The Empowerment: Different People, Digital World

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Redaktsioon seisuga 30. märts 2007, kell 15:23 kasutajalt Kakk (arutelu | kaastöö)
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Different people

People do have different features and abilities. For some features there are certain positive or negative stereotypes - "Blondes have more fun", "All Asian people are short, black-haired and hard-working", "Men with long hair are nerds" etc. In different cultures, there are minority subgroups - sometimes based on ethnicity (Russian-speaking people in Estonia), sometimes on race (Native Americans in the US) or religion (Christians in predominantly Muslim countries). While these groups tend to vary, there are groups which tend to be marginalised almost everywhere - of those, perhaps the most prominent are people with disabilities. Only in recent decades, the related legislation to promote greater inclusion of these people have been accepted more widely.

It should be also noted that people with disabilities are often a good social indicator of the status of the human rights and freedoms in general. Exclusion of this, perhaps archetypal "weaker link" often refers to deeper problems in society. This was most evident in the former USSR which did not admit even the existence of children with disabilities up to the eighties, but also in other cultures where it is not so manifest.

Almost universally, the main problem is getting out of the chain of hopelessness, similar to the one experienced by long-time unemployed people. A version of the circle of problems can be found at .

People with disabilities have faced very different fates in different times and cultures. In ancient Sparta, babies with disabilities were thrown off a high cliff by their parents. In medieval Europe, they were mostly beggars or when happy, could become clowns and jesters. In the industrial age, they were considered a social burden to be kept separate. And only recently they have been started to accept as equal members of society.

The question whether people with disabilities should be kept separate or integrated into the society is still solved in a different manner. In general, Western culture has chosen to integrate them under equal terms - this means unhindered access to education, employment and recreation. However, the former Communist world almost universally suppressed them as incompatible with the general image of 'society of universal happiness', with no sub-standard people. Also in Estonia, this has created a two-way problem: raised a couple of generations of people who had almost never seen anyone 'different', as well as a couple of generations of 'professional disabled people' with deep cases of learned helplessness. Since the changes started in 1990s, things have slowly become better, but it will probably take a couple of decades for the universal inclusion becoming an universally accepted idea.

The role of Internet in solving these problems is very significant, as seen from the "breaking the circle" at Using the new ICT solutions, it is possible to cut all the links in the circle.

Estonian landmarks in this field include:

  • 1992 – first computer courses at Tallinn Technical University (nowadays Tallinn University of Technology)
  • 1995-2001 – first Estonian server especially targetted towards people with disabilities; community emerges
  • 1995 - The Old Town talker (chatroom) - hosted by a man with a profound impairment
  • 1995 – Rehabilitation Technology Lab at TUT
  • around 2000 - E- and M-services make many formerly inaccessible services usable; the broadband and WiFi breakthrough
  • 2000-2003 – the THINK FP6 project
  • 2006 -

Specific features in Internet communication

First of all, communication in whatever form always includes a channel - whether it is just some inches of air, phone line, network cable or radio waves. It is often forgotten that the channel can play a remarkable part in shaping the outcome. A good example: the sentence "Man, you suck hard!" (or something equally unpolite) is

  • used in an informal conversion between buddies in a sauna after a sixpack
  • said in a phone conversation
  • said in instant messenger
  • sent by E-mail
  • sent by fax bearing a corporate letterhead
  • sent as an official post with all requisites by the President of Estonia (entirely hypothetical...)

The level of resulting scandal is likely very different...

The reason for this is caused by the fact that different channels have different qualities, like

  • time - how fast will the message pass through (compare phone to e-mail to a scientific publication)
  • direction - a) uni- or bidirectional, b) one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one or many-to-many
  • capacity - how large chunks of information can be passed through the channel (compare phone to fax)
  • filtering - how much context will be filtered out (visuals, tone etc).

NB! The secret of Internet probably lies in availability of a mixture of very different communication measures.

Equality in the MIT hacker ethic

As seen from the previous lecture, the MIT hacker culture developed as an environment optimised for creativity. A lot

The presence of people with disabilities among the original MIT hackers is not mentioned by Levy or others. However, they readily accepted people who were quite radically different from mainstream Americans (Richard Greenblatt and his "blattlies" is a good example). Levy also writes how the hackers shunned arrogant Ph.D. students but readily accepted 12-year old Peter Deutsch who was able to display sufficient skills. This suggests that disability would not have been an issue for them if the 'mental plane' was suitable.

As suggested by the Jargon File, the reason for such a notable colour- (and other feature-) blindness resulted in predominate use of text-only channels for communication. From the early communication platform to e-mail, Usenet and mailing lists to today's web forums and instant messaging, people have been what they write and not what they look like. It would be an interesting experiment to get two pairs of people strange to each other and let them communicate - one pair locked in a room together and the other pair locked in with text terminal connection. The idea would be to determine which pair learns more about the partner in a given timeframe - the comparison would be quite interesting.

The Net is not normal

Looking back to the tech history, we see that the Internet has been a bit skewed from day one - there were not too many "normal" people among the founders (rather we see a bunch of crazy academics, hackers and hippies). Thus, the very roots of the phenomenon point towards greater acceptance of 'otherness'.

It also tends to filter out prejudices (as seen from the hacker example above). The dreaded First Impression becomes verbal rather than visual - thus being much more dependent on the personality than external qualities. Internet contacts also often allow "playing out the hand" - like in a card game, one can choose what to present at a given moment. A number of researchers have suggested that it also accelerates the deepening of personal contact - people get closer to each other more rapidly than 'in real life' due to the 'hide-behind-the-screen' phenomenon (one feels safer behind the screen - the others cannot 'come out of the computer' and hurt him/her).

But as a danger, it is difficult to see when to stop beating. In a real-life conflict, one can usually determine that the other side has lost the will to continue fighting - usually people do not keep beating the fallen ones. In an online situation, the 'enough' can be misunderstood. Thus a virtual beating can be more painful than a real-life one.

However, the Internet can be a serious chance for disadvantaged people. If some young lady meets a young man who is using a wheelchair, then in 'real life', it takes some courage to even think about any closer relations. In the cyberspace, it is up to him:

  • he can start 'playing out' with the disability fact and get the same results as offline
  • he can try to hide it - leads to lying and will get busted on real contact
  • can 'play other cards' first - the perceivedly negative feature will lose a lot of its meaning

Vox populi, vox Dei

Citizen participation has grown much easier with networks - especially for those unheard before, including people with disabilities. Even the "Web 1.0" brought along new tools in getting news on one's home table and creating activist web pages. All those new social software tools - from community portals to blogs and wikis - have added further weapons to the arsenal of a citizen activist.

Some positive examples from Estonia include:

  • The picket of Estonian PwD in November 2006 in front of the Parliament was largely coordinated online and was quite successful, bringing the MP-s out and getting ample media coverage.
  • the apartment scandal in February 2007 where Tallinn city government initially decided to give an adapted municipal apartment to a person without disability (while having 14 people in line waiting for an adapted accommodation) was reversed due to large publicity and skillful use of both old and new media.

Final words

Digital world has its threats, but it has given lots of new tools for minority groups. Citizen participation and direct democracy are perhaps the most powerful weapons to promote greater inclusion of all citizens.

The very Internet is "different" by nature - and has features which are clearly favourable towards people with disabilities. The Hacker Ethic behind the network culture is also a great foundation to build an inclusive society upon.