Saturday, August 08, 2009

Adaptive Technologies, Labor and the Practice of Hindering Access

[NB: This entry started out as a response to Greg's post below, but grew verbose enough to mandate its own space. This also marks my first official entry on this blog; thanks, Greg, for this opportunity to participate in the dialog.]

An interesting post, and one that prompts me to reflect upon my own past working with "adaptive" or "assistive" technologies for people with a wide range of different abilities, such as blindness and hearing impairment or deafness. For many of these populations, such capabilities, such as text-to-speech functionality or the ability to use a "captioned" telephone (c.f. the product created by local-to-Madison company CapTel), actually enable and facilitate individuals' own labor. In some cases, people who may have been late-deafened left the workforce, only to return once these adaptive technologies became available to them (allowing for business-related phone use, for example). Interestingly, in the case of relay services, whether traditional(TTY) or more modernized telephone "captioning" services, an immense amount of human labor is required to make these services function (see this diagram from CapTel for a simplified explanation of the process)- not to mention what goes into television closed captioning, but I would do well to leave a discussion of that to Greg. Natural language translation is one of the last great computing frontiers and a programming/processing conundrum. Automating it with any kind of success ratio involves a great deal of human intervention - often at low-paying wages and shift-work, outside of these companies' engineering departments. It is just one example of how a highly technical product/service is entirely intertwined with its unskilled labor that is at the core of its functionality. Taking the human interface out of this loop, while undoubtedly the ultimate goal for company management, is simply not feasible technologically at this point. Yet, to the end-user, this human intervention is entirely invisible, by design. Captions appear like magic and almost instantaneously on the phone unit, giving the appearance and the illusion of an entirely automated process.

Meanwhile, and only slightly tangentially, true text-to-speech functionality that does not require human labor at its delivery point is being challenged by a hodge-podge of industry players who would like to eliminate it from the Amazon Kindle. In this case, a technology that holds immense promise for legions of potential users - including people who are blind or visually impaired, people who have dyslexia or other types of text- or language-based impairments - is being threatened by the content industry (e.g. the Authors Guild of America, the MPAA), who perceive this facilitating and potentially life-altering technology - one which requires no human intervention beyond user and device - as a potential impediment to its seemingly unfettered earning potential. This issue is further complicated by its introduction at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), where it has been contextualized primarily as an issue of industry retention of DRM/TPM over its content, rather than one of access and fairness, as many affected by the disabling of text-to-speech might be more likely to characterize it.

It would be intriguing to see a cost-benefit analysis that accurately reported the amount of money and hours the industry coalitions are expending (not to mention the loss of PR capital, translated into real dollars) to make sure that blind people and those with dyslexia are eliminated from benefiting from an adaptive technology - one that could have profound positive outcomes for engaging people in the digital labor economy. What happens when these industry representatives turn their targets on screen readers and other assistive technologies that allow many people to do their jobs, provide access to computers and allow for people live and work in a digital context when their different abilities might otherwise make that impossible?

[The U.S. Copyright Office published a Notice of Inquiry on this topic in March of 2009 and receive 33 comments during the comment period, one of which was filed jointly on behalf of the American Library Association (ALA), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and can be read here. Other comments, filed by disability advocacy groups, private citizens, and content industry attorneys and others, can be accessed here.]

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