User or Used? Human-Computer Interaction: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (3)

If you torture the data enough, it will confess to anything.
– Darrell Huff, How to Lie With Statistics (1954).

[Part 1, Part 2]

In the last blog I wrote about human dialogue with a computer versus the conversation between humans via a computer. The dialogue with a computer is heavily designed whereas human conversation especially via social media has come about serendipitously. For example, Twitter came from texting which was invented by engineers as tool to test mobile phones.

This is an example of what I call serendipitous design which works by users employing systems to do what they want it to do, which is the no-function-in-structure principle and then a designer find ways to support them. In contrast, the way to create systems which support users to do their job better uses the cardinal rule: know your user with all the various tools and techniques UX designers have borrowed from anthropology. You design with your user in mind, you manage their expectations, and you have them at the front of your mind as a major factor of the design so that the system has specific goals.

But, however hard you try, with each new system or software or form of communication, you often end up changing how people work and the dialogue is less about a field of possibilities with insight, intuition, and creativity, and more about getting people to do extra stuff on top of what they already do. And, because people are keen to get in on whatever new thing is happening they buy into what I call the myth of progress and adopt new ways of working.

This begs the question are we creating systems for users or the used?

This begs the question are we creating systems for users or the used? Today, I was chatting to a roadsweeper, he told me that last year he was driving a lorry but the council’s initiative to reduce carbon emissions means that 80 lorries were taken off the road and the drivers are now out sweeping the streets on foot. He showed me his council-issue mobile phone which tracks his every move and presumably reports back to the office his whereabouts at all times. Not that he needs it, if he sits on a wall too long, local residents will phone the council to complain that he is sitting down and not working hard enough.

Tracking is not new, smart badges, invented at Xerox PARC, were trialled in the 1990s in the early days of ubiquitious computing (ubicomp). The idea was to move computers off the desktop and embed them into our infrastructure so that we interact with them without our knowledge, freeing the user from the need to learn complex systems. In the badges’ case, everyone could be located by everyone else in the building, rather like the Harry Potter Marauder’s map. However, it smacks rather too much of surveillance, especially if your boss decides you are spending too long in the toilet or by the water cooler and, that your behaviour needs to change. The road sweeper instead of a badge has a mobile phone and people who spy on him and grass him up in part because they lack context and don’t know that he is entitled to a 20 minute break.

Must I really run all my important ideas past my fridge?

But it’s not just as part of a job, we have Google Maps recording every journey we make. And yet, ubicomp was less about having a mobile device or about surveillance, it was the forerunner to the Internet of Things, the ambient life, which is there to make things easier so the fridge talks to your online shopping to say that you need more milk. But what if I go vegan? Do I need to inform my fridge first? Must I really run all my important ideas past my fridge? This is not the semiotic relationship psychologist and mathematician J.C.R. Licklider had when he had his vision of man-computer symbiosis.

I was speaking to someone the other day who monitors their partner’s whereabouts. They think it’s useful to see where the partner is at any given time and to check that the partner is where they said they would be. No biggie, just useful. I mentioned it to another person who said that they had heard several people do the same. I wonder why am I so horrified and other people just think it’s practical.

Insidious or practical? I feel we are manipulated into patterns of behaviour which maintain the status quo.

Last week, I woke up and checked my Fitbit to see how I had slept which is slightly worrying now – I never needed anything to tell me how I slept before – and there was a new box in there: Female Health. I clicked on it. It asked me about birth control, when my next period is due, how long it lasts and so on. Intrigued, I entered the requested data. The resulting box said: Your period is due in eight days. Really? I mean, really? It was wrong even though I had tinkered with the settings. So, then it had a countdown: Your period will last four more days, three more days…etc. Wrong again. And, now it is saying: Four days to most fertile days. This is so irritating. It feels like Argos, you know, how the system and the reality of you getting something you’ve ordered never quite match up. I know together me and my Fitbit can build up data patterns. Will they be insightful? Time will tell. The bits which really concern me is that it said it wouldn’t share this information to anyone, okay… but then it added that I couldn’t share this information either. What? I am guessing that it wants me to feel safe and secure. But what if I wanted to share it? What does this mean? Menstrual cycles are still taboo? I can share my steps but not my periods? My husband and I laughed about the idea of a Fitbit flashing up a Super Fertile proceed with caution message when out on date night.

