Digital Independence

What is it? What does it mean? What does it look like?

© 2002 Richard Wanderman, David Clark, and Monika Koethnig

Note: This was first written and posted in 2002 to support a presentation that David and I did at the Closing the Gap assistive technology conference. I was a popular presenter at this conference and generally had standing room only only crowds at my sessions. This session was far enough ahead of its time that it had light attendance which shocked us because we were sure we were on to something, and now we know in retrospect that we were. The sad truth is that most of the assistive tech community still does not get the significance of these ideas and this is one of the many reasons I gave up a twenty year career consulting in the AT area.

Please be gentle on feedback on the nine year old links in this article. I’ll be glad to update them as we find problems. Thanks.

What is it?
Imagine sitting in a Starbucks with your portable computer in your lap, not plugged into anything, and being able to communicate with friends all over the world, pay your bills, move money from your money market account into your IRA, book travel, shop, read the day’s news and weather, and of course, listen to any music from your entire music collection. This image is real and what makes it possible are just a few powerful and readily available technologies: a high speed connection to the internet, a wireless local area network, a portable computer, a small collection of applications, and digital money.

Using “plastic” to pay is not just about floating a balance or shopping online, it’s also about the elimination of handling money, something some people with physical disabilities don’t do well. Using a Mobil SpeedPass or paying for groceries with a credit card are no longer considered cutting edge; we take these tools and processes for granted but if you can’t handle money the digitization of these processes is more than just convenience; it’s access.

Having a music collection digitized and stored on a computer eliminates the need to handle media and allows random access to any of thousands of songs sorted by album, artist, and genre in one place. Digital music players like iTunes or Media JukeBox can organize and play entire music collections (many thousands of songs and albums). Portable digital music players allow you to carry your entire music collection with you without a computer. Music is just one example of digital sound: the era of books on tape will slowly change to books on CD, then audible digital downloadable books, then books streamed over the internet.

This move from analog (money, CDs) to digital (credit card, digital music) will soon be viewed as the most significant inclusive curb cut in history.

Atoms to bits

Nicholas Negroponte, the Director of the MIT Media Lab has been saying for years that atoms are different from bits. When he first started saying this in his WIRED Magazine editorials many thought he was being arrogant and too “ivory tower.” Now we know better. Dealing with atoms – newspapers, money, CDs, paper plane tickets is different from dealing with bits – electronic representations of text on a computer, credit cards, mp3s, and e-tickets. Making processes digital (reducing them to bits) can, and many times does, make those processes more accessible for everyone but particularly accessible to people with a range of disabilities that affect their access to the analog processes.

Digitizing content is just the start

Long before Negroponte started rubbing our noses in atoms and bits the computer scientist and futurist Alan Kay was commenting on the then new technology of burning large amounts of information onto CDs. He said that the minute you put a dictionary on a CD it’s out of date; the dictionary company will update the information but you (with your new CD) will not have it. So you buy a new, upgraded CD. This goes on forever. He thought (long before the internet explosion) it would be better to be connected directly to the dictionary company so you always have the latest content and never need to buy a new CD. Now, 20 years after he made those remarks, we see that even though the CD may contain a digital version of the dictionary, the CD itself is still made of atoms and consequently, comes with some of the same limitations as a book dictionary; it goes out of date and you have to handle it to use it.

The network and the computer = access
As Kay was saying this, Sun Microsystems was just starting to make the then outrageous advertising statement, “the network is the computer.” Most of us didn’t get it because our connections were modems using regular telephone lines. In fact, Sun predicted that bigger pipes like cable internet, DSL, and ISDN would be widely available and positioned themselves to be key players in the then fledgling move toward the internet.

The AOL model
No one can dispute that America Online (AOL) has brought more people online than almost any other single force. But AOL has not gracefully changed its paradigm since it started. A large AOL server in Dulles, Virginia, holds a huge amount of content and everyone dials in to use it. The more content providers they can sign up the more all of us will want to join AOL to get access to it. And, unlike the internet which is unfiltered, AOL can filter and edit its content, which it does.

However, their model as a single publisher of information doesn’t allow for the parallel growth that can take place when many people, all over the world, become publishers of information.

The internet
Almost all, if not all of AOL’s content providers now have their own web sites as well as spaces in the AOL content area. You can get your weather information from the Weather Channel on television (and watch a lot of commercials), from (the Weather Channel’s web site), from their space on AOL, or through applications other than a web browser that tap into the National Weather Service’s data pool which is open to all. In short, you now have choices.

