Women (Conclusions): Society, Storytelling, Technology (9)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 9 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

Back in 2001, I attended a series of seminars in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University led by Professor Lucy Suchman about how women felt excluded online as software felt masculine. At the time I was a new lecturer in the Department of Computing and I was intrigued by the idea that software could be seen as having a gender.

Now I see that my route into the field of technology was unusual. I have ‘A’ Levels in English Literature, French and History and turned up to do a computing degree with my total computing experience consisting of 10 minutes of trying to play The Hobbit on a Spectrum ZX 48k before my older brother took it off me (it was his computer). I had no expectations of what I would be doing, and for much of the time I had no idea what I was actually doing either. So, it was my humanities background rather than my gender which made me feel a bit of an outsider.

Later, doing a PhD in Switzerland, I felt that it was my nationality and the fact I couldn’t understand what anyone were saying to me for a couple of years, which made me feel like an outsider, not my gender.

And, even when I created my first webpage with a photo of myself and five minutes later got email saying You look very nice, do you want to meet for coffee? It just never occurred to me that it had anything to do with my gender, because the Internet to me was a place for sharing research, even if it was with socially awkward men. It took a male colleague in the lab to explain exactly the kind of socially awkward man with which I was dealing.

Now I think I was completely naive and lived in a little bubble of my own thoughts. Last year when a male social media acquaintance told me that he liked to look at pictures of me online, sadly, I knew what that meant (although to be honest, I like looking at pictures of me online too). It also meant that I could never have a professional working relationship with the man, which is something I am still furious about because I didn’t get a say. This man decided exactly how we were going to relate to each other, irrespective of my feelings.

I want, as a woman, to have choices, in what I do, how I relate to people and what sorts of relationships I want with people. I am so tired that a patriarchal society dictates to me how these things go down based on my gender. And I am sad that many women feel the same way about computing and software because some men wrote it completely from a male perspective and the whole field is populated by men who leave no room for women to breathe in. They are not doing it on purpose either – well not all of them. It is semi-institutionalised now, which is really sad, though I have worked with loads of lovely, kind, generous men.

I was going to finish this series with facts about how women make better software engineers than men. But, the truth is I don’t really care and it doesn’t really matter. It is not about which gender is superior. It is not a competition. It is about equal opportunity, feeling welcome and comfortable in a given domain.

The government has spent millions on encouraging women into STEM but they don’t go, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have done had I got a place on an English Lit degree course. Women do not go into Computing because they cannot recognise or see themselves in it. This is because there are:

  • No role models – we are not taught them as part of the history of computing.
  • No tribes – research shows that women are more likely to show up on forums to discuss technical solutions if there are already other women present.
  • No stories which make it seem worthwhile, there are just loads of stories about women being harassed ‘cos of their gender or excluded because of male-group think.
  • No rewards – research shows that women are systematically penalised if they take time out to continue the human race.
  • No equal pay.
  • No respect for their work. Women have justify themselves over and over and over again.

I could go on. Indeed I have already for at least 10,000 words and seriously, I could go on forever about rage, about boundaries, about ageing, about sex, about love, to name but a few topics which I think about when I think about women.

We need to reevaluate the role of women in both STEM and society. For inasmuch as society is stacked in a man’s favour, it is women who raise these men, and give them legitimacy and excuses from a very early age. The boys my girls interact with on the playground are raised by women who would call themselves feminists but I have heard them say things like Oh he is such a boy. But these women were raised by women who were raised by women etc.

In order to make a change, we need to reclaim language, we need a genealogy of women and to make space for women in history whilst we learn again to respect the life of women in the home and elsewhere online and offline.

As the naive optimist I have always been and hope I always will be, I believe that change is coming, and that as more women write books (like this one with the awesome title: A Uterus is A Feature, Not a Bug), do TED talks and go on marches, I believe that change for the good is on its way. I really do.

