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Amodern 9: Techniques and Technologies
April 2020

Systematizing Technique


Casey Boyle, Nathaniel A. Rivers

“I am speaking here about a curative imaginary, an understanding of disability that not only expects and assumes intervention but also cannot imagine or comprehend anything other than intervention.”
–Alison Kafer1

 “The question of politics becomes identical with the reinvention of infrastructures for managing the unevenness, ambivalence, violence, and ordinary contingency of contemporary existence.”
–Lauren Berlant2

“We therefore need to better acknowledge what lies beyond the here-and-now timeframe adopted by most analyses conducted in terms of affordances.”
–Brian P. Bloomfield, Yvonne Latham & Theo Vurdubakis.3


Let’s (Always) Begin with Unreasonable Expectations

It’s unreasonable to expect an airplane traveling at 38,000 feet to maintain an accessible entrance, but that’s precisely the unreasonable expectation guiding this article. We don’t mean that someone should be able to board or deboard a plane in flight. What we are suggesting is that while in one sense all the passengers are in one plane, there are ways in which they might have boarded and will continue on multiple flights. Think back to the last time you were a passenger on a plane and recall that moment when the pilot or a flight attendant addressed the passengers over the public announcement system. If you were lucky, you heard the address. To be honest, luck had nothing at all to do with it. That address prefigured the bodies it would have had addressed as a result of prior alignments of technologies and techniques. As Elaine Scarry argues, designed objects are “a projection of the human body.”4  This project takes issue with the the in those projections. While many bodies might have heard the announcement, some bodies may not have had access; instead, those unaddressed passengers might have looked up only to see this message on a seatback screen:

“An announcement is in progress….”

This message announcing an address for whom some go unaddressed is one such accessible entrance that marks the need to intervene in (and invent with-in) captioning and accessibility. Like most communication events, there is an abundance of ambient material for communication but a dearth of practiced techniques to make that communication accessible. Take the scene above. A pilot’s spoken words are not communicated by the screens that announce those words are taking place. Thus, the techniques available to be exercised do not align with the technologies present. This mismatch (see Holmes) speaks to the need to cultivate what Aimi Hamraie calls “access-knowledge” which is “a regime of legibility and illegibility…concern[ed] with what users need, how their bodies function, how they interact with space, and what kinds of people are likely to be in the world.” Implicit in this regime, we argue, is a concern for world-building in ways that are not only about correcting an injustice of lack of access but also a concern to refigure a world from bodies present in that world. That is, we understand “access-knowledge” as also aligning with what Alison Kafer calls a “curative imaginary” wherein intervention includes invention. Taking these two together, we understand access-knowledge and curative imaginaries as proposing a speculative ethics. We will expand on what we mean by speculation later in the essay, but we first understand speculation as a future-oriented response to the frictions occasioned by moments of inaccessibility. Turning our attention towards curative imaginaries and access-knowledge compels us toward building our world anew through techniques available within our ambient surrounds.

As a response, this article speculates a set of possibilities for accessibility techniques that we call “ambient captioning.” Our concept/practice, itself cast through an ethics of speculation, proposes that captioning does not simply accompany entertainment or news that we might see/read on movies or nightly telecasts but that captioning practices and techniques can also exist ambiently around those communications. It seeks to identify possibilities that can activate content and material from what Malcom McCullough terms the “ambient commons.” This term describes how the spaces through which we conduct our daily lives rely on and build from a nexus of interfaces in and about that environment. In addition to computational and media environments, the notion of ambience also, and perhaps more importantly, contributes an important conceptual consideration in refiguring communication. Ambience as a concept helps us understand communication as more than one person speaking to another through some medium. Coming to know communication ambiently compels us to cultivate a sense of communicating that exceeds any one individual. Our speculation strives to identify and activate captioning practices that may lie dormant in the interstices of our communication practices. In short, we are after captioning practices that realign techniques already at work in the world with the technologies available to more ethically host the multiple bodies present.

To this end, we situate and derive ambient captioning from a cluster of technological practices that emerge out of a wider system of “cultural techniques.” As a system of analysis, we commandeer the concept of cultural techniques (Kulturtechniken) from German media theory and its current instantiation as it follows from scholars such as Bernhard Siegert, Thomas Macho, Cornelia Vismann, Sybille Krämer, Jussi Parikka, and others. Broadly speaking, cultural techniques referred initially to the culturing operations of large scale agricultural development and later to the emergence of analog and digital media; now, they include the institutional and technical operations that radicalize their previous connections. Cultural techniques are those technical relations intertwined between technology and the practices that pervade them. As Siegert explains, “the concept of cultural techniques highlights the operations or sequences of operations that historically and logically precede the media concepts generated by them.”5  He elsewhere claims that “operations such as counting or writing always presuppose technical objects capable of performing – and to a considerable extent, determining – these operations” and that, for example,

an abacus allows for different calculations than do ten fingers; a computer, in turn, allows for different calculations than does an abacus. When we speak of cultural techniques, therefore, we envisage a more or less complex actor network that comprises technological objects as well as the operative chains they are part of and that configure or constitute them.6

Siegert and others examining cultural techniques are ultimately interested in the procedurality of material signification wherein techniques of reading, writing, and counting are encountered as being res extensa in the world but also situated within certain institutions and operations. These techniques are ambient. In putting discussions of accessibility into conversation with cultural techniques, we submit that the focus on material signification afforded by cultural techniques is augmented by the implicit concern for asignifying mediation that can be found in discussions of accessibility.

