FORUM: Tech that meets our communications style

Stephen Bell considers why the screen has become as much a part of our experience as the architecture of our town

Parliament’s response to the needs of deaf MP Mojo Mathers, were initially seen as a snub. Parliament, the media said, had told Mathers she had to pay for her own technology and a note-taker so as to participate more fully in debate. The snag has proved to be a more complex matter of seeking approvals through Parliamentary bureaucracy. I’d be surprised if Mathers doesn’t have a good part of the cost of “accommodation” paid for from public funds eventually. I think it would be right to do so.

This affair is interestingly linked with two interviews I’ve done in the past couple of weeks. New ICT Minister Amy Adams informs Computerworld that she’s “gone back” to her BlackBerry, despite having an enthusiasm for iPhone and iPad, because the Parliamentary system is more friendly to the older device.

And Webstock speaker Wilson Miner, designer with the Rdio digital music service, told Computerworld he sees screen design as no longer a veneer or interface laid over daily experience; it is an integral part of the experience and the product.

The screen is now as much a part of our experience as the architecture of our town and the street and office furniture, he says. We didn’t discuss personal tailoring of screen interfaces, but that too is increasingly a fact of life; we purchase the technology and download and use the apps that best enhance our work and leisure experience. Your screen may look totally unlike mine, though we are in the same line of work; no-one seriously objects to that reflection of the different way our brains and sensory inputs work.

Controversy emerges only when our employer won’t accommodate our favourite device in the office network – or when we start asking them to stump up part of the cost. But this too is eroding. More employers are now willing to contribute to the cost of the “BYOT” environment, knowing the company benefits. The taxpayer’s stumping up $1.5 billion to subsidise better telecommunications for all of us - including unimpressed visiting celebrities like Stephen Fry.

Why is Mathers different? Public comments on media stories show some hostility. She shouldn’t have sought election if she wasn’t prepared to cope unaided with work in Parliament, say several commentators. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s the cards we are dealt,” says “Greg” on the site. “Life is not fair, now deal with it. What happened to user pays?”

I wonder whether Greg would refuse a subsidy for a smartphone if offered one; or whether he takes advantage unthinkingly of technology already provided - a desktop computer or a forklift truck. Why shouldn’t he lift packages unaided, or pay for his own forklift?

I suppose at the root of it is a concept of what’s “normal.” It’s considered normal to have good hearing, but not superhuman strength or the capacity to calculate in one’s head. And so back to Wilson Miner’s sensible contention that it’s now normal for people to work through screens. We’re all accustomed to getting a “multimedia” experience; if we can’t digest a list of figures, a smart information provider will give us a graphical chart. If sound helps, that will be provided too; an increasing amount of internet content (some would say too much) is video rather than text.

You don’t have to be disabled or at variance with some notional norm to benefit from accommodations offered to disabled people. Cut-down kerbs are useful to parents with pushchairs. It’s helpful for everyone to have the audio reinforcement of a visual signal on a pedestrian crossing.

The catch-phrase is “universal design”; measures that improve services for disabled people also serve those whom disability activists like my wife describe as “the temporarily able-bodied”. The sight and/or hearing of most of us will decline with time and for many a government subsidy will partly fund spectacles or hearing aids.

It would be very useful to all interested voters to have captions on Parliament TV. MPs are not always the clearest of speakers and the hubbub of the debating floor means remarks are missed even by those of us who like to think our hearing is perfect. Transcribers are funded to produce Hansard and technology has reduced the turnaround time to two-and-a-half hours.

Parliament’s public information manager Catherine Parkin cited a couple of technical snags to my suggestion that a skilled interpreter simply repeat MPs’ words in real time into a good voice-recognition engine – it’s the way I often transcribe taped interviews. But the key objection, she says, is that MPs have to support it.

How about it, members? Instant Hansard. You don’t have to be deaf to benefit.

And while you’re doing that, look into an iPhone interface for Adams. A happier minister will be good for the whole sector.

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