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Going blind in a digital world: The road to reclaiming my web sight

There's no better time to go blind than the present, with all the benefits that digital technology can offer. But a lifetime in tech should have warned me — the promise of IT rarely holds up to the experience of having to use it.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

For the first time in three decades, I've taken extended breaks from writing about the world of information technology and the curious animals that dwell within.

First at the end of January, then at the end of May; by now, I've clocked up around four months off in total. I'm back, but some things have changed. It's been a journey full of surprises.

Over the next few days, I'm going to write about some of those surprises.

Samsung Galaxy S3 image
Can smartphones help the visually impaired? Image: Jessica Dolcourt

The reason for the time out is also the reason for the changes. I've lost a lot of my eyesight. These posts won't be about what happened — the curious pathology of the optic nerve is a little outside the scope of ZDNet — but about the technology and politics of being nearly blind in a digital world.

I've been online one way or another since 1983, and symbiotically coupled to digital technology for a couple of years before that. My life is pixels and packets, and I doubt very much there'll be a more exciting time in the foreseeable future than living through the digitisation of our culture.

Analogue information used to be strictly personal, humans talking to humans: it became global through print, radio, television and cinema. Now it is returning to its roots of talking with people you can touch; information that leaves the personal space is digital all the way, all the time.

Which makes it a terrific time to go blind. For most blind people, myself included, the visual world is not dark and featureless. There's plenty of light and shape, movement and contrast, but it's partial, distorted, hard to perceive. Information is accessible, even for the profoundly blind, if you can transform it. As long as there's a channel to the mind, as long as you can convert information to that channel, you are not cut off. And the digital is so much more malleable than the analogue.

A digital world

So: the good news is that the world is online and digital, and the digital can be converted in infinite ways. Moreover, the technology is stupendously, breathtakingly, almost carelessly cheap and powerful. I can get a quad-core 1.4GHz phone and pay for it with three hours of work per month. Those numbers are so commonplace we forget what they mean.

A phone like that can do around six billion calculations a second; it's like having the entire population of the world available to do sums. And sums are the key to digital transformation. I've hired the world to help me, in exchange for the time it takes me to drink a cup of coffee per day.

We have built, almost by accident, a world machine exquisitely capable of compensating for our perceptual deficits

That would still be just a number, were it not that — bundled with the deal at no extra cost — it comes with high bandwidth, constant, wireless access to the sum of the world's information. It comes with local high definition sensors that know my position on the planet to a few metres, my orientation to a couple of degrees, the sights and sounds around me. It can mix all of the above at will, and with almost no technical input from me. Oh, and did I mention it fits in my pocket and runs all day from a battery the size of a book of matches?

When I first tasted the digital, it took a good two hours to make an RS232 connection work and there were no affordable computers capable of storing or displaying a single colour photograph. The progress since is beyond imagining. You had to live through it for it to be real. Even then, it's barely believable.

So. I am afloat on a cosmic ocean of data, in a speedboat capable of taking me anywhere in seconds. Just like you, in fact: on the internet, nobody knows you're blind as a bat. We have built, almost by accident, a world machine exquisitely capable of compensating for our perceptual deficits.

I find myself, back at work, picking up the pieces and learning the ropes once again, with all the advantages that machines can bring.

And I'm saddened and enraged by what I've found.

NEXT: Tech for the visually impaired will bring tears to your eyes

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