And, one of the ways in which the Internet can help is that all our interactions are recorded and can be analysed to further understand and hopefully change the bad ways in which we have learnt to interact. It also makes it easy to share the stories about women that we don’t know. For example, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor as well as a movie star.

In a lovely Facebook post psychotherapist Matt Licata says that we all have an innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness but often between men and women this gets misconstrued as sexual and erotic rather than the honouring of one soul by another. If we could teach this honouring to the future generations, in particular, those men and women who will go into marketing and media who by their messages, form society, then perhaps we could see a change in the way the world works – a world which is more peaceful and more respectful and a lot less heterosexy. Now, that would be a world I’d like to live in, it would be just like that bubble I used to live in way back when the world felt like it was magic and new, online and off.

Women and girls on social media: Society, Storytelling, Technology (8)

© Kim Kardashian Instagram

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 8 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

At the public defence of my doctorate (ma soutenance de thèse publique), I had one of those cameras with film in which needed developing. It is hard to imagine in these days of digital immediacy, taking the film to the chemist, to get it developed and be surprised by what pictures had been taken.

I was surprised alright as some of my fellow (male) students took a few snaps of themselves naked for me to remember them by. I am just glad I wasn’t the one who had gone into Boots to pick up the photos. Being scientists, they were, of course, ahead of their time, dick pics are really all the rage online nowadays, even if us women have no idea why. Had my mates dressed theirs up a bit like this guy, I might have found it funnier and whilst googling about I did laugh a lot at this instagram page of responses to dick pics and other invitations.

It has been said that Kim Kardashian invented the naked selfie and she says that she finds it empowering and I understand what she is saying. She has control over her image and she is deciding how to represent herself, albeit it seems, she is choosing to do so as a sex object.

Men are rarely perceived as sex objects though this article in Marie Claire has tried to readdress the balance by listing full frontal male nudity in films. What is interesting about the article is what the male actors say about why and how they showed their genitalia. In contrast, gratuitous full frontal female nudity is very common.

Film theorist Professor Laura Mulvey says, female bodies are positioned as to-be-looked-at, and these bodies are viewed from a masculinised subject position/gaze. The viewer’s gaze is always assumed to be male in any given narrative and as I mentioned in Women’s bodies, it was the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, who first celebrated the naked feminine form. So since 330BC, we’ve been trained to look at women from a male point of view, which is probably why when you ask a man if they find another man sexy, they will say that they have no idea. Ask a woman if she find another woman sexy and they will say yes or no.

Online: Heterosexy or shameless ?

Given that we are bombarded everyday by messages from the media, marketing and culture about our gender and our roles, which have with them prescribed appropriate behaviour, as a woman online you can currently only go two ways:

  1. You can do the Kim Kardashian and conform to a sex object stereotype which Sociologist Amy Shields Dobson , in her excellent book Postfeminist Digital Cultures, calls heterosexy; or
  2. you can do the performative shameless approach, aka the ladette approach, as made popular in the 90s offline by Zoe Ball et al.

The ambiguity with Kim Kardashian is that she has pushed the hetrosexy boundary. Is it empowering? Or, is it porn? Sharon Osbourne called her a ‘ho saying: She has had half of Hollywood which is a perfect example of the slut-shaming which occurs when a woman goes beyond the feminine stereotype of:

A self who appears visually complicit with current standards of active, up-for it, girl-powered femininity, without overtly evidencing sexual desires or sexual activity that might render her vulnerable to slut-shaming… (Renold and Ringrose, 2011).

This quote is from a paper about teenage girls and sexualisation. But ask any woman of any age and she will recognise it. I know I do. Since about the ’60s’ I would say women have been encouraged to conform to this ridiculous idea. Girls today have to also do it online where they are bombarded by media messages and by boys.

