Letter From San Francisco

A Blind Dude Discovered the Internet — Can Another One Teach It To Listen?

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It’s a tale spun by Borges himself. In 1941, a blind librarian has a vision that predicts the Internet: a universal library, comprised of endless books containing all the world’s knowledge. Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel is ruled by a powerful caste of librarians, who eventually go nuts on account of all the spam obscuring the few valuable tomes in the collection (sound familiar?).

Then a curious thing happens: a character from Borges’ fantasy breaks free from the plot. Decades after the original story is published, he resurfaces on a quest to lead the world through the librarian’s labyrinth. But there’s a cruel twist: our hero must race to decode the maze before he himself goes blind.

In a stroke worthy of magical realism, this plucky character lives in Pittsburgh. And his name is Chris Maury.

I’d first become aware of Chris through his postings on Oxidized Bismuth, an idea sharing group he co-founded with fellow coders Benjamin Gleitzman and Rich Jones. He was recently in San Francisco for the CSUN accessibility conference and investor meetings for his company Conversant Labs, so we linked up for a beer in the backyard of Berkeley’s glorious Missouri Lounge.

Chris realized he was going blind in 2011, after a routine visit to an optometrist’s office across the street from the Silicon Valley startup where he worked.  Stanford specialists confirmed a diagnosis of Stargardt, and the optimistic young coder and product manager was thrust into an uncertain world with no medical cure and a rapidly approaching deadline.

jorge luis borges A Blind Dude Discovered the Internet — Can Another One Teach It To Listen?

From an early age, Borges knew he’d go blind like his father, grandfather and great grandfather had before him. He began losing specific colors one by one. First black and red, then green and blue, and finally yellow. By age 55, his eyesight was reduced to light and movement. While his stories had always spiraled ambitiously heavenward like ethereal Escher sketches, Borges’ life had been a mundane affair of maternal devotion. The newly blind Borges broke out of his demure shell and became a globe-trotting rock star – feted by top intellectuals, prone to a soft-spoken brashness; a man seemingly liberated from the inhibitions of the visual world, with a badass read-or-die chick at his side handling key accessibility functions.

Chris Maury can no longer drive, and thinks he’ll be legally blind within 3-5 years, by which point, he casually informs me a few days later at his favorite Soma cafe, he needs to have cracked the accessibility code. The reasons are personal – he’ll require the technology in his day-to-day life – and practical: Conversant Labs is a business constrained by time and cash. They’re currently incubating at AlphaLab, Pittsburgh’s answer to Y Combinator.

On June 14, 1986, Borges was buried in Geneva, thus narrowly missing two important events: the nationalist chest-thumping of Maradona’s Hand of God vs the Limeys a week later (which the futbol phobic Anglophile would have doubly loathed) and the invention that year of the world’s first Screen Reader by a blind IBM mathematician. Borges the unquenchable reader would have found it useful (and precluded his need for articulate English lads). But as Maury points out, it’s a product whose technological principles have remained largely unchanged in the decades since its inception.

The Screen Reader also happens to be the basis for all accessibility products coming to market today, including Apple’s highly touted Voice Over. Via Skype from Pittsburgh, the upbeat Maury is careful to give Apple’s efforts due props. “What Apple’s done in using gestures to navigate touch screens is really cool. But its core principle is still navigating a visual display of information, and that hasn’t changed since the foundation of Screen Readers, so it’s building off the wrong level on the technology stack. Yes, they really do really make things much more accessible for myself and many others. The real question we should be asking is if Screen Readers are the best we can do?”

He believes the accessibility field has thus far missed the mark for two important reasons: Stagnation caused by old fashioned corruption (fat government contracts for innovation averse incumbents), and a fundamentally visually-based approach that aims to render the look of the Internet in speech, rather than aurally and verbally engage a user’s mind.

Flat screens may be sexy, but Conversant Labs is developing apps to make them more accessible to those who may not be able to see them. (via Conversant Labs)

Flat screens may be sexy, but Conversant Labs is developing apps to make them more accessible to those who may not be able to see them. (via Conversant Labs)

After speaking with Chris, I try an experiment. Turning on my iPhone’s Voice Over feature, I close my eyes, and attempt to perform a few basic functions. A metallic chick’s voice barks out the buttons being displayed. For 15 minutes, I poke and prod the smooth glass to no avail. Finally I open my eyes, and, embarrassingly, struggle for ten minutes to unlock the phone and turn the damn thing off. Perhaps I’m a wee bit slow. But that’s sort of the point. I think about Chris’s notion that even the best accessibility tools make the mistake of leading visually, and find confirmation on Apple’s own developer site: “To be useful… an accessible user interface element must provide accurate and helpful information about its screen position, name, behavior, value, and type.”  Noble, well crafted – yet somehow off.

During one of his global tours, Borges the sightless literary star found himself in the Strand Bookstore basement, where he amused his handlers by drawing a cheeky self portrait, then sat in silence just “listening to the books.” In startup vernacular, this is where Maury and Borges’ pursuits elegantly dovetail. Except Chris Maury thinks he can further engage information in meaningful conversation. Conversant Labs’ first product, now in beta testing, is a retail app called Say Shopping that will plug users into 100 major online merchants like Wal-mart and Footlocker, giving the blind equal participation in the cash nexus. After tackling retail, they’ll scale their approach to the rest of the Web, always via mobile.

There are three distinct groups of people who’ll benefit if and when Maury succeeds in developing the accessibility tool of his dreams. First and foremost, the visually impaired, who’ll be able to fully participate online, trolling TMZ and buying crap from Amazon like the rest of us drones. Next are the sighted, who can walk down the street having productive verbal interactions with this AudioNet as a whole. The other, it occurs to me, are the illiterate, those mouth-breathing masses so disdained by certain blind librarians. Borges the mischievous contrarian would have appreciated that final twist.

Fernando Cwilich Gil is a South American painter and writer on sabbatical in San Francisco.