I regularly lie in bed pretending to be asleep to see if I can fool my fitbit

But, it’s not just me and my Fitbit in a symbiotic relationship is it? Someone is collecting and collating all that data. What are they going to do with that information prying into me and my Fitbit’s symbiotic space? It rather feels like someone is going to start advertising in there offering birth control alternatives and sanitary protection improvements. It feels invasive, and yet I signed up to it, me the person who thinks a lot about technology and privacy and data and oversharing. And, even now as I sit here and think about my mixed feelings about my Fitbit, the idea of wearing something on my arm which only tells me the time, and not my heart rate, nor the amount of steps I am doing, feels a bit old-fashioned – I am myself am a victim of the myth of progress. I am user and used. Confession, I regularly lie in bed pretending to be asleep to see if I can fool my Fitbit. It’s changing my behaviour all the time. I never used to lie in bed pretending to be asleep.

Back in 2006, I watched Housewife 49, it was so compelling, I bought the books. Nella Last was a housewife in Barrow-in-Furness who kept a diary along with 450 other people during and after the war. It was part of the Mass Observation project set up by an anthropologist, a poet, and a filmmaker, which sounds rather like the maker culture of HCI today. They didn’t believe the newpapers reporting of the abdication and marriage of King Edward VII, so went about collecting conversation and diary entries and observations on line. Rather like today, we have social media with endless conversation and diary entries and observations. The newspapers are scrambling to keep up and curate other peoples’ tweets because they have traditionally been the only ones who shape our society through propaganda and mass media. Now, we have citizens all over the world speaking out their version. We don’t need to wait for the newspapers.

We are living through a mass observation project of our own, a great enormous social experiment and it is a question worth asking: User or used? Who is leading this? And what is their goal? And, then we have the big companies collecting all our data like Google. And, we all know the deal, we give them our data, they give us free platforms and backups and archives. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are right about the results of their research on our data, or have the right to every last piece of information to use, even if you give it freely, because there is a blurring of public and private information about me and my steps and periods and birth control.

Anthropologist Agustín Fuentes has written a thoughtful article about the misuse of terms such as biology in Google’s manifesto and consequently, the sweeping generalisations to which it comes. Fuentes says we have no way of knowing what happened before we collected data and even now as we collect data, we have to maintain our integrity and interpret it correctly by using terms and definitions accurately. Otherwise, we think that data tells the truth and stereotypes and bias and prejudices are maintained. I love the quote:

If you torture the data enough, it will confess to anything.

Information is power. Hopefully, though, there are enough anthropologists and system designers around who can stop the people who own the technology telling us what to think by saying they are having insights into our lives whilst peddling old ideas. We need to pay attention to truth and transparency before we trust so that we can have more open dialogue in the true sense of the word – an exploration of a field of possibilities – to lead to real and effective change for everyone.

Let us all be users not the used.

My grey hair two years on

When you know better, you do better – Maya Angelou

Three years ago, I went into a fancy hair salon to get my hair done. I said I would like to go grey and the hairdresser MAN doing my hair, who had grey hair tied up in a ponytail, said: Oh no you can’t go grey it will age you and it takes a lot of work to maintain it much more than dying your hair. I did not question what he said. Instead I sat there and wondered why he got to have grey hair as he put an auburn colour on my hair, ‘cos he decided I was auburn. I couldn’t possibly have been originally a brunette not with that pale ginger freckly skin. Two weeks later when my roots came through I put a brunette rinse on. Here’s a picture of me in first year at university, before I ever started dying my hair. I was brunette.

I really believed that going grey would be similar to the chemotherapy journey I had gone on and that I would love the different styles throughout the regrowth. But, it wasn’t at all like that. Looking in the mirror challenged me everyday, and I hated my hair. I just couldn’t believe that after everything I have lived through that I was still worried about the way I look. However, by not valuing my own feelings and trying to talk myself out of them, I disrespected myself as much as the male hairdresser who wasn’t listening to me but absolutely knew, without knowing me at all, what was right for me. He was the walking embodiment of the patriarchal lie that society knows what is best for me and for all women, that I have no idea myself, and I don’t need to have an input. I was so used to this sort of nonsense I didn’t even question him nor myself. It has taken a lot of soul searching.

Mass media shapes the way we think and even though I have spent a lot of time writing about women in society, social media in society and so on, I am a member of society and not immune to the beauty sick message society peddles about how women should look (sexy fertile objects for male delectation and childbearing) and how women berate thenselves for not rising above it. It is exhausting. But how can I have a solid sense of self when I am bombarded everyday about how I should show up in the world? Googling about grey hair alone gives us so many articles like this one: Going grey ages women twice as fast as men. The BBC regularly sideline older women whilst their male counterparts are allowed to age in public (I believe let themselves go is the phrase which would be used if they were female) and continue their careers.

So there it is in a nutshell, my fear when I looked in the mirror, echoed by the male hairdresser, and much of society, is this: If I don’t cover my grey hair then I may be viewed as past my sell-by-date. The world will view me as irrelevant and I will be no longer seen nor heard. I will be put out to pasture like an old crone, devalued by our patriarchal society.

Yesterday, I took the above picture of myself and added it to the gallery in the blog post Fifty Shades of My Grey Hair. It will be the last one I put there as it marks the end of the two year journey I’ve just been on. The fancy hair salon went on its own journey too. It is now a gluten-free bakery. Each time I walk by it reminds me that I am the one who decides how I show up in the world. Society cannot tell me who I am or what my worth is. I am the one to do so and let me tell you this, the way I look has nothing to do with it. That said I am beginning to feel that I no longer want to explain myself to anyone but should I want to say something, well, heaven help anyone who wants to try and stop me.

I do look older with grey hair, two years older to be precise, because I am two years older than I was when I began this journey. I am two years wiser too with the experience of two more trips around the sun. So with my extra wisdom and experience, I can tell you this: Grey is just a hair colour and I look miles better than I did when I let a double-standards bloke dye it because I was too afraid to show up as myself.

Let’s Talk! Human-Computer Interaction: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (2)

[Part 1]

I chuckled when I read Rebecca Solnit describing her 1995 life: She read the newspaper in the morning, listened to the news in the evening and received other news via letter once a day. Her computer was unconnected to anything. Working on it was a solitary experience.

Fast forward 20+ years and her computer, like most other people’s, feels like a cocktail party, full of chatter and fragmented streams of news and data. We are living permanently in Alvin Toffler’s information overload. We are creating more data per second than we did in a whole year in the 1990s. And yet, data or information exchange is why we communicate in the first place, so I wanted to ponder here, how do we talk using computers?


Originally, you had to ask computer scientists like me. And, we had to learn the commands of the operating system we were using say, on a mainframe with VAX/VMS or DEC; on a networked workstation with UNIX, or a personal computer which used MS/DOS.

Then, we had to learn whatever language we needed. Some of the procedural languages I have known and loved are: Assembler, Pascal, COBOL, ADA, C/C++, Java, X/Motif, OpenGL (I know I will keep adding to these as I remember them). The declarative PROLOG, and (functional, brackety) LISP, and scripts like php, Perl, Python, Javascript. The main problem with scripts is that they don’t have strong types, so you can quite easily pass a string to an integer and cause all sorts of problems and the compiler won’t tell you otherwise. They are like a hybrid of the old and new. The old when computer time was expensive and humans cheap so we had to be precise in our instructions, and the new computers are cheap and humans cost more, so bang in some code. Don’t worry about memory or space. This is ok up to a point but if the human isn’t trained well, days may be lost.

As an undergraduate I had to learn about sparse matrices to not waste computer resources, and later particularly using C++ I would patiently wait and watch programs compile. And, it was in those moments, I realised why people had warned me that to choose computers was to choose a way of life which could drive you mad.