What’s different about the internet model is that it’s a distributed model. The information is all over the place (world), and just like investment strategists have been telling us for years; diversification means strength and more probable innovation.

The internet as a sharing medium
When AT&T developed Unix in 1969 they gave the source code away by putting it out on the then baby internet (Darpanet) and lo and behold, computer scientists at UC Berkeley and elsewhere improved on it. (David did not work on this project while he was at Berkeley, he only dreamed about it.)

In 1991 Linus Torvalds, then a grad student in Finland sent email to fellow OS writers telling them that he was working on a “hobby” OS project and asked them if he might share it with them. It was called Linux.

To contribute to Linux or Unix or to any open source project, all you need is a computer, a connection, and a willingness to share. You do not have to go through the interview process to get a job at Microsoft; you just have to earn the trust and respect of your net-peers, most of whom you will never meet face to face.

Doesn’t matter where you are
We have a friend who lives in Central California (near Yosemite Park and we’re jealous). He’s a rare gem importer. He spends six months a year in California and six months in Bangkok, Thailand. When we get email from him we have no idea where he is. In terms of email, he is digitally independent. He has a cable modem and network at home in California, and a high-speed network in his apartment in Thailand. He routinely emails us one day from California and the next day from Thailand. Same conversation continued from a different place.

This kind of digital independence taken further can allow anyone who makes a living on the internet to live anywhere. Our friend chose Thailand because that’s where gems are; but if you design web sites, write, or do a kind of work that does not rely on geography, you’re free. You could choose Thailand because you like it there yet still contribute to a project in Boston or Paris or both.

Home on the cell
In many developing countries the infrastructure for physical telephone lines is minimal and antiquated at best. However, inexpensive and widespread cell phone use allows many developing countries to skip building a physical telephone infrastructure and focus on the ultimate goal, spreading telephone access to everyone. This paradigm shift means that homeless people have access to communication even if they don’t have access to a home. Is this a case of having the curb cut before the curb?

Image filtering
This past summer Richard rebuilt the entire LD Resources web site with the help of two friends, David Clark and Monika Koethnig. Richard lives in Connecticut, David in Massachusetts, and Monika in Aabenraa, Denmark.

The most significant technology we used is chat. Chat made and continues to make working together possible without numerous trans-atlantic phone calls. Each morning (afternoon for Monika) we all spent and continue to spend an hour chatting, showing each other progress on projects and discussing issues.

The operating systems and chat programs we use are different but each keeps a log of the chat so we can refer back to it without having to wade through email and it’s real time so we get answers to questions immediately.

All of us are serious computer users, and each of us uses lots of technology to build and support hundreds of web pages, yet chat is one of the key digital technologies that we depend on. Chat is an inclusive technology.

David and Richard have never met Monika face to face yet they’ve all worked together for over a year now. Monika had never heard David’s voice until one month ago. So, Monika has been able to form an image of David without the “baggage” of visual and auditory stereotyping.

In a perfect world, stereotyping is a non-issue, but we don’t live in a perfect world. It took Richard years to have David’s physical disability fall into the background in his relationship with him. Monika already considers David a close friend without having to work at that.

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

This is the caption to a now infamous New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner showing a dog sitting at a computer talking with another dog (sitting on the floor) about the experience. Map this idea into the disability world and it’s more than a joke. The internet can be a great filter for aspects of a person which might preclude close relationships if they were seen up front. In short, filtering out immediate visual categorization of people can allow their intelligence to shine through before visual stereotyping undermines it.

The Sociology of digital independence
Many people have thought and written about these ideas although with less disability focus and more general societal focus.

Marshall McLuhan was thinking about “digital independence” pretty early in the game. “The medium is the message” has a very different meaning when applied to the above filtering effect the internet has on visual images. He also used the term “global village” long before we had a sense of what it would be like to have full time access to the internet, cell phones, and GPS systems.

Sherry Turkle at MIT has done extensive research and writing on what it’s like to spend a significant amount of one’s time online and how the internet can be a filter. Her latest book is “Life on the Screen”.

What does it mean?
The effects of these changes are profound yet most people haven’t fully considered the implications for people with a variety of learning and physical access needs.

Think about how widespread credit card use is (maybe too widespread). Credit cards change the way we deal with money. A credit card is an access tool.

Think about how widespread cell phone use is. Cell phones change the way we communicate by allowing us to do it independent of land lines. Cell phones are access tools.