The pressure of sexting

A male acquaintance of mine last year told me about his teenage son receiving sexually explicit pictures of girls. He seemed to be shocked. But, research performed in the UK and quoted by Shields Dobson says:

  • Girls are asked for sexts more than boys are, while boys are more likely to ask for sexts.
  • Girls receive many more sexual messages online and are asked for sexts much more than boys .
  • Girls’ sexts are shown or sent beyond the intended recipient whilst more boys than girls say they will send on a sexually explicit image of someone else (without the person’s knowledge).
  • More boys are shown or sent explicit images not meant for them.

This academic research is very different to the media reporting on Generation Sex. It is recognisably genderised, patriarchal and same old same old.

I bet it never occurred to my male pal that a) he shouldn’t have been looking at this intimate pic because he is breaking the law, and b) his son might have put considerable pressure on the girl in question to get it.

Marketing and the media captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and molds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality

This same acquaintance said that he had caught his son sneaking to his girlfriend’s room in the middle of the night and told him off, though he felt secretly proud. I asked how would he feel if that was his daughter, he said he would be outraged. He was sufficiently self-aware to recognise his hypocrisy.

However, it is marketing and the media which captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and moulds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality, forms which my male pal embodies and propagates in his role as a father.

Neoliberal or stereotype

This same old might not seem too bad but it is the relentlessness of it 24/7 which is new, for the Internet compresses time and space, so that people feel hounded, which can lead to desperate acts such as the suicide of Amanda Todd. Todd was repeatedly bullied and slut-shamed by her peers because she was pressured into sharing naked pictures of herself. The slut-shaming and bullying I guess would have been in a similar vein to Sharon Osbourne on Kim Kardashian, given that teenagers emulate what they see around them. The difference is Kim Kardashian has an entourage as she goes about her daily life so she is protected and removed from daily life and she also has enough fans to make noise to encourage her critics like Sharon Osbourne to retract her statement.

Kim Kardashian seemingly also doesn’t give a stuff what Sharon Osbourne thinks, which is how we like our girls to be online. We want the girls who are behaving shamelessly to not apologise. We want them to take pride in themselves or the neoliberals amongst us do, those of us who follow stereotypes like my male pal, fall into the Sharon Osbourne camp. Shields Dobson says that being unapologetic is a way of protection. It shuts down a discussion which, of course, would be about how girls shouldn’t behave like that and there must be something wrong with them. Funny how we never have that conversation about boys.

In contrast, the girls who use social media to seek attention, external validation, and support from others are viewed as being in crisis, because we only ever hear the terrible stories of girls who end up trusting the wrong people with their intimate pictures. In reality, we just don’t like vulnerability, we perceive it as weakness and less than and so we bully the victims and once one person starts another will follow – we are socialised to conform.

#mencallmethings and #metoo

A great demonstration of this is in this paper Real men don’t hate women: Twitter rape threats and group identity by Claire Hardaker and Mark McGlashana, who analysed in depth, how journalist Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to ongoing misogynistic abuse on Twitter, including threats of rape and death when all she wanted was to have one woman on a banknote. It started off with a small group of mainly male abusers which then quickly escalated – these people didn’t even know each other and weren’t a group at all – but other trolls saw people abusing Criado-Perez and just joined in.

And it is by trolling or by hijacking these important discussions, in which women talk about how they are treated in society, are shut down. Jessica Megarry in her paper : #mencallmethings (2014) says each time men police the ways in which women are able to conceptualise their own harassment, it appears that men actively perpetuate male social dominance online. But as the Real men don’t hate paper shows, women who don’t want to change the status quo do it too.

I am hopeful change is occurring. The #metoo hashtag has encouraged an open discussion about the harassment of women which has the potential to lead to change. Megarry says that the #mencallmethings hashtag discussion five years ago was depoliticised by shifting the conversation from an explicit focus on men’s harassment of women online to a more general conversation about online cruelty. With the #metoo I didn’t see that happen much, but to be honest I was only looking for women’s stories.