How things have changed. Or have they?


When I used to lecture human-computer interaction, I would include Ben Schneiderman’s eight golden rules of interface design. His book Designing the User Interface is now in its sixth edition.

When I read the first edition, there was a lot about dialog design as way back then there were a lot of dialog boxes (and American spelling) to get input/output going smoothly. Graphical-user interfaces had taken over from the command line with the aim of making computers easy to use for everyone. The 1990s were all about the efficiency and effectiveness of a system.

Just the other week I was browsing around the Psychology Now website, and came upon a blogpost about the psychological term locus of control. If it is internal, a person thinks that their success depends on them, if it is external their success is down to fate or luck. One of Scheidermann’s rules is: Support internal locus of control, so you make the user feel that they can successfully achieve the task they have set out to do on the computer because they trust it to behave consistently because they know what to expect next, things don’t move around like the ghost in the wall.

Schneiderman’s rules were an interpretation of a dialogue in the sense of a one-to-one conversation (dia means two, logos can mean speech) to clarify and make coherent. That is to say: One person having a dialogue with one computer by the exchange of information in order to achieve a goal.

This dialogue is rather like physicist David Bohm’s interpretation which involves a mutual quest for understanding and insight. So, the user was be guided to put in specific data via a dialog box and the computer would use that information to give new information to create understanding and insight.

This one-to-one seems more powerful nowadays with Siri, Alexa, Echo, but, it’s still a computer waiting on commands and either acting on them or searching for the results in certain areas online. Put this way, it’s not really much of a dialogue. The computer and user are not really coming to a new understanding.

Bohm said that a dialogue could involve up to 40 people and would have a facilitator, though other philosophers would call this conversation. Either way, it is reminiscent of computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) a term coined in 1984 that looked at behaviour and technology and how computers can facilitate, impair, or change collaborative activities (the medium is the message) whether people do this on the same or different time zone, in the same or different geographical locations, synchronously or asynchronously. CSCW has constantly changed and evolved especially with the World Wide Web and social media.

I remember being at an AI conference in 1996 and everyone thought that the answer to everything was just put it online and see what happened then. But just because the WWW can compress time and space it doesn’t follow that a specific problem can be solved more easily.

Monologue to Interaction

The first people online were really delivering a monologue. Web 1.0 was a read-only version of the WWW. News companies like the BBC published news like a newspaper. Some people had personal web pages on places like Geocities. Web pages were static and styled with HTML and then some CSS.

With the advent of Web 2.0, things got more interactive with backend scripting so that webpages could serve up data from databases and update pages to respond to users input data. Social media sites like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter were all designed for users to share their own content. Newspapers and news companies opened up their sites to let users comment and feel part of a community.

But this chatter was not at all what Bohm had in mind, this is more like Solnit’s cocktail party with people sharing whatever pops in their head. I have heard people complain about the amount of rubbish on the WWW. However, I think it is a reflection of our society and the sorts of things we care about. Not everyone has the spare capacity or lofty ambition to advance humanity, some people just want to make it through the day.

Web 3.0 is less about people and more about things and semantics – the web of data. Already, the BBC uses the whole of the internet instead of a content management system to keep current. Though as a corporation, I wonder, has the BBC ever stopped to ask: How much news is too much? Why do we need this constant output?

Social media as a cocktail party

But, let’s just consider for a moment, social media as a cocktail party, what an odd place with some very strange behaviour going on:

  • The meme: At a cocktail party, imagine if someone came up to us talking like a meme: Tomorrow, is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one. We would think they had banged their head or had one shandy too many.
  • The hard sell: What if someone said: Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book in our faces non-stop?
  • The auto Twitter DM which says follow me on facebook/Instagram/etc. We’ve gone across said hi, and the person doesn’t speak but slips us a note which says: Thanks for coming over, please talk to me at the X party.
  • The rant: We are having a bit of a giggle and someone comes up and rants in our faces about politics, religion, we try to ignore them all the while feeling on a downer.
  • The retweet/share:That woman over there just said, this man said, she said, he said, look at this picture… And, if it’s us, we then say: Thanks for repeating me all over the party.