It is true that full-time, fast internet access hasn’t reached everyone and that not everyone can afford it. However, this kind of internet access will be as common as cell phones soon and when it is, we think it’s important to consider what it will mean. A computer on a fast, wired or wireless internet connection is a significant access tool.

Finally, these changes are not being driven by disability law or advocacy groups, they are being driven by convenience for everyone. That simple fact makes this the most inclusive and so the most important curb cut in history.

What does it look like? Travelog: Warren, CT to Boston, MA

Below is a travelog with numerous examples of digital processes. The details of hardware, software, or web sites are not what is important. Rather, we are focusing on the philosophy and process of being digitally independent and the potential it has for people with disabilities.

  1. Richard has $40 in his wallet.
  2. Richard logs into ldresources admin chat with iChat. Finds David and Monika (Germany) chatting. Tells David he’ll be leaving in an hour for Boston so David had better get some food in the house.
  3. David goes to PeaPod to order groceries (his fridge is usually empty) and looks at the weather with Weather Watcher.
  4. Richard uses OS X Address Book to get map to David’s house (Boston is a bear in a car).
  5. David realizes that it is going to be a working dinner, and needs to finally make his Panasonic Toughbook wireless.
  6. Richard told David weeks ago to order a wireless card from CDW, and the package was on his desk waiting for David to install.
  7. Murphy’s law: While David is trying to install his new Orinoco card, he realizes that he neods to download new drivers, but now hisi Xircom card is not working.
  8. Richard suggests the idea of burning a CD of the drivers on the iMac, and then using the CD in the toughbook.
  9. Meanwhile, Richard uses Sherlock to get better driving directions.
  10. David gets his favorite playlist of mp3s playing while he works using Media JukeBox to play music through his stereo from his computer.
  11. Richard gets Boston weather so he knows what to pack.
  12. David runs into a problem with “affect” and “effect” in his writing. He uses Confusing Words (an internet-based reference tool coming soon to this web site) to figure it out.
  13. Richard gets traffic advisory on Mass Pike as well as Boston traffic advisory.
  14. David sends Richard’s wife Anne a birthday gift from her wish list.
  15. Richard looks up the NPR stations along the route using the NPR Station Directory.
  16. Richard backs up PowerBook on .mac account
  17. Richard puts PowerBook to sleep, then puts it in backpack for trip.
  18. Richard gets gas with Mobile SpeedPass. Pays tolls on Mass Pike with FastLane card.
  19. While in the car Richard uses his digital recorder to record ideas for the CTG Digital Independence presentation he and David are doing. Wishes he had a GPS receiver hooked up to his Palm or PowerBook to make it easier to find David’s house.
  20. Richard arrives in Boston, parks in garage, gets ticket.
  21. Before going up to David’s, Richard opens PowerBook in lobby, gets on David’s wireless AirPort network which uses his iMac as a base station.
  22. Richard gets email from friend at Macalaster College. She’s writing a paper on the play M Butterfly and forgets who wrote it. She asks for the author’s name. Richard quickly looks up the play at Google and just to make sure at Amazon too. Sends her email back with answer in 1 minute.
  23. Richard carries PowerBook upstairs to David’s apartment, still online.
  24. Richard notices David’s new Land’s End jacket. Prices it. Skips it.
  25. David looks for a restaurant close by so they can eat.
  26. There is a friend that David wants Richard to meet. David looks his number up on and invites him to dinner.
  27. They walk to dinner with their computers.
  28. They arive at restaurant.
  29. They order drinks and dinner.
  30. While they wait they might as well be productive.
  31. Richard opens his computer and notices he can tap into nearby Starbucks WiFi network.
  32. Richard tells David he just read the most amazing New Yorker column but he forgot the magazine to give David. He goes to Faith, Hope, and Clarity, and sends David the url.
  33. That leads to more talk about New Yorker writers and on to Malcolm Gladwell. Richard tells David he must read the article Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.