We find cultural techniques useful for tracing how the signification of captions operate through emerging technologies, digital or otherwise. In complementary fashion, Jussi Parikka enjoins the interest of tracing the materiality of signification by questioning how cultural techniques might “map ‘minor techniques’ in the manner Deleuze and Guattari wrote about minor languages.”7  This shift from major to minor registers attempts to incorporate and provoke the asignifying, enculturating affects of cultural techniques. Just as fingers, an abacus, and a computer offer different but not separate cultural techniques of computation, so too do those different operations and the materiality therein afford different asignifying operations for how computing culture unfolds as an affective force. As Siegert claims, “cultural techniques are not only media that sustain codes, and disseminate, internalize, and institutionalize sign systems; they also destabilize cultural codes, erase signs, and deterritorialize sounds and images.”8  Cultural techniques then operate in a reticular fashion as the coalescing of mediation practices but, after that coalescence, constitute a force to remake those practices anew. We believe that starting and staging a conversation between the concepts offered by cultural techniques and the practical realities of accessibility can prove to be a fruitful cross-pollination for both areas. In particular, we are interested in a dynamic wherein cultural techniques are employed heuristically in addition to hermeneutically. That is, alongside the signifying function of captions there is also an asignifying dimension to communication whose affect is not the transfer of a particular meaning but a mediation of a range of relational capacities. Thus, threaded throughout our discussion of accessibility is a reliance on methods of cultural techniques not only as a mode of analysis for particular captioning technologies but also as the grounds from which we reimagine accessibility through the media of available techniques.

Working from an emerging body of accessibility practices, critical theory, cultural techniques, and a connected series of practical examples for how we attend to captioning as accessibility, we propose ambient captioning to be an existing but as yet unactivated cultural technique. In activating accessibility differently through its minor practices, we claim that ambient captioning operates in three registers of cultural technique: functionally, ambience helps determine what gets captioned (a plane captain’s address); aesthetically, there’s an ambience to how captions are designed (using spatial coordinates in visuals); ethically, ambience distributes who is responsible for attending to captioning (in ways that are irreducible to the addressee/addressor poles). At its core, reading and writing captions is a practice for practicing what to pay attention to. Attention and its array of co-operative processes, then, becomes the medium through which ambient captioning unfolds. As attention cannot be reduced merely to what humans see or consciously know, we have to understand the materialist supports for how attention is formed, shaped, and modulated. This project then responds to an ongoing call to expand accessibility by proposing that captioning should not only be the labor of the one who makes an address but also those who can be addressed as a way to help provide accessible entries for those who might not. In short, to make captioning leverage the wide distribution of attention to what might be considered ambient, we propose to make captioning an ambient practice. Such an initiative matters for and through cultural techniques because, as Siegert writes, “the door emerges as a symbolic machine capable of weaving together diverse realities – the numinous and the profane, the imaginary and the real.”9 Recalling our opening speculative anecdote and the misaligned captioning techniques that comprise it, we see in this analysis of the airplane door a capacity to recast cultural techniques anew. In this, we echo Krämer and Bredekamp when they write that cultural techniques open up “new exploratory spaces for perception, communication, and cognition.”10 Thus, cultural techniques concern not only the symbolic through its signifying activity but also the asignifying forces that enable communication to occur. In response, we propose that a primary aim for ambient captioning is to cultivate a shared capacity – in both signifying and asignifying practices – as an ethic of accessibility.


Open, Closed, & Crowded Captions

We will turn again to unreasonable expectations in the next sections but, first, we aim to come to terms for captioning. Before the legal requirements that pressured captioning practices were in place, techniques were available to provide captions. As Geoffrey Winthrop-Young reminds us of cultural techniques more generally, “cultural techniques refer to processing operations that frequently coalesce into entities which are subsequently viewed as the agents or sources running these operations.”11 Through this trajectory, we propose that such a (broad) review of the technologies inherent to captioning today compels a reconsideration of the techniques from which captioning as a practice of accessibility emerged. In retracing the developments of open and closed captioning (both defined further below), we isolate the practices and technologies in order to activate the possibility for reinventing captioning as neither open nor closed but ambient.

Captions are everywhere: captions on videos, television screens, and mobile devices have increasingly become a staple of viewing experiences. It is now common to enter a doctors’ office, a bar, or a gym and bear witness to screens upon which captioned content flows. Of course, captioning practices were not designed and developed to cater to television viewers in noisy neighborhood pubs, but, instead, to make television programs accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. Captioning, alongside the curb cut and the modern redesigned can opener, offers us another case in which the principles of universal design – communication and architectural principles that so take into account the widest array of abilities in any given design – benefit all people and not solely those who need such features to be able to participate in a space or information. In short, the benefits of captioning to a hearing audience would seem to be a happy accident.

Given the accidental benefits that captions offer all users, regardless of hearing ability, it should come as no surprise that the invention of captioning was itself somewhat accidental. In 1970, the Time and Frequency Division of the United States’ National Bureau of Standards proposed and tested a technique to share time and frequency data via television signals. The problem that the group attempted to solve was to standardize and regulate time codes across the nation without resorting to installing very expensive time-code generators all across the nation.12 This part of the signal allowed television stations to fold in digital information in an analog signal that would then be transmitted and later decoded with a “decoder/caption unit.”13 While the experiment is thought to have been less than novel for the intended purpose, sharing time and frequency data, the group found through the experiment a possible technique for transmitting visual language for deaf audiences.14 Captioning became an accidental invention in service of synchronizing time and frequency as a shared event.