We need to create an online environment where people can speak without judgement which is hard to do because we don’t have it offline particularly. Why is that? And why do we particularly want our girls to be small and quiet? It is a patriarchal stereotype. In contrast, Shields Dobson says that girls online have much to tell us about how they navigate complex and contradictory pressures placed on them by society and it is too early to say whether it is good or bad and whether we should or shouldn’t intervene with what girls put online.

And why are girls doing this in the first place? They are encouraged by the fashion and beauty industries to do all sorts to themselves to meet narrow cultural standards of beauty – you cannot be too big in body or personality, or too thin, or too old, or too anything – to feel that they have worth in this patriarchal society where worth is measured by a girl’s sexual appeal to men. It is exhausting and ridiculous.

As mother to girls I am eager for change, but English Professor Lauren Berlant says that many people’s interests are:

…less in changing the world than in not being defeated by it, and meanwhile finding satisfaction in minor pleasures and major fantasies.

I get that I really do. But sorry Kim Kardashian, I want my girls to have access to bigger better fantasies than the heterosexy ones in which they are female objects designed for men’s gazes, especially online. The thought of the Internet being the same as the real world, well no, just no, as a female computer scientist that is a world which I defy, for it would defeat me every time.

[9) Conclusions]

Is this progress? Humans, computers and stories

As a computer scientist, I have to say my job has changed very little in the last  last twenty-odd years. The tech has, admittedly, but I am still doing what I did back then, sitting in front of a computer, thinking about how computers can make peoples’ lives easier, what makes people tick, and how can we put the two together to make something cool?  Sometimes I even program something up to demonstrate what I am talking about.

It seems to me though that everyone else’s jobs (non-computer scientists) have changed and not necessarily for the better. People do their jobs and then they do a load of extras like social media, blogging, content creation, logging stuff in systems- the list is endless – on top of their workload.

It makes me wonder: Is this progress?

Humans and stories

As a teenager, on hearing about great literature and the classics, I figured that it must be something hifalutin’. In school we did a lot of those kitchen sink, gritty dramas (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Kes, etc.,). So, when I found the section in the library: Classics, Literature, or whatever, it was a pleasant surprise to see that they were just stories about people, and sometimes gods, often behaving badly, and I was hooked. Little did I know that reading would be the best training I could receive to become a computer scientist.

Human and computer united together

In my first job as systems analyst and IT support, I found that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories in and amongst their descriptions about their interactions with computers. My job was to talk to people. What could be better? I then had to capture all the information about how computers were complex and getting in the way and try to make them more useful. Sometimes I had to whip out my screwdriver and fix it there and then. Yay!! Badass tech support.

The thing that struck me the most was that people anthropomorphised their computers, talking about them needing time to warm up, being temperamental, and being affected by circumstances, as if they were in some way human and not just a bunch of electronic circuits. And, that the computer was always the way of progress, even if they hated it and didn’t think so.

I think this is partly because it was one person with one computer working solely, so the computer was like a companion, the office worker you love or hate, who helps or hinders. There was little in the way of email or anything else unless you were on the mainframe and then it was used sparingly, especially in a huge companies. Memos were still circulated around. The computer was there to do a task – crunch numbers, produce reports, run the Caustic Soda Plant (I did not even touch the door handles when I went in there) –  the results of which got transferred from one computer to another by me, and sometimes by that advanced user who knew how to handle a floppy disk.

Most often information was transferred orally by presentation in a meeting or on paper with that most important of tools, the executive summary whilst the rest of it was a very dry long winded explanation, hardly a story at all.

Human and computer and human and computer united

Then the Internet arrived and humans (well mainly academics) began sharing information more easily, without needing to print things out and post them.  This was definitely progress. I began researching how people with different backgrounds like architects and engineers could work together with collaborative tools even though they use different terminology and different software. How could we make their lives easier when working together?