  34. Which leads to conversation about movies and Richard’s fifty year old brain draws a blank about who the heavy-set supporting actor is in the movie The Waterdance. He uses All to find out while we talk.
  35. Monika in Denmark sends David an instant message in chat. She tells him to go to their “chat room” and bring Richard.
  36. Monika has been updating the UK AlphaSmart web site and wants them to tell her how it looks. She sends them the url in chat.
  37. Richard sends the url for the web page documenting David, Steve, and Richard’s recent trip to Alaska to Monika in chat. The page was created with Steve’s program WebPics.
  38. David mentions that there are more pictures at Doug Geeting’s site and sends the url.
  39. Which leads David to play Richard a song from Geeting’s CD The Alaska Mile which he has digitized on his computer.
  40. The people at the table right behind David are speaking German. Richard uses Sherlock to look up some of the words they’re using. Sends the words to Monika in chat to verify.
  41. They are wondering if there is an internet cafe nearby to send a note
    home. Richard offers them his AlphaSmart to write an email on. He asks them to put the email address they want the note sent to in the note.
  42. While they are gawking at the AlphaSmart Richard pulls out his Canon S30 digital camera and takes a picture of them.
  43. The Germans finish the email, hand Richard the AlphaSmart, and he sends their text from the AlphaSmart into his email client. He removes the Lexar compact flash card from his camera, sticks it in the PCMCIA CF reader in his computer, and copies their picture onto his computer. He scales the picture down and gets rid of red-eye with iPhoto, attaches it to the email and sends it to them.
  44. The German couple are impressed with the AlphaSmart and David tells them that there is an AlphaSmart localized for Germany and a German AlphaSmart web site to support it. David sends the url to their email address.
  45. Someone at another table has been watching all of this and asks for Richard’s email address. He has a Palm OS device so Richard pulls out his Palm and beams them his business card. David, not wanting to be left out asks Richard to beam his address too.
  46. Richard and David think they might want to go to the movies after dinner and need to know what’s playing nearby. Richard runs Sherlock to search with David’s zip code.
  47. David uses his credit card to pay for dinner.
  48. They walk back to David’s house.
  49. Richard hates David’s musical taste and he’s brought a new Nickel Creek CD he wants David to listen to. David puts the CD into his computer, and while Richard isn’t looking rips it into mp3, getting all the CD track info from
  50. Meanwhile, Richard checks registrations at Resources Discussion.
  51. David sends his goddaughter Catie an eCard for her birthday.
  52. David and Richard submit a proposal to CTG for their Digital Independence session.
  53. They book a room at Sofitel hotel.
  54. They each register for CTG conference.
  55. Richard buys his plane ticket to Minneapolis at Northwest and forwards David the email flight itinerary.
  56. David buys his plane ticket to Minneapolis at, then forwards the email flight itinerary to Richard.
  57. Richard uses Watson to look for a picture of Marshall Mcluhan to add to Digital Independence web page and handout.
  58. After Richard goes to sleep (old man, can’t keep up with “yout”). David replies to some mail, and checks in on a few online communities he
    phpbuilder, AlphaSmart, Sourceforge, Half the Planet, LD Resources, and
  59. Realizing they’re not even close to having the presentation done,
    David books Amtrak to New Haven so they can continue work in Warren.
  60. Richard wakes up, makes coffee, notices David is running out of coffee so orders some from Starbucks.
  61. Richard puts his PowerBook to sleep and in backpack, says goodbye to David and walks to car.
  62. Richard pays for parking with credit card (sheesh, Boston is expensive).
  63. Richard gets gas with credit card.
  64. Richard pays toll on Mass Pike with FastLane card
  65. Richard arrives home, opens computer and it finds his AirPort network automatically.
  66. Richard has the same $40 still in his wallet (his credit card, however, is charred and smoking).

