Humans not hardware

Has the advent of computers and their related technology made us
better or worse off? Like most arguments, you have to start by
defining your terms. In particular in this case, what do we mean by
better or worse, and who do we mean by “us”?

It’s clear that this argument’s time has come. Later this month
I’ve been asked to take part in a formal debate chaired by Jeremy
Paxman at an event run by the Royal National Institute for the
Blind. Naturally, I’ve had to ask myself: where exactly do I stand
on it?

I need to put some personal cards on the table first. I have had
something of a Damascus-like conversion over the past three or four
years. Until then I could quite justifiably have been seen as the
archetypal Luddite, stoically plodding along using antediluvian
equipment to do my job. And believe me, as a blind journalist, that
equipment does look pretty ancient.

Suffice to say that a laptop now sits on my desk at work, which
reads print to me in synthetic speech and allows me to generate
documents readable by more sighted colleagues. And perched on my
knee at the moment is a small, virtually silent Braille note-taker,
on which I am writing this article. This I will be able to convert
into print and send to the editor as soon as I reach the

That alone would not have revolutionised my life, merely those of
my fellow commuters, but the fact that books on disk can now be
downloaded onto this note-taker so that I can share in the latest
modern novels, really is life-changing.

So why have I chosen to speak against the motion that computers
have improved the lives of visually impaired people over the past
generation? Well, it’s back to those word definitions again. First
of all, who do we mean when we say us, or in the case of our
debate, visually impaired people? Do we mean the relatively tiny
proportion of people who work, and can therefore qualify for
financial help in acquiring this still very expensive equipment (at
most, a few thousand people)?

Or do we mean the hundreds of thousands who lose their sight in
their later years, and must find a complete set of new ways of
doing everything? And that question is as valid for other groups of
disabled people and, I would maintain, throughout the community as
a whole.

My main contention is that while individual bits of kit have
greatly enhanced the ability of some people, and most companies, to
perform complex tasks at great speed, that in itself has encouraged
them to remove the human elements from the “helping” parts of their
operation, and that this has had a far greater effect on the fabric
of our lives than the hardware that does it.

The reality for many people now is that the branch of the bank they
used to use has probably closed down; the post office where they
cashed their benefits, even if it is still open, demands they hold
a “smart” card to get their money which they can’t use; and when
they ring up to talk to a friendly person about why their
washing-machine has disgorged water all over the kitchen floor,
they first have to go through a mind-numbing series of
number-crunching processes to talk to anyone at all.

We are creating a society where asking for help has become a sign
of weakness, and regarded as “an unacceptable cost” – which is very
bad news indeed for the bulk of visually impaired people. However
much gadgetry we produce, every blind person knows, and every other
person should know, that the greatest aid to independence of all,
is the helpful, imaginative, empathetic “other human being”; if
humanity forgets that – especially those parts of the profession
which are supposed to care – we are all in very great

The first nail hammered into the coffin of our humanity by the
industrial revolution has now been immeasurably reinforced by the
onset of the brave new technological world.

Peter White is the BBC’s disability affairs

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