Breaking down Barriers: The Feminist and Accessible Publishing and Communication Technologies Series

Alexandra Ketchum, McGill Faculty Lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies chose to bring light to these issues by creating the Feminist and Accessible Publishing, Communications, and Technologies Speaker and Workshop Series

Accessibility, publishing, and technology are words that do not often go hand in hand. Both the publishing sector and the tech industry have come under fire for their lack of diversity and limited accessibility. Alexandra Ketchum, McGill Faculty Lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies chose to bring light to these issues by creating the Feminist and Accessible Publishing, Communications, and Technologies Speaker and Workshop Series. The first event took place in January this year and has since hosted an impressive list of more than 22 events that will number 27 by the end of the winter 2020 semester.

The series has gathered individuals specialized in the digital humanities, computer science, feminist studies, disability studies, communication studies, LGBTQ studies, history, and critical race theory. Its guiding theme is to bring together scholars, creators and industry people who are working at the intersections of digital humanities, critical approaches to publishing, innovative communication strategies and making research dissemination more accessible. All events are free and made open to the public, in disability-friendly spaces, and most of them are filmed for easier access.

Throughout our interview, Ketchum spoke of her motivation behind the project. As an academic and an activist, her speaker and workshop series is grounded in a long-established commitment to conducting public-facing work. Being the first woman in her family to attend university, and to then reach the higher spheres of academia, Ketchum feels a duty to make research available to a diverse and wide audience. She voiced her belief that individuals working for public institutions and receiving government grants have an obligation to the public to make their research legible and accessible.

Communication technologies have offered new avenues for researchers to share their work with the wider public. Academic publishing is now gradually starting to integrate new technologies in both the production, dissemination, and presentation of works. The emergence of the digital humanities and open access online journals illustrate this turn. Traditional subscription-based journals, whose readership is often limited to a closed circle of academics, are no longer the only option for knowledge transmission. Professor Ketchum is a part of this new wave of digitization of research, with her two websites, the History Cooking Project and the Feminist Restaurant Project, featuring many of her key findings.

As remarked upon by Ketchum, to render research accessible to varied audiences outside of academia is a choice that comes with several caveats. Breaking down the ivory tower of scholarly research is not without its financial sacrifices and limitations. Open access articles and books published online do not grant researchers the same revenue as private publications. Though it may render their work more visible, academics often have to assume themselves the financial costs of having a public website that features their research. Many scholars also do not have the time nor the resources to acquire the technical know-how in using these new communication technologies

There are also personal concerns in doing open-access work. Ketchum alluded to the fact that open access work tends to be viewed less favorably in academic institutions and hamper on scholar's chances of obtaining tenure. She added that scholars, particularly racialized, queer, s and women and non-binary scholars, also face greater chances of suffering from online abuse and other forms of trolling which can limit their ability and willingness to openly publish their work. Accessibly, publishing and technology are all nested in a prickly compromise.

Much like publishing, issues of equal access, public participation, and dissemination of knowledge all resurface in the wider realm of communication technologies. Every advance in technology brings an allure of progress that tends to glean over entrenched social inequalities. Ketchum notes that while communication technologies have extended the platforms available for thinkers and creators to share their work, access to these platforms is not made equal. She warns against what Meredith Brussard calls “techno-chauvinism,” being the belief that technologies are always a better fit than what existed before. Mimi Onouha, one of the featured speakers taking part in the series, has argued that new technologies can obstruct social justice through reproducing the power differentials in society, leading to what she terms algorithmic violence.

Algorithms, and artificial intelligence more generally, has been one of the recurring themes of the series, with talks on decolonizing data and missing data sets, indigenous protocols for AI, algorithmic colonialism, AI and social justice. From this list, it is apparent that serious concerns are raised over the data sets employed in the development of AI and the ways in which people are classified, labeled and evaluated within these algorithms. Technology is not a universal fit, yet it continues to be applied and developed in homogenous ways. There is the added lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to how AI is being integrated into society by government services, law enforcement, and even digital publishing. Communities most affected by algorithmic violence, being women, members of the LGBTQQIP2SAA community, non-binary individuals and people of color, are sounding alarm bells. For Ketchum, it was important to have their voices showcased and be featured throughout the series.

From my conservation with Ketchum, it was made clear that in order to ensure a more equal, diverse and socially inclusive future for knowledge production and dissemination, the relationship between publishing, communication technologies, and AI needs to be reconsidered. The Feminist and Accessible Publishing, Communications, and Technologies Speaker and Workshop Series is remarkable in its capacity to assemble a list of thinkers and creators from a multitude of backgrounds who work in the intersecting topics of feminism, publishing and communication technologies. It features insights into a panoply of tech-related issues, but that all touch on how to create avenues for a fairer and socially just production, application and sharing of knowledge. The series should inspire members of the McGill community to think deeper into how our sharing and access to information operates.

To learn more about the Feminist and Accessible Publishing, Communications, and Technologies Speaker and Workshop Series and to attend future events, please visit: https://www.feministandaccessiblepublishingandtechnology.com