I spent a lot of time talking to architects and standing on bridges with engineers in order to see what they did. Other times I talked to draftsmen to see if a bit of artificial intelligence could model what they did. It could up to a point, but modelling all that information in a computer is limiting in comparison to what a human can know instinctively, which is when I realised that people need help automating the boring bits, not the instinctive bits.

I was fascinated by physiological computing, that is, interacting using our bodies rather than typing – so using our voices or our fingerprints. However, when it was me, my Northern accent, and my French colleagues, all speaking our fabulous variations of the English language into some interesting software written by some Bulgarians I believe, on a slow running computer, well, the results were interesting, to say the least.

Everyone online

The UK government’s push to get everything electronic seemed like a great idea, so everyone could access all the information they needed. It impacted Post Offices, but seemed to free up the time spent waiting in a queue and to provide more opportunities to do all those things like pay a TV licence, get a road tax disc, and passport, etc. This felt like progress.

I spent a lot time working on websites for the government with lovely scripts to guide people through forms like self-assessment so that life was easier. We all know how daunting a government form can be, so what could be better than being told by a website which bit to fill in? Mmm progress.

Lots of businesses came online and everyone thought that Amazon was great way back when. I know I did living in Switzerland and being able to order any book I wanted was such a relief as opposed to waiting or reading it in French. (Harry Potter in French although very good is just not the same.) Progress.

Then businesses joined in and wanted to be seen, causing the creation of banners, ads, popups, buying links to promote themselves, and lots of research into website design so they were all polished and sexy, even though the point of the Internet is that it is a work in progress constantly changing and will never be finished.

I started spending my time in labs, rather than in-situ, watching people use websites and asking them how they felt. I was still capturing stories but in a different way, in a more clinical, less of a natural habitat, way which of course alters what people say and which I found a bit boring. It didn’t feel like progress. It felt businessy – means to an end like – and not much fun.

Human -computer -human

Then phones became more powerful and social media was born, and people started using computers just to chat, which felt lovely and like progress. I had always been in that privileged position of being able to chat to people the world over, online, whatever the time, with the access I had to technology, now it was just easier and available to everyone – definitely progress.   Until of course, companies wanted to be in on that too. So, now we have a constant stream of ads on Facebook and Twitter and people behaving like they are down the market jostling for attention, shouting out their wares 24/7, with people rushing up asking:  Need me to shout for you?

And, then there are people just shouting about whatever is bothering them. It’s fantastic and fascinating, but is it progress?

The fear of being left behind

The downside is that people all feel obliged to jump on the bandwagon and be on multiple channels without much to say which is why they have to do extras like creating content as part of their ever expanding jobs. The downside is that your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times. The upside is that people can say whatever they like which is why your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times.

Me, I am still here wondering about the experience everyone is having when this is all happening on top of doing a job.  It feels exhausting and it feels like we are being dictated to by technology instead of the other way around. I am not sure what the answer is. I am not sure if I am even asking the right question. I do know how we got here. But is this where we need to be? Do we need to fix it? Does it needs fixing?  And, where we should go next? I think we may need a course correct, because when I ask a lot of people, I find that they agree. If you don’t, answer me this, how do you feel when I ask: Is this progress?

The Connection Economy: Memail, mixtapes and fortune cookies

Me, me, me, me. My favourite person — me. I don’t want to get email from anybody; I want to get memail– Seth Godin

Yesterday, I got my very first memail. Finally! It was magic.

It was from Spotify entitled: Your 2016 in music: personalised stats and playlist, and it jumped right out of my inbox at me amongst all the other stuff I keep getting in this commercial festive frenzy period we have now entered: Save on this, 50% off that, Free delivery, Last chance for Christmas blah blah blah.

I might be slightly biased because I like to talk about data and I like playlists; but I think I am like everyone else, in that, when you think about me, just me, and say or do something for me and me alone: You’ve got me.

My email said this:

You have listened for 1,827 minutes to 107 artists, and 162 unique tracks.

