The image got me thinking about the purported “inattentional blindness" induced by smartphones, and the poorly understood functions of the white cane. So I emailed with Georgina Kleege, a literature scholar, professor at UC Berkeley, and a daily user of both a smart phone and a white cane. I asked her about these technologies, 20/20 vision, app design, and re-thinking navigational smarts.
Sara Hendren: Whenever I see someone using a cane on the street, I perceive it as such an elegant wayfinding device—that is, when paired with the magnificent sensing system of the human body. Can you talk a little bit about how a person learns to deploy a cane for maximal sensitivity?
Georgina Kleege: I think there's a popular misconception that blind people use a cane as an extension of the hand to feel the space around us. But, along with my cane, I use hearing, touch, and sometimes even olfactory perception in combination to get me where I want to go.
The cane’s tip sweeps the ground before my feet to alert me to obstacles and curbs, and to announce details about the texture of the surface underfoot. On regular routes, changes in the pavement’s texture signal that I am approaching a destination or turning point. But while I attend to this tactile information I am very conscious of sounds: both the echoes of the sound the cane makes, which can sometimes tell me something about my surroundings, and the sound of traffic, children at play in a schoolyard, footsteps behind or coming toward me, music playing at a corner bar, and so forth. Restaurants, bakeries, flower stands, drugstores, and bookshops all exhale their particular scents. To take advantage of all this information, I direct my attention outward in all directions, creating a sort of sphere of perception to surround me as I move.