Authors@MIT series kicks off with Meryl Alper’s Giving Voice

This month the MIT Press Bookstore is launching an exciting new series of events, Authors@MIT. The series features authors and experts on the cutting edge of topics that we all need to know more about, among them: young people and new media, business innovation, life in a digitally defined world, the intersection of science and art, the future of technology, the nature of knowledge, and more. While most of the events will be at the Press Bookstore, some will take place at other area venues, in collaboration with the Boston Book Festival, the Cambridge Public Library, Le Laboratoire, local restaurants, and other partners.

On Tuesday, February 28 Meryl Alper will kick off the series with a talk on her book Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality, which explores how communication technologies meant to empower people with speech disorders—to give voice to the voiceless—are still subject to disempowering structural inequalities. Meryl Alper is a professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University and a Faculty Associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In the following excerpt from Giving Voice, Alper discusses various understandings of “voice” and why this is important.

Voice is a universally relevant concept yet there is no shared consensus of its meaning, particularly among those who study media and communication. This polysemy is especially palpable in the three introductory quotes. Each parent articulates different understandings of voice in relation to their child’s use of the iPad and Proloquo2Go. To Donna, an AAC device is a voice, and a voice is a prosthesis and bodily extension. For Anne, her son performs voice through synthetic speech, and in doing so, sounds like an older child. As Nina views it, voice is a means of self-representation.

Recognizing and listening to children’s voices—a primary concern of sociologists of childhood—is a complex undertaking, and particularly so with respect to children with no or limited oral speech. Drawing on Tanja Dreher’s notion of a “partial promise of voice,” I argue in this chapter that claims to the iPad and Proloquo2Go “giving voice” remain only partially achieved at best. Popular celebratory discourse around these technologies obscures more complicated issues surrounding disability and agency as well as conflicting expressions of children’s voices. Such oversimplification can lead to unaddressed concerns in the design of synthetic speech and voice output communication systems along with further inequity in the institutions in which technologies and users are embedded.

Moving forward, understandings of synthetic speech technologies need to be decoupled from utopian and dystopian notions of futuristic conversational agents—or “computer voice.” We must also explore the ordinary meanings that humans with significant speech impairments and their conversation partners assign to such voices when used in electronic communication aids. While computer scientists and interaction designers ask questions about how human a talking computer should sound, we need to reckon with the fact that speaking through a computer is also a human way to talk.

Society tends to privilege oral speech over other forms of communication as a manifestation of truth. This dates back to Socrates, who understood the written word to be a barrier to “pure communication.” Speech is often idealized as necessary for “authentic” human connection. In the English language, what it means to be a not fully developed human is actually defined by a deficit of speech; the Latin root of “infant” (in fans) means “not speaking.” This fetishization of corporeal voice dominated Euro-American technoscience in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly cybernetics and communication engineering. The Turing test, as a case in point, determines humanness based on the ability to converse. 

But if we take for granted that everyone has an embodied voice, then we run the risk of disenfranchising individuals who do not or choose not to communicate through oral speech. People with disabilities are frequently spoken for without having a say of their own. The voices of those children and adults considered “nonverbal” are particularly discounted While democracies claim to represent vox populi (the “voice of the people”), ordinary citizens—including nonspeaking and minimally speaking individuals—struggle to be heard through traditional and new communication tools.