And then, *drumroll* ta daa, it gave me a link to my very own playlist – my very own mixtape – which I am listening to right now. It’s fantastic. It contains 78 of my current favourite tunes and I love it. And, if you want to hear them for yourself (because let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), then I can share it with you via Spotify or Whatsapp or any other social media platform of your choice. How cool is that?

This is a perfect demonstration of the connection economy in action.

The connection economy

It was marketer Seth Godin who coined the phrase Connection Economy to talk about how marketers could do their jobs differently in the landscape of digital culture.

Now, I am not always a huge fan of Seth Godin, his blogs can be like fortune cookies because, brilliant marketer that he is, he likes to communicate in soundbites. I will never be his target market because I like to ponder anything you say for a very LONG time and come back at least three weeks later to let you know what I think and feel, and whether it is working for me. Yesterday thanks to Spotify sending me memail and a mixtape, I understood for the first time what Godin means by creating something extraordinary and making a connection with your customer. It was no longer just noisy marketing talk.

Create the extraordinary

For, the world has changed and we are overwhelmed with advertising. Everyday we get a million email, and those dreadful impersonal Twitter DMs saying Thanks for the follow please can you do this for me. (Err, no I can’t!), and 10 bajillion adverts on Facebook and everywhere else telling me to buy this, read this, feel this. I am exhausted.

So, to have Spotify send me this was so refreshing. I have said over and over on this site that at the heart of any interaction is our fundamental need to matter. We all want to be heard and we all want to feel like someone is listening to us.  When a person or business, ignores you, or changes the way they interact with you, for no apparent reason, it is painful. And, being talked at, like the emails in my inbox which threaten me with scarcity, deadlines and missed opportunities, is dreadful. The subtext is that you don’t count, you are not special, and you will have to fight for everything you want.

Yesterday, I got memail and a playlist, without even knowing I wanted them. Bottom line: I counted. Someone (well, software) took the time to understand what I liked and then created something for me – my story in song, my soundtrack of 2016 – just for me. I was recognised as having likes, dislikes, preferences. I was seen as me. How often does that happen in life?

Thank you, Spotify, I am thrilled. Merry Christmas!

Moments in modern technology

Final cover from film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

If I like a moment, I mean me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera, I just wanna stay in it.

– Sean O’Connell, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

In The power of now, Eckart Tolle says that in any given moment we have three options: remove ourselves from it, change it, or accept it totally.

Sometimes though the present moment is just too much for us, so we do what we can to overcome it. Tolle says that this is an insane way to live, because the present moment is all we have, which is all good and well for Tolle. He gained enlightenment on a park bench in Russell Square and has been euphoric ever since. Whereas the rest of us, for better or for worse, have to rely on modern technology to get a semblance of that same euphoria, which is where things become tricky. Often, technology owns us, instead of the other way round.

Capturing a moment

With our phones, we can capture and share any moment we ever experience. And, if we feel unable to live fully in a given moment, then we can always postpone it and then experience it later. Sometimes, we don’t always want to though. When my daughter was born with kidney failure, I kept a blog for the first two years of her life, because I couldn’t bear talking about it on the telephone to anyone. I read it the other day for the first time in ages and really didn’t enjoy remembering all the moments my memory has tidied away.

But, even when a moment is brilliant and we recognise its importance, we can risk not experiencing it at all, because we are trying to so hard to capture it. This is when we step back, hold up our phone, and miss it. A while ago, I wondered about how different my round-the-world-year would be if I were to experience now. I would be travelling with my phone, recording everything and uploading it. Would I really be experiencing it? And afterwards, could I relive what I didn’t experience? Or, would I retroactively experience something else altogether depending on how I curated all those captured moments online?

In À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust revisits his life to find meaning, and explores what he calls involuntary memory. Eating his infamous madeleine, the taste of which evokes his childhood, Proust slips out of the present and into the past. And, then of course the act of writing and musing on his past in order to find meaning in it, creates a new moment: the combination of the present moment of writing and the past moment which exists in memoir only – a simulacrum of the two moments which created it.

