Giving Voice

Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (MIT Press, 2017)

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Introduction (Free Online via MIT Press)

Mobile technologies are often hailed as a way to “give voice to the voiceless.” Behind the praise though are beliefs about technology as a gateway to opportunity and voice as a metaphor for agency and self-representation. In Giving Voice, Meryl Alper explores these assumptions by looking closely at one such case–the use of the Apple iPad and mobile app Proloquo2Go, which converts icons and text into synthetic speech, by children with disabilities (including autism and cerebral palsy) and their families. She finds that despite claims to empowerment, the hardware and software are still subject to disempowering structural inequalities. Views of technology as a great equalizer, she illustrates, rarely account for all the ways that culture, law, policy, and even technology itself can reinforce disparity, particularly for those with disabilities.

Alper explores, among other things, alternative understandings of voice, the surprising sociotechnical importance of the iPad case, and convergences and divergences in the lives of parents across class. She shows that working-class and low-income parents understood the app and other communication technologies differently from upper- and middle-class parents, and that the institutional ecosystem reflected a bias toward those more privileged.

Handing someone a talking tablet computer does not in itself give that person a voice. Alper finds that the ability to mobilize social, economic, and cultural capital shapes the extent to which individuals can not only speak, but be heard.

Events

January 12, 2017: EMW Drink Salon on Tech & Ethics, Cambridge, MA

January 19, 2017: University of North Carolina, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Mary Junck Research Colloquium, Chapel Hill, NC

February 28, 2017: Book Release Event & Signing, MIT Press Bookstore, Cambridge, MA

April 6, 2017: Data & Society Research Institute, New York, NY (Audio)

April 7, 2017: Tech Kids Unlimited, NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Brooklyn, NY (Summary)

April 12, 2017: Northeastern University, School of Law, Faculty Colloquia, Boston, MA

April 24, 2017: University of Maryland, Human-Computer Interaction Lab, College Park, MD

May 17, 2017: Institute for Human Centered Design, Boston, MA

May 23, 2017: Harvard University, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society (with Elizabeth Ellcessor, Indiana University), Cambridge, MA

May 30, 2017: UC San Diego, UCSD Center for Humanities, Transdisciplinary Disability Studies Reading Group, San Diego, CA

June 6, 2017: Weber Shandwick PR/Communications, BraveSpace Talks, Boston, MA

August 28, 2017: University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Annenberg Research Seminar, Los Angeles, CA

September 28, 2017: Ithaca College, Park School of Communications, Ithaca, NY

November 2, 2017: University of Michigan, Department of Communication Studies, Communication and Media Speaker Series, Ann Arbor, MI

If interested in having me talk at your university, organization, or group in 2017-2018, please email m.alper@northeastern.edu.

Endorsements

Giving Voice reopens the venerable question of new media’s effects on young people in invigorating ways, both through its ethnographic focus on iPad adoption and through its nuanced account of the meaning of voices and voice technologies. Though assistive voice devices may help disabled children speak, these devices also introduce new and subtler barriers along such lines as age, ethnicity, and class. There is nothing so culture- or power-laden as a voice. I came away from this book impressed at how difficult it is now, as perhaps it has ever been, to distinguish between face-to-face and mediated communication. Alper shows just how complex any interface between people can be!”

John Durham Peters, Professor of English and Film and Media Studies, Yale University; author of The Marvelous Clouds

Giving Voice, Meryl Alper’s rich, beautifully-written account of mobile devices in the lives of children with disabilities, asks us to consider the consequences of assuming that ‘new’ communication technologies will (finally!) ‘give voice to the voiceless.’ This cogent and compelling account of families with children navigating developmental disabilities breaks new ground and forces us to reconsider some fundamental truths about the power and meaning of voice. This book will quickly become a must-read for every designer, educator, and scholar coming to grips with how an ecosystem of apps and portable devices have evolved into a panacea for the systemic inequalities faced by people with disabilities.”

Mary L. Gray, Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research; Associate Professor, Indiana University; author of Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America

Giving Voice offers a rare view into the lives of families too often overlooked in our research and debates over new mobile and educational technologies. A carefully researched account of families engaging with assistive devices, it rests on a subtle analysis of the intersection of disability, privilege, and varied institutional conditions. The book is filled with vivid stories and important reminders of how respectful attention to the marginalized can inspire and expand our perspectives.”

Mizuko Ito, Professor in Residence, University of California Humanities Research Institute; coauthor of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out

“This brilliant and timely book offers a powerful new perspective on technology and how it shapes our worlds. Giving Voice is an outstanding study of a neglected yet central area of media and society—how mobile technologies are designed, shaped, and implemented for people with disabilities. Meryl Alper’s exemplary book illuminates the rich and consequential ways disability plays into the social, political, familial, race, gender, and other dynamics that shape our invention and use of media technology. A milestone in digital technology research, it is destined to be a classic text in media research.”

Gerard Goggin, Professor of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

Press and Interviews

Culture Digitally. Author Interview: Meryl Alper on “Giving Voice.” June 7, 2017.

TechRepublic. Despite its promise, modern technology often fails to help disabled users. May 25, 2017.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/CBC Spark. Can technology really give a voice to the voiceless? March 12, 2017.

News @ Northeastern. Professor examines benefits, social inequalities of voice technologies. February 28, 2017.

DML Central. Watchworthy Wednesday: New book questions tech assumptions. January 25, 2017.

Northeastern University, College of Arts, Media and Design. New book by communications studies professor hits shelves. January 23, 2017.