Identity and Expression, Second Life

Cultural Change and Technology: Presentation on the ADA

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26th. Virtual Ability Inc. held a day-long series of events to commemorate this Act, and I was invited to provide some remarks, which follow:

I don’t live with a disability, so all I can do is listen, or imagine.

And here’s what I picture: I picture being frustrated because if you’re in a wheelchair, there’s only one entrance to my office building with a ramp.

I picture being frustrated because if you’re blind, there’s no Braille signage where I work – how would you know what button to push in the elevator? How would you find your way to my offices when I work in this big old factory building with winding corridors and signage that confuses people who CAN see.

I imagine what it must be like if there was a barrier between what I wanted to express, and my ability to express it. I imagine not being able to type or, heaven forbid, blog…or not easily, anyways, not with the sort of stream-of-consciousness rapid typing thing that gets me in so much trouble.

My experience with disabilities is peripheral. I can claim empathy but the reality is that I can only imagine, I can only picture, I can only pretend to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, but I can never entirely break through some of the assumptions and misconceptions of what it’s actually like.

But here we are in a virtual world. And the work of people like Gentle and the existence of something like Virtual Ability Island speaks to something that is important to me: the promise of technology. And just as important, the perils with which that promise is coupled.

Now, I’m a big believer that technology opens up forms of accessibility that are world-changing.

Accessibility, to the media anyways, typically means access to tools for creative and useful production that were typically reserved for specialists, or for those who could afford it anyways. Not everyone could set up a recording studio in their garage or afford the software for editing music. Not everyone could cut a record deal, or press their own vinyl. So to the media, at least, accessibility means accessibility to the tools by which our deeper forms of creative expression can be actualized. You can become a star from your garage, or your basement, or from your laptop at a Starbucks.

But accessibility of course goes beyond that. Technology makes it easier to give voice to those who had none, connects people who otherwise would not have connected – it collapses geography, as Cory Ondrejka once said of Second Life.

But the promise of technology is coupled with peril. This weekend the New York Times reported that a group of scientists are advocating for research, policy and discussion around the rise of machines and their replacement of human intelligence.

They write:

“The A.A.A.I. report will try to assess the possibility of “the loss of human control to computer-based intelligences.” It will also grapple with socioeconomic, legal and ethical issues, as well as probable changes in human-computer relationships.”

This is important stuff – because while technology is breaking down barriers that may have once been insurmountable, it’s also giving rise to new challenges – technology that is adaptive, that’s smarter than we are, that will have its own values embedded in how it is constructed.

You see, technology is not values-neutral. The Americans with Disabilities Act is evidence of that. And I can speak directly from experience on what this means…

My work is primarily in virtual development and healthcare communication. We create materials on topics ranging from breast cancer to HIV to arthritis. So you’d think there’s a natural fit between this and making content accessible. But too often, accessibility is an “add-on”. It either happens because the topic is aligned to a “target market” where accessibility is a concern. Or it happens in order to comply with regulations. We can make ROI arguments for accessibility, but at the end of the day, the issue is of value, and what values you bring to the technology you develop.

But if technology isn’t values-neutral, how can the values embedded within it recognize the range of human expression and potential that is technology’s promise?

I believe that virtual worlds are one place from which we can advance a cultural shift from one of compliance and ‘target markets’ to one in which human expression and the accessibility to the tools for that expression are embedded rather than added on.

In Second Life I work with people, I hire people, I collaborate with companies and organizations – and often find out AFTER that some of those individuals live with disabilities. This has been a profound experience for me – and one that I hope many other people repeat – learning that their pre-conceived notions are, well, notions.

In virtual worlds, we find rich information spaces combined with an ability to express our identity in ways that can be representative of, or distinct from, our ‘atomic selves’. And in virtual worlds, the community of those living with disabilities isn’t just showing us how THEY are able to break down barriers, to collaborate and work in new ways, to express more profound truths….

This community is reminding us that we have the opportunity to enhance the broader promise of technology so that we move beyond compliance and law into the deeper social and cultural change in which our capacity for self-expression does not struggle with barriers but instead is ennobled by those that we break down.


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