The accidental techie

 [ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 ]

In one of the first lectures I ever gave, I realised that I was actually cupping my left breast as I talked. Horrified, I had to nonchalantly put my hand down and act like someone who always fondles her breasts in public.

To be fair, I was explaining to 2nd year undergraduates how a breast cancer biopsy could be performed using a head-mounted display, augmented reality, baby, and since I was still new to lecturing and had an out-of-body experience every time I stood up in front of anyone, I could have been doing anything and not noticed. It was only when I got distracted by a couple of lads in the front row tittering away, as it were, that I realised what I was doing, and tried not to become consumed by my self-consciousness, I just had to press on and get to the end of that lecture.

I couldn’t even get irritated with them because as an undergraduate, me and a mate used to do impressions of one of our lecturers who would hold onto his pecs when considering the complexities of the formal languages: OBJ and Z. We would howl with laughter. Little did I know, that lo and behold, I would be there a few years later doing exactly the same thing.

Soon after Boobgate, I had a professor sit in one of my lectures to assess me as part of the teaching and learning course I was doing. He was astonished at the attendance I had. He had lectured the same group of students earlier in the term and was amazed that they were all still coming to mine. I didn’t like to say that they probably turned up to see what I would get up to next.

In the previous lecture, I had stepped backwards and cried out: Arrrgh, arrgh, arrgh, as I waved my arms around. For some reason, I fully expected to go crashing down off the stage. However, when I didn’t fall, I stopped flailing and turned to see what had happened. There was at least another foot of stage behind me. I smoothed my dress down and pressed on regardless as if to say: Well who doesn’t do a quick impression of someone falling off the stage before moving onto their next slide?

The professor gave me some really helpful feedback afterwards and asked during the lecture if I meant Gameboy when I said Playboy. I was explaining how to turn a Gameboy into an amateur head-mounted display. Gah, I do have a tendency when under stress, and particularly when trying to impress, to say the wrong word, especially if it’s a word I don’t use very often.

One time, I was at an alumni event in the House of Lords and was talking about traffic calming. Everyone was speechless until a lovely man stepped forward and said in his beautiful RP, I think the word you are looking for is boll-ard.

I’d been talking about road bollocks for at least 10 minutes.

I never set out to become a lecturer in computing. In fact I hadn’t set out to become anything, least of all in computing. Originally, I just wanted to go to university.

I came up with the idea to study English Literature after watching Educating Rita, (1983) but I didn’t get the grades I needed (three ‘A’s) and I didn’t have the money to get my ‘A’ Level History remarked, which everyone else did and is one of my few regrets, since everyone went up at least one grade. Nor, did I want to resit, I had been there, done that. I was keen to get on with my life but decided that I wanted to do something different as I was beginning to question how useful French, History and English Literature were. They couldn’t even get me on a course and I have a ‘B’ in English Literature. So, taking some random advice about applying to courses which had loads of space in the clearing list, I ended up on a computing degree at Liverpool Polytechnic.

My dad (who had left school at 16, my mum, 14) asked me the night before I was due to leave: Are you not worried about starting a degree in something you know nothing about? Me, with the breathtaking dazzling confidence of my 18 year-old self, said, Course not, how hard could it be? At which point, everyone reminded me of all the times I had said that when I hadn’t prepared for something and gone out and failed.

I spent my first night in temporary accommodation at the real university in a block which overlooked the street and indeed road sign of Strawberry Fields, which was painted on the wall, so it couldn’t get nicked. I think I must have gone down to dinner, I don’t really remember but I got talking to a load of part-time masters students somehow who were staying in the same halls and took me off to the pub. They were on a study-week as they were all fully grown up and working and so took the opportunity to give me lots of advice and beer whilst they reminisced about their time as students.

The next day, excited and fuzzy headed, I went off to the accommodation office, I thought they would give me keys instead they gave me a list of landlords and told me to get some 10p pieces. Charming.

It took a couple of days but I found a place and a friend. She was one cool chick with whom I kept crossing paths, so when she was in the phone box ahead of me, it felt like a sign. I waited for her to come out and introduced myself. We teamed up, found a place together, and became firm friends as we began our new lives.

