Sunday 07 July 2002

This… and that

There’s been a lot happening in Blogaria these past few days, while I’ve been preoccupied with events IRL. Even though I’ve to catch up, I’m sure I’ve missed some priceless posts and threads (…yet another reason for wanting ThreadNeedle).

I read Burningbird’s post on The Value of Anger, the long associated comment thread, plus the responses from Mike Golby, Dave Rogers, Frank Paynter, and Dorothea Salo. Since I am both gently melancholic and intellectually pessimistic (though I hope neither complacent nor indifferent) I felt drawn most strongly to Dorothea’s observations. I intend to return to the subject in the next day or so.

In making the switch to Movable Type, Jeff Ward has also re-engineered Visible Darkness with a visually appealing template that is both standards-compliant and accessible. In explaining his reasons for moving to MT, Jeff fashioned a lovely metaphor for standards compliance:

It’s sort of like processing for archival permanence in photography. As long as a page is compliant with an existing standard, then it will be readable in the future rather than degenerating into unreadable code.

While implementing dynamic text sizing (a step I’ve yet to undertake though, rest assured, it will happen in the next two weeks), Jeff has drawn the line at writing comprehensive captions for images:

…I remember getting really irritated in my web-writing class regarding the issues surrounding using graphics and images. I thought to myself—I’m not constructing my pages for blind people. How can you describe an image adequately? Captions and such partially destroy the reason for using an image to begin with—they do work that words cannot do— things that words interfere with. I refuse to give-up my non-descriptive captioning privileges.

There’s a certain irony in Jeff’s principled refusal since, out of the total population of Blogaria, I can think of no-one better qualified to write an eloquent, comprehensive caption for almost any image. He’s correct though, 100%. Images speak in ways that words cannot—that’s why we use them and why we need them. Faced with the near impossibility of writing a caption that does justice to this photograph from the collection of Walker Evans, one can understand Jeff’s position.

Jeff also signalled his intent to steal the Blog in Prog idea from AKMA and laid out a set of rules governing revisions to posts in progress. I like this concept enormously and I suspect that stealing both the idea (from AKMA) and the implementation (from Jeff) could help me out of an impasse regarding some long form posts.



I disagree with Jeff's approach.

My colleague, sceptical yet sharp, once pointed out to me why she thought it is nonsense to provide alternative (textual) descriptions for images on the web, using nearly the same argument as Jeff. She took as an example an online art galery and asked me how I wanted to describe the pieces of art displayed there. Many works looked nearly impossible to describe since they were not depicting anything we are familiar with, rather abstract flashes of color and geometric lines.

Well, I kind of described the images above, so I guess it is not impossible after all. But I still had to answer my colleagues question.

Firstly, many peope who are not blind are missing the point of an image by looking at it, while a blind person can still have a better grasp of its meaning by reading its alternative description. The effectiveness of a pictoral message depends greatly on the interest of its audience and not only on the message alone.

Secondly, my suggestion to her was not trying to describe the image literally. Because that is what makes Jeff 100% right. There are many circumstances in which words are not sufficient, and if they were, they would defeat the purpose of the image. However, no one said that words need to be sufficient in the first place. A good try is the least you can do. However, what are you using words for? For describing or replacing the image?

Thirdly, and that is the opinion I stressed most to my colleague, you don't need to describe the image literally. Try to describe a piece of art made by Mondriaan, do it literally and you will soon find out that it makes little sense. Same would go for a lot of other artists. What you can describe however, through use of the LONGDESC attribute for instance or linking to other resources of information, is the artists notes on the piece, critiques, analysis, historical context. Things that would make sense to someone who is not able to see green or red lines, yet can understand the concept of pattern and rhythm when layed out to them. I think these sources even benefit people who do have eyesight.

In the case of Mondriaan, there are musical plays that describe the same concepts as some of Mondriaans work. So, if music can describe the same things that imagery describes, why can words not do that also? Every medium has its own way and I think if you try to use words to *replace* another medium, you will eventually get stuck.

Try putting this blog entry into an image. You may come far but at some point imagery will be inadequate to capture the essence of the words.

Posted by: Kris on 8 July 2002 at 03:34 AM

Don't count on ThreadNeedle any too soon.

Posted by: Burningbird on 8 July 2002 at 09:07 AM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour