Thou shalt not: The Ten Commandments of Social Media


Last week pub chain Wetherspoon announced that they would no longer be using social media which caused a furore amongst social media ‘experts’.

I like Wetherspoon’s pubs. There are three within walking distance of where I live. When I was vegetarian I liked that I could go get a quorn sausage butty for breakfast when no one else seemed to understand the need for veggie tastiness, and as a mother, I like the fact if I take my kids to Wetherspoon’s to eat, the menu is diverse enough to keep everyone happy. I also like the fact they have a wide range of interesting beers and lagers on tap and in the fridge. So say, I want a Kingfisher with my Chicken Tikka Masala, I can get a big bottle from the fridge.

I also like the fact that wherever I go, it is a similar set-up, and it’s not just the food and drink, it is the localness of it and a quick way of meeting community. You go in there and you see the regulars. And even if you go to a different town, you can meet regulars from there who like to have a chat. It doesn’t play music either which is nice, as sometimes I want to drink my beer without shouting like I am in a club, ‘cos if you are going to play loud music well you are going to have to let me dance. However, I have never followed Wetherspoon on social media ‘cos I can’t eat or drink Wetherspoon’s vittles on social media. I can only do that in a Wetherspoon’s pub.

It used to be that going to church would provide you with a community and a quiet space and food if you were needy. Nowadays, the Church of England is always talking about how to get more people through the doors and create a community of people. They could do a lot worse than take a look at the business model of Wetherspoon’s which is: Serving a (Maslow’s) fundamental need of reasonably priced food and drink all day, often in old and really interesting buildings.

The words community and need are bandied about a lot by social media experts too. What fundamental need does the CofE and social media experts give us? I don’t know. They seem to be following an arbitrary set of rules mainly made of Thou Shalt Nots in order to get people to do things, extra things, mainly for them to make money off.

It really irritated me last week that some of the US-based social media experts were giving their analysis (their words) having never set foot in a Wetherspoon’s, nor researched what Wetherspoon’s is about, and were hell-bent on telling everyone that social media is absolutely necessary to have as part of a business model and Wetherspoon’s will suffer. How do they know? They absolutely don’t as demonstrated by the BBC ‘commentary’ (using the term v loosely) in the link at the beginning of this blog. I have said it before: no one knows how social media works which is rather like religion.

I was in a restaurant in Sorrento, last month, and a guy with a super loud voice was ordering his dinner. He had loads of specific requests of which I couldn’t help but hear snippets: He couldn’t have cheese, I think it was with meat at the same time, but then he couldn’t have certain meats. He wanted wine, but he couldn’t just drink wine, he could only have it served with the meal, so he couldn’t have the wine on the table before the food, it had to be served at the same time. As the list of things he couldn’t do was very long and I didn’t listen to all of it, I concluded it was for religious purposes not allergies. Either way, his life (and his wife’s who sat silently near him) his business, but it did make me think: Do you really think that God will love you more because of all this effort? Love is patient and kind (1Corithinians 13). Love is unconditional. And we all know that no one who ever turned up with a load of rules and conditions for how you should be before they can love you has ever been good news.

It’s not just religion and social media marketing, it’s self-help too, and dieting, there are so many rules with what to eat and not eat, what to think, what not to think: your five a day, the green juice smoothie, the affirmations, the yoga classes, the meditation, a long list of things you have to do. I loved reading Danielle La Porte’s White Hot Truth which is a funny take on all the self-help, new age and therapy she felt she had to do to improve herself before she could become spiritual. I laughed out loud at a podcast when she said something along the lines of how she was a lot more balanced nowadays and then added: Just ask my astrologist.

When I had chemotherapy, I bought a cancer-fighting food book, which was all special food recipes for strengthening your body. There was a nice recipe for biscuits and I would say to my husband: I can’t believe you ate all the cancer biscuits. And he would say: Well they were tasty, which they were, but the idea that I had to fight cancer by eating cancer biscuits and think positively was less so, it didn’t make me feel better at all. I threw the book away, stopped thinking altogether, and ate fried egg sandwiches and chocolate cake, which my Oncologist said was hangover food, as that is basically what chemotherapy gives you, a big bad mother of a hangover.

