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Louise Hickman on the Politics of Captions

In this episode we chat to Louise Hickman, an activist and scholar based at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. Louise talks to us about stenography, the process of transcribing speech into shorthand. You may be familiar with this from having seen court reporters write a transcription of a tribunal or case, but many stenographers also do crucial access work to create live captions of someone speaking. Stenographers create their own online dictionaries and then access words really quickly using keyboard shortcuts. We explore the politics of captioning and why it matters.


Louise Hickman is an activist and scholar of communication, and uses ethnographic, archival, and theoretical approaches to consider how access is produced for disabled people. Her current project focuses particularly on access produced by real-time stenographers and transcriptive technologies in educational settings. She uses an interdisciplinary lens drawing on feminist theory, critical disability studies, and science and technology studies to consider the historical conditions of access work, and the ways access is co-produced through human (and primarily female) labour, technological systems, and economic models and conditions.

Louise is currently a Research Associate at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. She is also an Associate Fellow with the DIGIT network. Louise previously worked as a Senior Research Officer at the London School of Economics and Political Science Department of Media and Communications and Ada Lovelace Institute’s JUST-AI Network on Data and AI Ethics. She continues to co-convene JUST AI’s working group on rights, access and refusal. An academic, artist, and activist, she earned her PhD in Communication from the University of California, San Diego in 2018. Here, she held a postdoctoral position in the Feminist Labor Lab at UC San Diego.

Since 2016, Louise has also worked as an access consultant and speaker for Parkeology, a U.S. based public art program.


Image Credits: Teresa Berndtsson / Better Images of AI / Letter Word Text Taxonomy / CC-BY 4.0


READING LIST:



Denis Newman-Griffis, Jessica Sage Rauchberg, Rahaf Alharbi, Louise Hickman, Harry Hochheiser, Definition drives design: Disability models and mechanisms of bias in AI technologies


Eugenia Zuroski, Holding Patterns: On Academic Knowledge and Labor. https://medium.com/@zugenia/holding-patterns-on-academic-knowledge-and-labor-3e5a6000ecbf


Aimi Hamraie, Aimi Hamraie on "Making Access Critical: Disability, Race, and Gender in Environmental Design" https://belonging.berkeley.edu/aimi-hamraie-making-access-critical-disability-race-and-gender-environmental-design



TRANSCRIPT:


KERRY MCINEREY:

Hi! I’m Dr Kerry McInerney. Dr Eleanor Drage and I are the hosts of The Good Robot podcast. Join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And how can feminism help us work towards it? If you want to learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, www.thegoodrobot.co.uk, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list by every guest. We love hearing from listeners, so feel free to tweet or email us, and we’d also so appreciate you leaving us a review on the podcast app. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode!

ELEANOR DRAGE:

In this episode we chat to Louise Hickman, an activist and scholar based at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. Louise talks to us about stenography, the process of transcribing speech into shorthand. You may be familiar with this from having seen court reporters write a transcription of a tribunal or case, but many stenographers also do crucial access work to create live captions of someone speaking. Stenographers create their own online dictionaries and then access words really quickly using keyboard shortcuts. Having written all the transcriptions for this podcast for you guys, I’m fascinated by the process of captioning, so it was great to hear about Louise’s work. I hope you enjoy the show.

KERRY MCINERNEY:

So thank you so much for being with us today. So just to kick us off, could you tell us who you are? What do you do, and what brought you to thinking about feminism, disability and technology.


LOUISE HICKMAN:

