University of Edinburgh
 

Comparative Disadvantages and Special Opportunities and the Information Technology Revolution: General Considerations and the examination of of Visual Impairment as a case study

Kevin Carey - 17.iii.97

It is generally assumed that the benefits of new communications technologies are universal and evenly distributed but this overlooks the concepts of comparative disadvantage and special opportunity. Dyslexic people, for example, were increasingly comparatively disadvantaged in increasingly text-based societies and deaf people were comparatively disadvantaged as text gave way to an increasing use of audio information but the telephone presented a special opportunity for house-bound people as did the electronic amplifier for people with weak voices.

Poor people are almost always disadvantaged by new systems either because the initial equipment or the training to use it are rare and expensive, but both these costs generally fall as time passes, the market expands and the research and development costs fall out of the pricing. The Information Technology (IT) revolution, then, is not unique in its creation of serious, if temporary, comparative disadvantage as well as many special opportunities.

In this Paper I will use the example of visual impairment to analyse the impact of communications systems on an identifiable - but by no means identical - cluster before addressing the more general comparative disadvantage and special opportunities brought about by the IT revolution. 1. Information Access and Visual Impairment Blind and visually impaired people (I will refer to this group collectively as "VIPs" - Note 1) have only once in history derived a comparative advantage from the invention of a communications system and that was the evolution of braille from its primitive form as a method of carrying artillery adjustment instructions by night; even speech, though conferring a huge absolute advantage to all people, including VIPs, leaves them lacking the facility fully to evaluate oral communication because of the frequent need to interpret it in the context of body language.

The recent trend in information technology from text-based systems such as DOS to graphical user interface (GUI) systems such as WINDOWS has raised these issues in a newly acute form the understanding of which is greatly improved by a rapid analysis of previous communications technologies. Whereas Morse code conferred equal absolute advantage on VIPs and their peers, they were comparatively disadvantaged by telegraphy, being able to input but not read the output; similarly, radio conferred equal absolute advantage whereas television created a huge comparative disadvantage, not only widening the information gap between VIPs and their peers but also cutting them out of vast areas of social discourse. People no longer merely talked with authority about their home environment but acquired authority in matters of landscape, custom and judgement from what they saw on television. Whereas two listeners, one VIP and one fully sighted, would be equally placed to judge the accuracy of an umpire's leg before wicket decision, the VIP was reduced to a parrot by the birth of television and even more by the slow-motion replay.

In principle, the arrival of the mainframe and then the personal computer conferred equal absolute advantage between VIPs and their peers but in practice there was some comparative disadvantage because access hardware and software to validate input and read output were only developed after standard products, so there was a time lag. The access devices also created an extra layer of technology with the potential for error or breakdown so the mean time between faults for access devices bundled with standard equipment was shorter than for the standard equipment itself; and the access technology was often more expensive than the standard equipment it accessed because of high research and development costs and a small market. This last factor was particularly relevant to a group of people who largely rely on state benefits. The UK Government has provided equipment on long loan to VIPs in work but that cuts out huge swathes of activity, including applying for work, and the latest revision to the current scheme, known as Access to Work requires employers to meet 20% of access equipment costs.

Nevertheless, by the mid 1980s a situation of mild comparative disadvantage in the operation of CP/M and DOS-based systems was close to becoming one of absolute equality of advantage; for close on a decade there were upgrade time lags in accessibility and cost was a chronic issue but VIPs flourished as computer programmers, office workers and fully informed professionals. Then came the GUI.

The full impact of the GUI is still being absorbed by VIPs and those who work with them. The comparative disadvantage has been largely overlooked for three reasons: first, VIPs themselves do not understand the nature of the problem and so, secondly, the false assumption is made, fuelled by a heavy dose of techno-Utopianism, that the change from DOS to WINDOWS is of the same nature and scale as the change from CP/M to DOS and; thirdly, and somewhat paradoxically, the very people who have misjudged the situation are competent enough in handling IT so that the general problem is masked.