Hangover food or comfort food or favourite like a curry and Kingfisher at Wetherspoon, a bit of a giggle on Twitter or Facebook, praying, dancing, or not thinking, makes me feel better and to feel like I am not alone in all of this. And to be fair, there are some Church communities who can do this for people too, but I have to say, never in my life have I looked at list of any rules of things I shouldn’t do and felt better. It makes me feel like I cannot breathe. The Thou shalt nots sap my soul.

However, as a society I know that rules are good for us, just take a look at the trolls on social media who seem to operate without them. But then it is not just them, it seems to me that it is the social media experts too who are just as dangerous making up rules as they go along about a thing they don’t understand, telling people what they should and shouldn’t do to be SUCCESSFUL! I know many business owners who say I hate social media and I don’t blame them, because they are trying to use a social tool as a marketing tool whilst being guided by people who don’t know how it works, especially if they don’t have a weightless product. The idea of marketing on social media is like a mailshot to randomers. It’s like putting things through peoples’ letterboxes in the neighbourhood, without knowing who lives there, and even then there’s a maximum 2% return, which is why Wetherspoon’s withdrawal is really refreshing.

Wetherspoon’s provides a warm place to go for food and drink and a chat. It’s already successful it doesn’t need social media to improve on that. It’s like preaching to the choir.

We can’t eat or drink on the Internet, though we can eat and drink with our phones or computers in front of us to chat in a space and call it a party. But it’s just not the same. The medium is the message but when your message is about something physical in a virtual space, well that just doesn’t always work.

As a business you need to get clear on what successful looks like and measure your returns on social media. Or, just do it for the joy, the love, the community you can create and throw away your measuring stick. Just please don’t do it and hate it. You are better off not doing it at all.

I don’t see Wetherspoon’s marketshare suffering. We don’t all need to be on social media. Don’t be taken in by the experts who tell you otherwise. They need you to be on it to buy their how to guides and Ten Commandments.

I have decided to compose my own Ten Thou shalts (instead of shalt nots) for social media, and following Wetherspoon’s example, I will begin with:

Thou shalt do what’s best for you to feel joy.

On second thought, I am thinking that’s the only rule we need. Don’t you?

[Part 2]

Connection online: Tracing the space between us

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
– The Rubâ’iyât of Omar Khayyám

[Part 1]

When I was a child, my dad used to quote the above regularly, he also talked a lot about the Recording Angel and the Akashic Records. It frightened me thinking that something or someone was there recording everything.

Nowadays, it is the Internet which records everything. The moving (typing) finger writes and even if you delete a social media account and all those dodgy DMs you sent someone, know this: There is a copy on a server somewhere.

And if you sent them to a computer scientist, know this too: They will have their own backup which they can reread at anytime. None of your piety nor wit will be deleting any of it, anytime soon. Oh no!

In lighting the fire, I explored how people can pick us up by their love and attention in our worst moments. The flip side of this is that some people can cause us so much pain when we are feeling vulnerable. I believe that they mostly do so unintentionally, because they are drowning in their own lives and they use us, selfishly, as a way to rescue themselves and feel better.

We all want more love to feel better and to feel that what we do and who we are, matters. We get that from our connection to others. In his book Social, neuroscientist Matthew Liebermann, says that being connected to others is a reward in itself it doesn’t need anything else. Not only is it a reward, it is as fundamental as food and water, which is why love is one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Sometimes though, in that space of love and connection which can relight our fire, people behave really badly towards us, and because we have let them in and trusted them, we may feel that we deserve such treatment. Thankfully, when there is a record of every conversation, we are able to reread what actually happened, so that we can see and know in our very being that we didn’t do anything wrong and we absolutely don’t deserve other people using us and treating us so badly.

If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher. –Pema Chodron

Research using fMRI brain scans shows that even minor social rejection lights up the same areas of our brains as physical pain, and the brain doesn’t care if this is when you are physically present with someone or doing this via social media. It is one and the same, the damage is the same. And, coupled with the pain of social rejection, it is hard to believe that we can, even with age and experience, be so wrong about people especially when it is a relationship online which is having the same impact as one in real life.

In his classic text book, The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson asks: How do we pick our friends? We pick them for many reasons but, most simply, we pick people who like us. Nowhere is it easier to connect to someone and feel better than via social media. Easy and low commitment – exactly how we like it. A simple message, a like or a loveheart lights us our brain’s reward centre (our nucleus accumbens) and gives us that little hit of dopamine for which we are so primed. We are always ready to be a little bit in love, it fills a fundamental need.

