Cory Doctorow was in my ears telling me about something I had felt before but never put into so many words. He was the final guest on Jesse Brown's Search Engine podcast, and I listened carefully as he described his idea of nerd determinism and nerd fatalism.
Don't worry I will get to Hugh Herr soon enough. But first, a reflection on something many geeks and nerds feel in the deep marrow of their bones - technology routes around dumb laws, corrupt politics, rampant corruption. The Internet was built to survive a nuclear war. Packets on the Internet route around router breaks, cable cuts and restrictive policies. Technology, if used properly, disinfects and sheds sunlight on problematic business models, governance models. It makes life better, in general.
So what is "Nerd Determinism" and how does it compare with "Nerd Fatalism"? Cory wrote about this interesting conflict in the way technologists (aka nerds) think about policy and in general their world view.
Techs either think "technology can make us better" or "people become corrupt and will use technology for mostly evil, not good". Nerd Determinism speaks to optimism and Nerd Fatalism falls back to pessimism.
So quoting Cory:
In "nerd determinism," technologists dismiss dangerous and stupid political, legal and regulatory proposals on the grounds that they are technologically infeasible. ... For example, US and EU police agencies demand that network carriers include back-doors for criminal investigations, and geeks snort derisively and say that none of that will work on smart people who use good cryptography in their email and web sessions.
Nerd fatalists hold that the geeky way of doing things – the famed "rough consensus and running code" – have an ideological purity that can't be matched by the old-time notions of deliberation, constitutionalism, and politics. These things are inherently corrupt and corrupting. If you move to Whitehall [England] to defend technology, in a few years, you will be indistinguishable from any other Whitehall wonk, just another corrupted suit who sells out his ideals for realpolitik.
So what does that have to do with Hugh Herr? Mr. Herr is an associate professor in MIT's Program in Media Arts and Sciences and in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. He is also a double amputee from the knee down. He is a true pioneer in technology helping (disabled) people. He and his team at at MIT are designing bionic legs like these:
These aren't just any prosthetics. They simulate calf muscles with computers. He can control them with a smartphone. And they allow him to play tennis again.
But what happens when politicans and lawyers make them illegal or restrict their use? Or when parents programs their kid's mechatronic limbs so that he or she can't jaywalk with these wonders of science? Or when Paralympians create the next version of Olympics in 2050 and athletes start cutting off their limbs to compete and win? Don't laugh, Herr's research associates half jokingly wanted to ampuate their legs to become competitive with Herr at mountain climbing (!)
Watch Mr Herr at this year's Google Zeitgeist describe the state of his biomechatronic art and his view that in 20 years, the Paralympians will be the premier Olympians, aided by technology. Our road there will likely be very rocky and complex. Witness the controversy around Oscar Pistroius running in the recent Olympics. There will most definitely be winners and losers. And there will be athletes who cut off limbs to be better, as ironic as that may be. Will our children have to deal with the laws and the implications of such technology? Will there be classes for technologically aided children separate from "full human" kids?
But this progress will inevitably happen, I am sure.
Mr Herr said it best when he said: "I'm no longer disabled, with bionics."