VIDEO: UC Irvine Talk (10/24/2014)

I had the pleasure of visiting UC Irvine’s Department of Informatics on October 24, 2014 and delivering their weekly Friday Informatics Seminar.  The title of my talk was, “Augmenting Communication for Non-Speaking Youth with New Media and Popular Culture.”  Thanks to Gillian Hayes for being a wonderful host, and to the faculty, students, and guests for being a receptive and engaged audience.


The language of “deficit” dominates popular conceptions of disability, as well as discussions of children’s recreational media use.  The deficit model of disability emphasizes what people with disabilities are thought to lack, and this absence becomes their defining trait.  In the deficit model of children’s recreational media use, popular culture is defined by its lack of value for children.  In this talk, I discuss the limitations of both of these models, based on my fieldwork with parents of children with significant communication impairments and developmental disabilities (most of whom are on the autism spectrum).  Parents spoke at length about how recreational media and technology use helped their non-speaking children reveal a side of themselves that the scientific, medical, and educational communities did not acknowledge.  I propose an asset model of non-speaking children’s engagement with media, and discuss broader implications for understanding the role of communication technologies in the lives of historically marginalized youth.

“Borrowing” Shiny Intellectual Bicycles: Thoughts on the Morozov-Medina Affair

When I first read Evgeny Morozov’s New Yorker article, “The Planning Machine,” it seemed to me as though Morozov had metaphorically “borrowed” Eden Medina’s shiny intellectual bicycle—her award-winning book, “Cybernetic Revolutionaries” (2011, MIT Press). In “The Planning Machine,” Morozov largely summarizes Medina’s summary of Project Cybersyn, a socialist project undertaken by the Chilean government in the 1970s to distribute decision-making among factories via computers.

“Cybernetic Revolutionaries” is a bicycle that was built to last—built by Medina—and the envy of young and old scholars alike. Morozov rode it around, and liked it so much that he decided, like a petulant child or neighborhood bully, not to return it. I’ve always been the kind of person to chase down the bike stealers. Twitter is a really great tool for rallying friends to challenge people, like Morozov, who really mean “take” when they say “borrow,” so I’ve been speaking out on that platform.

Yet, it seems to me that Morozov stripped the bike and left much of the good stuff intact. He completely glanced over the important issues that Medina raises in her book about how Project Cybersyn was inherently gendered and classed.

For example, take the very first line of Morozov’s article: “In June, 1972, Ángel Parra, Chile’s leading folksinger, wrote a song titled ‘Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to Be Born.’” On p. 134 of her book, Medina also discusses the song, but does so in order to highlight how it was inherently problematic to describe Project Cybersyn as a “pregnancy” (Parra, qtd. in Medina, p. 134) when women had very little power to make decisions effecting Chile’s future.

Medina is not mentioned in Morozov’s “The Planning Machine” until paragraph 10.

Take another line that appears in Morozov’s article, in paragraph 4: “Beer was building the future, and it had to look like the future.” Throughout her book, Medina discusses the politics of designing the “future” through technology, and lead project architect Stafford Beer’s role in that design. On p. 138, she draws attention to the values associated with particular futures, futures largely planned by men. She writes, “The design of the [Project Cybersyn] operations room reveals gendered limits of power distribution on the Chilean road to socialism and how preexisting ideas about gender and class restricted the way historical actors imagined the future, even when their visions bordered on science fiction.”

Medina is not mentioned in Morozov’s “The Planning Machine” until paragraph 10.

When I read Morozov’s article, not only am I reading a piece that poorly attributes ideas from Medina, but I’m reading the absence of Medina’s well-researched arguments about the history of power differentials in knowledge production and distribution.

Finally, in paragraph 10, when Morozov does mention Medina, he merely writes, “As Eden Medina shows in ‘Cybernetic Revolutionaries,’ her entertaining history of Project Cybersyn, Beer set out to solve an acute dilemma that Allende faced.” When challenged by other academics to explain Medina’s erasure from the piece, Morozov posted on Tumblr, chronicling how he scoured the internet for material on Project Cybersyn, as well as rare library books and archives housed in the Global North. Medina spent a decade traveling the world (especially Chile), interviewing members of the international cybernetics community. Unlike Morozov, Medina tried to find Chilean factory workers who might remember Project Cybersyn. Considering the project’s socialist ideals, one might think that factory workers played a significant role. Medina found few who remembered the project—and she insists that this silence is itself meaningful. Writes Medina (p. xi), “That the project is remembered by technologists, not factory workers, is historically significant.”

In short, when I read Morozov’s article, not only am I reading a piece that poorly attributes ideas from Medina, but I’m reading the undercutting of her feminist and anti-colonial work.

Reimagining the Good Life With Disability: Communication, New Technology, and Humane Connections

Today, I’ll have the pleasure of chairing and participating in a panel at the Annual Conference of the International Communication Association with Gerard Goggin (University of Sydney), Elizabeth Ellcessor (Indiana University), and Katie Ellis (Curtin University) on the topic of “Reimagining the Good Life With Disability: Communication, New Technology, and Humane Connections.”