Quite often we are just in love with love, I know I am. (And there is nothing wrong with that. We have so much energy and passion when we are in love. We can do anything.) We may think that we are quite smart at assessing people, but online, it is quite different from in real life. We get cues in real life that we don’t online. And at the very least, they are much easier to ignore online, which is why it is well worth going back and rereading correspondence, like we did in the ye olden days of letter writing. Remember that? I know I would carry around letters and let the words and my feelings permeate, until it was time to write back, at which point I knew them by heart like that e.e. cummings poem [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. It was also more visual. If you got a letter, everyone knew about it. Nowadays, if you get a text or a DM on your tiny screen, no one knows about it. It feels private, intimate, but as I have said before, privacy and intimacy are two different things.

There is a definite space of intimacy, a shared heart space we occupy either offline with letters (and books), and online too with our various ways of texting, DMs, messaging. Time slips away too: the past (when the message was written), the present (as we are reading it), and the future (when we respond) all become one. It is a magical resonating experience in a given moment which takes us away from humdrum lives.

And, this is where the problem may lie. We have immediate access to literally anyone on this planet but we have none of the usual ways of knowing if this person is worthy of our love or if they are there just to escape drowning in their own lives. In the same way we may love a favourite author but years later when we read their biographies we find out that they were not so nice after all. Due to the compression of time and space, and no cues, we have no idea if someone is giving us the full story or not, so how can we tell if they are not very nice, until they show us that they are not very nice. Offline, we can tell if someone is not telling the full story more easily. Online, we tend to fall into an immediate (dangerous) trust and share more readily because trusting and sharing is what builds intimacy. And, then if we are wrong, which we all hate, we may ignore the alarm bells, because cognitive dissonance makes us feel so bad, we will subconsciously square it with ourselves, especially if we have spent a lot of time and energy connecting to someone and extra especially if no one else knows about it. Remember how our mates used to save us from ourselves? They would let us know in no uncertain terms not to waste time on certain muppets we held dear and we would let that permeate until we realised they were right.

Well, if the price of admission is looking like a fool or getting your heart broken, then, well, I’d say Ms Lance is pretty well worth it.
– John Constantine, DC Legends

So what are we to do? This whole social media gig is not going away anytime soon. In fact, in this time squeezed reality in which we live, friendship and love are precious, precious things, both online and offline. We all need love as much as we need oxygen, and after writing here many words about social media, I do believe that we can form proper connections online, but it is a different sort of connection to when you meet someone in the flesh. There is a whole backstory that people have that we just don’t know about. There’s a lot of editing too. We may feel an intimacy with a stranger online but the reality is that it is just one part of a whole person’s life, it is not the whole, and like the letter writing and the book reading, a lot of the online experience we are having is really an experience and a connection with ourselves.

When we think someone online is wonderful often it is because we are imbuing them with the wonderful bits of ourselves. So! Should an online intimacy end and we feel sad and empty, we just need to know that all that love and admiration we had for that special someone on our little screen was really a reflection of the love and admiration we have for ourselves. And, in those moments of sadness and longing after we’ve been badly burnt online we can pull out and reread our conversations to see that we didn’t deserve any of their shoddy behaviour, nor did we do anything wrong by being our loving human wholehearted selves. So instead of feeling like we’ve been had (again), let’s just give thanks for the special muppet we loved online who came to remind us how lovely we truly are.

The ghosts of AI

I fell in love with Artificial Intelligence (AI) back in the 1990s when I went to Aberdeen University as a post-graduate Stalker, even though I only signed up because it had an exchange program which meant that I could study in Paris for six months.

And, even though they flung me and my pal out of French class for being dreadful students ( je parle le C++), and instead of Paris, I ended up living in Chambéry (which is so small it mentions the launderette in the guidebook), it was a brilliant experience, most surprisingly of all, because it left me with a great love of l’intelligence artificielle: Robotics, machine learning, knowledge based systems.

AI has many connotations nowadays, but back in 1956 when the term was coined, it was about thinking machines and how to get computers to perform tasks which humans, i.e., life with intelligence, normally do.

The Singularity is nigh

Lately, I have been seeing lots of news about robots and AI taking over the world and the idea that the singularity – that moment when AI becomes all powerful it self-evolves and changes human existence – is soon. The singularity is coming to get us. We are doomed.