How to do it: atoms to bits
Below is a list of things many of us do every day and the tools we use to do them.

Buy something

  • Go to store, use cash
  • Write check
  • Use debit card
  • Use credit card
  • Use credit card at
  • Use one-click at

Buy something for Anne

  • Go to store, buy wrong thing
  • Buy wrong thing online
  • Buy something that Anne wants with wish list

Get gas

Find a friend’s phone number

Get the weather

Buy plane ticket

Convert currency

Find out how to get to B & H Photo in New York

Find a movie playing nearby

  • Call all the theaters
  • Use Sherlock to find out what’s playing

Pay traffic tolls on Mass Pike

Give someone your name and address

  • Talk while they write it down on a napkin
  • Give them a business card
  • Give them an address label
  • Give them a business card, they scan it in
  • Beam it to them with your PDA
  • Send it written out in email
  • Send them a vcard in email

Send or receive faxes

  • Deal with equipment, paper, and separate phone line
  • Get an Efax account

Send a card

  • Go to local pharmacy, buy card, address envelope, stuff, and send
  • Pick card from and send

Get reminded of something

Take a picture, send it to someone

  • Take a picture with a film camera, have film processed, send someone a print in the mail
  • Take a picture with a digital camera, transfer picture to computer, send it to someone as an attachment to email

Share pictures

  • Make duplicate prints, send them out in the mail
  • Send images as attachments to email
  • Use to make prints
  • Use WebPics to make web page of images
  • Share Alaska trip done with WebPics

Reserve a room at Hotel Sofitel

Print your handouts for Closing the Gap

  • Print 100 on your printer, carry handouts on plane
  • Print 1 on your printer, photocopy locally (Kinkos or anywhere), carry handouts on plane
  • Print 1 on your printer, carry to Minneapolis on plane, photocopy at Kinkos or anywhere, carry back to hotel
  • Make a PDF on your computer, give Kinkos the order online, fly to Minneapolis with no handouts, have them delivered to hotel

Submit proposal for Closing the Gap

  • write proposal, print it, stuff envelope, send via mail
  • Submit a CTG web site

Register for Closing the Gap

  • Fill out form, write check, send or fax
  • Register at CTG web site

Chat with someone

Work collaboratively

  • Everyone fly to Minneapolis, meet at CTG
  • Telephone calls
  • Conference calls
  • Group email
  • Use Chat instead of conference calls
  • Use threaded discussion with group edits of single posts
  • Multiple people working on a single online project: Confusing Words

Learn php

  • Take a class
  • Buy a book
  • Read documentation online at php network
  • Read and ask questions in a discussion forum like phpbuilder
  • Find a buddy online to share ideas with

at a meeting

Participate in community

Make the next killer application

  • Apply for and get job at Microsoft or Apple
  • Attend meeting, listen to “water cooler stories”
  • Deal with daily commute and respectability of your wardrobe (rather than your ideas)
  • Work from home in your sweatpants, communicate and collaborate electronically with email, chat, message boards

Find your high school classmates

  • Send a letter to one you remember
  • Wait until 30th reunion
  • Register at

Publish your ideas: write an essay…

  • staple it to a telephone pole
  • photocopy it, staple it to many telephone poles
  • mail it to someone
  • photocopy it, mail it to many
  • fax it to someone
  • fax it to many
  • email it to someone
  • email it to many (careful of being a “spammer”)
  • join a listserve, send to the list
  • get someone to put it on his web site (if it’s about LD, go here)
  • put up your own web site

Pay your bills

Read a magazine

Send a magazine article to a friend

Have a magazine article read to you

  • Ask someone to read it to you
  • Scan article, have it read by computer
  • Find article online have computer read it

Get the news

Find a picture of Marshall McLuhan

  • Find a book in the libary to scan
  • Use Google to search for “Marshall McLunan”
  • Use Google Image Search to search for “Marshall McLuhan”
  • Use Watson to search for “Marshall McLuhan”

Find a wireless access point

Listen to the radio

Translate language

Look something up in the dictionary

  • Get the book off the shelf
  • Go to the library to use the OED
  • Put a CD ROM in your computer
  • Sherlock (Mac OSX)
  • Watson (Mac OSX)

Send something to someone

  • Take it to the post office
  • Use FedEx to generate label, call for pickup, track package, confirm delivery

Buy groceries

  • Go to store, pick things out, pay, carry home
  • Order groceries from
  • Order dinner from local restaurant

Rent a movie

Buy a movie

Sell a DVD you don’t want anymore

  • Put a for sale sign at the general store
  • Put an ad in Bargain News
  • Have a garage (“tag” on the East Coast) sale
  • Go to a flea market
  • Go to local video store and see if they’ll buy it
  • Sell or auction it on eBay
  • Sell or auction it on

Research a movie

Listen to music

Cook a meal

  • Cook grandma’s recipe from memory
  • Use a cookbook to find a recipe
  • Get recipe from

Upgrade your system software

  • Go to store, buy CD
  • Go to web site, buy CD
  • Go to, download upgrade
  • Go to Apple Support, download upgrade
  • Use Software Update System Preference to check for updates (Mac OSX)

Upgrade an application

  • Get version number of application
  • Go to web site, check lastest version, download upgrade
  • Have application check for updates

Backup your computer

  • Copy files to ZIP disk
  • Copy files to CD, burn
  • Use backup application to copy to ZIP or CD
  • Use Backup to backup to .mac account (Mac OSX)
  • Use Xdrive to backup to internet (Windows)

Prepare for college

And this is just a start…

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