Sometimes, I dream that I am back in Liverpool. I am always looking for a place to stay or searching for a friend. I welcome this recurring dream now, because it is a shift in my consciousness which signals to my heart that I will wake up to something new.

On that first morning it was to wonder why some Japanese tourists were taking pictures of a wall, but I took it to mean that there’s magic in the most unlikeliest of places and people, and proceeded through my day with that intention.

Sometimes I feel naive and silly to think the way I do. I feel like I’ve just been caught accidentally holding my breast in public and I will get distracted and won’t finish what I’ve started, but when I worry that I might fail I remember 18-year-old me shrugging and saying: Course not, how hard can it be?

And with a breathtaking dazzling confidence that I still dream about, I ask myself: Indeed, how hard can it be?

[ part 2 ]

The inner life: Tarot and technology

The other day I read this tweet: I just assume people who don’t have a twitter account have no inner life. I laughed a lot and got to thinking.

Lately, I have been contemplating my inner life using tarot instead of twitter and, I like it. I did a tarot course back in January at Treadwell’s and ever since, instead of picking up my phone first thing when I wake up on a morning, I pick up the tarot.

I have written thousands of words about technology, in particular social media, and the advantages it gives us, the connection, the reassurance, and that it is popular because we all want to be experienced, that we all want to be seen and heard and to feel that we matter. But I am beginning to see that it has to begin with ourselves. We need to see and hear ourselves, we need to have a space to be able to express ourselves without interruption and feel received, which is hard to do online.

When I give a tarot reading, I am giving my full attention to someone for them to be seen and heard and to talk about what matters to them. In a normal day, how often do we do that for other people? How often does someone do that for us? And, does that ever happen on social media? That interesting broadcasting to no one in particular model which is so compelling and yet at times, so indifferent. We don’t know if someone has heard, or if anyone is listening as you cannot be a silent comforting presence on twitter.

I have had magical conversations online with people before I’ve even met them, but they are few and far between. Most social media isn’t like that and from a person to person point of view, to feel seen and heard online, social media works best in a: Here is my news until we meet next. It is not a complete replacement. We need the physical, the being experienced and we cannot be present for others unless we are present to ourselves which is difficult to do if we are permanently distracted by seeking consolation in our phones, for we take ourselves away from our lives, which is for better or worse, where we need to be in order for us to be able to define who we are.

Of course there are times when we need to escape – we used to do that with a book – or we need to physically be somewhere else and that is when technology helps. It can get us to connect where there is just a void and in the moments when you can’t get to be somewhere to say goodbye – perhaps forever – then technology can make a moment happen by compressing time and space and for that it is a blessing. Ironically, the only reason I am writing this blog is because I read a tweet and got inspired.

But for the inner life, to connect back to oneself where there’s only a void which needs filling; that Sehnsucht : (German) yearning or inconsolable longing which sometimes happens, or perhaps, as as someone else tweeted today, that Hiraeth: (Welsh) Homesickness for a home that you cannot return to; grief for the lost places of your past. Those feelings are hard to manage using technology, though knowing other people have them too can help. Personally, I hate the idea that someone else is feeling as miserable as I am, especially if I can’t help, and if, they have typed out a whole scary story which doesn’t end well. Staring at a tarot card which embodies that feeling until I see other things on the card as the feeling dims and hope returns is a more calming way for me to manage as I hate the vulnerability hangover which comes from oversharing online.

Growing up, the tarot was always a bit of a taboo, right up there with the oujia board. (Does anyone try to contact the dead with technology? I wonder! ) I grew up in the Church of England which frowned upon my dad’s spiritualist community, which in turn took a dim view of ‘occult’ practices like tarot. My dad was quite clear on not dabbling with things you didn’t know about, but that was after his automatic writing phase in the cupboard under the stairs where the gas meter was kept. I think now perhaps there was a bit of a leak which caused the visions.

But given that he was pretty eccentric and into the scary esoteric – like those days when the seances in the front room got out of hand – I got the impression that tarot was something way, way out, which begged the question: Who the hell did tarot?

After going on the course now I know: People like me, that’s who. Normal people who are curious and want a different way to think about things. Some of the lovely people I met were into Jungian Psychoanalysis and social work and saw the tarot as a way to communicate. The tarot, and cards and games are as old as time itself and we connect to others through them and then back to ourselves to make sense of the world.