Seriously, the singularity is welcome round my place to hold the door open for its pal and change my human existence any day of the week. I have said it before: Yes please dear robot, come round, manage my shopping, wait in for Virgin media because they like to mess me about, and whilst you are there do my laundry too, thank you.

And, this got me thinking. One article said the singularity is coming in 2029 which reminded me of all those times the world was going to end according to Nostradamus, Old Mother Shipton, the Mayan Calendar, and even the Y2K bug. As we used to say in Chambéry : Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. To be honest, we never, ever said that, but my point is that our fears don’t change, even when dressed up in a tight shiny metallic suit. Nom du pipe!

We poor, poor humans we are afraid of extinction, afraid of being overwhelmed, overtaken, and found wanting. True to form I will link to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and repeat that we need to feel safe and we need to feel that we are enough. Our technology may be improving – not fast enough as far as I am concerned – but our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations remain the same. As I say in the link above, we have barely changed since Iron Age times, and yet we think we have because we buy into the myth of progress.

We frighten ourselves with our ghosts. The ghosts which haunt us: In the machine, in the wall, and in our minds where those hungry ghosts live – the ones we can never satisfy.

The ghost in the machine

The ghost in the machine describes the Cartesian view of the mind–body relationship, that the mind is a ghost in the machine of the body. It is quoted in AI, because after all it is a philosophical question: What is the mind? What is intelligence? And, it remains a tantalising possibility, especially in fiction that somewhere in the code of a machine or a robot, there is a back door, or cellular automata – a thinking part, which like natural intelligence is able to create new thoughts, new ideas, as it develops. The reality is that the guy who first came up with the term talked about the human ability to destroy itself with its constant repeating patterns in the arena of political–historical dynamics but used the brain as the structure. The idea that there is a ghost in the machine is an exciting one which is why fiction has hung onto it like a willo the wisp and often uses it as a plot device, for example, in the Matrix (there’s lots of odd bits of software doing their own thing) and I, Robot (Sunny has dreams).

Arthur C Clarke talked about it when he said that technology is magic – something, I say all the time, not least of all, because it is true. When I look back to the first portable computer I used and today, the power of the phone in my hand, well, it is just magic.

That said, we want the ghost in the machine to do something, to haunt us, to surprise us, to create for us, because we love variety, discoverability, surprise, and the fact that we are so clever, we can create life. Actually we do create life, mysteriously, magically, sexily.

The ghost in the wall

The ghost in the wall is that feeling that things change around us with little understanding. HCI prof, Alan Dix uses the term here. If HCI experts don’t follow standards and guidelines, the user ends up confused in an app without consistency which gives the impression of a ghost in the wall moving things, ‘cos someone has to be moving the stuff, right?

We may love variety, discoverability and surprise, but it has to be logical to fit within certain constraints and within the consistency of an interface with which we are interacting, so that we say: I am smart, I was concentrating, but yeah, I didn’t know that that would happen at all, in the same we do after an excellent movie, and we leave thrilled at the cleverness of it all.

Fiction: The ghost of the mind

Fiction has a lot to answer for. Telling stories is how we make sense of the world, they shape society and culture, and they help us feel truth.

Since we started storytelling, the idea of artificial beings which were given intelligence, or just came alive, is a common trope. In Greek mythology, we had Pygmalion, who carved a woman from ivory and fell in love with her so Aphrodite gave her life and Pervy Pygmalion and his true love lived happily ever after. It is familar – Frankinstein’s bride, Adam’s spare rib, Mannequin (1987). Other variations less womeny-heterosexy focused include Pinocchio, Toy Story, Frankinstein, Frankenweenie, etc.

There are two ways to go: The new life and old life live happily ever after and true love conquers all (another age old trope), or there is the horror that humans have invented something they can’t control. They messed with nature, or the gods, they flew too close to the sun. They asked for more and got punished.

It is control we are after even though we feel we are unworthy, and if we do have control we fear that we will become power crazed. And then, there are recurring themes about technology such as humans destroying the world, living in a post-apocalyptic world or dystopia, robots taking over, mind control (or dumbing down), because ultimately we fear the hungry ghost.

The hungry ghost

In Buddhism, the hungry ghosts are when our desires overtake us and become unhealthy, and insatiable, we become addicted to what is not good for us and miss out on our lives right now.