Imagine if he had had a whole Internet full of his memories to write his memoir from. And, what happens to us now when we can record every single thing we ever do, and what gets said and done to us?

Feeding the need

There are at least a dozen times a day when we are needled, when our needs are not met, and our bodies immediately react with the flight or fight response. Imagine being able to record and remember every single needle, every single moment when we felt a lack? Joe Dispenza says in Breaking the habit of being yourself that we will try to run from any emotion which is painful, because to look at it is too uncomfortable. Amazingly, we can run away very easily with modern technology. We can alter our internal chemistry by laughing at a YouTube video, becoming fearful with the latest news on our social media feeds, or get into an angry or exciting Twitter conversation. The possibilities are endless and so our unwanted feelings seem to go away by these distractions. But, then we rely on these distractions – outside of us – so that we can feel better over and over again. And, often we are distracted by the angriest people who shout the loudest on social media, and who don’t make us feel better about ourselves or what is going on in the world.

Occasionally, though we have a breakthrough and experience catharsis, an emotional release, by living someone else’s story. Ultimately, this is why we love a good movie, a book, a meme. We find relief in someone else’s experience because it connects us to them, and also back to ourselves. We mirror each other.

Immersion

When we get immersed in a book, or online in a game, we get a new point of reference, and we use the world in the book or game as starting point, which frees us from ourselves. Normally, we are embodied, that is, we experience the world through our bodies and limited senses and then our brain interprets the experience in light of our past experiences. We pattern match any new experience to a similarly bad or good one that we have had before, and behave in a way that makes this new experience fit its predecessors. We never have a raw experience. But, in virtual reality therapy and in gaming, we can escape our embodiment and adapt to a new world, which potentially opens us up to raw experiences.

Research shows that computer games light up the part of the brain responsible for motivation and learning, and so games are being developed to help people with depression or who have suffered trauma, to train their brains to leave behind their thought patterns and develop new ones. Gamers can literally learn to lose themselves.

In the Gap

In his TED talk, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies that those people who are the most satisfied with their lives regularly engage in activities in which they lose themselves to bring about a state of flow.

In the language of meditation this flow is known as the gap, which is where our unbounded consciousness – the space between our thoughts and ego – lie. It is there where we find our pure potential and infinite possibility. Meditation guru davidji says we have all experienced the gap during those times we have dazzled someone in conversation, that moment when the roller coaster drops us into free fall, or when we lose ourselves in the one we love.

I find meditation incredibly difficult, but gaming less so, and it is with excitement I view the possibilities of technology to teach us how to truly connect to a moment in the right way. And this is why I used The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) at the beginning of the blog. It got mixed reviews on its release but I love this film. For me, it is a gentle celebration of living in the present moment and connecting with who you are.

Walter Mitty lives a grey life as a negatives manager at photo magazine whilst in his head he lives out the most colourful fantasies, until the day his job is threatened and he is forced to engage with life instead. The film’s colour palette saturates, causing Mitty’s grey life to become as colourful as his fantasies because he has opened himself up to the present moment and all it has to offer.

And, this cinematic devices captures perfectly what happens when you tune into your own life in the gap or follow your bliss as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it. Mitty also gets the girl, because instead of just imagining, sometimes hilariously, himself in relationship with her, he learns to stays present in his own life long enough to discover the magic of being all of himself, which is what life coach Martha Beck identifies as the key: Being loved is all about loving yourself. And, being fully present in a moment, paradoxically, is about letting go and losing yourself in it, whether you are holding your phone or not.

I have always believed that technology augments us, and social media reflects us, so it makes perfect sense that the digital landscape has the potential to teach us how to be more ourselves, more human, in every moment of our lives. Perhaps technology doesn’t own us after all.