Out of reach

I was walking right outside of the Milton Gates near my lab the other evening. There was a young lady in a motorized wheelchair strumming down the sidewalk in the other direction past me. By the time I thought twice about the fact that the sidewalk was blocked off farther down from her because of utility repairs, the girl had already saw the dead end and had to turn around. The nearest alternate sidewalk ramp to cross the street was a good chunk of concrete away from us. And, I couldn’t help wondering what it must be like having to navigate the inaccessible streets of Montreal – complete with construction zones and blocked off sidewalks without any warning or suggested bypass route.

It breaks my heart a little bit. Perhaps living in Dayton and the wonderfully accessible Wright State campus has made me a bit of an accessibility snob who takes for granted the fact that most areas in my community are accessible by ramp or elevator, if needed. But, how is it that a modern, economically well-off, cosmopolitan city like Montreal is still so damned inaccessible for these people? I mean, I can appreciate the economical and logistical challenges in implementing ramps and elevators in a city where some of the buildings are hundreds of years old. Especially when the city is situated on some relative rugged topology with a mountain in the middle of it. I get that it’s not easy. But, by golly, we live in a world that includes great monumental and technological wonders like the Three Gorges Dam, the Burj Dubai, the Boston Big Dig highway, the New York subway system, etc. Ramps and elevators don’t seem that bad, in comparison, do they?

Technology never ceases to amaze me. I mean, as an engineer (and a self-identified nerd), I appreciate the intricacies that make all our modern amenities somehow magically work for us on demand. But, when you really think about the greater context of all this technological development and where it leads us in a societal context, the picture is less impressive.

Innovation, inventions, big engineering feats, these things are all wonderful. But, wouldn’t it be far better if these things were applied to improve society as a whole, not just those with the bucks to buy these gadgets? Nowadays, when I think of technology’s role in modern life, the first thing that pops into my head is those pretentious nitwits holding their iPads and thinking that they are the shit because they had the disposable income to blow on an overhyped enlarged iPod touch. I also think of the iPod-connected drones in the metro who are all too busy humming to their MP3’s to even notice a good busker in the Place-des-Arts station. It seems that, lately, technology has isolated us. Bitchy Facebook messages have replaced the up-front phone call. IM’s have replaced the old-fashioned coffee date. Technology has done little more than further the self-absorption and isolation that exists all around us. The primary motivation that drives innovation is (big surprise!) selling overpriced fad products that people don’t actually need, but feel better about themselves when they purchase.

Wouldn’t it be great if technology was leveraged to accomplish something bigger than the sum of its parts? Wouldn’t it be great if the collective imaginations of our brightest minds was harnessed to improve the lives of EVERYONE in our society – not just the fortunate few with the disposable income to blow on a fancy touch-screen social networking device? Wouldn’t it be great if we used our technological prowess to build high-speed rail systems that serve to impress people, get them to where they’re going more efficiently, consume less fuel, promote more environmentally responsible urban development, etc. ad nauseam…? Wouldn’t it be great if government services for the poor and the sick could be made more efficient through technology, in order to better the lives of these less well-off (not to mention get more bang for the buck from those taxpayers subsidizing these efforts)? Or what about investing to build up the infrastructure for the countless souls that are still living in impoverished communities without clean water? I mean, I know a lot of these might sound awfully ambitious – especially for countries that can barely even manage to take care of their own infrastructure and social welfare programs because of the recession, tea parties, etc.

Perhaps it’s audacious of me to ask for technological innovation to focus on bettering society as a whole – rather than simply focus on short-term profits (even though I would never deny that a company’s own financial stability is very important!). But, it would at least make me feel much better as a person and an engineer to know that something that I helped create was making the life of a struggling soul at least a little bit better – instead of merely filling the pocket of another pretentious hipster with another fancy Apple product that they probably could have done without.

Gosh, all this idealism and ambitious dreaming that I’m spewing off sure makes the simple construction of wheelchair ramps sound relatively easy. And, it is. And, perhaps you argue that this expensive wheelchair retrofitting will only benefit a handful of people. But, I would encourage you to look past the short-term on-paper cost/benefit analysis and to look a little bit towards the happiness and fulfillment of living in a society that harnesses its power and its intellect to improve the lives of all its denizens.

So, next time you see someone in a wheelchair who is visibly frustrated because they can’t get to the same place that it took you mere footsteps to reach, think about just how much better things could be – if we really wanted it to happen.

One response to “Out of reach”

  1. julian says:

    The trouble with technology is that, once it’s invented, becomes a part of society and is subject to social processes. And changing social processes, despite the best of goodwill, is a very difficult matter, certainly harder than simply wanting it to happen. There’s no doubt the world can be an enormously better place than it is, but getting from here to there takes an great deal of reflection, thought, and understanding of the social processes we are railing against. The motivation to change things is precisely the energy you describe here, and we really OUGHT to change things for the better, but to do so naively and angrily usually entails a huge avalanche of unexpected consequences – witness the French Revolution, the communists, etc 🙁

    The people at City Hall, I’m certain, aren’t idiots who simply want to make life more difficult for handicapped people. Learning about their constraints, and understanding the underlying sociology of iPhones and polarized wealth, I think, is the real first step to “really wanting it to happen” 🙂

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