A key perceived problem, initially, in developing caption technologies was a concern over sharing the screen space between hearing and deaf viewers. What would later be called Open Captioning – captions that were ‘burned-in’ a video’s images – were first experimented with in a 1972 series of Julia Child’s baking show, French Chef. The experiment’s goal was not only to test the technical details of captioning but, perhaps more importantly, to gauge “‘the reaction of the normal viewing public to open captions.’”15 While most hearing viewers reported little to no “unfavorable” reactions to the prewritten captions, the task still remained for hearing viewers to become accustomed to captions or, as Downey found in his research of some early captioners “‘It’s a matter of making the unfamiliar customary.’”16

The task of making the unfamiliar customary is sometimes best accomplished by making the customary flexible. Building on those earlier advances in sneaking in digital time and frequency information in television signals, developers contrived ways to encode captions into the television signal. Buoyed by the French Chef experiments, additional experiments were conducted in 1972 first at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and later at (then) Gallaudet College with ABC’s Mod Squad, whereby prewritten captions were digitally encoded into the television’s analog signal and decoded with an external device. Malcolm J. Norwood (lead of the then Captioned Films for the Deaf program) would describe this event as the “demonstration [that] proved the feasibility of a ‘closed caption’ system which permits captions to be seen only by a viewer who has a specially equipped television set.’”17 This demonstration was not just an exhibit of a new founded technology that would provide live captions in addition to previously written content, but, more importantly, it was the invention of techniques by which captioners and captioning became flexibly available in our now customary sense.

Our very broad and all too brief review of the beginnings of captioning technologies returns to (now) well-worn ground, but we offer this review to reconsider two key aspects of the emerging cultural techniques surrounding captions technologies. First, the fact that (closed) captions emerged from an effort to compose an infrastructure that would more coherently encapsulate a shared time-space should not be, any more than captions themselves, a mere sidenote. While the concept of captions to be in-visibly encoded allowed for a new custom (mores) to be enacted across an entire nation accidentally, but properly, it follows the function of captioning as such. That is, to caption is to capture a time-space – to seize an event – to be shared by an audience wider than a narrow(ed) body of viewers. This seizing is enacted by creating a boundary for what gets captioned and how and by whom not unlike the ways that a door to a house and a door to a stable establishes boundaries that mediate species through asignifying communication. When we caption video media, we make determinations about what is important, what is to be selected, and what to leave unnoted. Second, and no less important, is that different lines of captioning, open and closed, resulted in (at least) two different but not necessarily separate attendant technological, technical, and temporal regimes of practice. These regimes of practice grew and sustained shared ecologies that would go on to collide and collude in ways that created several cross-pollinations of captioning practices that include captions but also subtitles and, now, digital annotations (such as Amazon’s X-ray feature or The Simpsons meme database). These ecologies continue to offer fertile ground for the cultivation of approaches to captioning whose inherent disposition to responding to events and/as situations is an orientation to invent new time-spaces through enabling constraints.

These technical dynamics of captioning impose time and space constraints on both caption writers and caption readers. In an important and inventive response to the history and practice of captioning, Sean Zdenek’s [Reading Sounds] turns our attention to the rhetorical effects of captioning to show how choosing what sounds to translate and how to visually enact those sounds is itself a response to (and creator of) events. Zdenek’s project offers first and foremost a “mediation of the possibilities and challenges of transforming sound into accessible writing for time-based reading.” (Sean Zdenek, Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), xiii; “Designing Captions: Disruptive experiments with typography, color, icons, and effects.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 23, no.1(2018).)  To limn the lessons his project offers, Zdenek argues that not every sound can be captioned, which compels captioners to select some sounds to caption over others in a rhetorical process that invents and negotiates meaning. Captions, always and already interpretations of a wider textual ecologies, help shape the event they are supposedly describing. If the captions help invent the text (broadly speaking) for some audiences and are not mere supplements to that text, then captions can also be inventively laced throughout that text. In the closing section of the project, Zdenek provocatively asserts and invents ways to adapt textual enhancements (not unlike those now seen in how text messages are being visualised on screen) to creatively encode captions that themselves take on the feel and aesthetics of the text for which they are “assisting.” Such a move to aesthetic considerations (more on this in the final section) so brings a more thoroughly rhetorical sense to the relationship between form and content and recreate the event of a viewing/reading experience.

Our reading of Zdenek’s projects, especially their concluding and forward-looking provocations, is to take seriously and creatively its concern for the real time-based reading/writing experience and to consider those constraints not only in their limitations (a constrained process of selecting significant elements) but also what those constraints might enable. One response to such constraints is how they invite novice and crowdsourced captioning and not only the seasoned expertise of a captioner or the imposition of a prewritten script. These efforts, however, often become crowded with inexperience. Several recent projects have turned to the idea of crowdsourcing captioning in real-time viewing,18 to correct captioning mistakes,19 to detect events of interest for captioning,20 and to create gaming dynamics for captioning.21 What we find most intriguing are those projects that concern themselves with the cultivation of techniques for captioning as much as the development of technologies for crowdsourced content.22 One such project that does this is a time-warp technique that determines how to slow down incoming video content for some captioners to caption while others get the captions in real-time.23 The event to be captioned then is differential to each of the captioners while the captioning itself becomes bounded and recognized as an event. Another helpful project in this regard is Deshpande et al., that teaches novice captioners how to caption as the event of captioning continues.24  Taken together, these projects expand the space of captioning, leveraging crowds through time warping while cultivating the skills to provide accessible captions. These wedding concerns for technology and technique model a kind of reconsideration of captioning in particular and accessibility in general. These efforts implicitly evoke what Aimi Hamraie refers to a “epistemic activism.” That is, in addition to paying heed to designing physical spaces to enable accessibility, there is an equal and apposite force needed that “must attend to design knowledge as a site in which norms are produced and resistance in enacted.”25 If universal design is design that benefits all users, recent developments in captioning technologies and techniques are creating the epistemic conditions in which all users have opportunities to contribute to and not just experience those benefits.

