Conspiracies against the public: the Braille edition

Medallion image of Louis Braille for the museum - Braille designed the raised point writing system

When Adam Smith said that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public” I read that statement broadly. He clearly intended to refer to business people seeking to monopolise the market, and his idea has been turned against professions, particularly where they seek to monopolise their field by regulating entry to their number.

It applies to teachers and nurses, though I think it’s important to apply the idea in a more subtle way than economists often do. I think that when teachers and nurses seek to influence outcomes, they often are thinking of the welfare of their charges – but of course that’s still through the lens of their own practice – and their self-interest. You wouldn’t want to be a patient or a student whose interests were at odds with these professions when they flex what muscles they have. They’re great defenders of the job security of mediocre practitioners of their craft over outsiders who might be better for patients and students.

Bureaucrats’ conspiracies against the public are often not in the pursuit of naked pecuniary self-interest, or even empire building. Empire preservation on the other hand is another matter. In one way or another, at least where they don’t involve direct malignancies, the bad things bureaucrats do are almost invariably in pursuit of institutional imperatives – the interests of their institution, though in my experience the real drivers are reputation, protection from embarrassment and survival rather than empire building – which bureaucrats will often resist in favour of a quieter life. 

These ideas have also been extended to regulatory capture by the likes of George Stigler, though again I doubt the role of self-interest narrowly conceived. I suspect the drivers behind regulatory capture are conviviality, and the way in which regulators come to rely on those they regulate for information, and so end up seeing the world through the eyes of those they regulate. As John Kay says somewhere, bank regulators seem to associate their mission of securing stability in banking with securing the stability of the specific firms they regulate. The French have a name for these much subtler conspiracies which might be called ‘conspiracies of seeing’: Déformation professionnelle. This process need not be professional. It can be organisational. Organisations harden around their own way of seeing things. There’s an easy community between those behind the counter – those on the other side of the counter are seen so much less than work colleagues. That’s why businesses spend so much time propagandising the importance of customer focus. Because organisationally customers are outsiders. And just as people come to perceive their own needs more keenly than others, so organisations naturally focus on insider needs.

And the focus on customers has matured into an obsession in some places – like silicon valley – where user experience (or ‘UX’ to the cognoscenti) is such a huge deal. That’s because UX makes and breaks products – as it made the Apple Mac all those years ago. And it’s why ‘design thinking’ is such a big business fad. Because trying to suss out a situation from everyone’s perspective is not a straightforward business. It’s easy to overlook important perspectives, and design isn’t just a methodology for helping you detect what they are, but, just as importantly, it also provides a means of integrating them into your operations in the most compelling ways.

Which brings me to my discovery of one of the canonical stories in which user needs were oppressed by professional knowledge – and imagined (and much valorised) professional expertise. It’s a fascinating story which  I first heard about listening to the Great Life of Louis Braille and then read about this website from which we now take up the story.

People had experimented with embossed letters for books for the blind for some time, but they weren’t very successful. Then Charles Barbier de la Serre who rose to Captain in Napoleon’s military, developed a means by which information could be conveyed silently in pitch darkness:

Barbier had once seen all the troops in a forward gun post annihilated when they betrayed their position by lighting a single lamp to read a message. A tactile system for sending and receiving messages could be useful not only at night, but in maintaining communications during combat with its unique horrors for artillery crews. Dense, blinding smoke and thunderous noise combined to create hellish confusion. . . .

Barbier decided to take his own dot- and dash-based “night writing” artillery code to the Royal Institution for Blind Children and interested Pignier, the new director, in his system. Pignier arranged a demonstration and passed around a few embossed pages of dots to the students.

Louis Braille was thunderstruck when he first touched the dots of the night-writing samples. He had often played around with tactile writing at home in Coupvray on summer vacation. Neighbors later recalled that, as a child, Louis had tried leather in various shapes and even arranged upholstery pins in patterns, hoping to find a workable tactile communication method, but with no success.