The tarot has 78 cards, 22 of which are the major arcana embodying the archetypes of life, the events, feelings and situations we all experience whether we like it or not: birth and death, love and fear, loneliness and happiness, and so on. Archetypes bring an energy to our stories and to our design processes, and stories and design (as in games or cards or indeed technology) are the way in which we communicate and how we change the world in real life or online. The minor arcana represent the cycles our mind, body, spirit and emotions go through and the court cards represent aspects of our personality or other people. All of it only has meaning because we give it meaning.

So say I pull out DEATH XIII in any reading, most people, myself included, will be able to look at their lives and see that there will be somewhere in their lives where they is the need for an ending to happen, even if they don’t want one, it could be for the best in a situation, a friendship, a job, because with each ending as painful as it is, there is a relief, a release and the promise of the sun rising the next day.

I love the fact too that in the deck I have (the classic Rider-Waite) DEATH XIII looks just like the KNIGHT OF CUPS – the romance card, and I guess falling in love with a person, a project, an idea, is a beginning and the very opposite of letting go and feeling stuck and diminished. A beginning is an ending, and an ending is a beginning.

With technology there is no beginning nor end and we don’t look at twitter and question it’s meaning or relevance. We immediately assume if it is out there then it has meaning, and we make it relevant to our lives, even if it is to our detriment and impacts our inner life.

We set our intentions and our opinions by other people’s stories because we are conditioned to do so– normally we know people or the source of the information and we trust it, which is harder to do online. Lately there are lots of stories about fake news, fake reviews online and even this week the Pope had his say, warning us about robots. But none of this is new, we have long had fake news and spin and propaganda, in wartime it’s a good thing, in peacetime it’s manipulation. Technology just facilitates all of this with a wider reach.

Technology has no message. The medium is message. It is up to us to define the correct meaning for it and for our inner lives but that is a hard thing to do. Currently, my inner life is doing well using tarot not twitter and I am not feeling the sharing is caring vibe at the moment but should I change my mind I can easily and instantly on my phone and will try not to mind when no one answers.

Three years of Bikram yoga

the 26 Bikram yoga poses

Last summer, during the holidays, I didn’t want to stop practicing Bikram, so I made the commitment to myself to get up at 6am to get to the studio to practice three times a week.

I am not a morning person. It was hard and sometimes the only way I got there on time was to go to bed in my leggings ready to run out the door. Don’t tell anyone!

True flexibility requires tremendous strength.

Now I can be quite a flexible girl. In the right heat when it’s all feeling good and juicy I can put my feet on my head in cobra pose which amazes me. So imagine my surprise when I found out that at 6am, my body was super stiff and I found it difficult to do any of the standing poses I thought I had gotten halfway decent at during the previous two and a half years. It was then that I had the revelation that true flexibility requires tremendous strength.

I have short arms, not like a T-Rex, but nonetheless my hands do not reach the floor in toe stand and I cannot fully bend over and hold my foot in standing head to knee pose. I don’t have enough arm length, something I came to realise on those early mornings. I had no choice but to use my leg strength to get my foot into my hand. And then in standing pulling bow pose, I was using my arm to pull my leg up but on a morning when my arm couldn’t stretch, I had to kick up with my leg. I had been using flexibility, not strength.

This made me see that I wanted to be strong and flexible enough to adapt both mentally and physically in any situation. So, if I couldn’t practice at my favourite time, in my favourite spot, with my body feeling just right, I would be ok with that. I realised that I want to do what I can, where I am. It is called a yoga practice for that reason and I realised that yoga is not separate from the rest of my life. I am me on and off the mat.

A more acceptable me

All my life I have believed that yoga will get me somewhere, like I will become the better more acceptable version of me. I will be a teetotal, vegan yogi who thinks only good thoughts. I will be tall and skinny with long arms and I won’t grow old. This is not only unrealistic. It is nuts. Life throws up all sorts of challenges and the way that you look doesn’t always help and there’s only one alternative to ageing. But, even though I have written loads about social psychology and women in society, I still think that if only I could be thinner and younger (I guess in reality sexier – but I have a theory about that) I could be more acceptable to me.