In response to the development of open and closed captioning and to our leveraging of crowdsourcing and distributed captioning, we advance the claim that captioning is ultimately concerned, as a cultural technique, with how and when to open and close events of interest through mediating interactions. Captioning is a door: captions “process” “the difference between inside and outside.”26 While Zdenek is wise to claim that ambient sounds are often mistaken for significant plot points in a narrative,27 we wish to intensify the practice of captioning to include ambient conditions like those we find in this article’s opening sentences. What is the ambience that un-aligns and realigns techniques of captioning? Such a reconsideration begins first by reimagining the speaker and audience for any address. Captioners are good models for such a reimagining since they do not intervene in a message as much as co-invent that message within the traditional line of speaker-and-audience to amplify and boost some signals over others. What we wish to do next is to intensify the processes of mediation inherent to captioning by distributing outwards the role of captioner. In doing so, we argue that a captioning practice that modulates from (a slightly different sense of) open and closed offers captioning as a practice of attention whereby multiple captioners emerge to sustain and reinvent an event of address.


Activating Ambient Accessibility

Captioning as we know it today began, in part, as an accident. This accident occurred when the task of encoding time and frequency data hinted at ways for other data to be encoded. In this sense, the cultural techniques that preceded the technologies did not constrain themselves to a specific type of signification but allowed a wide array of asignifying affects to circulate.In reimagining accessibility through captioning, we aim not necessarily to increase accidents per se; instead, we wish to amplify the cross-pollinating effects that accidents often bring. While cultural techniques enact but are ultimately irreducible to particular technologies and their practices, they are also responsible for creating distinctions amongst the types of affects that emerge. Captioning works in a similar way in that captioners, because of time and space constraints, cannot help but select what to pay attention to. What typically gets written off as “failed captions” are usually attempts by a captioner to include as signal what is often considered noise. To focus only on signal, however well-meaning, is to reduce what we consider to be an important point of all media; the ambient conditions from which things like noise and signal may be sifted at all. We are then interested in how we define events through how captions are enacted. We want to render captions neither open nor closed but ambient.

One site for how captioning might be seen to operate outside its open or closed confines is Margaret Price’s discussion of accessibility in the space of an academic conference.28 A prime consideration for Price’s project concerns the time and place of what we would call the event of a presentation. At issue is what “counts” as significant for accessibility and what does not. As the earlier examples of captioning attest, it is difficult for captioners to interpret signal from noise. The questions Price raises about what counts for accessibility at conference events extend further in a later project Price composes about the un/shared spaces offered by the dilemma of inclusive architecture. We refer back for just a moment to cultural techniques more generally: if doors and thresholds help mediate the human from the animal as Siegert says, then disability studies scholars like Price demonstrate that doors and stairs not only separate the human from the animal but also the human from other humans. Cultural techniques are useful for tracing how distinctions are made, but they also make room for reinventing those techniques.

Price’s spatial refiguring of accessibility resonates with the treatment of affordances offered by Bloomfield et al. – a treatment that shares many affinities with scholarship on cultural techniques. They argue that affordances are “not reducible to their material constitution but are inextricably bound up with specific, historically situated modes of engagement and ways of life.”29 Just as much as affordances are typically considered to be those asignifying features of bodies and technologies communicating, so too are those affordances wrapped together with the signifying dimensions as well. What they articulate as “modes of engagement and ways of life” we mark as ambient in that the relation eschews figure and ground.

A good place to start is their exhortation to “handle with care” the nominalization of verbs, which we intuit happens with captioning. Frequently, we refer to closed (or open) captioning as a feature (a noun) that accompanies some piece of content. As Bloomfield et al., suggest, this positions captioning as a feature of that which is captioned rather than as an ongoing activity of mediation. Here they echo Vismann’s articulation of cultural techniques as the move “from nouns to the specific steps in the operation.”30

But ‘cook-with-ability’ is not a property of fires. Rather, humans have developed practices and equipment for making fires which are ‘cook-with-able’ and, importantly, for keeping them this way and thus preventing them from becoming house fires or forest fires, which are not.31

Accessibility, access-with-ability, is made and maintained relationally rather than being a static feature of any particular object. Ambient captioning attends to this dynamic, not only because the relational quality better captures the work of captioning but also because attending to relations further opens up captioning to a “cascade of affordances,” which “emerge as situated, and indeed ongoing, accomplishments.”32

Successful captioning is an ongoing practice of accessibility stretching out to include not just the technology of captioning itself, which as we have shown not only cascaded out into the uses to which it is put today, but also across the un(der)paid labor that composes it, the rhetorical and compositional choices those laborers make, and the vision and literacy that activates any captioning. “In other words, ‘abilities’ or ‘effectivities’ and ‘affordances’ may be best thought of not as pregiven but as emergent in relation to one another.”33 Hence the injunction to handle with care. Once we recognize that affordances are not built into things themselves, “we” are on the hook for the continued viability and vitality of that affordance. Any given affordance, Bloomfield et al write, is “a local, perhaps temporary, and often fragile, accomplishment.”34