Once he touched the dots, he knew he had found his medium and quickly learned to use Barbier’s “ruler,” which greatly resembles a more complex version of today’s slate. He, his friend Gabriel, and other boys at the school taught each other the code by writing each other messages back and forth.

Barbier cell. Originally, b was 4 dots--z was 9. The entire cell was 12 dots, twice as tall as today's Braille cell.

Louis was also quick to see the problems with Barbier’s system, which was never actually used by the army. [It] used a huge cell, more than a fingertip can cover. The cells stood for 36 basic sounds instead of letters. A large customized board, laid out six cells across and six cells down, was used to write the sound symbols. There were no punctuation marks, numbers or musical signs, and there were horizontal dashes in addition to the dots.

When Louis [Braille] met with Captain Barbier to talk about his ideas to improve the code, the Captain, by now in his mid fifties, was probably at first incredulous and then annoyed at having his ideas questioned by someone so young, inexperienced, and blind as well. Now that Napoleon’s adventures of military conquest were ended, it seems likely Barbier had hopes of obtaining some kind of government recognition for the invention on which he had worked so long if it were adopted by the blind.

Intimidated by the Captain, Louis stopped asking his advice altogether and instead went to work experimenting with the code on his own. He had little spare time; he won prizes that semester in geography, history, mathematics, and piano while also working as the foreman of the slipper shop at the school. Still, late at night and at home in Coupvray during the summer, Louis tried various modifications that would enable the unique letter symbols to fit under one fingertip.

In October, 1824, Louis, now 15 years old, unveiled his new alphabet right after the start of school. He had found sixty-three ways to use a six-dot cell, though some dashes were still included. His new alphabet was received enthusiastically by the other students and by [the director] Pignier, who ordered the special slates Louis had designed from Captain Barbier’s original one. . . .

The sighted teachers resented the new code, with its implied demand that they learn something so alien. Worried for their own jobs, they complained that the sound of punching was disrupting classes. . . .

In 1829, at age 20, [Braille] published Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, his first complete book about his new system. A few years later, he, Gabriel Gauthier and another blind friend and former pupil, Hippolyte Coltat, became the first blind full professors at the school. . . . All three new teachers used the new alphabet in their classes. . . .

Spending so much of his life in the unhealthy school building and living on a poor diet caused Louis to develop tuberculosis in his mid-twenties. . . .  For the rest of his life, Louis had periods of health and energy interspersed with terrifying hemorrhages and near-fatal collapses. Still, despite his illness, teaching load, and several jobs playing the organ, he worked on at refining the code. . . .

In 1834, Pignier arranged for Louis to demonstrate his code at the Paris Exposition of Industry, attended by visitors from all over the world. King Louis-Philippe of France presided over the opening of the show and even spoke with Louis about his invention, but, like other observers, including officials from the Ministry of the Interior that supervised the school, did not seem to understand what he saw. . . .

Blind students must have found it electrifying to be able to write and read for the first time with speed and accuracy equaling or exceeding that of many sighted people, and it must have been thrilling to observe. The full extent of this triumph completely eluded authorities of the time, however. Neither Louis’ book nor the students’ new history of France in Braille was the most heralded publishing project at the school in the year 1837.

Assistant director P. Armand Dufau, a former geography teacher at the school, published The Blind: Considerations On Their Physical, Moral And Intellectual State, With A Complete Description Of The Means Suitable To Improve Their Lot Using Instruction And Work. Dufau’s book won the prestigious prize from the Académie Française which the year before had been awarded to Alexis de Tocqueville for his well-known book on America.

Dufau, a staunch Braille opponent who believed the code made the blind “too independent,” included no mention of Louis Braille’s innovation in his book. . . .

Louis’ deteriorating health forced him to turn down a job in a mountain locale that might have lengthened his life had he had the stamina to make the journey–tutor to a blind prince of the Austrian royal family. At last, he took a long leave of absence to regain strength in Coupvray. Meanwhile, Dufau intrigued with officials at the Ministry of the Interior and forced Pignier from his position.

