Accessibility 7: Repurposable Content

Magnetic paint can be encoded. A monitor screen can be made into a bendy sheet, like a roll of paper. The code that tells a screenreader to speak one word aloud is the same code that tells a computer what word to represent as a series of lights on a screen, and a text made ready electronically for print is also a text that could be read out through computers.

Once your text is set, it could be made to serve any number of purposes. The same data that can be represented as sound by one piece of kit and images by another can be written into the paint on a tin or packaged along with a three-dimensional hologram.

Little of this seemed likely, not that long ago. Philip K. Dick’s famous novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (which is not actually much like the Ridley Scott Bladerunner films ‘based’ on it) features holographic sheep that glow outside your house so that people think you keep a live animal — which in the denuded world of that future, is a rarity and a status symbol. In the second film, Bladerunner 2049, robots have gone beyond being androids: they are holographic. In a world like that, properly coded text, even what we are working with now, would need to be ‘set’ only once, and it could be used again and again at no cost.

This has always been the way of printing. Moveable type did not take off in China or the Islamic world (although regions of China were part of the Islamic world too) because too many different ‘sorts’ of type, too many individual metal pieces, were needed in those languages, for printing to be cheaper than writing by brush. All the same, porcelain ‘china’ type did not last long: china breaks.

Metal type sorts needed to be replaced, but less often: they wore down, like teeth. Plastercasts could be made — flanges — so that while pages could be recast as one piece of metal, and so long as the page had been ‘made up’ on that first occasion with the individual metal letters, you could cast it again and again. Cheaper printers made less accurate images because their woodblocks and metal sorts had been battered in the presses too much. This shift to ‘lasting’ digital is a natural extension of the trade.

It is also a kind of transcendent moment, for print and publishing. We stand on the verge of having no physical version of the texts at all, except the impressions and sound impressions, and the sights, that we create from them.



Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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