At a conference on the access of VIPs to libraries (EXLIB, Madrid, 1993) I made the observation that no matter how good an access information system for VIPs it will not be able to convey the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa to which the reply from a VI expert in IT was that a set of fine, varied height pins would be able to convey the information (Carey: The Impact of the Information Technology Revolution on the Education of Visually Impaired Children: Allies and Enemies, July 1996; unpublished). Access to the Mona Lisa was not a serious matter of comparative disadvantage when it was the preserve of the wealthy traveller or the owner of prints and coffee table art books but it is now a universal icon which has moved from tea towels, T-shirts and posters to the CD-ROM and the INTERNET art gallery. Whereas only the occasional VIP would formerly have been unlucky enough to meet an art connoisseur, nowadays he might find himself shut out of a conversation about art in his local pub. What began with photography and the cinema has been exacerbated by television and has now become a crisis of competence for VIPs. Whether the material at issue is a Breugel genre picture, a 'trick' of M.C. Escher, a street atlas, an animated cartoon, the controversial plan for a new piece of public architecture, or merely a screen icon, there is an issue of accessibility for VIPs.

The root issues are how much can access devices convey and how much is it worth trying to convey what they cannot through verbal description? The first issue is a matter of scale; make a tactile reproduction too intricate and the finger cannot absorb the information; expand it so that the finger can absorb all the information and the brain might not be able to retain it all in proper orientation and relativity because the overall reproduction is too large. The second issue is much less tractable because it is hard for teaching professionals and VIPs themselves to admit that there must be areas of knowledge to which they will never have full access. Nonetheless, it needs to be faced because in the context of the school curriculum or, indeed, life's curriculum, the more time you spend learning something, the less time there is for something else. There is a point where you have to cut your losses: some people can't draw Giotto's perfect circle; others will never play football for Manchester United; congenitally blind people or those who have completely lost their sight since 1980 are never going to know fully what Madonna looks like. This last at least might be counted a trivial matter but only by those who confine their aspirations for VIPs to academic achievement; there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that no matter how academically qualified VIPs are it is their social skills which determine how well they are integrated in society.

The case of totally blind people is clear and bleak enough but that of people with residual vision presents a set of complex problems. First, no two people have exactly the same visual acuity and vision perception; secondly, the ability of the brain to interpret what is transmitted to the visual cortex also varies; thirdly, what the brain 'sees' depends on the predictability of the visual environment; people with residual vision, for instance, recognise colleagues at a given distance in a familiar environment and context (where they would expect to meet them) but not at the same distance in an unfamiliar context as in the case of the nurse who meets a former patient in the street and remarks: "Mr. Smith, I hardly recognised you with your clothes on!" Finally, as is the case with totally blind people, those with residual vision need to know different kinds of things depending on their lifestyles and aspirations. There is no uniform way of providing compensatory oral information to those who have imperfect access through vision.

Incomprehensibly, some important assistive technologies have not yet been invoked to help VIPs with residual vision. Just as television was largely banned in schools for VI children even though it could have helped enormously in providing panoramic images for those with very poor distance vision and just as the video was overlooked even though its full colour image capacity was far superior to the specialist, skeletal black on white closed circuit television in explaining such phenomena as how a horse gallops, now commercial image magnification and image enhancement are still firmly out of bounds. The explanation for the exclusion of television and the video was a purely puritanical response to entertainment technology but there is no such excuse in the case of image enhancement; it has been used in what we used to call "Fleet Street" for years (just as the fax was for many years before it 'broke out').

If there is much need for more research into the relationship between the eye and the static and moving image, there is even more need for it into the relationship between them and the impaired eye. We do not know, for instance, whether learning to read text on a printed page and learning to read text moving across a screen hamper or reinforce each other.

The reference to text on screen naturally leads to the issue of using computer systems for information transactions rather than for simply looking at pictures. The GUI revolution presents a temporary crisis in text access for VIPs but this will be overcome in the next three years through software which turns the bit maps back into DOS-like characters - which software can turn into braille or synthetic speech - in much the same way optical character recognition (OCR) software turns images into DOS. There will continue to be access software lags just as there were in the DOS era but these are now shortening as they did then. The central problem for VIPs in this new GUI era is their comparative disadvantage in information processing. A person with full vision can scan 20 boxes, select three options, click and then access the selected files. A VIP with a "soft braille" output device, a speech synthesiser or magnification software has to move deliberatively through all 20 options before making selections. This is comparatively costly in office time - the employer gets less transaction per hour - and in the INTERNET environment it means higher telephone bills. We could be seeing the end of the VI computer programmer, office worker and a deterioration in the comparative effectiveness of VI professionals.

