I’m talking with Jason Scott, a “Free Range Archivist” at the Internet Archive. He’s worked at textfiles.com and is a documentary maker. He says he “basically tries to get out there and talk to people about old stuff”.
Nic: Welcome to the A11y Rules Podcast. You’re listening to Episode 37. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. If you’re not a patron and you want to support the show, please visit http://www.patreon.com/steenhout. Do note that the show does have a transcript available on the website. This week I’m speaking with Jason Scott. Hi Jason.
Jason: Hello there.
Nic: Thanks for joining me for this conversation about web accessibility. I like to let guests introduce themselves. In a brief elevator style pitch introduction, who’s Jason Scott?
Jason: Sure. My name’s Jason Scott and I work at a place called the Internet Archive, which many people know of as archive.org, or the Wayback Machine. Previous to that, I was working for a project called TextFiles.com. And I do documentary films. I do all sorts of announcements for the Internet Archive. I basically try to get out there and talk about old stuff to people.
Nic: That sounds quite interesting.
Jason: Yeah, I was going to say, it’s an incredibly amazing job. And actually this week is my seventh anniversary at the Archive. So I’m very happy to have worked out with them.
Nic: That’s a good run. I regularly see you post on Twitter, photos of the stuff you’re getting your hands on and having to transfer. How does that work?
Jason: Sure. My title at the Internet Archive is one I got to give myself, and it was Free Range Archivist. And basically the idea was, I go out into the world and communicate with people who want stuff to go online or want to take stuff online and put it somewhere that’s stable and oriented towards presentation. And I help them go through the technical problems because for a lot of people, they’ll have a pile of PDFs or a bunch of MP3s, and they’ll say, “Well, how do I get this to you?” And I will work with them to get them online. Or I will myself go out and gather mirrors of things, or basically make noise within the organization if it turns out we need to add something that we didn’t know we needed. So kind of a combination of community outreach, and being somebody’s valet, or maybe just improving pieces. And there’s another hat to that, which is that I am the software curator. That’s mostly because there’s nobody else at the archive who’s focused on software collection. So that’s kind of been my other main job since I started there.
Nic: Fantastic. So obviously, this show is about web accessibility. And it’s not necessarily immediately obvious to our listener how you’re involved with that. I think you’ve been on the web for a little bit, right?
Jason: Yes, I have.
Nic: So over the however long you’ve been online, maybe 20 years of so, how did you become aware of web accessibility and its importance, and how do you fit that in your work now?
Jason: I think that for a lot of people, when it comes to accessibility, if they aren’t automatically born with the need for some sort of accessibility, what usually happens is they run into somebody. And that person needs something, some aspect of mobility or vision or just having a piece of the world be different for them than it is for yourself. And I think for most people, that’s a real change in their outlook. We’re so internally directed, right? People think evolutionarily. We just think, “What’s here for me? What can I do? What’s gonna make things better?” And that’s, for some people, the first time that what they’re creating, turns out that not everyone has the same shared experience as them. And that’s when they hit that big branch. I’m sure you’ve covered this, one way or another. But for me, that’s how I think of it, that people hit that branch. And the branch is, “You know, for five percent, 10 percent, 20 percent more work, your potential audience will increase this amount. And that’s the jump.
Some people just say, “Well, then I don’t wanna do it. That’s more work.” And then other people will say, “Well, that’s easy.” And then some people need to be pushed. Some people jump.” And, for me, I was using the web, actually I think the first year of it, where I was doing work at MIT as a temp, and it got around, “Oh, if you go in and you download this browser program, you can interact with the internet in a whole new way.” And so I was using it when it was all gray backgrounds and blue links and a picture showing. And of course, at the time, it was mind-blowing because you were sitting there looking at all of these different elements at a time when printing a color page, getting a color photocopy was gonna cost you a $1.25 American. You could just make anything happen on the web. And it was just mind-blowing for me.
And the time then was purely one of describing text and its inter-relation in a very simple way, and then letting the client make all sorts of decisions. And I used to brag about this … I don’t brag about it anymore because no one cares. But I remember when Netscape pushed in the center tag into HTML. And I was so angry. I was like, “That’s not your choice. Tell people the information, and let the thing decide what the information is.” This kind of hard-lining doesn’t really last very long.
But then when I started to see more of the work with designs and using tiny blank GIFs to be able to move stuff around in a formatting way … I now work for a place that has all these old websites. And you can see all sorts of crazy solutions to, “I just wanna make a page on the web,” and the loss of that whole idea of information being fluid.
So for me, I feel very strongly that we had a rather accessible web, at least along certain lines. And then we quickly went away from it to go after the Shangri La, the rainbow city in the distance of, “Oh no, it’ll be just this massively controlled page.” And now we’re moving slowly back towards doing it again.