Because it is digital, it becomes very easy to forget that we are all humans connected together in a social space. The result being that there’s a lot of automated selling, news reporting, and shouting going on. Perhaps it’s less of a cocktail party more of a market place with voices ringing out on a loop.

Today, no one would say that using a computer is a solitary experience, it can be noisy and distracting, and it’s more than enough to drive us mad.

How do we get back to a meaningful dialogue? How do we know it’s time to go home when the party never ends, the market never closes and we still can’t find what we came for?

[Part 3]

Human-Computer Interaction : Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (1)

A few years ago I attended a public lecture at the RSA and afterwards, a lady asked me what I did. I am a computer scientist, I said. And, she said: What makes you a scientist? I use a computer too. What’s the difference between you and me?

This is the interesting thing about computing, and in particular the field of human-computer interaction: Everyone thinks they are an expert in it, rather like they do in social psychology or design. Everywhere we go, we observe other people and how our and their behaviour affects our social interactions. We discuss it often and refer to it as pop psychology. Design is the same. We design our spaces in our houses and at our desks, we live and critique the results of design. We are all social psychologists and we are all designers and UX experts. We all use computers and our phones to get things done, so we can easily identify what’s not working in an app.

However, this does not equip everyone to be the social psychologist who designs clinical experiments, or the architect who builds a house, or the computer scientist like me who, as I explained to the RSA woman, has built and repaired computers, written and supported software, trained users, shadowed and observed how people work in order to close the gap between a computer and person – whether expert or novice in their field – in order for them to do their job more better, faster, more creatively. When I get it right, it seems obvious, when I get it wrong, it’s a difficult or terrible piece of technology which doesn’t seem worth the time/money/effort. Like most things in life, it is much easier to criticise than to create.

Computing though comes with a load of preconceptions. I talked about it in the women in technology blog. Marketers got their hands on the home computer and changed it from a place for women to work to the domain of the teenage nerd. They created stories and stereotypes to tell us how computing worked. There has also always been the myth of progress. Technology advances so quickly and changes our lives that we can barely keep up. People rarely ask: Is this progress?

After taking a career break, I said to some mums one day in conversation that I would return to working more, instead of encouragement and without any knowledge of the field of computing, they told me without hesitation that computers change so quickly and move on so fast that it was too late. They said that it was over for me as the ever changing technology had left me behind. Had I thought about doing something else, something I could get up to speed more easily? The thing is even though I hadn’t been earning money, I hadn’t really stopped thinking and writing and researching my field, as it’s not a job, it’s more a way of life – something I like to spend time on. I doubt I will ever stop thinking about how people use technology, and more and more how technology is dictating to people how they should work.

Nowadays, I feel that some of the research I was part of 20 years ago is making it into the mainstream and that is super exciting, technology like augmented or virtual reality back then seemed to a non-computer scientist rather like science-fiction as was more unwieldy, super expensive and rarely mentioned in the public domain. It belonged in a hi-tech lab. Almost daily now, I can pick up a paper or magazine and read about another latest VR application, a cheaper more accessible version for everyone, based on what we were thinking about years ago.

So, I am starting a blog series here to talk about human-computer interaction, how I became involved and how what I do has changed. From designing a straight up dialogue between one person and a machine, to humans online who were originally monologuing before Web 2.0, and then holding conversations with multiple machines, multiple users, to now what I believe is called for, which is a more symbiotic approach between humans and computers that considers more human aspects such as trust, intimacy, privacy first and foremost for the safety of humans – and different to safety critical systems which were designed to prevent disasters – now it is personal safety disasters which need to be avoided using, amongst other tricks of the HCI trade, psychological responsibility. And I would like to look at where I think this ever changing digital landscape and the ubiquity of our devices will take us in the future.

Come join me and journey through the dialogue, conversation and symbiosis of human-computer interaction. I can’t wait to get started.