Alston type, which looks kind of like Letter Gothic or IBM OratorWhen Louis returned to the school, he found more bad news. Dufau, now director, was making more changes, among them deleting “frivolous” subjects like history, Latin, and geometry from the curriculum. Dufau had sufficient official support to obtain a large budget increase for the school and decided to revolutionize the school’s standard reading medium–not using Braille’s code but adopting a British system invented by John Alston of the Asylum for the Blind in Glasgow. Another print-like tactile system, Alston type differed from Haüy type [the ‘analogue’ system of embossed letters developed by the founder of the Institution for Blind Children, Haüy]in that it used very simplified letter forms without swirls or serifs, similar to the modern Orator typewriter font.

To enforce the new system, Dufau burned many of the embossed books created by Haüy’s original process and every book he found printed or hand transcribed in Louis’ new code – the school’s entire library and the product of nearly fifty years’ work. To make sure no Braille would ever again be used at the school, he also confiscated the slates, styli, and other Braille-writing equipment.

Outraged, the students rebelled. Behind Dufau’s back, they wrote Braille even without slates. They sent messages and kept secret diaries written with knitting needles, forks and nails. Dufau’s punishments for Braille use, which included being slapped and starved, were completely ineffective. The older students taught the younger ones the system in secret. Braille, once learned, proved impossible to suppress.

Finally, Dufau’s shrewd assistant, Joseph Guadet, had been watching the students and became an ardent Braille supporter, teaching himself to read and write the code. He must have persuaded Dufau that if powerful people in government heard that the students were unified in willfully defying Dufau’s authority, his job might be at risk. If, however, a student invented something successful, the school would share the credit, which could only enhance the reputation of its director.

So, when the school moved into its new building in November, 1843, P. Armand Dufau was a changed man, supplying every student with a new Braille slate. Euphoric at having defeated the Braille ban, students got up a petition and sent it to the government nominating Louis Braille for the French Legion of Honor for making true communication possible for the blind. The petition, however, was ignored.

Louis’ public triumph would finally come at the new building’s dedication ceremony the following February. Dufau glowingly described Louis Braille’s system of writing with raised dots, even having students give a demonstration. An official in the audience cried out that it was all a trick, that the child writing Braille and a second child (who had been out of the room for the dictation) reading it back must have memorized the text in advance. In reply, Dufau asked the man to find some printed material in his pocket, which turned out to be a theater ticket, and to read it to the student Braillist. The little girl reproduced the text and another child read it back flawlessly before the man even returned to his seat. The crowd, convinced, applauded wildly for a full six minutes.

Louis Braille spent the last eight years of his life teaching occasionally and Brailling books for the school library as he battled his declining health. People were starting to call the dot system by his name, “Braille,” and a growing number of inquiries about it were reaching the school from all over the world. When Dufau published the second edition of his influential book in 1850, he devoted several enthusiastic pages to the Braille system. Still, when Louis Braille died on January 6, 1852, just two days past his forty-third birthday, not a single Paris newspaper noted his passing.

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3 Responses to Conspiracies against the public: the Braille edition

  1. paul frijters says:

    nice story, though the link between the Braille story and the regulatory capture / monopolisation is tenuous. Sounds more like one man’s ego and personal interests against a useful invention, as well as the attitudes and prior investments of surrounding bureaucrats. More a story of resistance to change.

    On regulatory capture, the importance of mental habits you mention are undoubtedly there. But if the economic interests are not there, I think the conspiracy will have difficulty gathering pace. Even in your story above, personal economic incentives (ie resistance to additional time investments and risks to reputation that feed into their own job security) are paramount.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, it’s not textbook. But I liked the line about teachers in the school objecting to the noise braille made ;)

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    What a fine coda to our story I was unaware of until reading of it in Andrew Leigh’s newsletter. Nearly two centuries later the world is vastly more open, productive and fair than it was to Louis.

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