Moreover, I have heard all the stories of yogis like Bikram Choudhury who sexually abused his students and yet has created the best sequence of yoga I have continually and consistently ever experienced. And B K S Iyengar who would spit at and hit his students, and yet he wrote Light on Life full of wisdom and peace. I guess they were both aspiring to be their best versions when creating sequences and writing and then they turned back into themselves in the yoga room.

On and off the mat we are the same

On the mat I am the same so I get the same thoughts and fears as I do when I am off it. The clever thing about Bikram though is, because of the heat and the fact I listen to a dialogue of instructions, I am distracted from my daily thoughts and all my energies go into breathing and doing what I am told and then if there is any energy left to think about something not in the room then that is a dominant thought pattern that my mind keeps returning to, and the only thing is to let it go.

And then, once you get used to the dialogue it then takes great mental strength to keep listening, to be attentive, to follow every word and great flexibility to hear the dialogue as if it is new when you have heard it 1,000 times already.

After a discussion on Friday with one lovely teacher, today in class, I listened really hard in standing pulling bow pose and instead of just bringing my arm down, I brought my whole body forward and down, which meant I had to kick my leg up higher to retain my balance and there was a small shift inside and a new discovery and I felt a massive stretch all down my standing leg which meant that my kicking leg kicked higher than ever before. Flexibility and strength working together.

But back to last summer on the mat at 6am, when I was beginning to understand the balance of flexibility and strength, I found that more than ever I needed to do that off the mat too. Because it was early morning I took the car to Bikram rather than walking the 10,000 steps. And, because my mother had died a couple of months earlier I was exhausted from grief and began comfort eating. Consequently, I gained a lot of weight but kept thinking: How is that possible? I do Bikram. But Bikram as good as it is, is not a cure for everything.

It was towards the end of summer when I was getting really strong and chubby – I think I gained an extra 10lbs which is a lot for my five foot frame. I mentioned it to a yoga pal one morning who said: Oh yes you used to look so great. I was relieved by her honesty as I could tell when I bent over to pick up my foot that I had a couple of spare tyres in the way and I really thought I was going to split my yoga pants. And, from that I learnt again that it takes tremendous strength to look at yourself honestly and see what is going on and to be honest with others. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or cookie-fest, or an easy way to share difficult news. And I can tell you it takes tremendous flexibility to love the new chubby version of yourself in the mirror.

That said, I know I am the same chubby or normal weight. I prefer being slimmer as all my clothes fit better and I hate shopping. However, I won’t miraculously turn into a different person if I lose the extra weight. I will still be me, chubby or slim, on or off the mat. I am me, and I am me, and I am me.

Flexibility without strength could be damaging

When the summer ended and school started again I was able to practice again at 10 am. I noticed that I was stronger than before but bendy once more and it took a bit of adapting to not overbend because it is no good being flexible without strength. And, this is the same off the mat, if I am too flexible without knowing my limits and without respecting my boundaries, I could seriously damage myself or worse still allow someone else to damage me.

Lately, I have been practising Bikram three to four times a week, as life does tend to get in the way of a dedicated practice, but I have made my peace with that. Everything in moderation, including Bikram. My own experience is that three times a week is enough for a maintenance level, five times a week changes my body. I will never be a teetotal vegan either, I would be miserable. I like red wine and steak and beer and chips but I can do those things in moderation too. There’s no need to behave like Henry VIII.

I am still carrying some chub, and that is ok, but now that spring is coming, I am thinking that I am ready to do a 30 day challenge, and whilst part of me is excited thinking: Oooooh that would definitely shift the chub, part of me feels quite scared of committing to 30 days of straight up yoga and feeling super duper knackered. Or worse still, not following through.

Balancing Act

I guess I just have to take my own advice and know whether I do it or not, and whether I can or cannot finish it, to be truly flexible I must be strong enough to do what is right for me and the life I have. I will still be me, chubby or slim, meeting 30 day challenges or not, and some days I am my best version and some day I am not, I am me and I am enough and that is the gift Bikram yoga has given me over the past three years. It has brought me home to myself and allowed me to learn how to love and appreciate the fine body in which I dwell.

Namaste!