And like I said, it’s the work thing. It’s people will say, “Well, I could make my webpage. But oh man, I gotta type in a description of every image? Who has time for that?” And meanwhile, they’ll spend 100 days on the My Little Pony page. But it’s just a matter of, like I said, you meet somebody, right? I ran a MUD, a text-based MUD back in the ’90s. And you know that first time you’re just sitting around talking to people, and you realize one of you is blind? And there was this part where there was one guy who was deaf. And there was one guy who was blind. And they were buddies on the MUD. And I’m just like, “That’s great. Wow. They’re just talking to each other. There’s no weird having to arrange this or … No, they’re just hanging out.”
So that got planted in me very early, that there’s a population that needs to be addressed. And often it’s not that hard. Again, I follow your Twitter. You do what I think people should do, which is make yourself known. Because sometimes there’s that rule, which is always forget, which is, “Don’t apply to malice that which is possibly incompetence.” But it goes a little further. And an even less aggressive way to put it is, “Don’t ascribe to malice what is just indifference.” If trees screamed every time we cut them down, it would be a different world. We would do different things, right?
And so if you don’t make yourself aware of what’s going on with people and knowing that some people are just suffering in silence to amount, some people will never make that jump. And so I’m not gonna sit here and claim that I’m the most humane and world aware guy, but I do know that when I see something’s only stairs accessible, that that’s something to keep in mind. And I can marvel at how ramps are built. And I can say, “Well, if we just install this library …” The first time I ran into a video game that had all sorts of things that are in the engine now, it’s just standard, for red-green colorblindness, and just says, “Here, in the library. Here’s a switch. Now the whole game can work for somebody with a certain set of eyes. And that guy wouldn’t have been able to play the game before.”
That level … I think, if we really wanna go there, there’s a metaphor there, which is, if you look at a video game, and it’s this whole situation where most video games that are of a certain level are done using an engine … Nobody sits in their house and says, “Okay, I’m gonna figure out this multi-platform, multi-range massive engine. And then I’m gonna think about, ‘What’s my guy gonna do?'” They go, “I have a design, and it’s gonna take place here. Duh-duh-duh-duh.” So they’re just using an engine. So whoever works on the engine, if they’re made aware of this contingency, and they put the effort into it, their hundreds, later thousands of customers who make all these games are suddenly as enlightened as they are because it just works. The system just integrates that as a real thing. That’s to me a real metaphor for a lot of situations where you just have to have that conversation.
And so, anyway, that’s where I come from. This is all over the place, but we can go wherever you’d like.
Nic: This … good stuff. I like to let people roam a little bit because you pop up a lot of interesting information. I remember those days of the gray background pages. And I actually remember before that, I used links for a while before site became available and that was a revelation. And I do think that at one point, the web was by default more accessible because there wasn’t all that technology we were using. And then suddenly people started using those data tables. They figured out, “Hey, we can use that for layout.” And that just threw a lot of complicated layers to assistive technologies. And designers wanted to use really cool-looking font. But we couldn’t use font, so they use images of text for their menus. And that created issues because there was no ALT attribute available yet.
So all these things really made life complex and complicated. I like your idea of the branch. I had never verbalized it that way. But yeah, people hit a point where they just gotta wake up, or something.
Jason: Well, mostly what they do is they say … It’s like paying taxes or paying for your own rent, or any number of responsibilities. You can probably shirk it for quite a while. Life will let you avoid it. You can act like something’s not your responsibility. You can get by. But eventually, there’s a reckoning. And where the reckoning is, is either law, or somebody of prominence needs something, and people go, “Whoa. What do they need?” And if that person of prominence is like, “Yeah, I don’t invest in a company that’s not accessible along these lines. That’s just my thing. It just makes me happy. Why don’t you do that?”
And that person is paying five percent of freight … They’ll listen, right? They’ll assign somebody to that problem. They may not be great at it, but they will assign somebody. And for some people, they just don’t wanna do the extra work because they just have to do a bunch of stuff that they won’t directly benefit from. Obviously, they benefit if their audience grows, and if more people are involved in their stuff. But that’s what I think it is. And I get the human nature aspect of that. It would be really frustrating to a person who is so happy that this janky duct tape and wishes and dreams machine that’s barely functioning for them is suddenly hit with a new requirement. I know where that comes from. And it’s just a matter of saying, the same way that you would say, “Look. It doesn’t work in Chrome.” That say way. Only so long can you say, “Well, just use Firefox.” You can’t do that forever. Especially if someone goes, “It doesn’t work in Chrome, dude. Dude.” And in the same way, you go, “It doesn’t work for people who can’t see. It gets impossible to use. And they are a part of our customers. What are you doing?”