Thank you for having me. Um, it's really great to be here. I was listening through the podcast last night, and it was really exciting to see other speakers and like guests that you've had on. Um, so yeah, I think about disability and technology, or feminist labour as well. Um, so I should back up a little bit. And really start at the beginning, where I did my PhD. I did my PhD at UC San Diego, and the communication department, where I did my dissertation on the processes of real-time writing, which you might be more familiar with through tractioning, applying live media content or social media content. And the reason I came to think about real-time writing is that I had many close relationships with stenographers in the classroom. It’s worth noting here that I'm actually deaf and disabled. And so I used real-time captioning, first as a student, and then I used captioning as a Professor, or an Adjunct teaching classes in the Communications Department. So these relationships, I began to study the histories (plural) of captioning. So this took me in multiple directions. I went into the archives, at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, which is a deaf university, where I looked at the kind of archive around captioning through historical documents, where, in this instance, I found letters dating back to the 1950s where there are exchanges between the University and the Library of Congress, and they were really starting to think about the possibility of using captioning as a kind of pedagogical tool for deaf people to view films. That kinda was organised through kind of lending libraries and was quite patriotic. But yeah, we'll skip across that. But most of my work I would say is quite epigraphic. So we can talk more about this later. But I think it's worth saying with the aspect of real time writing for the moment, like, you know, thinking that other kind of real time writing on demand work and thinking this through the lens of like disability studies, or political access studies, another way to really think about, what did this mean for on demand labour? Um, in this context, which is quite interesting, because quite often when people hear about stenographers they think about, I assume, courtroom workers, and which is great, which is part of that kind of history. But courtroom workers, quite often when they're transcribing the transcript of the spoken speech, they have the capacity to kind of correct the text after the fact. Right, so there’s a lot of tidying and maintenance work going on behind the scenes. But when we're thinking about access, which is a huge part of my work. In real time, writing is slightly more mechanical. And I think we can expand on that later. And then what I mean by that is that there is this capacity where workers who are transcribing for their students or live, like news coverage, they're having to code real spoken speech in real-time. So that's an entirely different word dynamic than selecting a transcript after the fact. But if we're thinking about real-time labour, I had kind of moved into other areas where I started doing work. As part of my first postdoc, I was in the feminist labour lab directed by Lilly Irani, where we spent some time thinking about how to have fair wages for taxi drivers in San Diego. And as part of that was my kind of contribution to that project is really thinking about … we really grapple with the question of how taxi drivers have wheelchair accessible vehicles because they're much more expensive, the insurance is higher than maintaining pocket higher, so there's no incentive for on demand workers to have these vehicles. So actually in the last few weeks, we've been doing a lot of organising around this where we've recently managed to kind of really pour critical mass together to really kind of push the project forward. I could go on about that for a while. But that is another dimension of online, real-time work as I understand it. Since California, I've returned to the UK where I currently … I am based at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, which I lead on a research directive on work. And in this role I've been working with, I’ve also been working in collaboration with Sarah Fox at Carnegie Mellon and Alexa Hagerty at Cambridge, and we’re really thinking about dimensions of access. Currently with a wider network of critical Disability Studies scholars we're working on a report at the moment and which has a quite a cheeky title, Laundry Day: Community Alternatives to Access Washing. So, um, that is the current project that I am kind of working on. But I hope that you can see, there is that kind of thread there, that is continually coming back to the conditions of real time work.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Amazing. Thank you. Well, you've given us a phenomenal introduction into all your incredible projects. Can you tell us how they shaped the way that you're thinking about what good technology is? How or whether it's even possible? And how feminism and disability studies can help us get there?

LOUISE HICKMAN:

Yeah, you know, I was expecting that question. And I was kind of dreading it after listening to the other podcasts. And it's really funny, because I get this question a lot. But I get asked a slightly different question, which is, what is good captioning? And which, again, is quite frustrating. Maybe I'm a rebel, and I want to kind of move to the side or embrace human errors over automated ones, maybe I want to embrace the politics of slowness, rather than speed and efficiency. There’s not always the means to do this. I mean, I feel like those binaries I’ve offered there, there’s a conflict there, there's a tension, you know, that access that is driven by the politics of social justice. But then there are the disability legislations that actually made this access happen. So the distance between social justice and legislation is one that's quite tricky to navigate. Right. And so, of course, this really changes from place to place, quite often for disabled users. So I guess, I mean, it gets into the really messy area of when a disabled person who might request captioning or access to a building, which is broadly understood as a kind of reasonable adjustment in the UK and a form of accommodation in the US. And so those kinds of parameters, when you’re really thinking about these kinds of adjustments or accommodations, are really moving away from the question of what good technology is. And so, again, it’s like, how can we bring them together? Like, how do we bring them together in a way that is pointing toward care that perhaps the captioner puts into their work? And that I should say, in this instance, that, you know, most of the sonographers I've worked with really don't think of themselves as doing care work. And obviously that contradicts my own view of what it means to do good captions, right? And so I guess we really are kind of really thinking about the collective experience of what captioning is, right? And why it should be. But also, we have to question the real time conditions that sonographers are put under to produce the captions in the first place. So answering this question of what good technology is really interesting because I approach my work through the lens of intimacy, and you can think about this perhaps as a kind of partial account of what access means for disabled users. Access intimacy is a term coined by a disability justice activist Mia Mingus, from the Bay Area where they really explore the contours of access intimacy with what does it mean for your colleagues or your allies to understand the conditions of what access looks like, so having that knowledge, and I can talk a bit more about that later. But Aimi Hamraie talks about Access Knowledge. So if I, if I would like to offer a kind of neater definition of good technology, I'm always curious about the partial accounts, but also the mediation - the mediation that we go through to account for those technologies in the first place. I can give you a really quick example, I think, which I find really fascinating. And it's like a moment of disruption, is when at the beginning of a Zoom meeting, and sometimes you have to request actions. And some people are quite frustrated about it. But I actually think it's an interesting opportunity for people to check in and mediate what access looks like, do we need captions? And then do we, if we open up captions on Zoom, then the transcript is available for users in that meeting? Do we want that to happen? Or do we want to share that information? Is the conversation private? So it opens up the many kinds of ethical questions about information sharing.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yeah, it's been a really interesting experience for Kerry and I doing this podcast as well, looking into what kind of transcripts we're after, and what accessibility means to us, and we've been so inspired by your work over the years. I loved seeing what actually happens with stenography in the presentation that you gave at a conference we were at together a couple of weeks ago called AI Anarchies in Berlin. And it's amazing to watch stenographers in action. It's an incredible thing. They're just so talented. It's amazing work. So I really want to know a little bit more about stenography and how it relates to real time economies of delivery and instantaneous access, right? And how access is always approximated. It's never fully access. And I was also wondering about the expense of this kind of access, because you know, stenographers are not cheap. And they're socially rationed. And it's also a gender form of labour. So you bring all these different things into the debate when you talk about stenography.

