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This is the transcript from my 2016 presentation at Computers and Writing, for the panel H1: Brad Pitt Wants to Know “What’s in the Box”: How Technology, Rhetoric, and Disability Studies Play a Key Role in Breaking (open) Black Boxes. You can also watch the presentation (captioned!) on youtube, since I gave it virtually. The tags were #cwcon and #h1 for the conference and panel, respectively.
So. Hello everybody. My name’s Alyssa Hillary. I’m talking to you from a computer screen because I am ever so slightly graduating now. I’m an engineer at the University of Rhode Island – not a recovered engineer!
So, the idea of the black box started off in engineering and in sciences. We have a lot of processes to deal with, we have a lot of formulas to deal with, and there’s just too much for one person to know, most of the time, to know how absolutely everything works. Within a given field, we’ll say, OK, we’re not going to worry about understanding all the details of this process over here. We’re just going to say, we care what goes in, and we care what comes out. And everything else is someone else’s problem. Obviously, somebody needs to care about what happens inside that black box, but … not everybody.
Then we have the humanities getting hold of the idea, yay, cross-fertilization between disciplines, I love it when that happens. At least, formally. Informally, I figure the humanities since, oh, forever.
But here’s the question: What do different people, different fields, different disciplines, different interdisciplinary combinations, black box? That depends on where we stand, where we sit, where we retreat to when it’s time to curl up in a ball and shake.
As an engineer and as a disability studies person, I see quite a bit of it going on. Technology. Now at computers and writing, we’re going to be better about not black-boxing everything technology ever than a lot of people will, computers is right in the name.
But, a lot of the time, engineers and scientists and technology people tend to black box, tend to ignore what are the cultural forces behind our technology, how our technologies are going to get used. We don’t think about why our technologies are going to get used the way they are. We just think about, here’s how it’s getting used, we’re not going to worry. At one extreme, I’ve seen people talking about how to do the death penalty as purely an engineering problem. This is something that is currently happening, how do we do it more efficiently, not thinking about the societal factors behind why are we even doing this? Less extreme, still pretty common.
In the humanities, we often treat technological developments, or we have often treated technological developments, as something that happens and the technologies appear from just about nowhere. So they’re treating the engineering process as a bit of a black box. Time goes in, technology comes out. Or, for mathematicians, coffee goes in, theorems come out.
Now, in the digital age, and just in general over time the amount of technology we have to deal with increases. So what do we treat as a black box, why do we do it? Digital humanities, we use a lot of software. We use the Internet. How does the Internet work? It’s a bit of a hodge-podge, we’ve got websites here, websites there, different protocols, http, https, fttp, and on and on, and I don’t think anybody knows how all of it works. And this is what we’re working with. How much do we treat as a black box and how much do we try to understand?
We’ve got statistical analysis of online texts. If we don’t understand what our statistical analysis program is doing, how do we know if it’s any good? How do we evaluate it with no idea what’s in the box? But, how much time do we have to figure out what’s in the box? Who are we trusting, and how hard would it be to take the time and energy not to trust them?
Some of our software? Maybe we don’t try and get into the nitty-gritty of how our web browser works, maybe we don’t try and figure out why Google’s giving us the results it gives us – that’s a hugs black box, it’s proprietary, good luck figuring out exactly how it works, though search engine optimization is a thing, they’re trying to open the box, they do a pretty good job.
And there’s our technology. Now, when we’re interdisciplinary, or when we’re trying to be interdisciplinary, generally we’ve got a few “home” disciplines. Not as in, there’s a few specific disciplines where we get interdisciplinary, I think everyone has the potential to try at least. But you, in particular, me, in particular. I am an engineer. No matter what I’m approaching, I’m still thinking, to some extent, like a mathematician, like an engineer, like a disabled person. I bring those with me, and what things I’m likely to treat as a black box in my other work relates to my initial upbringing as mathematician, engineer, disability studies person.
We’re less likely to black box the stuff we think we can understand! So the more it relates to one of our home disciplines, the less likely we are to black box it. And we’re more likely to black box what we don’t understand! As an engineer, I’m more likely to try to get into the nitty-gritty of technology than someone who’s original training was in literature. It’s just a fact. But if we’re trying to be interdisciplinary, if we’re trying to combine multiple things, maybe we want to get into the nitty-gritty of stuff that normally, we wouldn’t. How?
