Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

Just this past Wednesday, after a month or so of trying to coordinate a suitable time for both of us to meet, I was able to get into the city and visit a friend and check out what he is really busy working on.

My friend, Colin, has been working in the field of computer technology — mainly by helping to make various software applications, largely internet related, accessible — for years now. In fact, that is precisely why and how we met, over an entire decade ago! He was involved, as a student, with the folks who set me up with the means to use my first computer. University of Toronto’s ATRC (who are now at OCAD University as the Inclusive Design Research Centre).

It was the ATRC who outfitted me with the original gear I used to interact with a computer. Keep in mind, that was a time when I was differently abled, well differently abled than I am now, at least. Where my interactions were entirely facilitated through a head switch and an on screen keyboard. Much like I’ve written here before — well not so much the onscreen keyboard aspect, I’d rather foolishly forgotten, but I was delightfully reminded during said visit…

Anyway the year was 1997 (very late ’97, or quite possibly very early ’98), following my inpatient hospital stay and I was back home, when Colin was “anointed” to the task of teaching me Photoshop. So for 2 or 3 hours on Saturday afternoon’s he trekked out of the city, to the suburb’s, to talk and play all things Photoshop.

In fact, as he reminded me on Wednesday, it was him who was responsible for my switch from PCs to Mac’s, way back when Apple was a struggling computer hardware and software manufacturer, but still, in my opinion, the superior platform. My how time flies and things change. It’s absurd, actually. But I digress.

Now I’d already been exposed to the likes of Photoshop, during a semester of University, in the first half of ’96 — just prior to my accident. But it was then when I got my first real taste of what Photoshop could do. That isn’t so much any praise for Adobe, per se, as it is a comment towards my “ability.” Or, more accurately, a human being’s ability to adapt.

You see, it was last Wednesday, when we spent time discussing my current and past “needs” toward my computer use. Or more specifically what “modifications” (being a key word) I use(d), when I was reminded and realized many things.

During this “interview” — which was no more than Colin, a couple of designers, La La and myself — when something, that felt somewhat clumsy, and actually was everything but, fell out of my mouth. It made, even me, sit back and think, wow!

Sometimes it takes someone asking something to allow you to think clear enough to say what you’ve always known, yet vaguely recall ever thinking. As I was asked about what options I have at my disposal, and use(d) to better my access to a computer, after rhyming off the usual suspects — being sticky and, a long while ago, mouse keys — I said “I’ve spent the the majority of my computing career, the past 13½ years, say, adapting to a computer.” OK, it wasn’t quite that precise or eloquent, but the idea was the same. The implementation of the hardware and software that we depend on so much, for everything basically, is, in reality, so very awkward. It’s not any deficiency on the user’s behalf. It is a failure of the device. Plain and simple.

Not taking the hardware aspect into account, which has it’s own set of issues, in terms of it’s accessibility, I’ll comment on that for which I have experience working with. As “plastic” as software happens to be, it’s really not all that “pliable.”

Think about it. I can’t possibly be alone in declaring I’ve spent my time and energy — granted it’s likely more than most — thinking and trying to change the way I use a computer? And not just by adding more software to help me use other software. I mean altering what feels “right” and is natural, to perform certain tasks successfully on a computer.

In fact, I’d bet anything, it’s quite a common situation. I mean, shit, that is what using a computer is all about. Learning how to interact, and sometimes cheat (read: get around perceived short comings), in what is a rather strict environment, right? It’s not so much about what we are able do with a computer. It’s entirely about what a computer will allow us do.

I’m not saying the modern use of technology, and computers, haven’t come a long way, they have, it’s just people need to know how to use, and have access to, technology, more intuitively. For the record, I’m not sure what could be done, that’s a job for people way smarter than me, but we’re a long way from being anywhere near close to that point in time. There’s a lot of work yet to be done.

I’m speaking about technology on a grander scale than “personal computers” at this point, I’m not exactly prepared to speak to the wider implications of what it was I said, just yet, but, subsequent to my IDRC visit, Colin managed to write me something very profound and absurdly thought provoking;

It seems to me that there are all kinds of interesting dimensions to it [my stated remark] — technological, political, social. […] [T]here’s an aspect of failure on the part of technologists to adequately reflect the diversity of the world around us in our designs. I guess perhaps this is always a cultural struggle, especially in America but everywhere — a true engagement with diversity…

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it! You’d be well advised to know I will…

One thought on “Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!”

  1. When the tool maker is no longer the end user there will always be a degree of seperation.

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