responsibility; with all such gifts comes price. "The only fair I know is what you pay to ride the bus," a great character once said on Showtime.

What's the fare on this bus? What's the environmental cost of the videophone? Environmental Science and Technology reports on the research of Eric Williams in 2004:
Williams found that manufacturing, using, and disposing of one desktop computer with a Pentium III processor and a 17-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor uses at least 260 kilograms of fossil fuels and 6400 megajoules of energy.
260 kilograms of fossil fuels - for a computer; about six times the weight of a single man. What does it take to send that half-gigabyte of communication leaping across a world in a blazing half-second with a sharpness and clarity the engineers of Star Trek would envy?

What does it cost us to have this removal from humanity? In the writings of Isaac Asimov he describes a world called Solaria, in which people communicate when necessary by the use of screens. I remember an early teacher of mine at MSSD talking about the distancing effect of technology and e-mail, back in 1996. In which direction does this send us?

What is it doing to our use of language? Is it having a standardizing effect on ASL, creating a wider knowledge of language, allowing dialects to spread? What effect does the continual use of interpreters at varying levels of skill have on our community?

And do we have the choice to do things any differently, now we have taken the bait and found it tasty? Are we stuck running down whatever path we've started on? If we decide the ends don't justify these means, will we still be paying the price whether we like it or not? And - perhaps more interestingly - are there ways we can guide the use of this technology for the better development of us all? The innovations created by both Sorensen and Apple (in their standard iChat program) are heartening and fascinating. Yet still I find myself strangely reluctant to use my VP.

I guess I'll always be reminding myself, in the back of my head: there's a cost. One day we may be forced to pay. Or maybe I just don't like looking 10 pounds heavier...

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