[Part 2]

Thou shalt not: The Ten Commandments of Social Media (2)


[Part 1]

In the last blog, I was pondering why there was such a reaction amongst social media experts when Wetherspoon’s chain of pubs shut down all it’s social media. I concluded that if a business takes to advertising itself on social media, then it should do so with a goal of being joyful, so that joy can be a reward in and of itself. Otherwise they might not be rewarded at all.

It seems to be that we all have this rule of life in business, in self-help, in spirituality, in dieting, in relationships, in health which is:

If you do the right thing you will be rewarded.

It is a fallacy. People with experience and wisdom can tell you what what worked for them, but they cannot guarantee that it will work for you. There is no fool proof way of getting the desired result.

Social media has only been around for about 10 years. I like the way people are describing it as the biggest social experiment in history but honestly, who knows if it is? In all the blogs and articles I read in which social media experts put forward their opinions on Wetherspoon, each had the same four points:

  1. It was a big mistake and there will be consequences.
  2. The reason they weren’t more successful was that they were doing it wrong.
  3. The CEO/owner’s decision seemed to be based more on personal opinion than on proper analysis, and thus, implied it had to be wrong.
  4. We’ll all have to wait and see what the impact, if there is any, will be.

These four points are so generic as to be useless and not worth the effort of the breath it took to utter them. I’ve heard them all before applied to many areas of life such as religion, self-help, business success, diets and fitness, health, etc.

People are unique so one size doesn’t fit all and people have almost killed themselves following rules which are not good for them.

We all love rules and theories to win, like game theory and how to write a bestseller and all the other how-to’s.  We have a hankering for order and for a reduction in uncertainty. This is because from birth we are conditioned to follow a lot of rules. We are also conditioned at school to compete as we believe that there is never enough to go around and there has to be a winner who takes all, losers and underdogs.

In the last blog I compared social media experts to the CofE because it struck me that social media experts are wandering around like the people in Deuteronomy trying to make order out of chaos by making up rules about what to eat with what and which cloth should be woven with another. The social media peeps are have rules about what to tweet and which facebook ads to buy. They are trying to make order out of the chaos of social media. They don’t know how it works really, no one does, in the same way we don’t know the reason for life, but we all want to make it manageable and have some control over what is happening.

For some followers their advice might be useful, for others it might be a complete soul sucking waste of time. To paraphrase, Iyanla Vanzant in a brilliant talk on the Hay House World Summit 2018, you can rub the Torah on your head for five years or read all the psalms (or tweet til the cows come home) it doesn’t mean you will gain enlightenment. And, by that I am using the Buddhist definition of knowing yourself and what is best for you and your business/health/spiritual practice. Just ‘cos an ‘expert’ said to do it, doesn’t mean it’s what you need.

I’ve already said that I think we take a lot of our patriarchal and bad behaviour online. I said it about women  viewed as objects and also about trolling and flaming. It seems that social media marketing has taken all it knows about what to do in the physical world and plonked that online too and called it the connection economy, just an empty fancy word for marketing. And, why do we believe that they know what they are talking about? Because we are so afraid of not getting our rewards. And we are afraid of missing out.

I can count on one hand people I know who have a genuine interest in other people and who listen and hear what other people say for no other purpose than to know all about them. It is powerful and captivating to be in the presence of these people. It is a special, dare I say sacred, experience.

And yet, in business active listening an ersatz version is taught so that people can pretend to listen and sneak in their (nearly always economic) agenda, which leave us feeling had, a lot like a  lot of social media marketing. All those ads in the space where people were just being social for no other reason than joy of connection. And, we’ve all see the articles: How to sell yourself without feeling grubby, and the one that gets me every time which is Be authentic, which doesn’t mean that at all, it is a sort of doublespeak about how to effectively spam people online with stuff they don’t want and get them to buy it.  There is nothing authentic about getting people to do stuff you want them to do regardless of what they want.

I love a bit of social media – the medium is the message – it extends my capacity as a human being in that I can talk to more people with the sole purpose of lighting up our days and feeling better about this shared experience called life.   But, when business people are literally spamming the whole of twitter with their ads ‘cos some expert told them to do it, it is time for that chaos to be ordered. It isn’t right, and mark my words, it won’t be rewarded.