When access isn’t even access

Last week I attended auDA’s Australian Internet Governance Forum - something I’ve been wanting to do for a couple of years. It started off badly, with a really unacceptable comment from AuDA Chairman Tony Staley about Terri Butler’s physical appearance (unacceptable in that it was a comment about her physical appearance). She laughed it off - she was sitting on stage with him - but it reflected very poorly on auDA, especially since the very first session after Staley and Butler’s introductory speeches was “Gender and the Internet”.

Despite this unfortunate introduction, it was a great session, talking about online abuse targeted at women and girls, and a sometimes fiery discussion about women in the tech industry. The latter discussion is relevant here. Theoretically, women and girls have the same access to IT careers as boys and men. But this ‘equal access’ comes with some pretty large asterisks. Girls are steered towards humanities and ‘helping’ careers, and boys are steered to science and ‘doing’ careers. Decades of cultural tropes have changed the image of IT and computers from “women’s work” to “socially awkward men’s work” and, lately, to “dudebro work”. The VC and startup culture of hiring via personal networks shuts out women when the people with the networks are all men. I could go on, but you get the picture - this is not a new story. Sure, women can walk in to the party - but if everyone ignores them (or abuses them) they don’t get to join in the fun.

One of the plenary sessions on the second day, Internet and indigenous communities, mostly focussed on the difficulties faced by indigenous people in remote communities. But ‘access’ in this context shows how multilayered and complex it can be. We heard about communities where cable and fibre is rolled out and connected to homes, but the local indigenous community can’t afford the subscription rates. We heard about big telcos refusing to offer discount phone and data bundle deals in areas where it isn’t profitable enough for them - so remote and regional communities have access, but not on the same terms as those in the big cities. We heard about people in Western Australia being imprisoned under “three strikes” laws because they can’t get online to register their car, and the nearest place to register is 200kms down the road - too far away to afford the petrol.

The most compelling and crucial message was that indigenous communities want and need access to the internet as first class citizens. As creators and communicators, not just as consumers and audiences. Australia’s indigenous communities have stories and knowledge stretching back more than 60,000 years. These communities are not ‘information poor’. The rest of the world has as much to learn from them as they have to learn from any of us. The don’t need ‘access’ as much as they need control over their own destinies and culture.

Dance Haptics - a joint project by Access Arts Victoria and the Monash Motion.Lab - is a great example of this point. The project was initially conceived as a way to give deaf-blind people ‘access’ to dance. Choreographers worked with Motion.Lab engineers to create a dancing robot which provides haptic feedback to deaf-blind dance partners - enabling them to dance with it. As the project progressed, however, the deaf-blind participants wanted to choreograph the robot. Dance Haptics became a much more empowering and creative experience by putting the participants in control as creators.

In the afternoon I went to a session called The influence seekers - a fairly free wheeling discussion about how government policy is made, and ultimately about how people make decisions about what information is reliable. Again, the issue of what access really means was a key underlying theme. Amidst horror stories of government departments losing their own reports because of changing website architecture and political fortunes, someone on Twitter pointed out that the National Archives hold all of this information. Which is fine, as long as you don’t need it for another twenty years. Public documents are only public when they are publicly controlled - if you can only get them from a government website that may or may not still exist, they are government documents, not public ones.

The other interesting thing to come out of this panel was Margaret Simons’ assertion1 that there is more ‘grey literature’ (reports and studies published outside of academic journals) published every year than what is published in academic journals. She compared this to what the Open Access movement has managed to release into the world, and it struck me that in a weird way Open Access has already won, but perhaps has been focussing on the wrong objective. The grey literature is already open - most of the time the publishers desperately want it to be read as widely as possible. The key is how it is being assessed and whether enough sceptical reading occurs. We all have access to this (dis)information, but access without adequate support to understand and assess it is sometimes worse than useless - ‘Dr Google’ can be dangerous.

In a different context, Ben Kolaitis made the same point. In a talk for newCardigan last night, Kolaitis explained that his role running technology programming at Melbourne Library Service is aimed at producing a ‘trampoline effect’, where participants get to the stage where they no longer need the library because they have the knowledge and confidence to become active members of the technology, maker or artistic community. “There’s no point having all this equipment [like 3D printers and electronics kits] if you don’t embed it into your service and have staff who know how to use it”, he said.2 Libraries in this context aren’t about providing access to makerspaces and technology, but about empowering users to be able to understand the technology and what they can do with it.

In the last session at auIGF, Anisha Fernando talked about her PhD research on privacy and search engines, and how users might be able to gain from the ‘affordances’ of personalised search without giving up their anonymity. I found this really fascinating because Fernando’s approach is quite nuanced. Google (and others) give you access but at what cost? Again, it comes down to control. danah boyd has written extensively on this, particularly in relation to teens. In her work she has shown that the primary issue for teens (and the rest of us) when it comes to privacy is whether and how we control what is shared about us, and with whom it is shared.

When libraries prioritise access over other things, we force patrons and ourselves into bad situations. We force patrons to use Adobe Digital Editions - a product that tracks every download and page flip, and does so incompetently - to access ebooks. We give patrons access to all sorts of ‘enhanced search’ features like reading suggestions based on the title they are looking at, but don’t secure our sites. Human Rights lawyer Renata Avila summed up the problems caused by the ‘access’ paradigm on Twitter last year:

Access to the Internet via Libraries is infected by permission control, restrictions on content, proprietary software and surveillance.

— Renata Avila (@avilarenata) June 23, 2014

Worst of all, our obsession with providing access ultimately results in the loss of access. Librarians created the serials crisis because they focussed on access instead of control. The Open Access movement has had limited success because it focusses on access to articles instead of remaking the economics of academic careers. Last week Proquest announced it had gobbled up Ex-Libris, further centralising corporate control over the world’s knowledge. Proquest will undoubtedly now charge even more for their infinitely-replicable-at-negligible-cost digital files. Libraries will pay, because ‘access’. At least until they can’t afford it. The result of ceding control over journal archives has not been more access, but less.

As Benjamin Franklin might have said if he was a librarian: those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little access, deserve neither and will lose both.

  1. I call it this because she showed a graph but I didn’t catch the citation

  2. Or words to that effect, I don’t have a recording

Image from from Got Credit used under CC-BY 2.0