Rethinking “Accessibility” – GenAI and The Digital Divide
October 12, 2023
From the moment I heard Howard Pyle speak at the Page Spring Seminar earlier this year, I knew I wanted to learn more. I sought him out in the conference reception area, and we had a great exchange. After meeting for coffee and further conversation in Brooklyn, Howard was kind enough to agree to join me as a guest on our G&S podcast, Building Brand Gravity. You can check out the full episode here.
Why the urgency to dig deeper? What Howard shared is, to me, a compelling call to action to rethink what we understand as “accessibility” in the digital world (and, by extension, the physical one as well). His perspective helped further open the aperture on how I think about areas like user experience and digital access – as well as work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion at G&S and beyond.
Howard has a fascinating background built at the intersections of technology, UX, creative, brand, marketing, and more, and has had significant roles at major agencies (Ogilvy) and brands (MetLife, IBM). With COVID’s disruption as a catalyst, Howard embarked on a new mission. He founded Experience Futures (XF) with the goal of advancing accessibility and inclusion in digital experiences, drawing from personal experience with neurodiversity including dyslexia. More specifically, he has fascinating insights to share on how the intentional use of generative AI is essential to closing the ever-widening gulf of the “digital divide.”
Generative AI is currently the shiniest of shiny objects, blinding in its glare and deafening in a hype cycle that swings wildly from utopian dreams to dystopic nightmares. A refrain of “this changes everything” is the one constant – and also a likely truth amid the over-promising and over-worrying.
Each of us benefits from active experimentation with what has been colloquially titled “generative AI” (though purists will argue it is nothing of the sort). In that spirit of exploration, I extracted key passages from my conversation with Howard and fed them to Anthropic’s Claude.ai with a prompt to pen me a 500-word blog post – placing emphasis on such themes as the digital divide, going beyond current definitions of accessibility, and Howard’s vision for the role of AI and automation.
Below is the piece produced by Claude.ai in full – no edits. It interests me to see how this large language model tackled the assignment (not exciting, but not bad). It interests me far more to see the stark differences in our rhetorical styles. The way I would approach this post is leagues of distance from how this platform predicts word to word. Perhaps that will change over time. Or perhaps it simply needs to be fed enough of my prior writings to mimic the quirks of my style.
For now, I encourage you to scan the AI-generated post – and then make sure to listen to the full podcast segment for how eloquently Howard unpacks a range of issues that need a LOT more discussion in our society today.
There is no “average user” of digital experiences. Our current understanding of ability versus “disability” is limited at best. Anyone lucky enough to age across decades will experience changes in their abilities. The digital platforms and products that serve as gateways to the critical functions of our lives (health, financial, education, civic, etc.) must embrace a far more expansive view of “access.” We must all think hard about what it means to create greater inclusion and empowerment for the full range of human experiences. AI is a tool that can help us speed this process in transformative ways, but it is humans who must make the right choices about how it is applied.
Claude.ai: “Here is a draft 500 word blog post based on the key themes from the attached document”
Closing the Digital Divide Through Technology and Automation
Access to the internet and digital technologies has become an essential part of functioning in modern society. However, many individuals still face barriers to getting online and using digital tools effectively. This phenomenon is known as the digital divide.
The first level of the digital divide is basic access - whether someone has the hardware, software and internet connectivity required to get online. But as discussed in the attached document, there is a second layer to the digital divide related to usability and digital literacy. Even when someone has technical access, they may still struggle to navigate digital systems, understand terminology and use tools in the way they were designed. This creates a divide between those who have the experience and skills to capitalize on technology, and those who don't.
Populations especially impacted by challenges of the second digital divide include older adults, individuals with disabilities, those from lower income backgrounds and people with neurodiverse conditions like dyslexia that impact learning. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults often struggled to use convoluted vaccine appointment websites, reducing their access to this essential healthcare service.
Solving the second digital divide is not just about meeting legal accessibility requirements. It's about understanding each user's unique needs and limitations to create truly inclusive experiences. The document discusses how in our diverse society, there really is no such thing as designing for "most people" anymore.
While workshops and collaboration sessions can build alignment, they are limited in their ability to uncover the full spectrum of user needs required to build maximally accessible digital tools. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) and automation come in. As the document argues, we need to intentionally design positive use cases for emerging technologies to expand digital access.
AI allows us to understand individuals' unique needs and constraints based on how they interact with systems. It then enables dynamically tailored experiences - delivering the right content in the right format to match each user. For organizations without the resources to manually design endless permutations of products and services, AI-powered personalization is the only scalable path to inclusion.
This has profound potential to empower the groups hit hardest by the digital divide, breaking down barriers not just to basic internet access but to the job opportunities, healthcare, education, financial services and commerce enabled by technology. The vision laid out is bold but within reach: leveraging AI to improve digital inclusion for 1 billion people worldwide by 2030.
With the accelerating pace of technological change, it's easy to see only risks and negatives. But there is cause for optimism if we intentionally guide innovation and automation to make information technology work for everyone. This inclusive digital future will require acknowledging the second digital divide, embracing AI's possibilities, and designing solutions that start with ethics rather than just capabilities. The dividends for both individuals and society will be immense.