Shape-Shifters in the Fair Use Lab

My proposal for MiT6. True to form, I met the deadline at the last minute:

A blind reader who constructs an accessible text of Harold Innis’ “The Bias of Communication” will find in it some powerful ideas that suggest why such an accessible text is possible, if not inevitable. Innis’ essay is not available now in an accessible format produced by commercial or nonprofit publishers, but today’s blind reader has more tools than ever before to make it so. One goal of this presentation is documenting the implications and consequences of establishing such an accessible text within the rationale of fair use in copyright law.

Accessibility to communication for people with disabilities was not an academic concern when Innis wrote the essay in 1951, and it is not a widespread concern now. A blind reader, however, can sense the broader possibilities of accessibility wherever Innis discusses the flexibility of communication media. In the sweep of his historical survey, the flexibility of one medium after another shifted over space and time, leading to successive “monopolies of knowledge” that favored some people but excluded others. As a dominant medium came to shape the knowledge it transmitted, it lost flexibility through its “bias of communication” and eventually was undermined by new media capable of carrying new knowledge. The dominance of one medium over another was not the result of some implicit technological determinism, as the development of communication often is portrayed, but of contending power relations among people.

Another goal of this presentation is applying Innis’ ideas to a sensibility widely shared among blind people today: we live in a culture with a  dominant bias for visual communication. It’s easy to dismiss such a sensibility as the narrow concern of a few marginalized people, but it gains wider relevance with Innis’ provocative assertion that oral communication has played a recurring, resurgent, and revitalizing role in shaping media throughout history.  This idea was further developed by Innis’ protégé, Marshall McLuhan. It counters prevailing dogma that posits the complete and irrevocable eclipse of oral traditions by the advent of literacy and literate technologies. Innis and McLuhan presaged alternative social models of literacy that now acknowledge the interaction of oral/literate processes in what Shirley Brice Heath calls “ever-shifting, protean forms.”

Today’s rapidly changing digital technologies are capable of producing ever more creative hybrid oral/literate forms. However, along with the promise of greater accessibility, new media bring new biases of communication. A final goal of this presentation is exploring how accessibility is threatened by digital rights management, erosion of the fair use doctrine and contraction of the public domain.

Links to accessible texts supporting this project will be posted at Fair Use Lab.

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