There is also the Hungry Ghosts Festival which remembers the souls who were once on earth and couldn’t control their desires so they have gotten lost in the ether searching, constantly unsatisfied. They need to be fed so that they don’t bother the people still on earth who want to live and have good luck and happy lives. People won’t go swimming because the hungry ghosts will drown them, dragging them down with their insatiable cravings.

Chinese character gui meaning ghost (thanks @john_sorensen_AU)

In a lovely blog the Chinese character above which represents ghost but in English looks like gui, which is very satisfying given this is a techyish blog, is actually nothing to do with ghosts or disincarnate beings, it is more like a glitch in the matrix – a word to explain when there is no logical explanation. It also explains when someone behaves badly – you dead ghost. And, perhaps is linked to when someone ghosts you, they behave badly. No, I will never forgive you, you selfish ghost. Although when someone ghosts you they do the opposite to what you wish a ghost would do, which is hang around, haunt you, and never leave you. When someone ghosts you, you become the ghost.

And, for me the description of a ghost as a glitch in the matrix works just as well for our fears, especially about technology and our ghosts of AI – those moments when we fear and when we don’t know why we are afraid. Or perhaps we do really? We are afraid we aren’t good enough, or perhaps we are too good and have created a monster. It would be good if these fears ghosted us and left us well alone.

Personally, my fears go the other way. I don’t think the singularity will be round to help me any time soon. I am stuck in the Matrix doing the washing. What if I’m here forever? Please come help me through it, there’s no need to hold the door – just hold my hand and let me know there’s no need to be afraid, even if the singularity is not coming, change is, thankfully it always is, it’s just around the corner.


Human-computer interaction, cyberpsychology and core disciplines

A heat map of the multidisciplinary field of HCI @ Alan Dix

I first taught human-computer interaction (HCI) in 2001. I taught it from a viewpoint of software engineering. Then, when I taught it again, I taught it from a design point of view, which was a bit trickier, as I didn’t want to trawl through a load of general design principles which didn’t absolutely boil down to a practical set of guidelines for graphical-user interface or web design. That said, I wrote a whole generic set of design principles here: Designing Design, borrowing Herb Simon’s great title: The Science of the Artificial. Then, I revised my HCI course again and taught it from a practical set of tasks so that my students went away with a specific skill set. I blogged about it in a revised applied-just-to-web-design version blog series here: Web Design: The Science of Communication.

Last year, I attended a HCI open day Bootstrap UX. The day in itself was great and I enjoyed hearing some new research ideas until we got to one of the speakers who gave a presentation on web design, I think he did, it’s hard to say really, as all his examples came from architecture.

I have blogged about this unsatisfactory approach before. By all means use any metaphor you like, but if you cannot relate it back to practicalities then ultimately all you are giving us is a pretty talk or a bad interview question.

You have to put concise constraints around a given design problem and relate it back to the job that people do and which they have come to learn about. Waffling on about Bucky Fuller (his words – not mine) with some random quotes on nice pictures are not teaching us anything. We have a billion memes online to choose from. All you are doing is giving HCI a bad name and making it sound like marketing. Indeed, cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken, in her book The Cyber Effect, seems to think that HCI is just insidious marketing. Anyone might have been forgiven for making the same mistake listening to the web designer’s empty talk on ersatz architecture.

Cyberpsychology is a growing and interesting field but if it is populated by people like Aiken who don’t understand what HCI is, nor how artificial intelligence (AI) works then it is no surprise that The Cyber Effect reads like the Daily Mail (I will blog about the book in more detail at a later date, as there’s some useful stuff in there but too many errors). Aiken quotes Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, which I have blogged about here, and it makes me a little bit dubious about cyberpsychology, I am waiting for the book written by the neuroscientist with lots of brainscan pictures to tell me exactly how our brains are being changed by the Internet.

Cyberpsychology is the study of the psychological ramifications of cyborgs, AI, and virtual reality, and I was like wow, this is great, and rushed straight down to the library to get the books on it to see what was new and what I might not know. However, I was disappointed because if the people who are leading the research anthropomorphise computers and theorise about metaphors about the Internet instead of the Internet itself, then it seems that the end result will be skewed.

