Accessibility of Information: IT, Academics, and the Internet

We’ve all heard the stereotypes about the IT… not the tech department, but the Ivory Tower of academia. Even the name connotes its pristine and precious nature, its rarity, it’s high-and-mighty nature (not to mention its whiteness sourced from colonial oppression and illegal trade). Its halls, hallowed. Its customs, arcane. Its usefulness to the world, almost nil because nobody really understands it and can’t access it anyway.

As a fresh-faced undergrad, I vowed to myself that I would not conform to stereotype and end up locked away in a high tower, labouring at little-understood research of little consequence. I double-majored in English and women’s studies (and minored in religion): I often joked that I made up for English’s detachment from relevance to the real world with the practical activism and real-life knowledge about social relations and history that women’s studies (now gender studies) and religion were teaching me.

Yet the further I got in higher education, the more abstract my research topics seemed to be. Even my fourth-year paper for my women’s studies course was more theoretical than anything else.* I was entrenched more and more in the mindset that Jamie “Skye” Bianco encapsulates in a quote “Critical theory, I mean, let’s be honest, what did it ever do politically?” Bianco takes this quote from an informal group discussion of methodology, but it stands testament to the pervasive attitude towards academic pursuits that I was picking up on.

After graduation, I worked for several years, unsure if I wanted to return to academia – and, if that were the case, what to do once I got there. Frankly, it didn’t seem very important or as if it would have an impact on the way that my non-academic friends and family lived their lives. And I wanted to help people.

I returned for my masters in 2014 when I found that my way of helping people seemed to be in the area of pedagogy (lecturing, tutoring, introducing new ideas to a group or individual), but I was determined to keep my research accessible. If my friends can’t read my papers, I reasoned, then what good are they? My thinking was reinforced by a lecture in one of my masters courses on the ethical practice of theory. Basically, the gist was that writing articles that are difficult to read, full of unexplained jargon, and/or organized in such a way that it’s a slog to find the point, is unethical. Incomprehensible except to a few; exclusionary; ultimately inaccessible.

So now, as a PhD student, how do I practice ethical writing? How do I make it accessible? One solution pitched at academics in recent years has been blogging: an informal platform for testing out writing styles, theories, joining conversation and becoming part of an academic community. Incidentally, my time in publishing demonstrated to me how blogging (and related social media) is pitched at marketers, publicists, those aspiring to work in publishing, writers, poets, basically anyone with an opinion who needs a job and a listening ear.

The ears that listen have grown in number as access to the internet has rapidly expanded over the past decade. Initiatives such as providing laptops and connectivity to children and adults in developing countries. Technology in the hands of the historically underprivileged, racialized, lower-class communities and even the homeless empowers them to find jobs, or shelter if they’re looking, and bring coverage to issues that the mainstream media ignores.**

As my classmate Shada pointed out in lecture, the term “accessible” is inherently qualified. Who has access? To whom are we aiming our writing? Blogging’s reach is necessarily restricted; it’s important to remember that the internet is not the accessible Utopia that technofuturists had predicted in the 90s. Wikipedia claims*** that 84% of the world still does not use the Internet: ofttimes it’s easy to forget that the internet is primarily a Western-dominated sphere, its movers and shakers and software developers increasingly located like Silicon Valley in the United States. What freedom it has is even now under constant threat of erosion by corporate tactics to create tiered access, stratified by class (I’m referring to the net neutrality issue, which is not new, but seems a cyclical occurrence by this point).

In the old-school, ivory tower paradigm, academic writing is only accessible to other academics who a) understand the discipline b) have knowledge of the current jargon, and c) subscribe to the journals in which the articles are published. Even now that journals publish online, the accessibility of the internet has not affected these three factors. Non-English speakers are automatically exempt, as are extradisciplinary scholars, non-subscribing scholars, and non-scholars, period. What good is research if five people read it, and then it never goes beyond that small circle?

In many cases, it seems, even given internet access, academics unconsciously create and perpetuate paradigms of inaccessibility. I can write all the blog posts I want, but if they’re not in language that can be understood both by my scholarly peers and non-scholarly Facebook friends, I might as well be shouting at the former and making condescending gibberish sounds at the latter. Certainly, it’s a waste of my time. I don’t want to lock myself up or out of the internet. I don’t want to restrict my research to be shared only amongst a privileged few, or intelligible only by others who’ve studied what I have for years of their lives. I don’t think this “cheapens” my knowledge or degree – after all, someone still has to do the legwork of research, the close reading that enables “distant reading” that enables a new close reading.**** I’m inspired by digital initiatives in the humanities such as the Bentham Project, the Emily Dickinson archive, the University of Alberta’s Orlando Project to digitize women’s literary history, and others, because I feel they’re opening up the conversation to new participants and possibilities.

Accessibility of information is problematic. But I’m willing to work with what there is. What are some interesting or innovative new projects or platforms you’ve seen in the past little while? What’s your take on the issue of accessibility? Am I being too harsh when I’m slamming the English discipline? We critique what we love…. but maybe I’m going overboard – what do you think?

Edit Oct 14 2015 – I think it important to append this little quote from Sharon Daniel (who in turn was quoted by Bianco in her article “The Digital Humanities Which Is Not One”):

As an academic I was once reluctant to include my own story when theorizing my work. But my position is not neutral; in theory or in practice, that would be an impossible place. So I have crossed over into …“the anecdotal,” where theorizing and storytelling, together, constitute an intervention and a refusal to accept reality as it is. By employing a polyphony of voices, including my own, in order to challenge audiences to rethink the paradoxes of social exclusion that attend the lives of those who suffer from poverty, racism, and addiction, my work fulfills the role that new media documentary practices [must play]— …context provision.

This is akin to what I’ve been doing in past blog posts – I believe it’s important for you the reader to know where I’m coming from, both academically and in terms of my life experience with humanist concepts and the humanities in the wilds of the internet, as I find that a lot of digital humanist praxis calls for this sort of engagement. Also, it provides you with a bit of agency: you grok where I’m coming from and have a sense of my authority on the subject, so you can take or leave my biased arguments or contextual observations, but come away at least with an understanding of the bias and context giving rise to those thoughts and opinions. As Johanna Drucker points out, data is not just bare fact, and does not reflect the world as it is, but the world as it was reflected in that moment (of data collection). It can be twisted to serve a purpose. It’s helpful to have a sense of what that purpose is.


*It was an exploration of the theology of Julian of Norwich (a medieval anchoress) using French theorist Luce Irigaray’s theories of love. It was super interesting and fun for me but not exactly relevant to world issues at the time.

**Twitter in particular has emerged as a platform where “amateur” hashtag reporting and liveTweeting has informed and empowered followers of the #Ferguson, #Charleston, and other #BlackLivesMatter issues, where mainstream media either underreports or ignores outright activist, non-mainstream voices.

***I realize citing Wikipedia is an academic no-no (don’t be like me, kids! keep Wikipedia out of your papers!), but as of October 11, 2015, the whole article is fascinating and gives an easily-digestible snapshot of the entire issue, in addition to citing its sources pretty thoroughly. Check the external links; they’re worth a read. Bonus: includes data visualizations and maps!

****Thanks, Franco Moretti.

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