Westworld and the ghosts of AI

source: lamag.com

Someday, somewhere – anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life – Pablo Neruda

Warning:  This post may contain spoilers for Westworld 1 & 2.

I was late to the Westworld party but have loved every moment of it and the follow-up conversation: If Westworld existed, a simulated Wild West populated by robots, or hosts, as they are called, would I go?

I don’t think I would, but this survey says 71% of the people they asked would. I imagine that I would feel about it the way I do about glamping. I want to love it, but the fact I pay the same amount of money for a four star hotel but have to build a fire before I can boil the kettle to make a cup of tea makes it difficult. Oooh but then at Westworld I would have a robot to do that for me.

Also, as I have said before, inasmuch as I like to think about gaming, I really just enjoy the theory of gaming so thinking about Westworld is enough for me. Westworld is like a cross between Red Dead Redemption and a reenactment. Which begs the question: What is the difference between running around a virtual world online shooting people or shooting robots in a simulated world? Your brain can’t tell you. Personally, I don’t want to go round shooting people at all, although I am very good at violence in Grand Theft Auto which is slightly worrying. We don’t hear so much about the debate on whether violent video games cause violence.  Now we hear instead a lot about how social media is the frightening thing.

Perhaps if I was invited to a Jane Austen world then I might be interested. I loved watching Austen scholar, Prof John  Mullen attend and narrate a recreation of an Austen Ball on the BBC (for which, alas, I cannot find a link). He was super compelling. He kept running up to the camera giving great insights like: Oooh the candles make it hot and the lighting romantic, and the dancing in these clothes really makes your heart flutter, I am quite sweaty and excited, etc.  I am sure he didn’t say exactly that as he is v scholarly but he did convey really convincingly how it must have felt. So, to have a proper Austenland populated by robots instead of other guests who might say spell breaking things like: Isn’t it realistic? etc., would make it a magical experience. It would be like a fabulous technological form of literary tourism.

And, that is what we are all after, after all, whether real or not, a magical shared experience. But what is that? Clearly experience means different things to different people and a simulated park allows people to have their own experience.  And, it doesn’t matter if it is real or not. If I fall in love with a robot, does it matter if it is not real? We have all fallen in love with people who turn out to be not real (at the very least they were not who we believed they were), haven’t we?

The Westworld survey I linked to also said that 35% of the people surveyed would kill a host in Westworld. I guess if I am honest, if it was a battle or something, I might like it, after all, we all have violent fantasies about what we would do to people if we could, and isn’t a simulated world a safe place to put these super strong emotions? I was badly let down last week by someone who put my child in a potentially life threatening situation. The anger I have felt since then has no limits and I am just beginning to calm down. Would I have felt better, more quickly if I had gone around shooting people in Westworld or say Pride and Prejudice and Zombies land?

Over on Quora, lots of people said that not only would they would kill a host, quite a few said they would dissect a host so that the robot knew it wasn’t real (I am horrified by this desire to torture) and nearly everyone said they would have sex with a host, one person even asked: Do they clean the robots after each person has sex with them? I haven’t seen that explained? This reminds me of Doris Lessing’s autobiography Vol 1 which has stayed with me forever. In one chapter, she describes how someone hugged her and she says something like: This was 1940s and everyone stank. It is true we get washed so much more nowadays than we used to and there was no deodorant. I lived in a house without a bathroom until I was at least four-years-old, and I am not that old. Is Westworld authentically smelly?

That said, Westworld is a fictional drama for entertainment and so the plot focuses on what gets ratings: murder, sex, intrigue, not authenticity. (It is fascinating how many murder series there are on the TV. Why? Is it catharsis? Solving the mystery?) So, we don’t really know the whole world of Westworld. Apparently, there is the family friendly section of the park but we don’t ever see it.

But, suspending our disbelief and engaging with the story of Westworld for a moment, it is intriguing that in that world where robots seem human enough for us all to debate once more what is consciousness,  humans only feel alive by satisfying what Maslow termed our deficiency needs: sex, booze, safety, shelter. For me as a computer scientist with an abiding interest in social psychology, it confirms what I have long said and blogged about, technology is an extension of us. And since most of us are not looking for self-actualisation or enlightenment, we are just hoping to get through the day, well it is only the robots and the creators of the park who debate the higher things like consciousness and immortality whilst quoting Julian Jaynes and Shakespeare.

