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Barriers to Access, Multiplying

We're starting the post-lunch session here at MiT5 with a paper by Marlene Manoff, titled Volatility, Instability, Ambiguity: The Evolving Digital Record. She has been working in collage art for a long time, and notes that recently viewers of her work are increasingly asking whether the artworks were created through digital means (they weren't). This is a sign of a wider trend towards a growing ambiguity of digital objects, also forcing us to see traditional objects in new ways and challenge the nature of cultural objects. This is also a form of interpretation and re-interpretation of existing objects, and the emergence of digital media has led to a concern about the dehistoricisation of media; a failure of archives to connect new to existing work. The digital record, in fact, is particularly susceptible to distortion and manipulation, and this is increasingly a focus of research.

What is necessary here is to think about both new and old cultural objects differently. How does history shape our assumptions about the nature of cultural objects? Libraries are undergoing a process of erosion of cultural and categorical boundaries, and this erosion happens both from within and without; libraries are increasingly embedded in vast information spaces whose boundaries are fluid and permeable. Libraries, however, traditionally depend on the existence of clearly identifiable objects, but these objects are disappearing into the data fog. Libraries are increasingly challenged in providing reliable and persistent pointers to information resources; libraries may be providing pointers to different objects from one day to the next. Digital entities are notoriously consistent to containment and control.

A critical obstacle is the drift into obsoleteness of hardware and software configurations upon which digital media depend; as Bruce Sterling has said, "hardware is even more mortal than I am", and it is therefore dangerous to have one's work tied to any one platform. A functioning and reliable archive of older forms, for example, is central to the serious study of gaming, but this is a severe weakness of games studies; the same is true in other fields of digital media studies. "Every time an older platform vanishes, it's like a little cultural apocalypse," as Sterling has said.

But how do we select what can and should be saved through archiving? How are the digital objects which are to be archived defined? What about the context of Websites (the pages to which they link), what about the databases upon which Websites depend, what about differences between different platform versions of the same object (Mac vs. PC, etc.)? One might as well understand the entire Internet as a single object, rather than attempting to carve it up into distinc entities. Further, if single objects are so difficult to describe, what about citation and referencing? Are we returning to an oral culture which accepts the loss of large amounts of knowledge once readily available? Can a culture exist without historical record?

Libraries are crucial spaces within this challenging environment. They enable a connection with an ancestral past now challenged by the digital environment; at the same time, they are also deeply involved in dealing with the new information objects and are developing new approaches to archiving and making available and accessible such objects. The ambiguity of the digital space is difficult to address through the standard tools of librarianship which rely on stable objects.

Mark Willis is next, speaking on Reimagining Accessibility in Participatory Culture. His focus is especially on accessibility for blind and vision-impaired users to the digital environments for cultural production. He begins by showing a 1916 Paul Strand image of a blind New York City beggar, wearing a sign reading 'blind' around her next (as well as a licence badge - beggars were required to have an official licence then). The image was taken clandestinely without the knowledge of its subject, and Paul describes it as an example of the stigmatising gaze.

Blind and vision-impaired users of information continue to be stigmatised in this way; they are required to disclose their impairment in the process of negotiating access to information. The blind woman in the photograph, and many vision-impaired people today, are often still thought of as not being able to make culture or engage in participatory cultural environments. Mark now shows another image of a young blind boy in the late 1940s, who had lost his limbs, reading a Braille book with his lips, which could be described by means of a hero narrative (overcoming the odds, etc.), but which instead actually describes the everyday lived reality of this boy - involving the making of adaptations and negotiating of accommodations. Such negotiating of accessibility is itself creative work, Mark suggests.

Finally, Mark moves on to a photo by the blind photographer Henry Butler, titled "Big Ol' Kiss". Here, the blind photographer is not the subject of the gaze, he is the person gazing himself. Such photography is Butler's attempt to understand the fascination with visual imagery felt by sighted people, and is focussed centrally on engaging with the photographers subjects; it makes explicit the social contract between subject and photographer. For the disabled, Mark points out, accessibility now no longer means access to information, but crucially also access to the means of creating and sharing information.

Eva Hemmungs Wirten is the last speaker, examining Libratory Law: Unmaking Knowledge. She begins with a nod to the laboratory as the quintessential creative milieu. Today, IP law impacts directly on the laboratory as well as the research library (the laboratory of the humanities), however. IP law now circumscribes creativity in these domains - how has this happened when IP was initially meant to support and further the creation of knowledge? IP law has expanded in subject matter (including an increasing range of IP forms), in time (extending the protection period), and in space (with U.S. copyright law actively exported all over the world) over recent decades. Higher education is also increasingly affected by this.

The arrival of the modern author is inextricably linked with the arrival of intellectual property rights, of course; Eva suggests the idea of a libratory as a new way of considering the dilemma between authorship rights and the furthering of knowledge. Interestingly in this context, patents are built on the principle that no prior art exists, while copyrighted academic work is seen to be most valid when it is directly referencing existing work - two very different rhetorical strategies are at work here.

The advent of the photocopier led to a codifying of 'fair use' rights at least in some jurisdictions; this, however, is increasingly being limited especially as new, digital technologies have emerged which disembody information from its physical forms. The main resource in the libratory is immaterial - it is knowledge -, and both are integral to a commons (an information commons in the case of the library, a science commons in the case of the laboratory). Such commons are increasingly under threat as government funding for libraries and laboratories dries up and is made up for by universities pursuing more strongly a commercialisation of knowledge and patents.

Much of this debate is dominated by an Anglo-American perspective, interestingly - building on traditional arguments both for IP protection in the first place, and for 'fair use' exceptions at a later date, which tend to cite public interest as reasons to implement such provisions. These arguments need to be revisited and extended by examining alternative conceptions of intellectual property as they might exist outside of that culture.

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