The Visible Spectrum

Close-up on my face, lit by a flashlight: “They say destiny is written in the stars.” Pan up to reveal a brilliantly starry sky, tinged with the green of the aurora borealis. I am in Nunavut. “And, indeed, astronomers were among the first to notice the impending change.”

I had just left my job at the CNIB to work with the UN full time when they discovered it. We had less than forty years to prepare.

We began with agriculture. We built huge vertical farms, fifty-story skyscrapers in which most of the work could be automated. They were in the pipeline anyway, they used land so efficiently. Traditional farming would still continue of course. I met an old man in Alberta who claimed he could plough his fields blindfolded. He became our first spokesman. We built sensors for tractors, installed guide wires along the edges of fields, developed a range of cheap equipment to identify common pests and diseases.

Transportation actually improved. We installed extensive streetcar networks in all major cities, strung ropes along the edges of sidewalks. We consolidated populations, drawing suburbanites back downtown. We ripped up highways and laid rail. Trains have been able to drive themselves for decades, held back only by union pressure and a public mistrust of automation.

A few pundits claimed the whole thing was a conspiracy to push an environmentalist agenda. But for once fear was on our side. People trusted us because they were scared not to. I was scared too, maybe more than anyone.

When I first became Chair of the UN Accessibility Committee, it was a largely ceremonial position. After the announcement, though, I was the most important person in the world. I was young and smart and ambitious and I took charge when someone needed to. I got the Canadian Government on board right away; I had old school friends in Parliament. Australia and the UK joined in shortly after. When other countries saw how quick we were moving, they were scared to be left behind. Before long we had a blank cheque and an army of staff. I met with world leaders daily, me and Bess. I swear that dog met more heads of state than most heads of state do. It was terrifying.

This was all before I met your grandfather.

illustration by Chester Burton Brown

Taxes went way up everywhere, of course, but there was also an economic boom. There was just so much work to be done. Everyone compared it to a wartime economy.

We manufactured two hundred thousand Perkins Braillers in that first year and ramped up production from there. Google had already digitized most of the world’s books, so once we had the infrastructure set up it was easy to start producing Braille editions. All new laptops came with Refreshable Braille Displays as well as regular screens. They came with built-in software designed to gradually wean users off visual feedback and get them hooked on the RBDs. We called them “Transitional Technologies.” For decades TT was an important marketing symbol.

Ironically, I spent a lot of time on TV during those years, demonstrating new technologies and showing viewers what life would be like after it happened.

A close-up of my face: “Instead of watching sport on TV we’ll just have to get up off our couches and start actually playing!”

Zoom out to reveal me in sweat pants and T-shirt standing on a goalball court. I block the jingling ball with my hand, judging its position by sound alone.

Your grandfather saw me on TV before we ever met. He said he knew right away. Imagine that! Falling in love with someone based on what they look like. It was ridiculous. But ridiculous did it for me at that time. Everyone was taking everything so seriously that sometimes being ridiculous was the only way to cope.

The blind — those who were blind already — set themselves up as consultants and charged exorbitant fees. There were several cases of fraud, of sighted people trying to cash in by pretending to be blind, with dogs and canes for disguises. Conspiracy theorists even claimed that the blind were behind it all, fed up with not having the world tailored to meet our needs. As the public face of all these changes, they often targeted me specifically. I just ignored them.

There were religious fanatics, of course, who claimed it was divine judgment on the world, the ninth plague of Egypt all over again, the beginning of the End Times. I sometimes had to address these claims in my media appearances, always treating them as jokes, turning them to our advantage: “I hardly think this is a plague worthy of God. It might have been nasty for the ancient Egyptians, but with today’s technology it is little more than a minor inconvenience.”

Shortly after we started dating, your grandfather dropped by my house late in the evening. He said he was taking me on a picnic. I told him I had already eaten, but he insisted. He drove us out to the beach in his little hatchback and spread a blanket on the sand. We listened to the noisy surf and ate a baguette with brie, drank some wine. It was all very romantic, but when I touched his face I realized he was crying.

“It’s the stars,” he told me. Have you learned about stars yet, in school? Anyway, he was an amateur astronomer, your grandfather. With sight you could do astronomy with cheap equipment, or even with no equipment at all.

“The stars,” he said, with a quiver in his voice. “Where would we be if we couldn’t look up and see the stars? We wouldn’t have navigation or the constellations or Star Trek.” Yes, of course we had Star Trek. This was back before the radio show though. It was on television back then.

I think I laughed at him, which might have been cruel, but it was a habit by that point. It was my job to make this stuff seem like no big deal. Besides, it seemed like a funny thing to cry about.

“We have GPS,” I pointed out, kissing away his tears. “We can navigate just fine. And as for the constellations and Star Trek — they’re imaginary! There will never be a shortage of imagination.”

