alternatives to the web are inaccessible to average users

The internet is more than the world wide web. tech folks get this, but everyday users don’t need to know, and likely don’t care. (if you do care, you might want to read about gopher.)

There seems to be a bit of a resurgence of the “low-tech” internet. (“Low-tech” is such a silly misnomer… the amount of technology it takes to access and build the internet is extraordinary and massive, and it’s still really new tech in the grand scheme of human history.) Some call it a renaissance. The irony is that many people with vision impairments have been using this tech for a long time, and it’s sometimes the preferred option for people accessing the web via very slow connections.

I am intrigued by the resurgence of gopher, and the new kid on the block gemini.

However, these are still inaccessible to the average user. It’s hard to find resources to help people access these nifty things who don’t already have a tech background or who have ample free time to learn. Since most of them can’t be accessed with a simple web browser, unless you happen to know of some kind of interface, they will likely remain inaccessible to the average end user.

The reason things like Facebook and Twitter are so popular and things like the fediverse are not so popular among everyday people is the usability factor. Just about anyone can figure out how to use Facebook or Twitter, but trying to access the fediverse in any kind of meaningful way is going to be impossible unless you’re already extremely technologically inclined, or you’ve got someone willing to hold your hand through your first few days of learning the ropes.

Personally, when I first accessed the internet in the mid-1990s, I ate up everything I could find, but I never could’ve done it without help from fellow users. I knew next to nothing about computers (I didn’t grow up learning to program or building my own computers, like many of my tech savvy acquaintances), but AOL made it really easy to get online, and within minutes, I met people willing to take the time to walk me through my first telnet connections. From my first telnet connection, a whole new world opened up to me. But I would not have gotten anywhere if people hadn’t taken the time to walk me through the most basic fundamentals.

I just don’t see that kind of assistance online any more. I see people encouraging others to read the docs (which is much nicer than RTFM, I suppose), but I very rarely see anyone stopping what they’re doing to help someone get a leg up on an elusive technology. It’s interesting to me that as we’ve become more aware of things like neurodiversity and learning disabilities, we’ve become less willing to help each other out for a common technological goal or a common good.

I don’t see myself adopting gemini or embracing retro gopher. It takes a significant amount of privilege to have the time and ability to sit down and adopt a new internet technology for fun. It’s not a privilege I possess.

Edit: Progress. Check out this fantastic Gemini Quickstart guide, created by a brilliant friend.

Reasonable accommodations and covid-19

When I was first attempting to get a tech job, I thought of job hunting as my full-time job. I threw myself into it… and got nowhere.

I am disabled and I need reasonable accommodations. Here are the things I need in order to be successful at work:

  • Remote work
  • Flexible work hours

That’s it. That’s the list.

These things are advertised by many companies as standard “perks” of working there. These companies typically don’t hire anyone without many many years of experience, or they only offer remote work and flexible schedules to people who have the most seniority with the company.

And then… covid happened.

Suddenly, employers bent over backwards to accommodate remote work for all. Seemingly overnight, companies were embracing working from home. Companies that claimed they couldn’t let anyone work from home because it would interfere with company “culture” were switching to a fully remote model without a significant (or any) impact on productivity. Suddenly, workers without enough seniority to work from home were able to work from home like their more senior colleagues.

Suddenly, Zoom meetings were the norm, and the ability to work around “Zoom school.”

Suddenly, positions that employers insisted could not be done remote (despite only requiring a computer and internet connection) were made remote.

As if by magic.

Not only did this become no big deal, but the change was instant, without giving workers any grief about it, or requiring proof of their needs.

Disabled people everywhere witnessed this.

Disabled people, who have the highest unemployment rate of any minority group (and whose oppression intersects with many other identities which are also more likely to experience high rates of unemployment), watched companies to everything in their power to help abled workers continue to work and be productive.

Now, as workers are starting to return to their office environments (too soon, if you ask me, but that’s another post for another time), disabled people see that too. We see that as quick as it was to switch to a remote model and become an accessible workplace, we see companies throwing it away, in a race to reinstate the status quo.