To reconsider accessibility through ambience is to acknowledge techniques that underpin today’s communication and architectural mediascapes as themselves worthy of being articulated. For our project, we extend the concepts that Price develops, by speculating on captioning as an ambient practice. Such a practice recognizes that at the heart of our current cultural techniques lies what Sebastian Vehlken refers to as the “zooontological” sense of our technological practices that enact swarming practices. Vehlken proposes that “Swarm intelligence helps to configure an environment that is increasingly confronted with the task of organizing highly engineered and interconnected systems and also with the task of modeling complex correlations.”35 To turn once more to Price, “efforts for access must acknowledge the entanglement of social and material elements in the constitution of spaces.”36 Not only are we addressed by a speaker but also we find ourselves addressed by a host of other “social and material elements” as well.

What our unreasonable expectations concern is how to take up the entanglement that emerges as part of an event that requires access. “We therefore need to better acknowledge what lies beyond the here-and-now timeframe adopted by most analyses conducted in terms of affordances.”37 Here is ambience and the cultural techniques that emerge within it. To caption any everyday event is an extraordinary effort to seize that event and mediate it anew, cultivating its boundaries through a renewed cultural technique that values inclusion as much as distinction.


Some Speculations Toward Ambient Captioning

In this section, we aim to cultivate the possibility of reimagining access by taking up the functional, aesthetic, and ethical registers of what we are calling ambient captioning. Not unlike the accident that culled closed captioning from an attempt to share time and frequency data, we look to sketch the conceptual and technological developments that share features with captioning even if those features and possibilities are not captioning per se. Methodologically, we are looking to redraw the bounds of what counts as captioning by leveraging the affordances provided by the wider cultural techniques through which captioning might emerge. To ground this tracing, we engage in speculative thinking as described by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Writing on speculative design they argue, “the key feature [of speculative design] is how well it simultaneously sits in the world, the here-and-now, while belonging to another yet-to-exist one.”38 Dunne and Raby’s speculative approach, while not focused on disability, practices a design ethos shared by accessibility design. Graham Pullin, in his design meets disability, helps bring these speculative impulses to bear upon design for accessibility. Pullen’s design methodology embraces what he calls “the complexities of context,” which strongly resonates with generative tension marked by Dunne and Raby between “the here-and-now” and the “yet-to-exist.” These contextual complexities are addressable through Pullen’s technique of “experience prototyping.”39 Pullen’s work, in turn, resonates with Sara Hendren’s treatment of assistive technology, which, furthermore, attends to the political dimensions of design. Writing, “All technology is assistive technology,” Hendren argues that undoing “the distinctions between design for disability and design in general yields a couple of benefits: It brings new attention to technologies that are profound in their use and impact on physical and political accessibility.”40 In short, thinking through design and disability side-by-side serves an important heuristic function. Our speculative methodology is thus cobbled together from these sources, which all activate the inventional benefits of design. In what follows, we speculatively elaborate the possibilities of the smartphone application GalaPro, which promises to open “the curtains on a universal cultural experience by delivering multilingual subtitles, closed captioning, dubbing, audio description & amplification to the user’s own mobile device.” We engage the app as it is now asking what other prototypes might emerge from it. What “yet-to-exist” versions are possible?

GalaPro, or Gala Prompter, is a smartphone application that partners with theater venues, both live and film, to provide personalized and unobtrusive (theaters are notorious for the exhortations to turn off cellphones) access to “cultural experiences.” “Go ahead,” they promise, “go see a show in a different language, GalaPro will make sure you understand it all.” Figures 1 and 2 provide an augmented view of what an audience using GalaPro might experience. Audience members with hearing impairments access the script of the performance as closed captioning; audience members who lack fluency in the language of the performance can access alternate language versions; audience members who are part of the hearing audience may be assisted to concentrate on the play. The promise of the application is to caption theatrical events as they happen, but these happenings are scripted and predetermined. Not unlike the static captions used in open captioning practices, GalaPro’s initial offerings provide a needed service but one that service may be more productive as the conceptual base for new and reimagined event-based captioning technologies. Our speculations build on GalaPro as the product of an emerging cultural technique wherein captioning can become ambient and help capture and seize the noise-soaked events described by Price by leveraging an ambience that activates any and all affordances.41 The affordances of something like GalaPro cannot be known ahead of time because affordances emerge relationally.

Still from promotional video for GalaPro showing linguistically diverse audience members distributed throughout the theater accessing the smartphone application.

Figure 1: Still from promotional video for GalaPro showing linguistically diverse audience members distributed throughout the theater accessing the smartphone application.

Still image from promotional video for GalaPro zeroed in a specific audience member accessing the show in her preferred language

Figure 2: Still image from promotional video for GalaPro zeroed in a specific audience member accessing the show in her preferred language.


Functionality attends to, in part, what gets captioned. In traditional captioning, captions are intended to capture the meaningful and significant features of a narrative. Successful captioning, traditionally speaking, discerns signal from noise. In terms of an ambient captioning that redraws the bounds of a captioned event, functionality marks that which might be in excess of traditional captioning. Our version of functionality resonates with Mara Mills, who writes, “At stake in thinking about signals, then, beyond the issue of fidelity, are questions about optimization: the range of possible human ‘destinations’ afforded by a given transmission system, the ergonomic design of human-machine interfaces, the types of messages that can be handled, the elements of those messages deemed relevant for transmission.”42 What Mills describes and what we speculate is that the cultural techniques from which something like GalaPro can be activated also reimagines what counts as signal/noise toward ambient relations.

