Fly by Wire

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No one could accuse me of being fast. I have been in a wheelchair now for 2.5 years and I realised the other day, the wheelchair is my mobility. Yes, I know, earth shattering. Bear with me, what I mean by that is, it’s how I move around. Another earth shattering revelation. Sounds obvious, but here’s a thing, when you are on your feet walking, you just… well walk. If you want to go somewhere you don’t think about it consciously you just do it. In a power wheelchair and I assume a manual, you have to take a separate action to go somewhere. In my case a joystick. So I am sitting in my chair and I want to turn around and fetch something behind me. I have to push the lever right or left and rotate the chair. All this might sound really straightforward and simple. But think for a moment, it’s an extra level of action to achieve a simple result. I want something just out of my reach, I can’t just swivel and get it I must power the chair around to get it. Something is a little too far ahead of me to reach, I have to push the joystick forward to move the chair and therefore me in reach. It was that realisation which hit me the other day. I no longer rely on my body to get me to somewhere, I am relying on a machine. Just a quick aside, I guess as babies we learn to use our bodies as a kind of machine to do what our brain wants. By the time we are an adult it’s automatic. But a wheelchair is never going to be s smooth and intuitive as the human body.

The dawning of that realisation was quite powerful for me and caught me out. I had to stop and process it. Because it means so much more than it sounds. It is about independence, mobility, reliance, technology, artificial movement, disconnection between aim and action, re learning movement and a whole lot more.

These days most aeroplanes are operated by a ‘fly by wire’ system. What that means is that when a pilot pushes a lever or operates the steering yoke, that movement has no direct connection to the thing it will move. Instead it sends a signal to a microprocessor which eventually tells the ailerons, wheels, brakes or whatever what to do. That may not sound important or significant, but think of it this way. When you steer your car, the steering wheel turns a physical ratchet that turns the wheels, yes with power steering you get assistance, but it is still a physical connection. When you operate your car brakes you push onto a pedal that compresses fluid that directly presses onto brake pads, again yes there is assistance built into the system. There may well be high tech cars that are more like aeroplanes. The point I am making is that when you do something which is one step removed from he physical there is a disconnect. You experience what I mean when you operate your computer or smart phone and it doesn’t respond immediately. You know how frustrating that feels. Pressing on a mouse or the screen and nothing happens. Some may argue that an electronic interface is faster and better than a direct input from a driver or pilot. Certainly I can’t see any way a pilot could directly pull a lever and operate the gigantic ailerons on a modern jet. Although whenever I find my computer freezing up I do wonder at the sense of that argument. It does rather put me off the idea of self driving cars. I think I would like to see a PC or smart phone that works 100% of the time before I put my life in the hands of a computer driver. But my point isn’t what is better, just the fact there is a disconnection. We can accept that with machines. But when it is our own body, it’s harder to accept. The distance between action and reaction, aim and result can feel a long way.

I was thinking the other morning just how complex and time consuming it is for me to get up. When you are disabled everything takes so long. That’s because equipment is needed to enhance, enable and complete the things I do. Mobility is really just one small part of that and my realisation the other morning was an eye opener for me. I hope I’ve lifted the lid on it a little for you.

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