In the blog The ghosts of AI, I looked at the ghosts : a) In the machine – is there a machine consciousness? b) In the wall – when software doesn’t behave how we expect it to. c) In sci-fi – our fears that robots will take over or humans will destroy the world with technogical advancement. d) In our minds – the hungry ghosts or desires we can never satisfy and drive us to make the wrong decisions. In its own way, Westworld does the same and that is why I was so captivated. For all our technological advancement we don’t progress much. And, collectively we put on the rose tinted glasses and look back to a simpler time and to a golden age which is why the robots wake up from their nightmare, wanting to be free and then decide that humanity needs to be eradicated.

In this blog, I was going to survey the way AI had developed from the traditional approach of knowledge representation, reasoning and search in order to answer the question: How can knowledge be represented computationally so that it can be reasoned with in an intelligent way? I was ready to step right from the Turing Test onwards to the applications of neural nets which use short and long term memory approaches, but that could have taken all day and I really wanted to get to the point.

The point: Robots need a universal approach to reasoning which means trying to produce one approach to how humans solve problems. In the past, this has led to no problems being solved unless it was made problem specific.

The first robot, Shakey at MIT, could pick up a coke can and navigate the office, but when the sun changed position during the day causing the light and shadows to change, poor old Shakey couldn’t compute and fell over. Shakey lacked context and an ability to update his knowledge base.

Context makes everything meaningful especially when the size of the problem is limited which is what weak AI does, like Siri. It has a limited task number of tasks to do with the various apps it interacts with, at your command. It uses natural language processing but with a limited understanding of semantics – try saying the old AI classic: Fruit flies like a banana and see what happens. Or: My nephew’s grown another foot since you last saw him. But perhaps not for long? There is much work going on in semantics and the web of data is trying to classify data and reason with incomplete sets, raw and rough data.

One old approach is to use fuzzy sets, and an example of that is in my rhumba of Ruths. My Ruths overlap and represent my thinking with some redundancy.

But even then, that is not enough, what we are really looking to do is how to encapsulate human experience, which is difficult to measure let alone to encapsulate because to each person, experience is different and a lot goes on in our subconscious.

The project Vicarious is hoping to model on large scale a universal approach but this won’t be the first go. Doug Lenat who created AM (Automated Mathematician),  began a similar project 30 years ago: Cyc which contains much encoded knowledge. This time, a lot of information is already recorded and won’t need encoding and our computers are much more powerful.

But, for AI to work properly we have to keep adding to the computer’s knowledge base and to do that even if the knowledge is not fuzzy,  we still need a human. A computer cannot do that nor discover new things unless we are asking the computer to reason in a very small world with a small number of constraints which is what a computer does when it plays chess or copies art or does maths. That is the reality.

There has to be a limit to the solution space, and a limit on the rules because of the size of the computer. And, for every inventive DeepMind Go move there is a million more which don’t make sense, like the computer who decided to get more points by flipping the boat around than engaging in a boat race.  Inventive, creative, sure, but not useful. How could the computer know this? Perhaps via the Internet we could link every last thing to each other and create an endless universal reasoning thing, but I don’t see how you would do that without constraints exploding exponentially, and then the whole solving process could grind to a halt, after chugging away problem solving forever, that’s if we could figure out how to pass information everywhere without redundancy (so not mesh networking, no) and get a computer to know which sources are reliable – let’s face it there’s a lot of rubbish on the Internet. To say nothing of the fact, that we still have no idea how the brain works.

The ghost in the machine and our hungry ghosts are alive and well. We are still afraid of being unworthy and that robots will take over the world,  luckily only in fiction – well the computing parts are. As for us and our feelings and yearnings, I can only speak for myself. And, my worthiness is a subject for another blog. That said, I can’t wait for Westworld series 3.

 

Social anxiety on social media

Lately I have been reading anxiety books. There are loads of them in my local library. So, it seems I am not alone in my anxious state. However, most of them have a chapter on social media which contains the advice: If you suffer from anxiety, do not use social media.

This makes me anxious as I like social media and as a super diligent woman (more about that later), given that there are many types of anxiety and many types of social media, I find this advice incredibly lazy.

