Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

That Vision Thing

Ironically enough, I remember the moment clearly. It was about five years ago now, when I looked up from the car and realized I couldn’t see. I had been staring at my computer a lot, and reading books when I wasn’t doing that, so I didn’t notice much, but that day, riding in the car, I looked up and realized I couldn’t read the street sign. I definitely used to be able to read that sign, but there it was, big and bright and green along the highway, and all I could make out was a blur. I had gone blind.

Legally blind, as I learned yesterday. My vision is below the legal threshold in the US for legal blindness. (Far below, as far as I can tell, but the eye exam chart doesn’t really make fine-grained distinctions at that level.) And yet, for five years, this never really bothered me. I never wore glasses for more than an hour, I squinted hard enough to pass the vision test at the DMV, I sat close to blackboards and listened carefully.

I tried a couple things to improve my eyesight, but nothing very seriously. I tried, but it never seemed important enough to warrant the effort. And so I walked thru life, legally blind. I didn’t really notice.

My roommate, Quinn, has been nagging me about this. She wants me to get LASIK, I think largely because it involves lasers. But finally the other day I took some action and went to the optometrist.

You know those eye charts you see sometimes? The ones that famously start with E at the top and then the letters get smaller and smaller? I couldn’t read the E. When I looked up at it, all I saw was a vague blur. So they gave me contacts.

Contacts are an odd thing. They’re almost invisible, malleable little things that you can’t see once they’re stuck on your eye. One minute, you’re living a Monet-like existence of a world blurred, then tap your eye and suddenly, invisibly, everything is clear.

I had no idea the world really looked like this, with such infinite clarity. It looks like a modernist photo or a hyperreal film, everything in focus everywhere. Everyone kept saying “oh, do you see the leaves now?” but the first thing I saw was not the leaves but the people. People, individuated, each with brilliant faces and expressions at gaits, the sun streaming down upon them. I couldn’t help but smile. It’s much harder being a misanthrope when you can see people’s faces.

Then came the signs, the signs with messages I could read from a distance. No longer would I have to carefully count my stops on the subway because I couldn’t read the station signs. And then the buildings, their edges no longer fuzzy like clouds but hard and harsh and magnificent.

I no longer feared myself, formerly this vague visage in the mirror that I had to look away from. Now in the mirror I could see my face, and even thought it looked good.

The resolution on my cameraphone suddenly seems insufficient. The crumbs and dirt in our apartment that previously drove my roommate crazy are now visible enough to drive me crazy too. I can look people in the eye and smile and see them smile back. I can see the contours of their faces. When I look up at night I can see the things in my room, even when the lights are off.

My eyes are open and I can now experience the beauty that’s been more than a few feet in front of my nose.

You should follow me on twitter here.

May 30, 2007



posted by pwb on May 30, 2007 #

Made me smile :) If I didn’t have a phobia about things touching my eyes I might get contacts too. It’s lasers for me I guess.

posted by Rowan on May 30, 2007 #

Didn’t you once post here about how you had some condition that made you unable to recognize faces?


posted by Mark on May 30, 2007 #

Yeah, the whole “being able to see things” thing is pretty cool.

posted by Nicole on May 30, 2007 #

I hear you, Aaron. The clarity of the world immediately after I upgrade my glasses prescription always astounds me, and the first one was a huge shock.

I was in a similar position as you, and I didn’t get glasses for years until after I needed them, but I really liked the impressionistic effect of being partially blind and seeing everything in blur. I’ve worn glasses now for about 10 years, but I still like to walk around without them on sometimes and experience the world in blurs and soft edges, without the extraneous details and the hard, sharp boundaries of the objects of the world.

posted by joseph knecht on May 30, 2007 #

What do you mean, you don’t take off your lenses when you are going to sleep ?

posted by Carmack on May 31, 2007 #

I can’t wear contacts because I hate to have anything touching my eye. I’m now wearing progressive lenses which I find really annoying. Plus I developed floaters in both eyes, which are even more annoying.

posted by Mike on May 31, 2007 #

This is awesome! I can clearly remember getting my first pair of glasses when I was about 11 and the shock of being able to see anything in any detail. It was also extremely interesting going through a phase of correlating the individual blurs that different people were - “so that’s what Jeremy looks like…” It’s wonderful to have clear vision (even if it has to be upgraded every few years).

posted by Andrew on May 31, 2007 #

That’s great. Reading this made my day better.

posted by Mike on May 31, 2007 #

Your vision isn’t probably that bad. I can’t see anything on my laptop’s screen without glasses…

posted by Alex on May 31, 2007 #

You should consider LASIK, it’s one of the best things I’ve done. I loved contacts, but it’s nice to have perfect eyesight all the time. You lose the morning / evening ritual, and if you live your life with very irregular hours like me, your contacts won’t get uncomfortable after wearing them 16 hours.