When we consider that personal devices, modeled after GalaPro, might themselves be incorporated as a part of the public infrastructure that provides access, then what is captioned (and how and by whom) radically reshapes what events are possible to be seized. In proposing the concept of ambient captioning, we are speculating, then, on the possibility of leveraging existing infrastructure to incorporate, as an emerging affordance, the swarm of practices, mobile devices, and textual data that already pervades our current cultural techniques to be mobilized as captioning infrastructure in ways that may lessen the cognitive burden from anyone or several captioners.

We find another compelling example of ambient functionality in McAllister et al’s “Cultivating Design Citizenship,” which reports on the participatory Arduino for Disabilities Project. What struck us here is how the project design itself as well as the Arduino-based devices both caption ambiently. A tour of a participant’s home leads to the troubling discovery that the participant struggles (and risks injuring himself) each time he transitions from his wheelchair to the bed. This transition is made all the more difficult in the dark: “he has no way to control his overhead light from his bed.” “This discovery,” the authors and project leaders write, “led to projects using the Arduino to turn off the bedroom light once in bed.”43 What marks this as an instance of ambient captioning, through cultural techniques, is how the tour itself captures (bounds) the spatial-temporal act of turning on the light and getting into bed as an event to be captioned. The project is an exercise in ambient captioning, where the participants help one another to address and be addressed. To return to Price, this tour discloses “visceral, ambient knowledge” that “can only be effected through time and space, not willed or predicted.”44 The project doesn’t so much make some content accessible so much as make possible other, different responses. The project cultivates a shared capacity for inventing by drawing on the ambient resources available for generating accessibility.

The Arduino for Disabilities Project, with its distribution of access and/as captioning, shares an affinity with Yergeau’s treatment of concerns about self-representation and other-representation: “how non-disabled people affect representations of disability.”45 Yergeau then traces how these questions have evolved and how they turn pedagogically. Yergeau here touches upon the possibilities and point of entry for ambient captioning. “As teachers, we need to consider the ways in which our classrooms, and our own positions and privilege, recreate the dynamics that disability studies has long sought to dismantle.”46 What she rightly warns against is at once the way to think about even more ways of addressing access. “Whose voices are we amplifying in the texts that we assign or analyze?” These are our questions as well. Particularly, we want to develop ways to otherwise amplify voices: the event of the address, ambiently. What techniques might we use to reconfigure the space-time of captioning and so of accessibility?

What might a platform modeled on but building from GalaPro provide beyond a script? How might it also amplify emergent and ambient surrounds? How might such an application capture and caption an environment? How might such an application attune us to the informational affordances, both formal and informal, of the places differently inhabited by all individuals with varying abilities. The function of the GalaPro is limited to what texts a given venue makes available. There is no way for function to emerge as salience is disclosed ambiently. It is too rooted, as we shall argue below, in institutions that adopt it than to any infrastructure that might adapt it.47

The key for ambient captioning’s functionality is to effectively capture time-space within the constraints afforded by diverse forms of embodiment that are both human and nonhuman. The design of this functionality is thus both deeply practical and highly speculative. The function of ambient captions doesn’t merely solve the problem of accessibility, but uses the constraints of embodiment otherwise to re-invent functionality. To turn once again to Dunne and Raby, “The designer,” they write, “is not positioned on a higher moral plane […] but like everyone else is immersed in the system.”48 We speculate the same relation for the captioner. Given our own grounding in cultural techniques and the infrastructures thereof, we find it particularly compelling that Dunne and Raby posit, “Universities and art schools could become platforms for experimentation, speculation, and the reimaging of everyday life.”49 The very sites of accessibility described by Price here become the time-spaces through which to invent with accessibility. “[A]ssuming it is possible to create more socially constructive imaginary futures, could design help people participate more actively as citizen-consumers? And if so, how?”50 Bloomfield et al. resonantly argue, in the analytic register, that “‘action possibilities’ are better understood and described via a vocabulary of process than one of end-states.”51 We argue that the same is true of the invention of action possibilities in particular and cultural techniques generally.



First and foremost, we refer to aesthetics not as the distanced formal features of art but as the sense and sensibilities through which any body experiences itself as such.52 Here we return to McCullough’s ambient commons. “The built world reshapes attention sensibilities not only through its configuration,” he writes, “but also through atmospheric comfort.”53 For McCullough, architecture conditions air and attitudes alike. Indeed, the “basic role of a building is to provide atmospheric comfort.”54 The atmosphere of a building shapes attention and gives sense and direction to work. Exploring design more generally, McCullough writes, “The artifacts of design help us evoke understandings of contexts”: this is the aesthetic in an ambient register.55 Not an aesthetic that communicates meaning, but an aesthetic that shapes the conditions under which something like meaning might happen. “Interaction design must serve the basic human need for getting into place.”56 This practice of “getting into place” is preeminently an issue of accessibility: aesthetically, functionally, ethically. “In our age of technological saturation, response to place becomes the most practical adaptation strategy of all,” and the aesthetic register bears precisely upon our capacities to respond.57 When we think once more on one of the basic effects of cultural techniques―the development of distinctions such as those that use doors to distinguish the human from the nonhuman animal―a more ambient commons would reconsider those cultural techniques aesthetically and seek to incorporate and bring comfort to the varying bodies it might have once made uncomfortable. The aesthetic is particularly strong here, but the functional and ethical resound as well. McCullough writes, “The success of a design is arrived at socially.”58