And when I was working on TextFiles.com … The site is a collection of text files from the bulletin board system era. And so, I was always made pretty sensitive to the fact that, since they’re text files, they are, in every way, oriented towards people who either are reading out text or people who don’t have graphics and so on. So I made sure it functioned, and it still functions, in links. Because I thought, “Well somebody will want to read it that way.” And so it’s been that way forever.
And yet … And here’s where I give you the confession. The site references, on a visual level, to be like the old terminals. And so it’s green text on black. And I have gotten crap for years, from people who are just like, “This is unreadable. This is absolutely unreadable. It’s bright green on black text. It kills my eyes.” And so what I ended up doing … So what would happen … Here’s what would happen. When something hits big … And I’ve been lucky enough over the decades to have things hit big … is initially, you get all the responses to whatever it is. And I’ve been known for everything from a famous Twitter cat, to having bunches of text files that people have read, to recently emulating a bunch of handhelds. And a bunch of people come in, they give kind of a visceral reaction. “I like it. I don’t like it.” Or, “This reminds me of this.” And then there’ll be complaints. And those complaints … You get like 5000 people … You’ll get like 20 or 30 people who come in, and those are the edge cases. And those are the quietest people. But even they have been dragged into it.
And there’s always a fascinating set of people. You get the people who are kind of weird conspiracy … You’ll get somebody who’s like, “This reminds of the blockchain.” And they’ll go off on the blockchain. Or, “Has Mr. Scott thought about the Zionist occupation about to …?” And you’re like “Whoa, okay, what?” Or somebody goes, “I remember him from high school. He was a jerk.” And you’re like, “Well, hello again, Michelle. Nice to see you.” But then there’ll be people who are like, “I can’t read his site.” And it would be like a dozen. And I’d be like, “Ah. What can I do?” And that’s where the work comes in. You go, “What can I do?”
And it took a few shots, but one day, I wrote a script that was literally called AhhMyEyes.sh. And what it did was, you ran AhhMyEyes, and it would create a second set of all of the pages and set them all to be black text on white, I think it was. Or it might have been white text on … No, it’s definitely white background, black text. And it did it through the entire site. And at the bottom of the page, you just said, “Ahh My Eyes. Click here if you can’t stand green on black.” And … clanky. Again, clanky. And afternoon’s work. But, you know, I got the people saying, “Well thanks. That makes things a little better.”
I also found out there was some plug-in called Readability. And people would just say, “Look, just install Readability. Just … He’s not gonna change,” or whatever. So I saw both of those. I saw one where the problem was solved for me. And I saw one where I, if not solved the problem, took steps in that occasion. And it’s very, to me, a real indication of where the issue is. I feel like that’s where we run into this problem, is people saying, “It would help me a lot if you took this small step in this direction.” And people either going, “I will take that small step.” Or, “No steps today … because boiler plate text.” And I think that’s the core of what we’re encountering here everyday, the only difference being that I feel that pain a lot less than somebody who literally wakes up every morning, and the web is a Swiss cheese to them because there’s things they can’t see.
Nic: I find it interesting you’re talking about people that told you about the accessibility issues, and then there’s the people who listen to this feedback because this past Friday, I was giving a talk at CSUN. And my entire talk was about this concept of rights and responsibilities, where I’m telling to people with disability that they have a responsibility to speak up. They have to help designers and developers and site owners to figure out that their site is not accessible. And at the same time, I’m telling site owners, developers, designers that they have to listen to this feedback and actually make a change. It’s nice to hear these thoughts echoed by somebody else that I haven’t spoken to about this topic. It’s not like we got together before the podcast and said, “Oh, alright. Jason, here are your lines.”
Jason: Like talking points. No. I think if you spend … People come into this … if we’re talking about the web as an idea, just there’s this place and you have a browser, you have this awesome client on your phone, and it’s on your computer, and you type in addresses, and you go there … There are people who, this is an unfortunate thing that have to do, to do their job. For them it just, “I work here. I work with these people. Ugh, I have to boot up my machine and enter this client, and I do this work.” Right? Think of it as like a real estate agent. That person really wants to be out there doing the sale at the house. They don’t wanna have to go back in and type in a report and check up on all the … do the refresh, and … People, for them, that’s not their business. It’s a side thing.
And then there are people for whom, supposedly, this is their life. This is what they do. They wake up, and they make a website online. Whatever it is. And along with that being your entire life and being your job, at least, is there are aspects to it that are the difference between being a professional and being somebody who is kind of moved along and worked on just what they want to. And I feel like, especially in the range of accessibility, say, for the blind, it’s just a fundamental aspect. The amount of people …
I think, the one that really kills me, actually, if you want the one that really kills me, is subtitles. Captioning. Because people, in some cases, will say, “Well, that’s just for the deaf.” And it’s like, “Nope. There are subtitles because, for instance, for me, I do subtitles now for almost everything because I tend to be rather distracted. And so this thing helps me stay on point. If a show is particularly complicated in the way that it’s got overlapping dialogue, the subtitles help me.
