The Power of an Idea

July 6, 2003

Remarks by Ray Kurzweil at the National Federation of the Blind Convention Banquet, July 3, 2003, Louisville, KY. Published on July 4, 2003.

There’s been a series of books recently by an author named J.K. Rowling. The books are about magic and a young wizard named Harry. I wonder if any of you have heard of these books?

Well, when I was eight years old, I also read a series of books about a young wizard, only his name was not Harry, it was Tom, Tom Swift, Junior. He also used magic, only his magic was the magic of technology, and invention.

The concept was always the same: Like master Potter, Tom would get himself into a terrible predicament. The fate of Tom and his friends, and often the rest of the human race, hung in the balance. Tom would retreat to his basement lab, and think about how to solve the problem. This, then, was the dramatic tension in each of the 33 books in this series (There were only 9 when I started to read them in 1956): what ingenious idea would Tom and his friends come up with to save the day? The moral of these tales was simple: the power of the right idea to overcome a seemingly overwhelming challenge.

To this day, I continue to be convinced of this basic philosophy: no matter what quandaries we face—business problems, health issues, relationship difficulties, as well as the great social and cultural challenges of our time—there exists an idea that will enable us to prevail. Furthermore, we can find that idea. And when we find it, we need to implement it.

The power of an idea—this is itself an idea, one that has inspired me since a young age.

Around the same time that I was reading the Tom Swift, Jr. series, I recall my grandfather coming back from his first return visit to Europe with two key remembrances. One was the gracious treatment by the Austrians and Germans, the same people who had forced him to flee in 1938. The other was a rare opportunity he had been given to handle with his own hands some original manuscripts by Leonardo daVinci. Both recollections influenced me, but the latter is one I’ve returned to many times. He described the experience with reverence, as if he had touched the work of God himself. This, then, was the religion that I was raised with: veneration for human creativity and the power of ideas.

Let me give you an example, one that many of you are familiar with, but I can give you my spin on it. There was a young blind boy who grew up on a farm in Tennessee named Kenneth Jernigan. He evolved an idea that would come to shape not only his own life, but the lives of his friends and colleagues, and, like the hero of my youth, the rest of the world as well.

One aspect of this idea is that blindness is an inconvenience, that the limitations of this disability can be overcome and need not result in a handicap. But Dr. Jernigan’s idea went beyond this simple goal. He went on to address the key challenges to realize it.

First of all, he recognized that in order to overcome a handicap, one has to tackle the practical issues of mastering alternative ways of getting things done. As with other sweeping ideas, this one idea generates many others, for example, Braille education, modern mobility training, adaptive technology, training to use the technology, funding to provide the training, and so on.

Another key realization of Dr. Jernigan was that of even greater consequence than addressing these practical issues was the issue of attitude. In Dr. Jernigan’s autobiography and in his many inspiring speeches to this convention—a tradition that Dr. Maurer has ably continued—he illustrated the diverse ways in which society expresses a negative attitude concerning the capabilities of the blind. I’ve personally been involved with blindness technology and the National Federation of the Blind for about 30 years now, and I can share with you my own clear perception that there has been a profound sea change by society in terms of these detrimental attitudes. Although there is still much more to do, the efforts of Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Maurer, and the tens of thousands of federationists have truly altered these harmful stereotypes. The National Federation of the Blind has truly changed what it means to be blind.

However, Dr. Jernigan had an even more important insight than this. More significant than society’s attitudes was the attitude of the blind person herself. Dr. Jernigan wrote that “the trouble is that blind people, being part of the culture, have accepted these [negative] notions themselves too often, and have, therefore, done much to make it come true. It’s a vicious circle.”

He tells an interesting story about a course he took in college. “Early in my freshman year,” Dr. Jernigan writes, “I went to one of my professors and said to him, ‘I want to do everything that’s needed. I don’t want any special favors or privileges. I want to compete on terms of equality with the other students here. . . . Once in a while there may be a few things that I will need to do a little differently, but I hope there won’t be many such things and that they won’t be sufficient to make a difference in my overall performance. Specifically,’ I said, ‘since fitting footnotes onto a sheet of typing constitutes some problem, I would hope that I would be able to omit footnotes from term papers and themes. I shall certainly do all the research involved, and will type the papers myself.'”

“It sounds pretty good. Don’t you think? It’s a fairly plausible argument. I put all of the right words: ‘no special favors, no special treatment, no unreasonable privileges.’ Then, I asked the professor: ‘Is it all right if I proceed in that manner?’"

Dr. Jernigan continues. “His answer was blunt and to the point. ‘Hell no,’ he barked. ‘It’s not all right. Look, you have come here telling me that you can compete on terms of equality, and you have made all of this speech about how you want to do it on equal terms with everybody else. . . . Now, you either can or you can’t. I could let you get by without the footnotes and probably nobody would criticize me for it. But when you are through with my classes and are graduating, you are going to want a recommendation. At that time you’ll get your feelings hurt if I say, "He’s not capable of competing on terms of real equality with others, but he can do a good job considering that he’s blind.". . .Therefore, you are either going to pass my courses in such a way that I can honestly give you good recommendations, or I’ll flunk you. Take it either way you want it.’

“That was one of the finest things that ever happened to me,” Dr. Jernigan concluded.

Dr. Jernigan realized that each of us has to start with ourselves. It’s a profound insight, and it goes far beyond blindness. We cannot deal with the varied forms of prejudice in society, whether it’s a disabled person facing uninformed stereotypes, a black man facing racism, a Jew facing anti-Semitism, or a woman facing sexism, without first overcoming the vestiges of these attitudes in ourselves and about ourselves.

As with the practical considerations of developing alternative approaches to accomplishing tasks, this singular idea also generates many other ideas. Dr. Jernigan realized that to genuinely develop the needed confidence, an organization was needed. He discovered that organization when he joined the NFB in 1949, and experienced his first national convention in 1952.

That was about 23 years before my own first national NFB convention in 1975. I came to realize Dr. Jernigan’s key idea in seeing the confidence of the people at this convention. It was further reinforced when I ran into all of these incredibly confident young blind people from Iowa. What was so special about Iowa, I wondered? But I quickly discovered the reason for their confidence had to do with a particularly creative director of blind services named Kenneth Jernigan.

My own life’s work has been in the field of technology. I’ve been involved with blindness technology for three decades now, and I’m continuing to work closely with the NFB in this area. Technology is one of those enabling factors that Dr. Jernigan realized was needed to fully realize his vision of equality. So it was fitting that Dr. Jernigan’s last major idea was the need for a world-class institute to create blindness technology for the 21st century. He realized that the pace of technology was accelerating, and that these hastening advances would either be liberating for blind people, or would represent another barrier. Despite his grave illness, he felt that there was no time to lose.

In the last days of his life, he expressed total confidence that his vision of the National Federation of the Blind Research and Training Institute would become a reality. I know that there were quite a few people back then—which was only a few years ago—who harbored doubts about whether such a daunting vision could truly be realized. But at the time, having known Dr. Jernigan for over a quarter century, I had no doubt that he would prevail in death as he did in life. And, of course, if you go to Baltimore today, you can see rising from the site of a once-empty lot one more example of the power of an idea.

© 2003