We are all cyberpsychologists and social psychologists now, baby. It’s what we do

We are all cyberpsychologists and social psychologists, now baby. It’s what we do. We make up stories to explain how the world works. It doesn’t mean to say that the stories are accurate. We need hard facts not Daily Mail hysteria (Aiken was very proud to say she made it onto the front page of the Daily Mail with some of her comments). However, the research I have read about our behaviour online says it’s too early to say. It’s just too early to say how we are being affected and as someone who has been online since 1995 I only feel enhanced by the connections the WWW has to offer me. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been all marvellous, it’s been like the rest of life, some fabulous connections, some not so.

I used to lecture psychology students alongside the software engineering students when I taught HCI in 2004 at Westminster University, and they were excited when I covered cognitive science as it was familiar to them, and actually all the cognitive science tricks make it easy to involve everyone in the lectures, and make the lectures fun, but when I made them sit in front of a computer, design and code up software as part of their assessment, they didn’t want to do it. They didn’t see the point.

This is the point: If you do not know how something works how can you possibly talk about it without resorting to confabulation and metaphor? How do you know what is and what is not possible? I may be able to drive a car but I am not a mechanic, nor would I give advice to anyone about their car nor write a book on how a car works, and if I did, I would not just think about a car as a black box, I would have to put my head under the bonnet, otherwise I would sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about. At least, I drive a car, and use a car, that is something.

Hey! We’re not all doctors, baby.

If you don’t use social media, and you just study people using it, what is that then? Theory and practice are two different things, I am not saying that theory is not important, it is, but you need to support your theory, you need some experience to evaluate the theory. Practice is where it’s at. No one has ever said: Theory makes perfect. Yep, I’ve never seen that on a meme. You get a different perspective, like Jack Nicholson to his doctor Keanu Reeves says in Something’s Gotta Give: Hey! We’re not all doctors, baby. Reeves has seen things Nicholson hasn’t and Nicholson is savvy enough to know it.

So, if you don’t know the theory and you don’t engage in the practice, and you haven’t any empirical data yourself, you are giving us conjecture, fiction, a story. Reading the Wikipedia page on cyberpsychology, I see that it is full of suggested theories like the one about how Facebook causes depression. There are no constraints around the research. Were these people depressed before going on Facebook? I need more rigour. Aiken’s book is the same, which is weird since she has a lot of references, they just don’t add up to a whole theory. I have blogged before about how I was fascinated that some sociologists perceived software as masculine.

In the same series I blogged about women as objects online with the main point being, that social media reflects our society and we have a chance with technology to impact society in good ways. Aiken takes the opposite tack and says that technology encourages and propagates deviant sexual practices (her words) – some I hadn’t heard of, but for me, begs the question: If I don’t know about a specific sexual practice, deviant or otherwise, until I learn about on the Internet (Aiken’s theory), then how do I know which words to google? It is all a bit chicken and egg and doesn’t make sense. Nor does Aiken’s advice to parents which is: Do not let your girls become objects online. Women and girls have been objectified for centuries, technology does not do anything by itself, it supports people doing stuff they already do. And, like the HCI person I am, I have designed and developed technology to support people doing stuff they already do. I may sometimes inadvertently change the way people do a task when supported by technology for good or for bad, but to claim that technology is causing people to do things they do not want to do is myth making and fear mongering at its best.

The definition of HCI that I used to use in lectures at the very beginning of any course was:

HCI is a discipline concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them (ACM, 1992).

For me, human-computer interaction was and still remains Gestaltian: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, by this I mean, that the collaboration of a human and a computer is more than a human typing numbers into a computer and then waiting for the solution, or indeed typing in sexually deviant search terms into a web crawler to find a tutorial. And, with the advent of social media, HCI is more than one person connecting to another, or broadcasting online, which is why the field of cyberpsychology is so intriguing.

But the very reason why I left the field of AI and went into HCI is: AI reasons in a closed world and the limits of the computational power you have available. There are limits. With HCI, that world opens up and the human gets to direct the computer to do something useful. Human to human communication supported by technology does something else altogether which is why you might want the opinion of a sociologist or a psychologist. But, you don’t want the opinion of the sociologist on AI when they don’t understand how it works and has watched a lot of sci-fi and thinks that robots are taking over the world. Robots can do many things but it takes a lot of lines of code. And, you don’t want the opinion of a cyberpsychologist who thinks that technology teaches people deviant sexual practices and encourages us all to literally pleasure ourselves to death (Aiken’s words – see what I mean about the Daily Mail?) ‘cos she read one dodgy story and linked it to a study of rats in the 1950s.