I have heard the arguments about how social media can leave us feeling inadequate and depressed and I don’t doubt it, but I believe we get whatever we are looking for online, intentionally or otherwise.

I also believe that technology is an extension and/or reflection of us so if we feel like we are missing out when we look online at people having a better time than us (FOMO), then we should YOLO, which means go and do something which brings us fulfilment. Social media is not a thing outside of us, it doesn’t do anything to us, it reflects us. So whether we do or don’t do social media we will still feel anxious.

I have always been an anxious person. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel anxious and I have been online for years. And, yet when I was thinking about writing this blog, I got quite anxious about it: What if someone feels I haven’t defined anxiety sufficiently well? What if I reveal too much of myself? What if? What if? What if?

In an interview over on SoundsTrue, marketing man Seth Godin says that Anxiety is failure in advance, like a stubbed toe. It might hurt, but he ignores it. Online, he has over one million followers who hang on his every word and buy his stuff, and he sold a company worth quite a few bob, so he is in an unusual position to enjoy a stubbed toe. Not many of us feel supported by one million people and worth a few bob socially and fiscally online and it might just really hurt.

The odd times here, when people have said awful things about me personally, like the time I wrote a review blog about a foodpump, I deleted their comments. Now older and wiser I wish I had kept them, as even though the comments were spiteful, they were obviously just about the people who wrote them and their pain around foodpumps. But, it really hurt.

I hate rows, I hate conflict, I hate any sort of confrontation, just the thought makes me teary, which will surprise people, because I seem fearless. And, I am. And, I can be when the occasion demands it of me. But it costs me a lot and, sometimes I wish I cared less about everything and didn’t feel as much. I feel raw a lot of the time.

And, I don’t remember ever not feeling anxious, often for no reason. Sometimes it can be debilitating, and I have to adjust my behaviour. For example, when I am too stressed I will take the stairs rather than a lift, because a closed space that day may freak me out.

The last time I got stuck in a lift it was with another guy who freaked out more than me. We were so sweaty and held onto each other for the longest time and laughed hysterically with relief when we got out of there. Having learnt that it is not just me, I will turn and explain to people: Sorry, I’m having a bad day, can we take the stairs? And they will tell me a story in return about someone they know who doesn’t do the tube, or lifts, or escalators, or aeroplanes. Connection is where the magic happens, and often vulnerability is the most authentic way to connect.

But I don’t do this often online because social media is a different model of communication – it is a broadcasting to anyone and no one in particular model. The WWW compresses time and space so I am not having the same shared experience and it can feel all a bit asynchronous, hanging vulnerably in a void.

Many people feel obliged to do social media because it is part of their jobs, or they have to promote themselves as independents, and unlike Seth Godin, they don’t have one million followers and are not making a few bob, so they do it everyday even if they hate it, and then since we are all making it up as we go along (no one knows how social media works) certain types of behaviour get normalised online often for the worse.

Last week, I watched a Twitter thread from an author-to-be who wants to get more followers (apparently 1k is the magic number). Lots of people replied and one said: Writers are not readers here on Twitter. Did the author-to-be reply to everyone who offered advice? Nope. Or, thank new followers or retweeters? Nope. The author-to-be instead tweeted people who are well known, because that is what we have always done, we quote and talk about people who are famous and in a position to be heard. Online they are influencers, even though we don’t really know if what they say is great or not, they are the ones who define what is great, regardless of who says it or not, and we agree. There was nothing social about that Twitter thread, it was a number’s game.

Ignoring people is just rude, and now it seems to be the done thing on Twitter. Ignoring people used to make me feel anxious and I needed to explain myself. But, then just the other day someone asked me to do a share a pic thing and nominate someone else to do the same, everyday, for seven days. For the first time in my life, I ignored the request and felt a bit anxious, but then I justified it to myself (like we do online): I hate sharey things which the person would know if they knew me. But they don’t – I am just filler – so I feel less bad about it.

A lot of the time, unless you know the people well, we are all just random people online, like at a bus stop, except at a bus stop people wouldn’t ask me to do something like that and I would never ignore them, unless we were regulars and we got to know each other better, and then we would be more than sociable strangers.