I don’t actually know how. I know that working with people across atypical combinations of disciplines is one way you could potentially do it. Maybe I don’t know how to understand every piece of literary analysis, I know that I don’t, but I’m working with someone who does, and they can unpack that black box.
Maybe Sam, also on this panel, can unpack the black box of how do we get from one piece of rhetoric to the next, constructing spaces of advocacy and asking, who is this organization even advocating for? And then, he’s unpacked that so I can understand it. I come back and say, now as an engineer I understand the technologies. I’m going to get into the question of how do we go from our current rhetorical position to the technologies it makes sense to try to build given that rhetorical position, given our current sociological, cultural background. How does this lead to given technologies and how do we use those technologies. I’m an engineer, I’ll unpack that part.
Which gets me into technology, people with disabilities, and how we get technology that’s useable by people with disabilities. Again, I’m an engineer. I’m going to hit the questions that are relevant to engineers. What’s in the box? So.
Who is this really for? Often times, when we’re designing technology that, at least in name, if for people with disabilities, is for disabled people, asssitive tech. Who’s getting asked what the needs are? It’s parents, it’s professionals, it’s teachers. It’s not the end users, disabled people, who will go home and use this technology regularly. So, my communication application, that I use fairly regularly, I have Proloquo4Text on my iPad. They’re actually pretty good at getting feedback from disabled people who use their application. A lot of others … aren’t.
You get people advertising technology for communication supports based on testimony from parents, professionals, teachers, but not the people who are using these applications, the people for whom these applications are our primary voices.
So who get’s asked what the needs are? Who’s designing our technology? That’s another black box that I’m situated to unpack. See, I know of a group that’s trying to design technology to track environmental factors related to meltdowns for autistic people and I am the, as far as they know, the first autistic person that they’ve met. So who’s designing this, and who are they talking to, if, prior to me, they aren’t talking to any autistic people? In practice, who is, the end user? I don’t know. It clearly isn’t us.
Where do we stand? Where do we sit? What’s a black box, and to whom? I tried to build communication software, very, very naively, definitely not working with the best tools, despite being an engineer I am not a computer scientist. Trying to treat some communication problems for autistic people, for neurodivergent people in general, as a problem of translation. My friends who know me better can understand me more than strangers can. Because they know from experience what context I’m trying to put in, they know how my syntax changes under stress. They know how my communication tends to differ from standard, white, abled, middle-upper class, neurotypical, cis-het, every other kind of normative speech there is. And they can translate from what I’m saying to what they should understand. And they can do this for other people who don’t know me as well.
Can we apply machine translation or computer assisted translation to help us do this? In that position I had to get into the nitty-gritty of how does computer assisted translation work. I had to learn enough about how it worked to start unpacking that black box, in a way that, if I were just trying to translate between two “standard” languages, I wouldn’t need to unpack it, because I’m using the software out of the box, as it stands.
It’s about what our position is, in the world, what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to understand. That tells us what black boxes we need to open up and ask, what’s in this box, and which ones we can leave alone and say, y’know, someone else can open that one.
Thank you everybody.
This is the transcript from my 2015 presentation at Computers and Writing:
Oh, yeah. Thank you. Slideshow. From beginning. Awesomeness.
Okay, that’s close enough to the color I was aiming for.
So, you might notice that the language on my slideshow is fairly basic, “Actually including more people using the internet—writing calls so the invited contributors can understand.” That’s because, part of what I’m talking about is trying to include more people, including people whose disabilities are cognitive, whose disabilities affect language use in some way—I’m part of this group.
Sometimes that inclusion can go wrong. We’ve got one case, the Feminist Wire’s forum on disability about two years ago—I was pretty heavily involved in this one, in running into the access barriers, in trying to change them, and in having mixed levels of success changing them.
One of the first things that we saw was “Disability seems to be trending in academia these days.” While that might be true, talking about the fact that it’s trending as part of why you want to talk about it is not really a good way to make the people who’ve been working in the area before it was cool like you and want to contribute. It’s a good way to really piss off the people who live this reality every day. So, that’s problem the first.
