People Technology


Since I was fulfilling one duty today I thought I would also fulfill another and renew my driver’s license. To renew a license here in Missouri you have to show all sorts of proof of residency, identity, and nationality. You also have to take an eye exam, and a traffic sign recognition test.

The traffic sign exam is more or less a joke, but the eye exam was a little different. When you look through the eye piece, you see rows of letters, white on black, separated by a dotted line down the middle. When you get the test, the person administering it will tell you to read the letters in one of the rows, then ask if you see a blinking light, and if so, on which side. There also seemed to be a stereoscopic aspect to the test, as the letters on one side of the dotted line seemed a little more blurry then those on the other.

There’s no graduated height eye test—either your vision, corrected or otherwise, is good enough, or it isn’t, in which case, go away, get better glasses and come back.

When I got to the license place, I grabbed a number and sat down to wait. Ahead of me, a middle aged Asian guy with his daughter was renewing his license, and having some problems communicating with the person administering the eye test.

He did know some English, and could read the letters. But when she had him look into the eyepiece and read the sixth row, whatever he read didn’t match what she expected, and she kept repeating to him to read the “sixth row”. “Read the sixth row”. He conferred with his daughter in his native language, and would try again, frustrated because he was doing what examiner asked. She also was getting irritated, because there several people waiting, and he couldn’t get the test.

All of a sudden, after another frustrated exchange, he got really excited, said something to his daughter, and then looked back into the eyepiece. He rattled off a bunch of letters, and evidently, got them all right because they went on to the traffic sign test. Again, he had problems, but the DMV person was out of patience, gave him a page with traffic signs and suggested he go to the back of the room, look over the paper, and then he could come back and take the test.

When I got to her desk, I was a little apprehensive about the test, wondering what the heck I was going to find. She asked me to read the first row, and I had no problems. She then asked me to read the signs and tell me what each one was. Again, I had no problem, and was out of the licensing place quickly.

It was only later that that an idea came to me that possibly explained the problems the Asian guy was having. This is only a guess, but I think when she told him to read the sixth row, he actually read the sixth column. In other words, he read top to bottom, rather than left to right. When she kept repeating sixth row, he’d re-read the same column. It was only after a few tries that he caught on to what she was asking, and then read the sixth row, sixth from top of chart, reading left to right.

I think the same thing happened with the road signs: he was reading top to bottom, and she was expecting left to right. Just goes to show that technology is only as good as the shared culture allows it to be.

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