Besides, it’s one of the more surreal experiences you can have - you’re awake, with eyes wide open. High precision machinery swoops down on your eye, peels your cornea away, and attacks it with beepy lasers. You can see your field of vision getting clearer bit by bit. To some, that sounds like the worse thing ever, but I got a kick out of it.

posted by Robert on June 1, 2007 #

Great news, Aaron. And really well written - thanks for sharing.

posted by Ethan H. on June 1, 2007 #

I don’t understand this post. Why didn’t you get corrective lenses a long time ago?

posted by craig on June 1, 2007 #

ha.. I went through sort of the same experience. I was having trouble reading fine print, so I got an eye exam. The optometrist said “didn’t anyone ever give you a vision screening before?” I said sure, plenty of times, I had them annually when I was a kid. He said “did anyone ever diagnose you as dyslexic?” I said yes. He said “well you’ve been farsighted ever since you were little. It’s not surprising that nobody caught it, the usual tests are for screening farsightedness. You’re not dyslexic, your eyes just have a hard time focusing at the distance you’d read a book.” So I got eyeglasses, at the age of 40. At the time, I had gone back to school to finish my art degree. I was taking painting classes. The teacher asked me what happened to me, he said I was suddenly painting with more vibrant colors, and my whole style changed. I just said, “well I started wearing glasses and now I can see what I’m doing.”

posted by Charles on June 2, 2007 #

I think that the first conscious decision in my life was to wear glasses constantly (rather than in class hours only) when I was 10 or 11, to see the world in full beauty.

posted by Lukewarm on June 2, 2007 #

‘Interesting’ is the first word that comes to mind! Pretty much reminds me of my own path to contact lenses. It was much like you described, for years I had no idea that I even needed any glasses! I used to get headaches and a bit of watering in my eyes but could mostly get by without too much discomfort. And when I paid a visit to the ophthalmologist, whaam! -2.25! Now, of course, it’s -5.5 and stable, thanks to contact lenses. I loved the way you expressed your first view through the contact lenses. Very similar to what I had felt. Good for you mate.

posted by Timmy Jose on June 4, 2007 #

Your roommate and a poster are all for you having Lasik, but if you do consider laser eye surgery remember the operative word: surgery. It’s easy to forget that Lasik is serious business and not every Lasik surgeon graduated at the top the class.

I work with a nonprofit Lasik patient advocacy. We don’t provide Lasik; we evaluate and certify Lasik doctors based upon patient outcomes. We also publish the “50 Tough Questions For Your Lasik Doctor” to help evaluate any potential Lasik surgeon. Our website is full of objective information and we host a patient forum where you can converse with others.

Now that you know what you have with contacts you may want to have it with Lasik. Pick the best available doctor and do your own research. Don’t go into Lasik blind (pun fully intended).

Glenn Hagele USAEyes

I am not a doctor.

posted by Glenn Hagele on June 10, 2007 #

Please do not tout or get LASIK before you read http://www.lasikeyesurgerywebsite.com/Ten%2520Reasons.pdf

I’ve been in the vision research business for over 40 years and beg you not to let them shave your eyeballs.


posted by William Loughborough on June 16, 2007 #

It’s simply amazing you’ve gotten this far, being blind. I remember the first time I got my vision checked. At 18 I could finally see. What did it for me that first night was looking at the street lamps half a mile away. No more blurriness and shiny lines that made every spot of light look like a drawing of a star done by a 7 yr old. Every light was just that, a simple and pure point of light. Hoorah for clarity!

posted by John Nelson on July 5, 2007 #


posted by Kragen Sitaker on August 2, 2007 #

As a moderate myope, I’m more favorably impressed by the content of Adam Klein’s “I Can See” essay than I am with glasses, contacts or the prospect of surgery. His idea about the automatic improvement of natural vision by way of relaxing the muscles at the back of the neck is worth trying.


posted by toph on August 9, 2007 #

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