Although there is both an input and an output deficit for VIPs in the field of IT, the output deficit is by far the greater but its inevitable consequence will be to increase the former; the less sense you can make of your environment the less you can contribute to making sense of it. The cultural value placed upon self-expression rather than benefiting from the accumulated wisdom of others is now higher than it has ever been in recorded history and this accounts for the amount of emphasis placed on it in the VI world, but to master the technicalities of input is to deal with the simplest problem; to master the syntax and context of input requires access to the output of peers and of mavericks; browsing - which we do every day in the mere act of walking in the street - is more important, at least in quantitative terms, than looking up references. Yet this is the precise area where visual impairment presents the greatest difficulties. We have taken our browsing from the street to the screen and in doing so we have increased comparative disadvantage for VIPs from the equivalent of a cage to a dungeon with a tiny window above eye level. Little wonder that this is hardly a matter for general academic discourse when it is not even a subject of concern in the narrow professional world of visual impairment itself.

One could understand the reluctance to withdraw if the picture were uniformly bleak but there are some significant special opportunities. If research into the use of residual vision can minimise the number of those who cannot benefit from visual stimuli - this is a key but overlooked priority - then image enhancement in two dimensions and 'virtual reality', supported by commentary, present a stunning prospect; moving images can be arrested so that the mechanics of motion and changes in facial expression can be analysed, images can be de-constructed so that their components can be apprehended and manipulated into new orientations and relationships. At the text level, voice-in/voice-out presents some problems, particularly in output editing predictive packages, but the benefits are enormous. Familiarly, the problem will be with editing and accessing output but it can not be too long, surely, before industry recognises the folly of turning its back on Adam Smith's principle of the division of labour. Above all, perhaps, the technology's flexibility will allow us to understand better how impaired vision affects individual capacities both in terms of the image and text; in the latter case we must see off the notion of a standard for "large print" and allow each person to have the print of their choice which might even vary according to the environment in which it is being used and even the time of year.

In the case of visual impairment, disadvantage can never be eliminated and so we must concentrate on reducing it to its absolute minimum by concentrating on special opportunities. 2. Information Technology: Comparative Disadvantage and Special Opportunities. There is a sense of the 'half empty glass' in putting the disadvantage before the opportunities in the case of IT but the order is dictated by the reality; the advantages of IT are much more widely understood than the comparative disadvantage. It was with both these phenomena in mind, but with an initial emphasis on the 'downside' of the new technology, that I decided to establish an organisation specifically to look at IT as a two-sided coin; its name is AEIOU - Access Enterprises for Information Opportunities Universal.

The first priority has been to disseminate the analysis and counter techno-Utopianism. There are a large number of identifiable groups of people within rich countries and whole poorer countries which are at once severely comparatively disadvantaged by the IT revolution but which, flipping the coin, could benefit enormously from the special opportunities it presents. Here are some brief examples: Sub-Saharan Africa will be left even further behind the rest of the world in GDP per capita if it lacks access to the global communications system; conversely, although it is short of natural resources it is ideally suited because of its pool of unemployed graduates and its position on the globe to provide overnight 'back office' facilities for American service industries such as insurance. The gap between almost all kinds of disabled people and their peers has been widened because of the huge increase in the speed of information processing; conversely, predictive voice-in/voice-out word processing will enormously assist people who are dyslexic, visually impaired or physically disabled. Many people are intimidated by the technology itself and by the impenetrable manuals that come with it; conversely, the new graphical and interactive technologies can make on-screen learning much easier than using a textbook. The speed of IT evolution and revolution prevents most people, but particularly the poor, from accessing new hardware and software; conversely, the faster the technology develops the more second hand hardware and software will be available for little or no cost. The INTERNET is dominated by 'Western' information; conversely, it could be used as a tool to create a dense network of non-western interchange. These five examples show that the comparative disadvantage will not disappear but, if the opportunities are seized, it will be made relatively smaller. The pre-requisites in all cases are: general background information on the potential disadvantages of being left out; the special opportunities of becoming part of the IT revolution; and access to appropriate education strategies such as using interactive and/or distance learning and getting training out of further and higher education environments into public libraries and high streets.

