Entry 795: Blind as an App

I don’t know why I have such a low opinion of my fellow humans.

Recently, I learned about an app called Be My Eyes which allows vision-impaired people to connect in real time with vision unimpaired people to get help with small things like identifying denominations of paper currency. The app’s website goes out of its way to explain that blind folks can generally get around just fine, but there are times when they could use a little help, like, for instance, when they need to know the expiration date on a container of milk. That’s one of the examples the site uses, as if blind folks are in constant danger of supermarkets taking advantage of them. “Here comes that blind guy,” says the store manager. “Quick, get the stock boy to move the old milk to the front.”

So the way the app works is that the blind person in the dairy aisle would log in and the app would connect them to someone who had volunteered to help. The blind person would then use the camera on their phone to send video of the milk carton to the sighted volunteer who would then be able to tell them the expiration date. “It’s good until next week,” the volunteer would say. “And, by the way, are you sure you want whole milk? May I suggest the one percent? I mean, have you seen yourself in that dress? Oh, right. Sorry.”

Do you see what I mean? That’s where my mind went. I immediately thought that this app, which has the potential of improving the lives of so many people, will somehow turn ugly. Literally my first reaction was “Oh, boy, is this going to be abused!”

Just as the physicists who discovered atomic power assumed the worst of people and worried it would become a horrible weapon, I could see pranksters providing blind people with information as reliable as one might get from Fox News. I imagined vision-impaired folks in supermarkets being directed to the kale instead of the romaine lettuce, thus ruining their Caesar salads. Or worse: “Just keep going forward,” a volunteer might say. “You feel that slight drop with your cane? Just step down; it’s only a curb, it’s not an open manhole at all.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that my reaction to this app says much more about me than it does about the state of humanity. After all, we haven’t heard about anyone abusing Be My Eyes, so maybe I’m the only one who thinks that way. Humanity is fine, you believe, but this blogger is an asshole.

Well, you are wrong, as usual. In fact, Be My Eyes has anticipated some less-than-humanitarian uses for its app, some of which I didn’t even think of:

“The following are situations,” says the website, “where Be My Eyes is NOT to be used:
•Displaying identification documents like a passport, driver’s license or other government-issued ID card
•Sharing credit card, bank/checking account, insurance or other financial information
•Sharing your social security number or other government identification number
•Sharing information about medicine or health-related conditions
•Bullying or practical jokes
•Sharing nude, unlawful, hateful or sexually suggestive content”

Interestingly, since the note above is addressed to blind people (after all, only they can decide when the app gets used), Be My Eyes seems to be implying that it may be the blind users who play practical jokes on the volunteers rather than the other way around. How would that even work? “Yes, hello, something seems to be wrong with my seeing-eye dog. Here he is, see, with his legs in the air? Do you think he’s okay? Ha, ha, just kidding. You can stop playing dead now, Wilmer.”

And what about that last bullet point above? Are they thinking blind people will use the app to have volunteers describe porn to them? Or that some vision-impaired skinhead might call to make sure he’s got his swastika turned the right way?

Be My Eyes has also anticipated my second reaction to learning about the app, which was that I wouldn’t want to be beeped every time some blind person’s milk tasted a little off. “If you’re in the middle of something,” says the video on the website, “don’t worry. Someone else will step in.” The footage accompanying this shows someone driving and tapping their dashboard-mounted phone. I sure hope that’s the volunteer.

If I did sign up to help, I’d be concerned about the types of tasks I might be asked to do. For instance, here’s a “story” from the website:

“Faye is from Saudi Arabia and studies biomedical engineering...Faye has assisted Be My Eyes users with many different tasks. She has, for example, helped a user count his money and assisted another user in picking out a shirt to wear…”

Okay, it’s one thing if a blind person calls for help reading an expiration date or counting his Euros. But I don’t think they should be asking for opinions. What if Faye has lousy taste? What does a biomedical engineer know about fashion, anyway? And I pity the person asking me for wardrobe assistance. Remember–they wouldn’t be able to see what I was wearing. If they could, they’d pick something at random from their closet and call it a day.

And here’s something I bet no one has considered: what if a blind person uses the app while in a voting booth (“Can you tell me which lever is…”) and the volunteer is a Trump supporter? Or a Russian? Maybe that’s what happened in 2016: it wasn’t that Hillary lost Michigan, it was that she lost the sightless vote.

See you soon.

P.S. In case you want to volunteer to help vision-impaired people get through their days, you should know that there are currently almost twice as many volunteers on Be My Eyes as there are users. They need more blind people!

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