Recently, the New York Times’s blog dealing with health and medicine, Well, featured an interesting piece on Desktop medicine. The author Pauline W. Chen, M.D., maintains that medical profession has been profoundly changed by the advent of desktop computers. In the past, doctoring was all about “sitting at patients’ bedside”. Today, it’s basically about staring at a screen. The article is quick to point out that this reflection is not exempt from a certain nostalgic idealization of the past.
I would add that saying that “we have gone from bedside medicine to desktop medicine” as a bit of an ideological dimension to it, too – as far as it relies on a technodeterministic meta-narrative (“computer-mediated communication is superseding face-to-face social interaction”, “machine automation replace human labour”, “robots will rule the world”, and so on). What would be interesting to highlight here is that medicine has always been about staring at screens. Screens, as defined in this excellent 1997 essay by Raphäel Lellouche, are surfaces whose main function is to display the internal state of the machine they are attached to. From this point of view they cannot be uncoupled from measuring and visualization devices.
Now, Western medical profession is not new to this task of measurement. Thermometers, sphygmomanometers, stethoscopes etc. have traditionally been used in health care. What is new here, is that all these diverse monitoring devices have now been encompassed and subsumed by the desktop computers monitors. So are we facing the rise of a new brand of medicine, or just living a new phase of the screen-based one?
Raphaël Lellouche (1997). Théorie de l’Ecran Tr@verses, 2 (1) <http://testconso.typepad.com/theorieecran.pdf>