Again, a speculative uptake of the GalaPro app points the way to how ambient captioning might look, feel, and work. Building from the creative captions that Zdenek offers in his project, we too understand the look and feel of aesthetics to be congruent with the both signifying and asignifying affects. This is not a separation of form and content but their conflation. What we want for ambient captioning is to redistribute the invention of captioning. There’s still something constrained or isolating about GalaPro, which binds its application to scripted events. But what of kairotic events that unfold in, following Price, a more informal register? Recall Figures 1 and 2. The design of the application is far from ecological, and its captioned texts appear to be static across style and form. It is a model of address wherein the production discretely makes its way from the stage to individual audience members. There are lines running from the stage to the smartphone, but there are no vectors ranging across the space-time among the audience members. No way for the isolated woman in Figure 2 to caption an event―to capture space-time―that isn’t reducible to one channel of information and meaning. How might the aesthetics of the cultural techniques inherent in a swarming and distributed information infrastructure be leveraged to not only receive the centralized report but also to decentralizing reporting?

On Looking provides a series of examples for how we might speculate on a GalaPro built for ambient captioning.59 The book is an exploration of attention by Alexandria Horowitz, an expert in animal psychology and canine cognition. The book comprises a series of walks with a diverse array of “experts.” The experts traverse the same blocks with Horowitz, but with each expert’s annotations describing their unique way of inhabiting the block. We propose that the annotated walks are themselves captioned, and the affordances that emerge along that walk do so within the ambience composed of Horowitz and the human and nonhuman others with whom she ambulated. Each walk, which is constituted by Horowitz, the expert, the environment and their bodies, intellectual backgrounds and capacities, constructs salience. These walks resound with ambient captioning: read broadly, they touch upon all aspects of ambient captioning. Each expert augments the aesthetics of each walk and thus functionally redefines and reseizes the event through those captions.

What’s particularly compelling is that in one walk the expert is a blind woman, Arlene Gordon, who has the means to caption for Horowitz. She knows and tunes Horowitz in. The expertise she offers is an aesthetic one born of her particular, embodied and technological relationship to place. She is sensitive, to borrow from a treatment of the white cane.60 In Henden’s interview with white cane user and disability studies scholar Georgina Kleege, whom Hendren tells us is also a smartphone user, Hendren asks Kleege to speak about the “maximal sensitivity” for which a cane can be deployed. Assembled from the sounds and scents and sweeping of the cane, Kleege describes how she can create a “sphere of perception to surround me as I move.” This surround is composed of an aesthetic sense which becomes ambient captioning: captioning that moves around and among. Back on the walk with Horowitz, Gordon remarks, “I’ve traveled with friends all these years. Each one has said how much more they see because they’re walking with me.”61

This sphere of perception, again an aesthetic, is useful in finding resonant examples of ambient captioning in accessibility work already in progress. What this suggests to us is a certain kairotic capacity: not a place of mere ADA compliance, but a place in which difference emerges as difference, but where access nevertheless and necessarily takes place. A place where its aesthetics atmospherically fosters difference in a way that also builds its inhabitants’ sense-abilities to those differences. It is, in short, a way of paying attention.



The work of ambient captioning is the work of creating and sustaining attention. In this article, we have tried to raise attention to the possibility of captioning as an ambient practice. When we say “raise attention,” however, we mean something substantially different from what is commonly described as “raising awareness” or “consciousness raising.” Raising attention is more (and less) than foregrounding something once hidden in the background. Just as our cultural techniques approach draws upon the signifying and asignifying dynamics of technical practice, so too is attention for us a means for distributing and circulating effects/affects. McCullough’s ambient commons is fully about attention: the atmosphere of a building suggests tendencies and captures salience. Attention bears upon salience, but salience, Thomas Rickert reminds us, has ambient dimensions: “Attention attends to the salient, but the bringing forth of salience is itself a complex activity that has ambient dimensions.”62 Attention is bounded by the salient, which isn’t reducible to consciousness or signification.

Like captioning, attention operates functionally, aesthetically, and ethically, but it is the ethical register we want to specifically address. In Yves Citton’s work on attention as ecological, he describes attention as a joint endeavour, which is instructive in how it marks what we are calling the cultural techniques of attention. “‘I’ am attentive,” Citton writes, “to what you pay attention to.”63 “Below the level of the great masses of collective attention,” Citton continues, “the sphere of joint attention is the sphere of the small groups.64 We can witness joint attention at work when we are working to survive: “if my interlocutor diverts his eyes to look at something behind me,” Citton writes, “it is perhaps because he has just noticed a danger―and I had better turn around straight away to look in the same direction.”65 We can quaintly see the work of joint attention as ambient captioning at work in the kindergarten classroom. A teacher, needing silence and attention, quietly raises a hand with three fingers extended. A few attentive students notice the gesture and repeat it themselves. A few more students notice these first few students noticing and follow suit. Before too long every kindergarten student is silent and attentive, with their hand held high – silently attending together to the teacher, each ready to be addressed. Distributed along the dexterous gestures of tiny hands, an address is made accessible. It’s these sort of (literal) minor gestures that we mark as cultural techniques, which ambient captioning wants to activate elsewhere. It isn’t simply that a child agrees to attend but that a classroom as a whole comes to attention through a minor technique. “Joint attention connects us. It does so through the play of surfaces, whose lustre attracts the gaze of some, which in turn attracts the gaze of others.”66

