Re-Imagining Accessibility In An Attention Economy
A Talk By Mark Willis
Ohio State University – April 3
Multiple Perspectives on Access, Inclusion, and Disability 2007 Conference
Proposal Narrative (110706): This presentation explores a blind knowledge worker’s protean pursuit of lifelong learning, literacy, and access to information technology. The talk develops two metaphors, hoarding and lifehacking, to understand evolving, ever-changing strategies for making adaptations and negotiating accommodations to gain access to information. Such accessibility strategies are analyzed from the perspective of the attention economy. This idea has become a buzzword recently in the fields of Internet marketing and social media. Its legacy tracks back to pioneering work in microeconomic decision-making by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon. In 1971 Simon observed, "What information consumes is… the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."
Twenty years ago I served on a consumer advisory board for a state library for the blind. I learned that librarians had a special name for blind readers who dragged their feet when it came to returning talking books borrowed from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. “Dragged their feet” is my euphemism, and I will neither confirm nor deny my complicity in this behavior. The librarians called us hoarders. The label sounded a little heavy-handed to me, but since then I have come to value hoarding’s rich history of meanings. Hoarding invites economic analysis as it refers to human behaviors that are traceable through modern, ancient, and primitive economies. In conventional economic terms, in which the value of something is based on its relative abundance or scarcity, the talking book would seem to be what is scarce and valuable in a blind reader’s hoarding behavior. There aren’t enough talking books; it’s a wonder that the Library of Congress continues to fund the service; and surely, the efficient and equitable management of a free lending library depends on the ethical good faith of its users to share limited resources.
In terms of attention economics, however, the blind reader’s attention, including all the meta-reading work necessary to acquire access to the book and process its content, may be scarcer and more valuable than the book itself. Book hoarding implies character flaws such as sloth, greed, maybe even sociopathic behavior. It confounds many of the ethical principles we were taught in kindergarten. It also can be understood as a reasonable strategy – the type of decision Herbert Simon called bounded rationality -- for conserving precious attention amidst a glut of visual information.
Lifehack, by comparison, is a newly minted metaphor. It was coined in 2004 by technology journalist Danny O’Brien in a conference presentation called "Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks." He used the term to describe the ways highly productive programmers devise scripts and shortcuts to organize data and cut the drudgery in writing computer code. Lifehack became a meme that spread like fire among tech-minded bloggers, who expanded its meaning to include all types of tools and strategies that cut through attention overload by simplifying the technology used to manage information. Lifehack is used widely now in Internet folksonomies to tag almost any cool trick that helps one cope with a stressed-out, over-subscribed, media-suffused lifestyle. It implies individual agency and ingenuity in the attention economy. Lifehack is also an apt metaphor for the kinds of work people with disabilities do every day when they make adaptations and improvise solutions to accessibility barriers. To me, lifehack expresses how the motivations and problem-solving strategies of a blind knowledge worker are not significantly different from those of other kinds of knowledge workers in an attention economy.
I hear equally intriguing resonance for disability in other metaphors spreading through high-tech economies and cultures. Chris Anderson’s long tail and Henry Jenkins’s convergence culture are just two examples. Especially appealing is Richard Florida’s notion of the creative ethos, which leads highly skilled creative workers to choose employers and communities that value diversity, tolerance, and flexibility. I believe the evolving language of emerging technologies offers rich possibilities for re-imagining and re-articulating the experience of disability. Instead of negotiating accommodations that meet the letter of the law, maybe we should ask the geeks for cool, accessible lifehacks. Instead of appeals to justice, maybe we should make appeals to imagination.