Tag Archives: accessibility

Equipment: Why You Can’t Convince a Cyborg She’s a Cyborg

Everybody knows the story: Computers—which, a half century ago, were expensive, room-hogging behemoths—have developed into a broad range of portable devices that we now rely on constantly throughout the day.  Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously observed:

progress in information technology is exponential, not linear. My cell phone is a billion times more powerful per dollar than the computer we all shared when I was an undergrad at MIT. And we will do it again in 25 years. What used to take up a building now fits in my pocket, and what now fits in my pocket will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years.

Beyond advances in miniaturization and processing, computers have become more versatile and, most importantly, more accessible.  In the early days of computing, mainframes were owned and controlled by various public and private institutions (e.g., the US Census Bureau drove the development of punch card readers from the 1890s onward). When universities began to develop and house mainframes, users had to submit proposals to justify their access to the machine. They were given a short period in which to complete their task, then the machine was turned over to the next person. In short, computers were scarce, so access was limited. (more…)

QR Codes and Digital Exclusivity?

QR codes line the bulletin boards of many college campuses.

Lisa Wade over at our sister blog Sociological Images sent us an email from one of her readers, Steve Grimes, who shared this image and some interesting thoughts about how Quick Response codes or, QR codes can contribute to inequality. That is, QR codes such as these serve to make certain content and information “exclusive” to those who have smartphones. He states,

There is a general thinking that technology can create a level playing field (an example of this is can be seen with the popular feelings about the internet). However, technology also has a great ability to create and widen gaps of inequality.

In a practical sense the company may be looking for students who are tech savvy. They may also want to save on ink toner (might be a stretch). So using the matrix barcode may serve that purpose. However, the ad also shows how technology can exclude individuals; primarily in this case, students without smart phones. One may think that being on a college campus every student would have a smart phone. However, when you look at the prices of most smart phones along with the prices for the plans of a carrier (usually somewhere $75-150 per month) one can see that not every student may have one. Especially considering the other things that they may have to pay for that are a bit pressing to their environment (books, food, etc). (more…)

Watson Reminds us of our Relationship to Computers (Part 1)

This computer isn’t connected to the internet. It takes up an entire room, and its made by IBM. This sounds like the kind of technology you would find in a 1980 edition of Compute! Magazine. Instead, Engadget has been following the story in the traditional 21st century manner of tech news coverage: live blogging with photos and under-10-minute video interviews. The new computer making news is Watson [official IBM website for the Watson project], a new 80 teraflop supercomputer meant to answer natural language questions. It was demoed last Thursday at IBM’s research facility in Armonk, NY. Watson is being tested in the most grueling tournament of fact retrieval know to humankind: it is competing in several games of Jeopardy! against reigning champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

IBM intends to commercialize the technology by selling it to large medical and data industries who need to provide lots of seemingly routine answers to questions from a wide array of topics. By developing a system that can understand the subtlety of human language -with all of its puns, idiomatic expressions, and contextual meaning- data becomes retrievable in a very human way. (more…)

“Tech-Geek Roots” Alienate Female Wikipedia Editors

The debate over the extent to which the design and infrastructure of the Web privileges certain demographic groups is not new, but, nevertheless, continues to be important.  Perhaps, most attention has been given to the way traditional gender hierarchies are reproduced by the masculine infrastructure of the Web.  Cyborgology editor Nathan Jurgenson, for example, has previously covered the Wikipedia’s bias toward masculine language.  Saskia Sassen warns “it may be naïve to overestimate the emancipatory power of cyberspace in terms of its capacity to neutralize gender distinctions.”

In an NPR interview this week, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales addressed the masculine bias of Wikipedia:

“The average age [of Wikipedia users] is around 26,” Wales says. “We’re about 85 percent male, which is something we’d like to change in the future. We think that’s because of our tech-geek roots.”

While the organization’s acknowledgment that the gender disparity on Wikipedia is promising, Wales seems to address the need for making the site more inclusive to women only from a marketing perspective.  Sociologically speaking, there is a far more important reason to attract women to Wikipedia.  Feminist sociologists have long argued the the types of knowledges that men and women produce are fundamentally different (in no small part due to their distinct social experiences).   As Wikipedia is increasingly accepted as the primary source of collected human wisdom, it is important to ask whose voices are being left out, and as such, what ways of thinking are absent in the conversation.  For Wikipedia, design and accessibility are not merely questions of customer service, but, in fact, have profound epistemological implications.