Graduation address given by Professor Ron McCallum AO

Professor Ron McCallum AO gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Law graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 30 November 2007.

Professor McCallum was Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Sydney from 1 July 2002 to 30 September 2007.

Occasional address

Professor Ron McCallum AO
  • Above: Professor Ron McCallum AO giving the occasional address, photo, courtesy Memento Photography.

The Impossibility of Predicting the Future

Chancellor, your Excellency Professor Marie Bashir; Deputy-Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Hearn; Dean of Law, Professor Gillian Triggs; former Registrar of the University of Sydney, Mr Keith Jennings; graduates, fellow academics, family and friends. May I begin this occasional address by congratulating our graduates who have graduated with degrees, or who have been awarded diplomas in the broad academic discipline of law. Most of you have received postgraduate qualifications in law, while a sizable number have graduated with Bachelor of Laws degrees which are recognised for the purposes of legal practice in our nation. I taught in our postgraduate program, and may I say that my academic colleagues and I are truly proud of your achievements. May I also congratulate your parents, spouses, partners, children, family and friends, for they have been your support throughout your periods of tertiary study. I have heard the voices of some of your small children who are here this morning, and I warmly welcome them to this graduation ceremony. They are an affirmation of life and all that is wholesome in our world.

I have titled this Occasional Address "The impossibility of Predicting the Future" because my experience has been that the future continually throws up surprises, and that the best way to meet the future is to be thoughtful, flexible and nimble. However, before I go any further down this path, I shall say a few words about my blindness.

My Blindness

I was born in Melbourne on 8 October 1948, that is almost sixty years ago. My birth was premature because I was between eight and ten weeks early, and to aid my breathing, the doctors gave me pure oxygen which caused the loss of my sight. Along with other prem babies, I was placed into a sealed humidi-crib and pure oxygen was pumped in to aid my breathing. I am not a medical person, however, in reliance on the work of David Brown and from conversations with my Father-in-law Professor Emeritus Gerard Crock, let me say the following (see David Brown, "Establishing Proof", Washington Post, 19 April 2005, available at briefly put, high levels of pure oxygen in prem babies causes the arteries in the eyes to constrict and even to be destroyed. This in turn causes further blood vessels to grow at the backs of the eyes, which, in effect, detach the retinas. This meant that I became blind within a few hours of my birth.

I am an RLF child, that is one who suffers from retrolental fibroplasia, which is now known as retinopathy of prematurity. By the mid-1950's, doctors learned of the dangers of giving such high levels of pure oxygen - today oxygen is mixed with nitrogen - and now retinopathy of prematurity is a rare but not unknown medical event. From the mid-1940's to the mid-1950's, some ten thousand RLF prem babies were born in Australia, in New Zealand, in Canada, in the United States and in western Europe where advanced medical facilities enabled the use of oxygen to aid prem babies with their breathing. The most famous RLF person is the American singer Stevie Wonder.

Prediction and the Future

Five and thirty years ago, I graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree from Monash University, and two years later I was awarded a Master of Laws degree by Queen's University, Canada. In those days, family and friends read legal materials directly to me, that is face to face. Other readers read the material into tape recorders and I was able to playback the tapes. In the early 1970's, I did not predict how the future development of computer-based adaptive technology would turn my life upside down. Similarly, when I visited West Berlin in October 1982, I failed to predict that within seven years the Berlin wall would come tumbling down. Nor did I fully comprehend that the end of Russian communism, combined with emerging information technologies would inevitably lead to economic globalisation. Even when Mary Crock and I married in 1986, I did not fully appreciate how global warming would so speedily have an adverse impact upon Mother Earth. Briefly put, we humans are not very good at predicting the future, so we need to remain flexible and innovative and to grow with change. Let me illustrate the difficulties of predicting the future by recounting how information technology has affected my life.

Liberation through Computer-Based Adaptive Technology

In about 1981, that is twenty-six years ago, the first home computer - the Apple computer - was sold in Australia. In my view, future historians will say that the availability of the Apple Home computer marks the beginning of the computer revolution. We all know how the computer has affected our lives, and in truth we cannot imagine life as we know it without computers, the internet, mobile phones, blackberries etc. For me as a totally blind academic, however, computer-based adaptive technology altered my life with a profoundness that I still find difficulty in articulating.

In 1986, I still had all of my material read to me out loud and I wrote academic articles on an ordinary typewriter using my memory. This way of writing meant that I had to ask people to read me what I had written. In late 1987, I received my first computer with speech. It had 84Ks of memory, but at last, I could read back with a synthetic voice, what I had written.

We blind people owe a great deal to Ray Kurzweil who invented a method of scanning material and having it read out in synthetic speech. I gained access to my first Kurzweil scanner in November 1989; and at last I could read anything. Then came the internet, and now most of the legal materials with which I work, can be downloaded from the internet and read out to me via synthetic speech. I could not have been, all at once, a husband, a dad, a labour law professor, an advisor to State governments or the Dean of this University's Faculty of Law, had it not been for this technology.

Mary Crock and I married in May 1986, and we appreciated that developments in computer technology would liberate me from the major shackles of my blindness. However, in truth, by the early 1990's, I found this technology to be overwhelming. Within a few short years, there had been marriage, sexuality, fatherhood, technological breakthroughs and a move to the University of Sydney to be the first totally blind person to be appointed to Australia's first named chair in industrial law. With this new technology, I wanted to catch up on all the reading which I had not completed in my "previous life". I did have some counselling which greatly helped me. As one counsellor aptly put it, "Ron, most grown ups don't really read that much anyway, so why are you worrying about this".

I feel immensely privileged to have lived at this time and to have had access to this type of technology.

I am sure that the future will be as unpredictable for you as it has been for me. It will throw up problems as well as some blessings. Please meet the future with courage, with steadfastness, with agility and nimbleness.

Professor Ron McCallum AO