Then I told him about a calculus problem I was assigned in university. I had to calculate the rate of change of a man’s shadow as he walked past a streetlight. My professor had found a way of explaining it to me: “Imagine a gnome sitting on top of the lamppost holding a long extendable stick. He likes to rest the far end of the stick on the heads of passers-by on the street below, but it always extends all the way to the ground. The distance from the passer-by’s feet to the end of the stick is the length of his shadow.”

“Gnomes,” said your granddad. And then he smiled.

You’ll have to ask your grandfather to tell you what it was like to see. From what I could gather, everybody thought of it as direct, unmediated experience of reality. Of course it was really just photons bouncing around — but there was a precision to it that was awfully impressive. With sight, you could easily jump from rock to rock in a river without getting your feet wet. I guess it was like having proximity sensors built right into your brain.

Close-up on my face, lit by a flashlight: “They say destiny is written in the stars.” Pan up to reveal a brilliantly starry sky, tinged with the green of the aurora borealis. I am in Nunavut. “And, indeed, astronomers were among the first to notice the impending change.”

Cut to an astronomer sitting in front of an impressive telescope: “So will you be out of a job once it happens?”

The astronomer laughs: “Lord no! We astronomers are used to dealing with things we can’t see. I can’t remember the last time I looked through an optical telescope. Our equipment measures a huge spectrum of radiation, of which visible light is only a tiny portion. It will just be a matter of displaying the data differently.”

Cut to an amusing clip from Futurama of Professor Farnsworth using his Smelloscope.

People flocked to see visual art in those days, knowing it was their last chance. Critics wrote about the frantic atmosphere in galleries, the sense of anxiety and desperation with which visitors stared at the paintings and sculptures. Actual sales of visual art plummeted, of course, and artists — ever adaptable — began to experiment with sound, touch, smell and taste in new and exciting ways. Even before it happened, galleries began putting on exhibits designed to be experienced in the dark. Many prominent artists are on record saying it was the best thing that ever happened to the art world.

Emergency services took a lot of work. We decentralized firefighting, went back to small-scale, volunteer departments. Firefighters memorized the layouts of the units they were responsible for.

“It’s often impossible to see in a smoky building anyway,” I tell the camera as beefy firefighters practice lifts and drags behind me. “In the most dangerous situations, firefighters may well be as effective as ever. And with new regulations regarding heating, appliances and sprinkler systems, we actually expect deaths from fire to go down.”

A blindfolded firefighter in bunker gear lifts me over his shoulder and carries me out of shot.

Cut to a shot of me sitting on an examining table. I am surrounded by an array of medical gizmos: “Many pieces of diagnostic equipment will function as they always have,” I say, sticking a stethoscope into my ears. Audio of a heart thumping. “Blood pressure tests, urine and fecal tests, electrocardiograms — even X-rays and MRIs — will all continue to function in pretty much the same way, just with auditory or tactile output. Diagnosis of things like rashes will get more difficult, but internal medicine will remain almost identical.”

Your mother was born about thirty years before it happened. I think it was considerably easier for her generation than for mine. She was born knowing that vision would not last. It was like getting her first period or her driver’s license, something that was just a part of growing up. The TT concept had been applied to the whole of society by then. Kids attended school blindfolded and they could all function effectively both blind and sighted. It was like your French immersion program. We called them “ambi-abled” and the adults envied them. My generation were too set in their ways, too slow to learn new things. That’s why old people grumble so much.

If there was one event that really changed people’s attitudes it was the first blind flight. The pilot flew from London to St. John’s blindfolded, using tactile feedback, and he nailed the landing in high crosswinds. It was a cheesy publicity stunt and a little disingenuous at that, because the really hard part of aviation was air traffic control. But that pilot captured the world’s imagination. He was made an honorary colonel in the RCAF, became a household name. After that, people really started to believe that everything was going to be all right.

We picked a day. It didn’t happen like that, of course. It happened gradually — some people had been completely blind for years, others could still see relatively well — but everyone agreed on the need for an official date. So we picked a day in late summer, the day of a solar eclipse. Would have been a good metaphor, I suppose, for those few who were able to see it. There were celebrations around the globe. Governments, media and the entertainment industry all agreed it should be a joyous occasion, a party atmosphere. Audio fireworks exploded noisily over Times Square.

Everyone thought there would be catastrophes, that nuclear power plants would explode, that airplanes would fall out of the sky, that society would crumble. To be honest, we were expecting a wave of suicides once people began to notice the change.

It reminded us old folks of Y2K: so anti-climactic. Everyone just got drunk, had a party, and then got on with their lives.

You were born just a few weeks later. You’ve already adapted in ways we never would have thought of. I guess it’s not even adaptation any more; it’s just progress, plain and simple.

Did you know I used to have to put on makeup every day so that my face would only reflect certain frequencies of light? Now romance is all about touch and smell and words. Don’t tell your grandfather I said this, but it’s better this way.

A lot of things are better now.

Julian Mortimer Smith has worked as a bookseller, a university teaching assistant and a military clarinetist. He recently completed a Master’s thesis on games and play. He currently lives in a small lobstering village in rural Nova Scotia.

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