Goggin is speaking on “‘Oh Brave New World’: Disability, Media Justice, and the Question of Technology,” Ellcessor on “Hidden From View: Closed Captioning, Digital Labor, and Ideologies of Ability,” Ellis on “Power Games: Disability and Digital Television,” and myself on “Reconsidering Theories of ICT Adoption: The Case of Tablet-Based Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices”

Below is the abstract of our panel:

Many deeply cherished notions of the “good life” are based on limiting notions of humans, things, and their environment. In particular, the good life is often imagined as a realm beyond illness, impairment, and especially, disability. With contemporary communication and new media, disability is even more seen as an impediment, barrier, or tragedy, to be overcome with digital technology. Regrettably, the very widely shared experience of disability, and its complex relationships with communications, is only rarely seen as a resource for how we achieve the good life, in our own lives and societies, now and in the future.

Indeed while various divisions within ICA increasingly engage with questions concerning marginalized populations—including issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and diasporic populations—the study of disability and its relationship with social, cultural, and political life is stagnant. New media are often hailed as a great “equalizer” for people with disabilities. Such arguments though tend to obscure the complex ways in which disability and technology intersect for better and for worse in the lives of people with various disabilities from diverse backgrounds. However, with the rise of new social movements, disciplinary formations, and theories—such as critical disability studies—communication studies is slowly engaging with the challenges and new conceptual possibilities disability offers.

Accordingly in this theme panel, we take up pressing yet sorely neglected questions of disability and communication—in order to illuminate how we might see the good life in much more enabling, humane, and democratic ways. To do so, firstly, the panel discusses the state of the art of communications and disability research and theory. Secondly, the panel focuses on the ways in which contemporary information and communication technology shapes and is shaped by notions of disability and ability. Thirdly, the panel will identify and debate the lessons from disability and communication studies that help us to rethink the good life, especially in the new media environment.

Disability and Defamiliarizing the Smartphone: A Class Activity

(Originally posted on

In Spring 2013 and Fall 2013, I was the TA for “Cultures of New Media,” an undergraduate class in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism taught by Prof. Kathi Inman Berens.  The course focuses on how ubiquitous computing has contributed to a cultural shift in practices around privacy, storytelling, branding, and commerce.  In the latter third of the semester, the class focuses specifically on mobility and everyday life, critically reading works by Jason Farman (The Mobile Story, Mobile Interface Theory) and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) among others.

Each semester, during this unit, I’ve incorporated a disability studies lens into a 90 min. guest lecture on mobility and mobile media.  Both times that I’ve taught it, I’ve regretted not having more time to go into the nuances of disability theory and models of disability.  Many students I’ve encountered have difficulty understanding technology as anything other than something that “liberates” or “revolutionizes” the lives of people with disabilities.  Most have never spent much time with assistive or adapted technologies (low-tech or high-tech, hardware or software).

In order to defamiliarize their smartphones and better understand the relationship between disability and communication technologies, I lead a simple activity at the end of the lecture in which I ask students (in a class of about 30 – but I think it could be done with a larger lecture class) to explore the accessibility options on their own phones.  (Anything that connects to the media and technologies that students regularly use seems to be a good entry point to critical or complex concepts.)  To be clear, this activity is not a voyeuristic or essentializing experiment whereby I ask them to “imagine” what it would be like to have a disability.  Rather, I want them to understand very concretely that the tools they use every day have certain politics – values, beliefs, and ideas reflecting positions of power and agency – and that these politics are reflected in what can and cannot be done with their phones in different contexts and under different circumstances (also known as affordances and constraints).

The following activity takes about 20-30 minutes:

Disability and Defamiliarizing the Smartphone

1. Break students up into small groups of 4-5.  Make sure that each group has a mix of make and models of phones (by brand, by generation, by smart or feature phone).

2. Ask students to find the accessibility settings on their own phones and play around (10-15 min).  They will inevitably ask you to show them where those settings are. Do not.  Instead, encourage them to spend a bit more time looking or ask someone in their group for help.  Move around the different groups if you can, getting a read for what they’re finding/not finding, discussing/not discussing, etc.

3. If they haven’t discovered it on their own, I particularly like to spend a few minutes showing them that one can hear the description of Apple’s emoji keyboard symbols if you type the emojis (e.g. in a text) when VoiceOver is enabled.  For anyone who has ever wondered what some of the more abstract emojis are supposed to mean, this is pretty cool.  It is also good way to get students to think about the design and coding of apps – namely, that VoiceOver reads the labels attributed to particular buttons.  Buttons that are unlabeled or mislabeled are not helpful if someone who is blind or visually impaired is using VoiceOver in order to navigate their phone.

Some prompting questions (10-15 min. discussion)

Have you ever used any of these settings before?  For what purpose? (I’ve found that a number of students have used various accessibility settings when their phone breaks down in some manner.  A common occurrence is when the “Home” button on the iPhone fails to work.  This has ended up being a natural way to introduce the notion of universal design).