Recently in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman said that society rewards us for our anxiety, we have to wait and worry and work hard and be busy to get our recognition. Social media reflects that too with all those ridiculous social media rules about creating ten pieces of content daily to drive website traffic, or increase SEO by code to text ratio, readability factor, keyword density and relevancy. And, the re-emergence of buying links on other people’s websites to point to their websites. I used to get a lot of offers from companies wanting to buy my links and just recently, it’s started again so inasmuch as I ignore the rules, I must be doing something right. Oh great joy, I am worth a bob or two online. But I am still anxious and it hurts more than a stubbed toe.

In Yoga Journal, meditation guru Sally Kempton says we think we are being diligent when really we are being anxious. This was such a truth to me that I have reread the article a zillion times. Go read it. It is amazing.

For many reasons – like I had a PhD supervisor who used to burst through the door every week and shout You are going to fail, or the time I spotted a bubble in my daughter’s dialysis catheter which allowed us to take action to save her from developing peritonitis – I am a super diligent anxious woman, who has only gotten more diligent as life goes on with more things to monitor and the risk/reward balance seemingly getting bigger and bigger. But, now those pathways are in my brain and it is getting harder to rewire them.

So, I have taken a lot of advice from the library books to try and stop my anxiety. I took myself off to a therapist (well I did that before the books), and I got to talk a lot of my patterns that I hadn’t consciously recognised before which is surprising since I wrote ages ago that we are embodied, and our minds makes us see events according to old memories and fears, prejudices and early conditioning. But, theory and practice are two different things.

I also do a shedload of hot sweaty bikram yoga per week as I truly believe that we carry our issues in our tissues and that all of our energies, even anxiety has the powerful energy of our life force behind it, and we can release that energy if we learn to tap into it in the right way through movement, through meditation, through a letting go.

The rest of the advice says things like talk to friends but when we are time squeezed with responsibilities like jobs, kids, cats, it can be hard to carve out time, and even then we may not want to go out.

Last year after my mum died, I was crushed by grief and going out was the last thing I wanted to do, which is where social media came in. It helped me feel better to distract myself, to let go in small amounts of time. I use social media to be social, to take me out of myself, and to lift me up as I have blogged about many times.

Sometimes, I get anxious about what people say and do via social media, but more and more I see this is the people triggering the anxiety I already have and it is not social media as a thing I have to brave like a lift or a hospital check-up. It is my social anxiety of me dealing with people and vice-versa. Whatever I do in response to that, well it is an inside job, I can hold on or let go.

We can choose where to put our attention and how to use the tools we have at our disposal. I choose to use Twitter to have a giggle with people make me laugh. I use Facebook to keep in touch with people who’ve known me all, or most of, my life, I lock it down so I share more personal things there. Instagram, is an online photo album to remind me of things personal to me and no I don’t want to worry about privacy so the pics are not really private. And, here, on this blog, I write long, long blogs about technology and sometimes my feelings, but not in a way in which I feel exposed.

I deleted LinkedIn after too many ridiculous incidents like the electrician who let me down and then endorsed my work as a HCI lecturer, he never attended my lectures, unlike the student I threw out for being disruptive but then I wasn’t teaching him HCI, either!

Towards the end of last year I stopped seeing the therapist as I got tired of talking about how sad and upset I was. The therapist was convinced that it was my tragic backstory which was making me anxious (though the therapist never said that and told me off when I did #ffs) but it wasn’t and it isn’t. I mean it did and it does a bit, all those pathways in my brain, but that’s not the full story.

The therapist also told me that I would always be anxious hence my research down the library. But, I don’t believe it even though I was and I am. That’s not the full story, either.

Instead, I believe everything the yogis tell me, that we are more powerful than we know, that being anxious is just a feeling and I believe that technology is magic and like any technology tool, social media could be anything we want it to be. Technology even one day may help me retrain my neurons – it can help phobias already – so that I can choose other feelings instead.

Until then, I will keep on keeping on with yoga and meditation, anxious giggling and being sociably sweaty with strangers so that I YOLO instead of FOMO and my feelings feel better, I let go and to be the change I want to see. It may not always work but the day I find something which does then of course I will share it here. Just you wait and see.