Problem the second. The call for submissions—and this is pretty typical of everything that’s academic or academic-ish, not just the Feminist Wire— it had lots and lots of jargon. We run into this problem as academics when we’re reading something from even an adjacent but slightly different discipline. The difference between academia and activism is just as big, if not bigger. The difference between academia and people who have language difficulties can be even wider depending on exactly what our language disabilities are. (Even for those of us who have language disabilities and are academics!)
They say, straight up, that they are asking for disabled people, activists, and writers to contribute, which is great. But when the call for submissions is written such that people with disabilities mostly can’t understand it, that kind of makes them liars. It’s not a nice way of putting it, but it’s accurate.
One disabled activist, Kassiane Sibley—she’s autistic, epileptic, blogs at Radical Neurodivergence Speaking—her statement, “Cognitive inaccessibility—” meaning, writing so that people can’t understand it “—is bad because it’s hard for disabled people to understand, it’s hard for people who couldn’t afford a fancy education—” like most of us here have had, “—to understand. A lot of disabled people, people of color, disabled people of color can’t afford said education, and these problems are part of why disability studies, and why academia in general, is so white and so upper-middle class.” No one else can understand what we’re talking about.
So, we talked to the Feminist Wire. They responded. “Given the sustained exclusion and economic vulnerability of those with disabilities, the academic language of our call was pointed to as yet another method of exclusion. Reduced access to formal higher education works to perpetuate a cycle of ableism.”
What they’re saying is actually a lot like what I just said, but this is still kind of jargon-filled. And when we were talking about cognitive disability, language disability as one of the big main issues, they’re talking about it just as access to higher education.
Since cognitive disabilities—any disability other than physical/mobility/sensory has a tendency to get erased when talking about disability, this is actually a big issue.
When they edited their call for submissions initially, there weren’t really any changes made to the body. We just got five more paragraphs of jargon at the front about why it’s important to revise. That actually makes it harder for us to understand what the call for submissions is, so the first attempt at remedying it actually made it worse.
Then they get asked, because we say, “Hey, it’s still inaccessible.” What do we do? Well, they appreciate our feedback; they appreciate our comments, but they’re not rewriting it again. They didn’t rewrite it the first time, really, but they’re not editing it again. They’re not making another version either.
They invite us to share our own interpretations. This requires that we’re able to make heads or tails of the call. In general, when you’re being asked about access from a disabled person, and you then say, “Why don’t you do it yourself?” you’re asking the person you just excluded to fix the problem you created. That’s victim blaming and it’s not going to work. We’re not going to solve the problem that way.
This is, in fact, doubling down on the barriers, making it harder to get in. Why is academia so able, white, upper-middle class? Because if you can’t get in because of the barriers that they’ve put up, you’re expected to fix it yourself.
So then there’s the question, “Why do those of us who are already here care?” Clearly people with disabilities care. That’s why we’re trying to fix it. But why do the people who are inside care? For one thing, related to philosophy of science and production of knowledge, Helen Longino notes that excluding people from conducting research based on them being part of given social group is actually a cognitive failing in the researchers. It makes research not be as good.
Daniel Hutto, talking about folk psychology, notes that the best explanations for why someone acted the way they did usually comes from the person who just acted1. That is, we’re going to get a better idea of what’s going on in the lives of people with disabilities if we ask them, if we listen to them, if we write our calls of asking people to talk about the issue so that people with disabilities can actually understand what’s going on.
Right now, we’ve got an issue where people who are speaking, effectively, different languages or different dialects, even if they’re still part of the same language officially—things like academic-ese, academic-ese, the words that your plumber knows to describe what he’s doing as they’re fixing your pipes—these are both considered part of English, but they’re different. And going from understanding from one to the other requires, effectively, translation.
The burden of conducting these translations—of crossing these cultural and linguistic divides—tends to go on the person whose version of language is considered less than. Post-modern academics are fairly high up on the totem pole. Disabled activists are fairly low. Therefore, it’s our problem, except it can’t and shouldn’t be our problem, at least not just our problem. That’s part of how we get into trouble.