LOUISE HICKMAN:

Yeah, AI Anarchies was a wonderful conference. And I was so pleased when you asked the question about transcription, it was a really great kind of conversation for me to work with. Just for listeners who are listening in today as part of this talk, I presented a film that was commissioned by Luck Film Collective in London. In 2022 I made it with an artist based in New York, Shannon Finnegan, and we worked together using Zoom actually, which is kind of an interesting tool because it gave us this window into screen sharing which as the film shows, kind of glimpses into what a stenographer does when they’re building the job dictionaries. And so in this film, I asked for the audience to get up from their chairs and move closer to the kind of small monitor at the front near the stage. And I did this as a way of inviting everyone to think about our own embodiment when we're viewing films and like thinking about embodied practices of access as well like thinking about the people around us, etc. But a part of this film is which is quite central is my relationship with a stenographer who I've worked with for a long time, and you've kind of she that really nice banter between us and like, Jennifer is trying to pull up certain words that are in her dictionary, there's one moment where Jennifer is trying to pull off phonetics, and there’s a moment where it doesn't quite work, and she finds it by pulling up an asterisk. And so again this moment into an intimate moment of what it means, again, to do real time work, you know, what does it mean to win under pressure to bring up and retrieve these words. Another aspect of this kind of film - which I have never actually seen until the screening - is the dictionary that the stenographer uses when working with myself, so there are encounters in their of readings with other graduate students, and I often tell this joke that might be getting a bit tiresome at this point, if people have heard me speak before, but there was this great moment where I with a younger grad student, and the reading was Max Weber, but the dictionary which was relatively new, came up with Darth Vader. So I call it a phonetic mismatch, and so it's a really nice moment where you really are thinking about the social conditions of how real time speech is created. Kind of moving out a little bit of the intimacy, um, there’s so much going on in this film. And one of the central foci of this talk, I was actually playing around, and it’s more recent in my thinking, is how phonetics, the shorthand brief, actually come to mean multiple things. So access, academic, accommodations, share the same shorthand brief on a keyboard, which is really kind of funny, because thinking about the relationship, perhaps academic and accreditation, their widely different, but what stenographers want to rely on in that context, is that they have to retrieve the right one. And quite often, they have to develop dictionaries that have different social contexts. And so this is a kind of interesting, kind of prehistory, I think of how we think about AI, you know, and how, in these intimacies, you know, my kind of joke about my Max Weber is you can see there’s an approximation of the phonetics by Darth Vader Max Weber - there's a kind of familiarity there, that kind of links through the way it sounds. So that is what I would consider as a kind of human error. So that approximation of human errors is actually quite useful for thinking about automated AI, captions, rather. And so in that sense, like, you know, cloud captioning is now using predictive text, like in the sense that it is gathering huge amounts of data to kind of predict the structure of speech, which is hugely problematic because it doesn't account for local knowledge on the ground. It doesn’t account for names of speakers, and social contexts, accents. And so in that sense, you really start to really understand the value of human mistakes and how they often can be corrected as well. You know, they might be slowing down the kind of generation of the text, the real time text that is appearing on screen, but the mistakes make sense - they have a social context. If that makes sense. I'm a real nerd when it comes to kind of thinking about real time captioning and like, we haven't even scratched the surface of the transcription work you guys do yourself, I'm sure, you've had the dilemmas where you've had often thought about whether to remove the kind of stream of consciousness. So somebody like ums and ars and whether that should be included. I've had interesting debates with my undergrads at various points where they've really raged against the inclusions of ums and ars.