Did playing around with these settings make you uncomfortable in any way?  How?  (Some students have expressed anxiety about accidentally getting their phones “stuck” in a certain setting and potentially “breaking” their phones.  This has evolved into conversations about invisibility and transparency in the design and functionality of communication technologies).

What did you learn [about these technologies, about disability, about mobility] in a public, group setting that you might not have learned if you’d played around with these settings alone or in private?  (This gets into a conversation about public and private uses of communication technologies, and able-bodied privileges.  Each session, a number of people mention that they feel exposed or violated when they turn on the VoiceOver setting and they open up their text messages or Snapchat, and that the others standing around them can hear what they are reading).

Does something from this activity remind you of the material you read for today or what we covered in this lecture? (A good concluding question to congeal some main ideas/key topics: the design and coding of apps; the politics of universal design; infrastructure, invisibility, and transparency; public/private; ableism)

Feel free to borrow this lesson – and I’d love to hear any ideas for modifications or suggestions for improvement in the comments section!

Bot I Never Thought It Would Happen To Me

Chances are, this is not my first encounter with a bot.  Bots now supposedly make up 61% of all web traffic.  From 2012 to 2013, there was an 8% increase in bots that can be described as “Other Impersonators,” which includes software that masks itself to appear legitimate when conducting security breaches.  Twitter is a notorious breeding ground for bots, which are the social media equivalent of collagen injections, plumping up the follower counts of clients who pay for the appearance of popularity.  There are also purposefully amusing Twitter bot accounts, like @tofu_product, which is sort of like having an automated conversation with yourself (or, at least, the self you present through your Tweets.)

But as someone who studies the social and cultural dimensions of communication technologies, I was a little taken aback today when I found @merylalper9, a Twitter account impersonating my own @merylalper, especially since I only discovered Bot Meryl eight months after her first tweet: “Anyone in Davis know how to play the piano and willing to give me lessons?”

I found her, naturally, by Googling myself—or rather, a Google Image search of myself (In 2014, we can all admit that we Google ourselves, right?)  When I searched, an unfamiliar image (below) caught my eye.  According to this Google Image search, it had been “Retweeted by Meryl Alper,” when I had done no such thing.

Definitely not "Retweeted by Meryl Alper."

The giveaway: Definitely not “Retweeted by Meryl Alper”

I’m more amused than upset over being impersonated by a Twitter bot.  Sure, @merylalper9 lifted my picture and bio right from my public Twitter profile, including a link to my professional-facing website (see both below).  But I suppose I’d be more offended if Bot Meryl had replaced my website in their Twitter bio with something spammier or NSFW.




Bot Meryl

There are subtle and not so subtle differences between @merylalper and @merylalper9, both cosmetic and substantive.  Bot Meryl didn’t lift my high-res profile photo directly, but rather is using a low-res thumbnail of that photo.  Some of Bot Meryl’s funnier insights (and how far they deviate from Not-Bot Meryl) include:

  • May 15, 2013: “Studying. I refuse to lose. I HAVE to win Military ball Queen.” (I’ve never participated in a beauty pageant, but I am pretty competitive.)
  • July 11, 2013: “#ImAttractedTo Guys who love sweet tea, their momma, and Jesus” (Real @merylalper, who is Jewish, would be more likely to tweet, “#ImAttractedTo Guys who love Manischewitz, their bubbe, and high holiday services.”)
  • June 9, 2013: “Feeling the effects of lack of sleep. I just put my jeans in the bin then added cherry pips on top. Bye jeans” (WTF is a “cherry pip”? Being sleep deprived and absent minded isn’t too far of a stretch though.)
  • August 5, 2013: “Led to:” (Nothing more after the colon?  More poetic than I, Bot Meryl.

Suggestions for what to do with Bot Meryl poured into Facebook and Instagram after I (privately) posted about my discovery of her.  One friend advised me to retweet Bot Meryl, and see if she responded.  HASTAC’s Fiona Barnett suggested that I should make @merylalper99 and start impersonating @merylalper9.  I guess if you can’t bot ‘em, join ‘em, right?

While I live in Los Angeles, home of the celebrity and the celebrity impersonator, I don’t a have verified Twitter account with an emblematic blue checkmark next to my name.  For the rest of us non-celebs, I discovered that Twitter does have a mechanism for reporting impersonation accounts.

I am a bit concerned that Bot Meryl fools the untrained eye.  For example, I noticed that of Bot Meryl’s 6 followers, at least one of them is my former student (or rather, the alias Twitter account one of my students created for an in-class project last semester).

Clearly, not everyone on Twitter is who or what they seem to be, or for that matter, is even a person.  Twitter is a platform that encompasses many kinds of relationships between living and non-living things (a la Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory)—even those between horses and e-books (and Latour and his published writings).

I’m still left wondering what would make my Twitter profile attractive to the algorithms used by Bot Meryl’s creators?  What subjective judgments were made about me through my data and written in code?

I don’t think I’ll officially follow Bot Meryl, but I’m not quite ready to report her to Twitter yet either.  After all, she’ll make a good show-and-tell piece for the discussion section students in my Communication and Technology class during our week on bots, big data, and the quantified self.