216. Nanny Frankenstein

I am an avid listener of “The Feminist Present,” which is a podcast run by two professors, Laura Goode and Adrian Daub, from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. I’m almost caught up with past episodes, sadly, but some of the ideas I heard on there recently have stuck with me.

In Episode 28, the hosts interviewed Jeanette Winterson, a feminist writer who was speaking on her enthusiasm for technology and its possibilities. At one point, she was talking about how AI might be used to play the repetitive games with young children which parents find so taxing. She spoke of it in the context of parenting duties falling largely on mothers, and how women’s careers become derailed as a result of such inequities.

Sad and detached from humanity as contemplating an AI nanny might be, Winterson was emphatic that history has shown how people do form attachments to non biological beings, and if it is a choice between an ideal which is rarely achievable in today’s demanding world with few extended family supports vs adapting to technology that might actually step up where we cannot, why not?

As always, I thought of autistic children, and how, perhaps, instead of the appalling lack of backup for parents, AI could be the “perfect” companions for focused, repetitive play. (Before you suggest it, we are not dog people, so that is not an option; and dogs need way too much care for them to be any sort of path to easing our lives as parents). If that abstract concept made me wonder if AI might become so perfect at interacting with our kids that the larger community would inevitably fall short by comparison, well, they fall short anyway.

I’m not worried that my kid won’t appreciate my hugs and general presence, to be honest, or his dad’s. But I do connect with the fact that we could spend our lives hoping for communal and infrastructural support and engagement that may never come. Not to mention that consistent AI might mitigate the worries of parental aging and death, and the strain on other caregivers when stress behaviors escalate; the neglect/abuse we fear will be meted out to our kids. If A could transition to a different living situation with an AI companion perfectly attuned to his needs, what a gift that could be through his life. What a sense of safety he could move through his life with.

There is surely a sci fi novel in this idea, but I detest the genre, so I won’t be the one writing it. 😉 But I did think of “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (so much feminist inspiration to be had here), and how much the creature longed to be loved (truly an indictment of the failure to be inclusive). Who could love more ardently, and appreciate consistent pattern building more than my darling A? I hope very much that someone is already working on AI for this purpose, though not in a Victor Frankenstein way..

At one point, Winterson spoke of how there are a myriad of ways in which consciousness is not obligated to materiality. She used the pithy phrase “Our feet are on the ground but our heads are in the air.” By this, she meant that whatever gnashing of teeth people might do about technology getting in the way of a more thorough network of human connections (“everyone is always looking at their screens!”, etc), the fact is that we as humans are already primed for this type of duality of consciousness, by virtue of having both bodies and brains, grounded materiality and subtle awareness of more than our immediate reality.

And if we envision so much tech connectivity for everyone, but somehow our rigid morals kick in for people with intellectual disabilities, I believe very strongly that this is mostly the internalized ableism of the programmers and visionaries. We somehow cannot picture a world where someone like A can ditch the path of ABA and endless masking of symptoms, where he can drop the expectation of striving eternally to act more “normal,” and where he can simply be content with a virtual reality where the usual stifling norms might not apply. Where he can just be at peace, not trying to be a savant who does x thing perfectly as his passport to being fed and clothed.

We love until we cannot, until the life has ebbed from us. And in this vision, A need not feel abandoned after we are gone.

As you may imagine, a lot of why this idea interests me is mostly because of thoughts of community. I think I am finally ready to put my grief behind me a little. To imagine alternatives to begging mainstream society to understand our needs and dreams. I no longer believe that larger communities are capable of the wide sweep of imagining that is required to make high needs autistic lives joyful and healthy.

I do not believe in it anymore because the only people who have the capability and the need to envision more and better are autistic people themselves; and then parents. If you are not living it in one form or another 24/7, then how would you know? And my own family’s experience has taught me how easy it is for people outside of that reality to say no. To not even perceive their own limits of understanding and imagination. They don’t have skin in the game, so they are not qualified to lead this change in any way. Even if AI is a fantasy, what I am really saying is that I am feeling stronger now, to walk away from the constant pain of futile engagement with inclusion endeavors. Where this will lead us is unclear as yet. But the emotional brambles have been painstakingly gathered and disposed of.

In one of the episodes of “The Feminist Present,” Adrian Daub, one of the hosts, was reflecting on Betty Friedan, and he spoke of how there can be an overemphasis on consciousness. In social justice movements, this means that we chase after articulations of the ideals we wish to see realized. But as Daub pointed out, people mostly act rationally in the face of power being unequally distributed. They flee harmful spaces; they learn to say no when asked for endless free labor. Etc. Asking them to stay and engage at the price of their own well being is not reasonable.

Instead, we should be making the policy changes first. There will always be detractors. But what we must never continue is the harmful pattern of forcing each person or family to be the brave ones who fight the system. The system is made up of people’s biases and inertia, and attitudes will either change or they won’t, but no one should have to sit with a begging bowl forever, hoping for nobility of thought to move the hearts of those who have more access and power.

To me, this also means that no one should be forced to make advocacy into a lifelong career if they don’t want to. If it drains them of joy and purpose. If, as Ijeoma Oluo writes, it forces people to keep debating their own survival.

Society fails all the time at seeing marginalized people as people. Women, the disabled, etc. There is such a profound lack of vision in so many spheres. And this makes an easy gateway to keep Othering: prove to me that you are going to keep working to hold my interest.

What if we had a reality where we could just say No?


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