The face of accessibility has changed a lot over the last 10 years. The term itself has morphed to encompass much more that it historically included, branching now beyond references to physical boundaries, instead include those areas within the metaphorical ‘digital’ space. However, beyond simply referring to access, it also more broadly talks to ease of use.
It is this aspect of web accessibility that has been largely ignored and it is where I feel we should look for the new wave of accessibility development. This is not to say we should forgo the advances we have made over recent years, instead we should start enhancing our communication techniques so that the information is not just available to everyone, but in a form which is understandable as well.
How did we get here?
Stick with me here. In order to fully appreciate where we need to go, it is important to jump back a couple of years or so. Well, maybe more than a couple, but the evolution of this space is defined by the changing face of historical information management. These are the revolutions that changed the way we consumed and shared what we knew about the world around us.
The Agricultural Revolution
Across the history of the world there have been multiple Agricultural Revolutions. They have been happening in different guises for hundreds and thousands of years. It is one of the earliest of these which set the foundation for communication for the entirety of human history.
It is around 10 000BC. There was no NBN (no change there then) and they did not have internet. Technology consisted of little more than designing a piece of flint with which to pick one’s own nose. People were nomads, moving from place to place hunting animals and following the food and the seasons.
Then people realised that it was possible to create and manage their own resources. They could plant and maintain plants, and breed and control animals. They no longer needed to follow the food, instead the food came to them.
This first step allowed people to settle in a single location; living off the land was no longer required and travelling to acquire seasonal food became far less important. Without the restrictions created by nomadic living, people were able to start specialising. Some would engage in tasks which were more physically intensive, like the farming itself, while others may engage in tasks which required greater cognitive or dexterous abilities, like planning, recording or web design.
How is this important? It was this first revolution which created the foundation for a class system. It was this separation and subsequent protection of skills that assisted in dividing intellectual and skilled individuals from those that followed more physically intensive pursuits. Information ceased being widely disseminated across many people. The specialist knowledge that was generated became guarded and treasured. It was then used to influence those who did not have the same foundation. The first agricultural revolution did not just cause an intellectual divide, but lay the foundation for a class divide.
The Industrial Revolution
From the 1760’s machines took the world by storm. They allowed many products to be mass produced at great social cost. Coal was highly prized, as were people with all their fingers attached.However, it was not the skilled classes coming out of the agricultural revolution doing this work. It was the poor. The lack of any OH&S laws meant that in some places machinery could be said to run on blood as much as steam.
This era did start moving the dissemination of information forward. While class based divisions still existed, the cost of producing paper, ink and books were all dropping. New forms of media and methods to spread information started to appear. Advertising bloomed, posters and words were everywhere; and for advertising to work, people needed to read.
The rich also learnt that the mid and lower classes still had money. In order to resolve this issue, they used their skills and knowledge to help fill their pockets. They sold information. Newspapers started to see their way across Europe and with affordable printing, the price could be kept low.
This additional access to information (even if it was only used to clean yourself) put words in the hands of many people. While the initial cost still put written work out of reach for many, this lay a foundation that was much more than the lower-class working for the middle and upper classes. All people were learning more about the world around them. People could start dreaming. Literacy was going to become the norm.
The Technological Revolution
Compared to the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions, the Technological revolution from the 1930’s brings much more positive social development. Across the intervening centuries education became a central pillar in society, everyone deserved to at least be able to read, write and do arithmetic. People could read, write and interpret information. A certain expectation surrounding what people were expected to know also broadened and became ingrained in many cultures.
However, while building the physical technology itself was regulated to the working classes, the ever-broadening range of skills required to develop, design and construct programs stayed with the middle to upper class. The extraordinary of cost hardware ensured that, for most part, technology was out of reach for the masses. The first consumer grade computer only become available from the mid 1970’s.
However, the change in production style from being a standalone product (items which a user would be able to understand how they work) to being a product that encompasses both a physical item and programmable software, created new opportunities for all the levels in the social chain. Those from the lower classes would build the base, while those from the middle to upper classes developed the rules for its operation. This is programming. For the first time this chain included links from all the different levels of society. Everyone was working together to produce a complete and functional product.
The Communication Revolution
We are in the midst of the communication revolution. We are at a point where barriers between people have started to be torn down. Information is widely available and the means to access it has dropped to the point where if someone wants to learn about anything, it could be done in a matter of seconds. Technology itself is no longer the driving medium, (that is not to say that it does not play its part) but the manner, method and clarity provided by this technology facilitates the improved dissemination of information going forward.
The significance behind this revolution is not just the access, but production. Everyone man and their cat can get out there and create something which can then be at the fingertips of billions of other people. This low cost to entry means that now, for the first time in 10,000 years, everyone can generate content and information for anyone else. The divides which were so prominent through the previous revolutions have largely been shifted away. Everyone can access everything.
Recent times have also exposed the weaknesses that this freedom causes. Information is becoming harder to verify; fake news, doctored images and edited videos are having significant societal influence where they should be dismissed as lies.
Information that was once private and secure is becoming more open. People’s lives are being turned into data that is tracked, marketed and sold. Protection, privacy and control over one’s own information will be driving the latter stages of this revolution.
Beyond these revolutions, we must also consider the lead-up for the communication revolution. It is not something that has just appeared over the last few years, it is something that has been driven by advances in technology. It is only since the services have gained access to a universal and powerful two-way communication system that its true power was realised.
We can trace the origin of the written word back at least 4000 years. It independently emerged across multiple locations around the world. In some cases, it was through carvings on stone, in others, it was impressions on clay.
There was a movement from Egypt in around the year 500BCE where we observed the export of Papyrus from Egypt across to Greece. Why would this be so important? It is because the lighter the material the easier it is to transport, and as such, share. At this early stage, paper was most frequently used to communicate ideas between individuals rather than to the masses.
It was only with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440’s that the possibility of widely sharing knowledge, and sharing it for a profit, came into being. The first presses were not fast; they had limited scope for producing vast quantities of thick volumes. This did not stop the spread of the presses. In the following 50 years, mass printing found its way across Europe. Printing was becoming cheap and profitable.
The ability to print was hamstrung by one thing though, paper. It was only around the 1600’s, when paper was cheap enough to be considered disposable, did newspapers start appearing. The first weekly publication was produced in the 1620’s in Germany. These were made all the more common in the 1800’s where the industrial revolution saw mass media exploding. It was cheap and fast to produce newspapers. If you did it fast enough people would happy hand across the money.
With the introduction of paperback books by Penguin in 1935, books became extremely accessible to a much wider audience. They were cheap, easy to produce on scale and they were demanded. However, the greatest from of two-way communication entering the scene was the phone. Voice communication revolutionised the way business was conducted. It was only with the internet where mass communication bloomed.
Now we have the internet. It has already amassed significant repositories of information; presently, more is at people fingertips than ever before. For the first time, a world’s worth of knowledge is within arm’s reach. For most of us that is. This new space has had a steep learning curve, and WCAG has been leading the way to ensure equal access.
In the final article, we explore how modern accessibility has changed, limitations it holds and where we should be looking for the future of accessible content.