And when I was working on a DVD, and I was trying to make it as accessible as possible, one of the things people told me afterwards were, “Oh yeah, I just do that because we keep the volume so incredibly low so we don’t wake the kids.” And people don’t realize, yeah, it’s not just this tiny group. There’s all of this usage that comes when the subtitles are active, that you weren’t thinking of. And actually, I made some really weird subtitles, which may or may not be an interesting sideline.
Basically, I made this documentary, and it was very technical. And so there were subtitles of what was being said. But I actually made a second set of subtitles, which at the time I called “mom titles” but they’re actually generally subtitles for if your mom was watching, and you had to explain what they’re talking about. So there are cases where somebody is saying something complicated about modem speeds, and the subtitles will say, “He’s saying computers used to be slower, and now they’re faster.” It was just describing in a generalized sense for people. So it was accessibility in a weird way, which was to go, a person watching this who wasn’t steeped in all of this technical stuff was being handed, “Okay, here’s more simpli … If you want it, here’s more simplified subtitling to tell you how it works.”
And to me, that’s a mode of thinking, is just to go, “There are people …” I think that’s … We’re visiting it a couple times here, but … I think that’s the fundamental piece, is just realizing there’s other people. Accessibility is just an acknowledgement of the non-self. And for some people, they’re not far enough on that journey. So it’s always been in my mind, from the beginning of the web, an important part of it because we were thinking we were making all of this stuff easier to reach instead of having to go into a file directory and download a GIF file and pull it into an image viewer to see what this image was. You were bringing it all up at once, and how would you do that, and what would you access it with, and so on, and all these fundamental questions about how we’re gonna do this medium. That’s the stuff. And that’s the hardest thing to get across.
Nic: Yeah. That’s fantastic. I heard you say something just a moment ago that I’d like to explore for the last question of this episode. You said, “Accessibility is the acknowledgement of the non-self.” Is that how you really would define web accessibility, or would you have a different definition if I were to say, “Jason, how do you define web accessibility?”
Jason: To me, web accessibility … Well, I should say, if I wanna refine that point, when I say, “Web accessibility is the acknowledgement of the non-self,” I think acknowledgement of the non-self is the first step towards implementing accessibility. That if you think of it as merely some box to tick on a page, that you’re doing it because you don’t know why.” It would be like if somebody said, “Hey, look there has to be something red. There has to be a read square on each page.” And you said, “Oh, oh … Okay.” And you might even be funny about it. You might even make the red square huge or make it small or whatever because you have no idea why you’re doing it. It’s just some thing you have to do.
And if accessibility is just listed as, “Yeah, you have to have a text version,” that’s when you get the weird, what feels like bootleg DVD subtitle level work. Because it’s like, “Oh, no body understands what they’re doing.” It’s the first step to say, “No, you’re doing this because your audience is human beings. And human beings have a larger set of requirements than it just works for you on your own box and the way you interact with it.” That’s the first step. And then setting it up so you can keep expanding what humans need as much as you can. So more refined, that’s where I’m coming from with it.
But in terms of the idea of web accessibility to me, is I think it’s more like engineering the work you do with an acknowledgement that it will need to be interpreted in ways you can’t currently fathom and to, as well as you can, make the information, the core information that you are working on, as transferrable as possible and as portable as possible so that as you become aware of these new avenues, you are able to quickly, easily expand on them and maintain them with the same level of quality as everything else that you’re doing.
And then there’s ways to mess that up on every level, right? As you’ve tweeted and everything else. It’s perfectly possible for people to just completely go, “Yeah, we did it. We once made a blind accessible site.” And you go, “That’s nice. It looks like all the documents on it are six months out of date.” And the answer is, “Oh yeah, no that’s because hired Marjorie for three weeks. And she wrote everything. And now she’s gone.” We get like, “Oh. Oh no. That’s not gonna work.” And them being like, “This is so hard.” I’m sure that’s what the meetings are like at some point. Someone just goes, “This is so hard.” And it’s like, “It’s not as hard as it is for the guy trying to understand exactly what this picture is of.”
Nic: Bingo. Yeah. Hey, Jason, I think on that note, we’re going to wrap this segment of our chat. Thank you so much for being on the show this week, and we’ll finish our conversation next week, eh?
Jason: Thank you.
Nic: Thank you. But before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again. And remember that if you need a hand ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca.