I am a digital humanist, in that I do humanities-based research focusing on digital media. Specifically, I research web accessibility for people with disabilities, demonstrating how the web has been largely constructed for an able-bodied user position, and how that construction can exclude various bodies, identities, and experiences from the online sphere. As a result, digital media access - what has been called the digital divide, though I prefer "access gaps" or "technology for social inclusion" - is central to how I think about both my object of study and my role as a researcher. Specifically, there are three challenges common to digital media access and access to scholarly work: first, the structures of technologies and institutions often conspire to restrict access; secondly, access is infinitely variable, and thus not possible to guarantee; and finally, individuals' motivations must be central to understanding and addressing differences in access.
Material and institutional technologies of power, like technologies in their more mundane sense, have both affordances and constraints. Certain actions are simplified and thus encouraged, while others are made difficult (if not impossible) and thus discouraged. In considering access to digital media or access to scholarship, a close examination of affordances and constraints can reveal which people, and which actions, are invited in or escorted out. For instance, a laptop computer by default requires a particular configuration of the body and specific abilities; those who must sit differently, or cannot use a keyboard are discouraged from laptop use. The financial arrangements of academic publishing, similarly, afford access to those at institutions that can pay for it, while charging exorbitant rates to people without institutional access, and thus upholding positions of academic privilege and discouraging broad access.
The variability of access is one of the biggest challenges in web accessibility and has complicated recent studies of "digital divides." It is easy to think of access as a goal, or an end-state, to be enjoyed equally by all. Easy, but not realistic. In fact, access is infinitely variable, as individuals have incredibly diverse and often conflicting needs. Discussions of accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities often encounter this problem, as the basic level of language necessary for some people may not be practical for conveying, say, high-level physics. Both needs cannot be met simultaneously. Similarly, our need in academia to write in a way that conveys disciplinary rigor often conflicts with desires to connect to a broader audience. These are not always, or even often, truly complimentary goals.
Finally, the question of motivation ought to be central to how we think about and bridge differences in access. For some people currently without internet access, there is a sense that it is not necessary or desirable their lives; are they excluded if, in some ways, they are opting out of access? It is not helpful to assume that access is always beneficial, and always desired. Instead, beginning from an understanding of motivations allows us to consider how access (to technology or scholarship) could fulfill them. Thus, making academic work available is not the solution to finding audiences outside academia; we must be willing to consider what gaps our work fills, why people might want it, and then we must produce work differently, in order to make it clearly meaningful and useful to those who seek it out.
In short, I see affordances/constraints, variability, and motivation as foundational challenges to forming more nuanced understandings of digital difference and as serious hurdles to fostering genuine openness in academic research and cultures. These are not insurmountable problems, but the longer access is seen as a simple matter, the further we are from effectively addressing them.
Image on front page by Knight Foundation and available on Flickr.