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Disability and the Digital Humanities

12 Apr

If the disease of modern Humanities studies is Balkanization then the cure is intersectionality.  Of course, I am using the term ‘intersectionality’ in a somewhat atypical fashion here, as I am not specifically referring to lines of connection among different forms of discrimination experienced by multiple disenfranchised groups, but simply identifying the more ideologically neutral phenomenon of the consonance occasionally found between different sub-disciplines within the humanities.  It has been said that one of the measures of a theory or field’s usefulness is the degree folks pursuing wildly (or seemingly) different intellectual objectives find it useful for their work.  I must confess, I was not anticipating any conceptual shocks when I looked into George Williams’s essay “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” (available in the anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities) but I did get a couple, the most noteworthy being the idea that the development of alternative computer interfaces for disabled persons has the potential to reveal the essential contingency of much modern digital technology, and by extension, offer radical re-conceptions of how we engage with it.

George Williams begins his essay with the assertion that disability has the potential to force all of us to reconsider our “embodied relationship to data.”  The storage and manipulation of information through digital technology is something that, like everything else human beings do, occurs through the physical manipulation of objects and the processing of any resultant activity with the five human senses.  But what if the physical body is disabled or any one of the five senses deficient? The oral and aural, as well as the tactile, interfaces utilized by blind people are significantly different, even alien, to sighted people, and the absorption of data patterns constitutes a whole other experience.  

Williams draws attention to these alternative interfaces for the purpose of advocating the principle of “Universal Design” for the digital humanities.  Universal design is a fairly intuitive concept, and simply entails constructing tools and built environments that are accessible to the largest range of individuals possible.  The needs of, the disabled, the elderly, and the low-status are all to be taken into consideration.  Indeed, it is the needs of the otherwise able-bodied that are central to the practice of universal design, as considering such needs has the effect of maximizing accessibility for all.  An example- the sidewalk curb cut.  Although originally conceived as a means to assist the handicapped, any person who needs to haul a large load on wheels down the street will likely find them useful.  The application of this basic principle to digital technology has already occurred to some extent.  Screen-reading software that communicates the content of web pages via audio is commonly used by blind people.  Some of Williams’s suggestions to expand the accessibility of digital technology include the development of open-source accessibility tools for Content Management Systems, such as WordPress or MediaWiki.  Such tools could include features like the one developed by Williams and some other collaborators at the Maryland Institute of Technology, which was an alt attribute imbedded in a transparent GIF only a square pixel wide (and thus invisible to sighted users) that enabled blind people using screen-reading software to skip over any web content they did not need or want to hear once the program “read” it.  Braille translating and subtitling tools could also be developed, and transcription tools could significantly expand the accessibility of certain online projects.  See- Scripto.

The implications of such efforts and what they may entail for the digital Humanities I think was succinctly expressed by Graham Pullin, in a quote helpfully provided in Williams’s essay- “…the prevailing assumption in product design is that new developments in the mainstream slowly ‘trickle-down’ to specialist products for people with disabilities…  However… sometimes the effect works the other way, when the issues around disability catalyze new design thinking and influence a broader design culture in return.”  Technology is intrinsically artificial and of an assistive nature.  It presupposes human limitations, or the basic human inability to single-highhandedly, or single-mindedly, perform any task s/he may wish to perform.  Yet human limitations are diverse and often contingent.  Therefor, exactly how technology is modeled to assist the human is somewhat unstable, and subject to reconsideration.  Who says that the screen will always be the digital world’s primary means of communicating and displaying data?  Would human being in general benefit from interfaces that are more tactile and aural as opposed to visual?  Certainly, from the point of view of somebody with an interest in literature, a more aural interface may well return the experience of texts to a more oral sphere, and the tactile interface may well make a form of textuality previously only available to the blind more widely experienced.  Ultimately, the practical task of making material accessible to the disabled may very well hold the key to radically altering the study of the digital humanities generally.  




A DH Double Whammy- The Writing Process and the Textuality of Maps- Part 1

29 Jan

To make up for the late arrival of this, my first substantial post for High Pressure Days, I will consider two topics instead of the promised one, though one will have to come a little after the other (let’s say we shoot for Friday?  Yes, that should work…  I hope.).  Both will naturally pertain to the ongoing drama that is my first immersion into the world of the Digital Humanities.  For somebody as tech-phobic as I am, this is a somewhat vexing process, but one that is already proving to be rewarding in unexpected ways.

To begin, there is the subject of the recent two-day symposium here at the George Washington University that was dedicated to the Digital Humanities in all their multifaceted glory.  Running from January 24 through the 26th, with the bulk of the presentations occurring on the latter two days, the symposium illuminated a number of different ways digital and information technology was changing the field, recalibrating how literature is both taught and studied.  As someone with an interest in 19th century American literature in general, and the works of Herman Melville in particular, the presentation that most interested me was the one given by Professor John Bryant of Hofstra University.  Professor Bryant described a recent, and as of this post, ongoing digital project called the Herman Melville Electronic Library, an online resource dedicated to compiling the works of Herman Melville in addition to criticism and scholarly and biographical resources.  This in itself would seem like a prudent, though not particularly original, idea, but the website establishes a unique function through its use of a software program called TextLab.  TextLab allows readers to view different versions of a text simultaneously in order to gain a sense of the author’s writing process and approach to revision.  The goal is to establish the essential “fluidity” of Melville’s works, which often were published in multiple versions (Typee appeared in both an ‘original’ version and a bowdlerized version that was published after the original version drew protests from religious leaders, and Moby-Dick had both an American and British publication that resulted in two noticeably distinct texts with different endings) or left in a fragmented and incomplete state (Billy Budd, Sailor was never properly finished or published in Melville’s lifetime, and the manuscript consists of over 400 hand-written leaves with multiple textual self-corrections and revisions).  I find the idea of this resource helpful both practically and conceptually.  Practically, the Melville Electronic Library will enable scholars and students to gain a better sense of Melville’s writing process and the publication history of his works.  Conceptually, the Library dispels the essentially illusory sense of permanence and definitiveness that one may have when encountering the texts on the printed page.  Even detailed scholarly editions of Melville’s works that feature information about multiple editions of the same story or that include alternative passages in the appendices present a ‘definitive’ or ‘standard’ version of the story that gives the reader no sense of the text’s instability, or its contingency.  By being able to view multiple versions of a story, essay, poem or review side-by-side the reader can gain a better understanding of a text’s development and the many possible ways to interpret it.  It reveals that Melville’s artistic engagements unfolded in time, and had no precise destination or ‘complete’ form.  The essentially unsettled nature of the Melville canon can be presented with unprecedented clarity thanks to the shrewd application of digital technology.  

That is the crux of my understanding of tools like the Melville Electronic Library- They ideally reveal the nature of pre-digital texts as opposed to altering them.  The medium of presentation broadens and clarifies what the texts were all along.  

The site is very much a work in progress, but have a look:

Part Two: Janelle Jenstad and the Map of Early Modern London.  Coming soon!Image