So. Why is it hard to fix? Well, this involves changing the entire of culture of academia. That’s no small order. Like most cultures, there’s a good bit of investment in keeping things the way things are.
So, many of us remain unsure of how to practically create accessible texts. We don’t know how to write understandably, never mind disrupt pedagogical infrastructures or cultivate radically inclusive conferences, whatever that means when we translate out of academic-ese. We also don’t know how to change the structure of teaching. We don’t know how to make conferences that actually include people with disabilities and other typically excluded groups, as speakers, or even sometimes as attendees. That’s from Melanie over there, our moderator. She talked about this in the call for submissions for Cripping the Computer, where I’m writing about this problem at much greater length.
And, there’s stereotypes. When we think of people with disabilities or any other minority group as being disconnected, it can discourage content producer, or people calling for submissions, from reaching out to members of these groups to ask for contributions. We get a bit of a vicious cycle there.
And then, of course, within academia, we tend to want to position ourselves as experts, and in many cases, we really are. But nobody’s an expert at everything. When we don’t know something, it’s hard for us to ask for help. And that means that, when we don’t know how to do it, we’re probably going to continue not knowing. We may even try to push it off as something that isn’t important—that doesn’t matter.
Now how do we fix this? There’s writing in plain language or plainer language. This involves knowing what plainer language even means. The thing about language is that, once you’re used to a bunch of words—once you’re used to a certain way of writing or speaking—it looks natural to you; it feels natural. We can get used to writing in a given way. We may not realize all of the terms that we use that actually are jargon. When this happens, well, knowing what plainer language even is or how to write in it becomes tricky for academics.
We could use activist language. Most of the disabled people who aren’t part of academia who are trying to contribute probably have some familiarity with activist groups and the ways that activists talk about things. This requires that the people who write in the calls are familiar with the terms that activists use.
Sometimes those are the same as what academics use; sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes we’ve got words that academics don’t have; sometimes they’ve got words we don’t have; sometimes both.
We’ve got versioning. We’re concerned about here, do we have somebody who can actually write in more than one of these dialects? This has been done to good effect. In a call for submissions for Accessing the Future fiction, they had a plain language version and a version that was more academic. There’s another conference, currently open call for submissions in the UK, where they have an academic call and an activist call because of these differences. What you need is someone who can translate for you. This might be multiple people. You might need multiple translators if there’s more than one version.
Between different disciplines, you’ll have different kinds of jargon. And of course, there remains the issue of, what happens if one of these versions—perhaps an inaccessible one—becomes the default version, and the plainer language version that’s easier for people with disabilities to understand is thought of as secondary.
This has happened, and it does mean that people with disabilities, or people who need a plainer language version for any reason, don’t necessarily see it. They might only ever find out about the inaccessible version, because sometimes, even though both versions exist, the more accessible version links back to the original main, default, hard to read one, but not the other way around. Then we’re stuck.
There’s also the possibility that we, as academics, can ask for help. We can recognize these other ways of knowing as real, as important, as useful, lived experiences, other formats. This is, perhaps, the biggest cultural change of all, which means it’s probably the one that’s hardest to affect, but it’s important because, when academics continue trying to read, write, talk about any given minority group without looking to members of those groups for help on making it so that we can join the conversations about ourselves—when they expect that academics talking about any given issue are either not part of the group we’re talking about, or are expected to distance ourselves from our lived experiences as members of that group—this is making our research less good.
We should recognize these other ways of knowing as real. We should be able to ask for help. I don’t know how much we’re there yet. These are kind of the ways that we can work on trying to fix this problem. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take concerted effort by a lot of people working to change how we ourselves act, not just pointing out how other people act. That’s why I put simpler words, mostly, on my time—on this. That’s why I’m recording. I’m putting this up for people who can’t be here today for any reasons.
1His book, Folk Psychological Narratives, does propose some alternative ideas to inherent theory of mind stuff. However, his application of his basic ideas to autism is … not good. If you want to apply his broader ideas to autism specifically, do it yourself while listening to what autistic adults have to say about our own experiences and reasons for acting (like his broader ideas would totally suggest you should.)