As above, joint attention is intimately tied to survival: joint attention concerns the existential, and so joint attention “also connects us more deeply: it is because the attention of others touches our ‘innermost being’ that we are so sensitive to its slightest variations.”67 Here the ethical register of ambient captioning resonates through attention. “The essence of care is fundamentally rooted in joint attention: be attentive to what preoccupies others.”68 As the gestures of the children touch upon their classmates, the children become attentive to one another and to the teacher. They help each other to respond by responding through one another. Citton writes, “the virtue of care, in its ethical dimension, is that it asserts a fluid continuity between the registers of sensitivity (attention, preoccupation), and practice action (the work of consideration).”69 Ethics here cannot be reduced to a kind of moral obligation one meets (as meets the architectural requirements of the ADA). Joint attention expresses and exercises itself as an ongoing “relational concern.”  Working through the full implications of joint attention – its “common heart” – Citton writes, “as soon as we are conscious of being not so much autonomous ‘individuals’ as a certain ‘relation’ to a certain (physico-biological and social) environment, then the quality of our existence depends on our consideration of the quality of the relations that simultaneously weave our environment and our being.”70

Imagine another flight: a murmuration of starlings. The joint attention of the flock is what constitutes the flock. Each bird is responsible for all of the other birds not as a result some explicit obligation but rather because of the ambient dynamics of the flock itself. The flock is a relationship that attends. Weaving the threads of ambient captioning more explicitly, a murmuration of starlings is the work of ambient captioning. There is something surely functional at work in the shape of the flock: what foe or food needs marking out. There is clearly an aesthetic at work in the formations that take shape: how do the birds space themselves apart from one another? It is through a shared sensibility. And so there is an ethics flowing through the joint attention that moves the flock in unison. And such an infrastructure, to call back Bloomfield et al. carries “a moral load.”71

We can return to the GalaPro application here with respect to the ethics of ambient captioning. As it stands, the app treats attending as the activity of an isolated individual. If we think through a related app, not only generated by or only in reference to a prior script but also in part generated across the crowd itself, that captioning would be a function of joint attention, which is itself shaped ambiently. Raising attention is what holds together and makes cohere the captioning. Such an app would caption not based on a script, which would otherwise be unavailable in the context of the informal events described by Price, but would aggregate the joint attention of those in attendance. The capacity to attend wouldn’t be broadcast from the stage, but murmur across the crowd. Quite like but different from gestures designed to solicit quiet, such an application would activate noise. The ethics of ambient captioning seeks not to finally solve the problem of access but to forever keep the problem of access in motion, shifting kairotically. Ambient captioning makes no pretense to solve the problem of access to events. If anything, it challenges the interventionist posture that presupposes the problem/solution dynamic by proposing that accessibility is a practice of ongoing resolutions.


One Resolution Fewer Than a Conclusion

Back to 38,000 feet up in the atmosphere: where are we? The message has appeared. An audience has been addressed. Through what techniques have responses been primed? And from what techniques might a response occur? Ambient captioning speculates that the cultural techniques making up an infrastructural swarm of devices, people, practices can contribute to and seize the event as accessible. In the GalaPro example, as well as in our speculations on its possibilities, everyone contributed to the event by addressing and assisting being addressed. Cultural techniques have provided us a way to register how practices that could be useful to accessibility are already in motion but are not quite activated for providing access. Ambience is a complex enfolding of foreground and background, so that ambience is neither and both. So, we are saying neither that ambient captioning backgrounds the concerns of access, nor does it maintain them ever in the foreground. Ambient captioning is something different that could also very well be more of the same. Ambience murmurs. Ambience swarms. Perhaps flying too close to universal design, we could argue that such a distributed model of accessibility, because it works to upend and unpack the address or/addressee model, has distributed, ambient benefits that extend out into those brought together through and by ambient captioning – the event that it is. The unreasonable speculations we offer today should very well become our reasonable expectations tomorrow.

These un/reasonable expectations may be summed up with a few questions. Could it be that accessibility is poorly understood in terms of the traditional model of communication where a speaker addresses but one discrete audience in ways that exclude the array of techniques available? This model of address assumes an audience already predisposed to address – this model is highly normative, but, even worse, unintentionally so. Could it be that this model doesn’t work and it further alienates those with disabilities (impairments) in various, continual ways? The concept of ambience works to complicate this base and basic model of communication by refiguring the analytical history of cultural techniques into an interventional and inventional practice. Ambience challenges that traditional model as it radically refigures (or just removes) the subject/object binary alongside the open/closed one. While not the only or first, ambient captioning reinvents (within) the available cultural techniques in ways we find ameliatory to and inventional for disability, which we address through the crucial activity of accessibility. In short, ambience puts much more and much different kinds of communication into play. But it isn’t simply more stuff sneaking in that marks ambience or even makes it valuable to think through. So what does ambience do for the questions of address in captioning, which surely exist beyond the standard stand-and-deliver mode of communication? As we have argued implicitly here and explicitly elsewhere, rendering an event accessible is the problematic that scholars of media theory and practice strive to resolve, continually.72

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Article: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Image: "Intereactions," (Screenshots) by Eric Schmaltz with Kevin McPhee and Graeme Ring (2017).