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Glasses that Subtitle

This morning the BBC ran an item on glasses that had the ability to show subtitles, you can see more here.

First, let it be said I am a social networking geek, I dig technology and innovation. Anyone who has followed me online long enough will get I'm a big user of such tech and always an early adopter. So as far as these glasses go, on a surface level they are a form of social software. They enable the social to happen, more than it is currently. It is good that geeks are innovating such tech and that goes without saying.

On a personal level, I probably would only wear such glasses in limited circumstances - anything on my face drives me nuts. I value my eyesight at peripheral vision, a bit more than I can tend to care about the detail of what's going on in front of me. It is that what allows me feel connected to my environment - I need to know what's going on around me, as I do not get by on environmental sound. Balance might have something to do with it too. My dislike of blinkers is a personal choice, others might feel differently. That I have no qualms about.

However, that's where my praise of this whole thing stops right in its tracks. I do not knock technology that works with a person, the departure happens when technology is used as society's excuse for what amounts of lazyitis, intolerance or projection of the need for conformity.

That is what I want to write about, and what I started to kick off about on Twitter this morning. One thing about Twitter, you have to punctuate what you say, it is limited to 140 characters and it becomes much about what you leave out and don't say (sometimes because it is obvious).

So what am I bothered about? First journalism should not be a form of marketing (yes it is nice to have positive stories), but it is important to have a form of critique and balance. Put this in the context of the BBC, and it becomes more pressing.

The BBC interviewed someone from the the Cinema Exhibitors' Association:

Phil Clapp, "The broad range of audiences do not like going to subtitled films. But it also needs to be said that the needs and wants of disabled or hearing impaired customers are as broad and varied as the needs and wants of the general audience.

BBC reporter, "Yes. Like they want to go on a Friday night."

Phil Clapp, "They do want to go on a Friday night that's true but unfortunately the economics of the industry mean that it's too big a financial hit on the industry to be able to provide that at this moment."

BBC reporter, "So can technology come to the rescue?"

(Note: it does not cost anything more to play a subtitled film).

Yes I know how the majority of society wants me to respond to that: cinemas are losing revenue because people don't like subtitles! Here's an alternative solution! So cool, we have new tech! Lets go all dizzy already, and embrace!

Except I didn't.

Instead I read the rationale was presented as: some people are intolerant towards the other, we cannot do much about that intolerance, thus lets provide something where you are least visible. You as a deaf person are a nuisance, and are costing a multi billion pound industry money. This is the point where I probably stopped listening. Once you start selling tech on the basis that I am a second class citizen, in need of hiding away, forget it. I really do not want to know. And yes, I will kick off about it.

You know, I am not an afterthought or a nuisance. I have every right to go to the cinema on a Friday night too, just like every single hearing person out there. No I am not an inconvenience, nor does the world exist solely for the benefit of hearing people. Our planet is the home for not just certain classes of people, it home for the likes of me too. Deaf people form part of society - deal with it. When it comes to equal citizenship, it is not negotiation territory.

Hearing people are not required to wear headphones so the sound doesn't disturb the rest of the audience. The speakers at the cinema are in full swing. Let it be known, the sound of dialogue often bothers me - I don't make sense of it, and the vibrations can be senseless (at least music comes with a beat). However, I put up with it; you know it is called tolerance of the other.

Instead the analogy that entered my head was: put Black people at the back of the bus, they cannot possibly sit somewhere else because it might offend the sensibilities of white people. And oh, we need to do that because we might lose business because if we don't it might drive white people away. Don't worry, you can still ride the bus (or wear glasses), just we need to make sure you are less visible. Let the ruling majority, rule. Ditto, lets have a rule where we restrict when LGBT are allowed to stay at accommodation, because Oh My God! We might offend straight people who cannot possibly allow their tolerance to stretch that far, thus it could put us out of business.

I likened the rationale given behind glasses to segregation, along the lines of hide people away and to do away with visibility.

(And imagine if the BBC ran a story about a piece of tech due to intolerance towards other minority groups, without questioning it. I can bet there would be a bit more noise than just this lone voice is making).

Get this. Open subtitles are words on a screen. I am not the least bit sorry if it annoys the crap out of you. Get used to it. And to run a story on the rationale we are providing tech because intolerance exists, is well into lost the plot territory.

A cinema is certainly a business venture, and exists to make a profit; thus it could be argued that they should meet the needs of the majority and run with that. Perhaps fit in minority groups, when they are less busy and actually drum up a profit that way. However, pure free market economics does not exist; businesses have constraints put on them all the time. Whether it be a smoking ban indoors, health and safety requirements and equality measures that you are not allowed to discriminate. All have potential economic consequences.

I would argue, if subtitles existed as much as ramps, lifts and so forth - we would not even need this conversation. Accessibility becomes the norm, and people become used to (as they get used to say, wearing a seat belt). The more we hide ourselves, the harder it is going to be to argue otherwise. Like: this is your problem, put the glasses on, be invisible and shut up.

Which is the thing that irks me about this subtitles glasses proposal. Not the fact that the technology here can't do good; of course it can and certainly in more rural areas. However intolerance of the other should never be the driving force in pushing for technology. That should be focused on accessibility, by imbracing inclusion (which in this context leads to less segregation) and acceptance for who you are. However, once we go for the intolerance line, we really are not going to get anywhere.

(There is more I could say about this, however I do not want to confuse the main thrust of my objection).

Update: The Rebuttal has written a blog post which continues the theme above.

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