Nowadays, everyone might consider themselves to be a bit of a HCI expert and can judge the original focus of HCI which is the concept of usability: easy to learn, easy to use. Apps are a great example of this, because they are easy to learn and easy to use, mainly though because they have limited functionality, that is they focus on one small task, like getting a date, ordering a taxi, sharing a photo, or a few words.

However, as HCI professor Alan Dix says in his reflective Thirty years of HCI and also here about the future: HCI is a vast and multifaceted community, bound by the evolving concept of usability, and the integrating commitment to value human activity and experience as the primary driver in technology.

He adds that sometimes the community can get lost and says that Apple’s good usability has been sacrificed for aesthetics and users are not supported as well as they should be. Online we can look at platforms like Facebook and Twitter and see that they do not look after their users as well as they could (I have blogged about that here). But again it is not technology, it is people who have let the users down. Somewhere along the line someone made a trade-off: economics over innovation, speed over safety, or aesthetics over usability.

HCI experts are agents of change. We are hopefully designing technology to enhance human activity and experience, which is why the field of HCI keeps getting bigger and bigger and has no apparent core discipline.

It has a culture of designer-maker which is why at any given HCI conference you might see designers, hackers, techies and artists gathering together to make things. HCI has to exist between academic rigour and exciting new tech, no wonder it seems to not be easy to define. But as we create new things, we change society and have to keep debating areas such as intimacy, privacy, ownership, visibility as well as what seems pretty basic like how to keep things usable. Dix even talks about having human–data interaction, as we put more and more things online, we need to make sense of the data being generated and interact with it. There is new research being funded into trust (which I blogged about here). And Dix suggest that we could look into designing for solitude and supporting users to not respond immediately to every text, tweet, digital flag. As an aside, I have switched off all notifications, my husband just ignores his, and it just boggles my mind a bit that people can’t bring themselves to be in charge of the technology they own. Back to the car analogy, they wouldn’t have the car telling them where they should be going.

Psychology is well represented in HCI, AI is well represented in HCI too. Hopefully we can subsume cyberpsychology too, so that the next time I pick up a book on the topic, it actually makes sense, and the writer knows what goes on under the bonnet.

Technology should be serving us, not scaring us, so if writers could stop behaving like 1950s preachers who think society is going to the dogs because they view how people embrace technology in the same way they once did rocknroll and the television, we could be more objective about how we want our technological progress to unfold.

Society of the mind: A Rhumba of Ruths

What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle. —Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind.

Recently, I watched the episode The Relaxation Integration (S10, E3) of the Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon keeps dreaming of being Laid-Back Sheldon. At the end of episode he has a council of Sheldons to decide if Laid-Back Sheldon gets a say in Sheldon’s life. This got me thinking: What goes on in my council of Ruths? Is there a Laid-Back Ruth?

I don’t think there is. Not yet anyway. What do you even call a council of Ruths? A rising? A regiment? I looked up animal groups for one with an r. There was a raft, a run, a rabble, but I decided on a rhumba which is defined as a complex, violent dance. Yes, I would definitely say that is going on inside my head. Who is in charge? I am worried that it is Emergency Ruth.

Emergency Ruth

Emergency Ruth woke me up last night. I was in a deep sleep and then around 1am, she woke me up mid-panic, flailing and drowning. I smacked my husband around the head who didn’t seem to notice but sat up a couple of minutes later to wonder why he was awake at 1am.

Emergency Ruth is great. She is fabulous in a crisis. She pays attention to detail, she can spot what will go wrong miles ahead of everyone else. She always turns in a top-quality performance even when she is a completely knackered-in, nervous wreck. She can sprint down to A&E. She can stay up all night pressing buttons on a dialysis machine or a food pump, pass an NG tube, inject a tiny baby with a big needle, or herself, if no one else is around. She can give you, or a tiny cat, medicine on the hour every hour, with a syringe all night, or help you write a paper and meet your deadline. She sucks it up, sleepless, fearless (well she pretends she is) and does the thing that needs to be done: that medical procedure, that difficult conversation, that potential-to-get-nasty situation. Emergency Ruth is a total badass and she has my back.

