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)

[ 1) Introduction, 2) Dialogue or Conversation, 3) User or Used, 4) Codependency or Collaboration, 5) Productive or Experiential, 6) Conclusions]

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)

[ 1) Introduction, 2) Dialogue or Conversation, 3) User or Used, 4) Codependency or Collaboration, 5) Productive or Experiential, 6) Conclusions]

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 it 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.

Virtual Presence: Where do we go when we go online?

Steve Mann, Augmented Reality Man

I spent most of Sunday morning staring into the eyes of spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle. I was in my garden in London and he was at home in Vancouver giving a SoundsTrue webinar on The Power of Presence. Tolle was demonstrating to me and the other 100,000+ people on the webinar that it can be useful to connect with another human being who is free of mind, even on a screen.

Tolle’s demonstration of thought-less presence was a continuation of The Power of Now in which he discusses that we only have the now. Nothing happens in the past or future, our senses, perceptions, feelings and thoughts all make up the now. He extended this on Sunday by defining presence as being aware of ourselves as a perceiving consciousness deep in the essence of now.

And this, reminded me of a question I have been pondering for some time now: Where do we go when we go online?

As Tolle talked about the surface of now whilst I was staring into the screen at him, I was conscious of the external world outside of me and my focus on him on a screen, that is to say I was peripherally aware of the garden I was in, I could hear the birds tweet, the traffic go by and what he was saying all at once. Then, when he was telling me to feel my breath and my inner body aliveness I focused completely on my presence whilst Tolle said that I was entering the now, the external or surface now, and then the internal or deep now of my unseen thoughts and feelings.

And, this was all working until I began to wonder about presence, our physical presence like mine in the garden, and our virtual presence when we are connecting to the Internet at which point I missed what he was saying, I was off wondering:

Where do we go in the space? Is it a connection to our own thoughts and inner fire as I discussed in Lighting the Fire and The Space Between Us? Is it a connection to a collective consciousness as Jung believed and as Deepak Chopra believes? Or, is the Internet an external world of ideas as Plato postulated?

Tolle during his webinar mentioned that when he introduces language to describe presence as consciousness it creates a duality which reminded me of Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism of the mind and body as separate. But, some scientists and artists don’t feel this way and think that our embodiment needs an upgrade as our bodies don’t keep up with our ever expanding technology which expands our minds.

The Internet is a medium which expands our capacity for thought, for ideas, for information and it demonstrates perfectly how the medium is the message. This medium – the Internet – expands us and influences how the message is perceived and so, creates a symbiotic relationship.

We talk about going online or being online. And when we talk about the Internet, which after all is just a network of computers, we talk about it as a space which we navigate, we surf, we go back or forward in. Is it a mental space for us? If so what happens to our physical? Where is our presence?

I have been online and had access to the Internet for over two decades now and I have often gotten lost online – not so much in hyperspace – but lost myself completely, lost all sense of time and space, or specifically an idea of where I was, during say a unix talk which would split the screen in two and you could see both sides of the conversation, or during chats on Facebook Messenger, or DM on Twitter, when both parties have treated this asynchronous feature as a chat in real time. According to Tolle this is because I have identified with, in this case, the chat, I’ve let them/it take me over and I am longer in the now. I have been drawn into unconsciousness to which I would add I have been drawn into the collective unconsciousness. But then most of us have had this experience when reading a book or in the cinema well before we all went online.

Research into literary realism – a 19th century art movement which we might call sociology nowadays – has established that human comprehension and language cannot encompass reality in its entirety. We may have a partial understanding which comes from our experiences and senses in the now, but most of what we understand is largely based in concepts, or mental representations.

So, since we are limited by our senses, perceptions and feelings which make up the now, it makes sense that we are easily led and go elsewhere, we fall into the collective unconsciousness. A while back I talked about flow, and the gap and falling into other people or into an online video, or argument in the Moments in modern technology blog as I couldn’t quite figure out if technology was causing us to miss moments or not – were we absent or present? Tolle says that being conscious of our presence in a moment is the way we feel super alive. Being taken over by thoughts and triggers is being absent.

In the field of literary theory, absence and presence has long been debated and understood that people can be made to believe that they are somewhere they are not, or in the presence of people and objects that do not actually exist. Our suspension of disbelief as Coleridge put it whilst reading text on a page, allows us to go online and enter virtual spaces.

Virtual architecture and design creates social norms in virtual spaces which affects how people use and communicate in a given space for they follow the cues offered. So, if an online group meet in a virtual lecture with a lecturer at the front they will behave quite differently to say if they meet in a virtual coffee shop, and it will impact how a student learns.

As I said in Games,Storytelling and Ludology, the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels. And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not.

Sculpted virtual environments aside, even in text-only chats, we still lose ourselves online. I believe it is our desire to connect and experience and be experienced which really drives our minds, not the technology. It is our willingness to want to reach out. We are hardwired for connection and shared experiences are a quick way to connect. As Tolle says: When you are really present you are not looking past or future or comparing you are no longer a person… you and the now are one and the same… you can understand experientially or conceptually.

The yogis says that experience can be Nirguna (formless) and Saguna (with form), and I see now that this means, if we give it form, we break it down conceptually and then it is just a partial understanding. A formless experiential experience expands us and influences us.

I think that is what we do online, we experience experientially in the now, and when we come back from online, like on TV after an ad break, a presenter will say: Welcome back, as if we’d been somewhere, perhaps it is then when we interpret conceptually.

If we, as Tolle recommends, learn to cultivate a stillness inside us against which everything happens then it is will be easier to retain a sense of self online, a sense of presence, and our virtual and physical will be aligned.

However, if you are like me, I lose myself everywhere and anywhere and yet I am often told by people that I have great presence, just be reassured I’ve gotten lost a million times online, but I always find my way home.