18. Art and Accessibility

Should we not create visual art because there are people who cannot see? Is it morally superior to create written work for this reason?

Something really cool about written works is that thanks to text-to-speech and machine translation tools, a written work is in some sense instantly accessible to almost everyone on the planet: If they can read it as written, they’re set. If they are deaf, they’re set. If they speak another language, a machine translation means they’re set. If they’re blind, a text-to-speech tool can read it aloud for them. If they’re blind and speak another language… you get the idea. This is really cool! Written language is a universal medium in ways that it never has been before.

It’s egregious that Hacker News doesn’t follow the HTML accessibility standards (all they’d have to do is use some H1 tags in the right spot). It’s silly to fall short of this goal. But plenty of art and plenty of content isn’t so easy to make accessible, for instance music to the deaf, or paintings to the blind. One can describe a painting in written words, but something is lost.

I feel a reluctance to claim that we shouldn’t create visual works for accessibility reasons. It’d be a really sad moral conclusion to come to that great artists such as Picasso were bad because they weren’t authors instead. This ‘ought’ would reduce the diversity of human expression and be a net loss, especially considering those of us who can see.

Does population proportionality affect this stance? There are many more people who can see than who can not. Is this the grounds for the argument that it’s OK to produce visual art?

I think no, legibility by the majority is not the prerequisite for producing art. For example, only a minority of the population can read code — but I would not claim that because code is inaccessible or uninteresting to an overwhelming majority of the population, people should not make code-art. An example of code-art is a quine. Most people have never heard of quines, but I’m quite glad they exist and wouldn’t prefer a reality where they don’t exist.

My thesis is that people should make art, and that art is good. The question remains to what degree accessibility should cross the mind of the artist or content creator.

Is there a difference between an artist and a content creator? Artists are content creators, but not all content creators are artists. Plenty of content is research papers, or blog posts, or descriptive youtube videos not intended to be art, or which may only incidentally be considered art. Plenty of content is TikTok videos. TikTok is to my knowledge not accessible to anyone who’s deaf or blind, because they’re videos (though I have seen people add captions). It’s also not accessible to the entire population of India.

Should we always post written blog versions of things, and not post to TikTok because TikTok isn’t accessible?

One solution is to simply not solo-post. Create content in multiple mediums! Expand your audience! This is not so hard to imagine: movies have subtitles!

What’s the relationship between reach and accessibility? By posting a successful video to TikTok one may have an actual audience of 10,000 people, where writing up a blog may only be read by 10 people. TikTok is effectively more accessible to millions of people who use the app rather than reading blogs or books with that same chunk of time. Whether or not those people are physically or intellectually able to read the written media is a little irrelevant.

One example is that Hank Green posts videos about climate change to TikTok, for instance. His goal is to inform people about the environment and topics like carbon credits, human caused CO2 emissions, and give people scientific literacy so they can better understand their world. By posting to TikTok, Hank is able to reach an audience of millions to achieve his goal — even though those with physical disabilities like blindness or deafness would not be able to consume his content.

What about other forms of accessibility? Intelligence affects accessibility of content. The amount of free time one has affects whether and how one accesses content. Writing a research paper or a book could be considered more accessible than making a TikTok. But… how many people will actually read that paper? How many people can understand the paper if they read it? There’s something genuinely gained by making complex topics understandable so that they can be understood by people who are not otherwise experts in the field, or who don’t have the mental or time capacity to sit down and read and understand a research paper.

This is an important aspect of what Hank Green is doing! He’s taking information that would normally be locked up in a complex encoding (though written), and helping to communicate it to many multiple more people than would receive that information without his help. Science communicators are in this way a sort of evangelist or apostle for science.

Takeaways:

  • Make art.
  • Translate your art into multiple mediums, if you can. And don’t worry too much if you can’t! The point of art is not only to be accessible to all.
  • There are types of accessibility other than physical, for instance language barriers, legal barriers, and intelligence/context barriers.
  • Translate other people’s research into more accessible forms, if you can.
  • There’s a difference between art (which perhaps doesn’t have as strict of a moral accessibility requirement) and other forms of content.

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