But, in the middle of the night, when she should stand down, she is on red-alert, flight or fight, and she wakes me several times a night, every night, with a false alarm, and if I am too tired and fall into the dark night of the soul, she cannot help me feel better because that’s not what she does. Every morning she wakes me with a story of panic and a crick in my neck. She is intense.

Lately, I have taken to greeting her with: Good Morning, Doom. It makes me laugh and allows a tiny space in which Hippy Ruth can breathe and help unfurl my clenched heart.

Hippy Ruth

Sat chit ananda. I love Hippy Ruth. She had us vegetarian and organic for years. She rescues spiders and puts them through the cat flap. She recycles everything and wastes nothing. She worries about the environment, landfills, and data centres but talks to Techno Ruth who calms her, so that she truly believes that everything has a solution and all is well.

Hippy Ruth made us stopped dying our hair to grow it out and make it big and hippy once more, like it always was. She also makes us wear shorts at Bikram, so that we can embrace our body. She loves us. She loves our life. She is the best version of us. She is kind and compassionate and loves everyone, especially those people who behave badly towards us, for they are the most needy. (Emergency Ruth would eat them for breakfast.)

Hippy Ruth is happy on her mat or zazen cushion but equally happy to be interrupted part way through because she understands the tantra – or weaving – of the tapestry of life. Hippy Ruth knows that the mystical is to be found in the kitchen and the cuddles, as well as in the silence and the space of solitude. Always calm she hears the still small voice within.

Wild and Free Ruth

Wild and Free Ruth is an old, old joke between my husband and I. Though writing this, I asked him: What about Sensible Ruth? He said: I don’t think there is one. Wild and Free Ruth hates routine and doesn’t manage well in one. When she gets out, she’s up all night living wild and free. She is all about connection and go with the flow. But she doesn’t have the wisdom or the yin and yang of Hippy Ruth so she can fall into doing foolish things, and never says no even when she must. She is freespirited, rolls with it, sees what happens. She has a massive appetite for life and the ability to see the funny side in anything.

We’ve had some great times, hitching round the Alps, sleeping on the beach in Cinquaterra, flying to Kandmandu last minute and hoping our pal really meant it when she said she’d see us there, because Wild and Free Ruth always keeps a promise even if it’s a crazy one.

According to my husband Wild and Free Ruth causes trouble even when under lock and key, and my mother used to say: You’d cause a row in an empty house, but that’s just their opinion.

Boro Ruth

Boro Ruth is the bit of us who knew exactly what she liked to do and how she liked to be, before a million other people got involved and told her not to.

She discovered very early on that she liked: yoga, rollerskating, making music, zoning out (Hippy Ruth calls it meditation), the mystical and magical, the library, avoiding boring conversation. The things we still love to do today.

She loves anything which will make her life easy which is why she is fascinated by technology and can type faster than she speaks. Boro Ruth loves to talk, to learn, to teach and September – falling leaves and the promise of a new academic year.

She lives life like it matters and knows, as all kids do, that there is no need to improve the self. There is only acceptance. We are all just part of a bigger dance, there’s nothing else to do but to enjoy it.

Team Ruth

Team Ruth loves company and finds that everything is better in a group. She loves doing Bikram and meditation in a studio with like minded people. She soaks up that fantastic group energy and shares the love.

Ruth’s best programming happens in teams. She loves solution sharing and working super hard so her bit is ready for the person who needs it. She loves the art of great documentation and beautifully commented code which someone else can understand even when she is not around.

And, then the celebration at the end. Celebrations are always better in a team.

In a fabulous podcast hosted by SoundsTrue and which I listened to four times – it is that good, Mindfulness professor John Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is really about heartfulness, or open-heartedness, and not anything to do with the mind at all. I find this a really lovely thought and super encouraging. For as much as these personalities run around in my mind with a few others I haven’t outlined [like Techno Ruth who is a complete nerd, or Stalker Ruth (see what I did there?) who loves to research obsessively], it is a relief not to be limited by those personalities or stories, or any experiences I have had. As the Buddha said:

Nothing is to be clung to as I, me or my.

No clinging, but we don’t mind a cuddle as we welcome new joiners, I am looking forward to Laid-Back Ruth signing up and contrary to popular belief, I’m sure Sensible Ruth is already in there somewhere, I can’t wait til she’s ready to speak.

Group Hug, Ruths!