ELEANOR DRAGE:

I never know, because I think, you know, when people are reading the transcripts, I think there's probably some people that are going to want to read something that reads really easily. But then on the other hand, if you read with the ums and ars you know, maybe you also read for nervousness, you can read for emotion, you can see whether people are a bit awkward or trying to hedge their thoughts a little bit by saying kind of, sort of, but it's, it's a kind of fascinating insight into the kinds of decisions that are being made when transcripts are produced.

LOUISE HICKMAN:

It's really interesting, there’s a kind of screen shot in the film, where it says, reading is not the same as listening. And that was like this really great moment that came out of the film, which was like, I was able to identify that and show that in practice. Because I had a colleague of Yelena Glochman, who has also spent time looking at captioning, and found that captioners quite often clean up the spoken speech to make it a readable. So there's an interesting relationship there, because we're going in multiple directions, this is a text that is being read, rather than just listened to. But then we also have this kind of AI that we use that is undermining this work that we do to deliver this text. And also a footnote to all this, like, all the big lectures like Foucault and things like that, they all had stenographers transcribing those texts, and yeah, there's a huge history there.

KERRY MCINERNEY:

So fascinating, and I have to confess I am, don't actually end up making many of these political decisions, because Eleanor very kindly does all the transcribing for The Good Robot. And anyone who goes to our website, which is www.goodrobot.co.uk and sees those lovely transcripts. That's all thanks to Eleanor. And one of the reasons why I don't do that is I'm dyslexic, I find it very, very hard to kind of translate words to sound and sound the words and vice versa. And so it's interesting to kind of hear like, oh, actually, that's a really conscious process. And that Eleanor goes in, which is trying to sort of best capture when our episodes sound like but also produce something that's really useful for people to be able to go back and refer to. I just wanted to ask you to kind of close - one of the things which I think is really interesting about probably being in this space, is the extent to which kind of lived experience and sort of autobiographical encounters shapes your academic work, and of course, sort of vice versa. And we were just recording yesterday with the wonderful Laura Forlano, who was sharing with us a series of vignettes and short stories of creative nonfiction that should run about her own kind of experiences with technology. And so we were wondering, how do you think we should and can grapple with lived experiences in our academic work while also resisting the kinds of commercialization I guess, of this knowledge, which can also be really common?

LOUISE HICKMAN:

I've been thinking a lot about this and I suspect this came up a lot in Laura’s conversation as well. Quite often, you know, it's a really tricky position to occupy the space of somebody who's visibly disabled and how that visibility is incorporated into my work or also bracketed off too. In that sense, like, you know, I talked about this earlier, or I kind of referenced this earlier. Aimi Hamraie talks about Access Knowledge. And I think this is really fundamental in the way that I think about the work that I do is ethnographic. It’s saying, and that I think it's a struggle, because there is this ethnographic quality where I can draw attention to the everyday encounters that perhaps other people might miss. But to do the work that I do as an academic researcher, I'm always looking for ways to de-centre myself too, which seems quite paradoxical. You know, on the one hand, I am using my lived experience as a way of thinking about these issues. But on the other hand, I'm also kind of backing away to say, ok well, these issues apply to other contexts. And like, I'm always looking for ways to open up the conversation for other people to enter into. And so yeah, I have never thought of it in that way. And so it’s a really tricky position to be in. And I've not quite fully fleshed out that kind of position. And perhaps I make it more complicated, because I'm often thinking with others, you know, like captioners, or personal assistants. So in that sense, there's always a collective we. And so that's the way I think, and again, it de-center's my position as a researcher, because I'm always thinking about the mediation of how we kind of conduct this work on co-producing knowledge, you know, so I think it’s a tricky one.

KERRY MCINERNEY:

Thank you so much. And it's really helpful to hear you speak about that as well, is something I really appreciate that she was a piece by Eugenia Zuroski who writes about being a multiracial woman in academia. And she talks about sort of trying to bring her experience not as someone who just happens to be multiracial, a woman of colour, but saying, you know, as a mixed race person, she's really practised and thinking about a lot of these issues, and it's a skill and it's a muscle that she's flexed and built up, which is why she's able to kind of do this kind of work and to bring about these kinds of changes in these institutions. And so she's calling for that to be recognised as a skill set, rather than saying, Oh, well, that's just something you're good at, because you happen to fit in these particular identity categories. And yeah, that was just something I found really useful. For our lovely listeners, we will put that on the reading list for today's episode. And also happy to share. But yes, I mean, largely, we just want to say thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure to be able to chat to you, it's suddenly brightened what is otherwise a very gloomy and grey afternoon here in the UK. So thank you so much.

LOUISE HICKMAN:

Thank you for having me.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

This episode was made possible thanks to our previous funder, Christina Gaw, and our current funder Mercator Stiftung, a private and independent foundation promoting science, education and international understanding. It was written and produced by Dr Eleanor Drage and Dr Kerry McInerney, and edited by Eleanor Drage.



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