After basic knowledge and appropriate education, the next step must be to provide reliable second-hand hardware and software. AEIOU wants to regulate the second-hand IT market in much the same way as the second-hand car market has been organised. It is not enough for a few companies to dump their pre-386 PCs on the doorsteps of charities and leave them to sort everything out; cleaning hard discs, checking that things work, re-installing operating systems and applications software all take time and often money; and shipping kit to where it is needed also uses resources. The IT industry itself should take responsibility for establishing a credible, regulated second-hand system rather than leaving it to the voluntary sector to spend substantial amounts of its scarce resources on trouble-shooting, improvisation and piecemeal service delivery. A recurring theme in AEIOU's thinking is that this will be to the advantage of the IT and telecommunications industries; to follow our analogy with cars, the first car is very rarely a new, full-price model; people start with an 'old banger' and work their way up the retail ladder. How much more will this be the case with IT; people might just buy a new car when they pass a driving test but why should they buy a new computer when they barely know how to use the opening menu?

The advent of the INTERNET has also produced a requirement for flexible and concessionary telephony. There is no reason why the sophisticated billing systems of our major telecommunications companies should not operate concession schemes for the INTERNET operations of schools, disabled people or people currently receiving the Job Seeker's Allowance. There is no reason, either, why the same companies should not make differential charges between countries, regions within countries or even establishments like universities. Again, greater habitual use will increase long-term market prospects.

Many of these benefits depend upon a successful and sensible global regime for intellectual property rights which guarantees a balance between the right of the creator to fair remuneration - a necessary precondition for the expansion of information creation - with the "Fair Dealing" principle established most notably in the UK. This is not a direct concern of AEIOU but it is one which we will watch with great interest.

At the core of the AEIOU analysis is the symbiosis between social concern and good business. Unless IT and telecommunications companies can genuinely expand their markets within rich countries and moving into poorer countries they will be locked in to an endless cycle of cosmetic re-modelling. Under UK Charity Law we can not, of course, accept money from a commercial company to expand the market for its particular product but we will ask all of our project beneficiaries to measure their IT and telecommunications purchasing behaviour so that we can measure how it has increased after we have provided assistance; we believe that we can then clearly show a measurement for enlightened self-interest.

The core staffing of AEIOU will be kept to four people. We will use the world wide web to seek project proposals and expert help and the main activity will be matching these; we will then provide projects with appropriate structure, governance mechanisms and start-up funding and then either float them off as independent entities or find them an appropriate 'umbrella'. We will have to abandon the traditional model of a year each for project design, fund-raising and negotiation and testing; the IT revolution is proceeding at such a pace that the priority will be rapid decision-making and implementation: some of our projects will fail; many will become rapidly anachronistic; but the hope is that some experiments produce models that are robust in a rapidly changing environment.

All donors, experts and beneficiaries will be invited to become Members of the AEIOU Forum which will evaluate all past projects and discuss all substantive applications; the administrative costs of AEIOU will be met from Forum subscriptions.

A longer-term concern is the effect of the INTERNET on the ability of democratic governments to communicate with their people when serious public affairs media are in competition with global entertainment and sensational news coverage; an even greater concern is the distinct probability that the INTERNET will undermine company and personal tax bases. (Carey: "the Information Technology Revolution and the Re-Birth of the City State, March 1997 unpublished).

The challenges of the IT revolution are great and the opportunities are many but its impact will not be properly understood until emphasis moves from the way the technology works to what it means.

Footnote Note 1 In this context "Blind" means having no light perception; this term applies to approximately 5% of those in the United Kingdom who are Registerable as "Blind"; 95% of this group have varying degrees and types of residual vision. Whereas there is a sharp divide between the two groups, the latter group represents a broad if untidy continuum of visual acuity and perception. Where a distinction needs to be made between the two groups I will be specific.) KEVIN CAREY is the Founder Director of AEIOU (Access Enterprises for Information Opportunities Universal), the Editor of the British Journal of Visual Impairment, the founder of the Information Technology and Visual Impairment (ITVI) Round Table and a Member of the Expert User Group of the European Union TESTLAB programme.