Human-Computer Interaction Conclusions: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (6)

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

I love the theory that our brains, like computers, use binary with which to reason and when I was an undergraduate I enjoyed watching NAND and NOR gates change state.

As humans, we are looking for a change of state. It is how we make sense of the world, as in semiotics, we divide the world into opposites: good and bad, light and dark, day and night. Then we group information together and call them archetypes and symbols to imbue meaning so that we can recognise things more quickly.

According to the binary-brain theory, our neurons do too. They form little communities of neurons that work together to recognise food, not-food; shelter, not-shelter; friends, foes; the things which preoccupy us all and are classed as deficiency needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Over on researchgate, there was discussion about moving beyond binary which used this example:

Vegetarian diet vs Free Range Animals vs Battery Farmed Meat

If it was just vegetarian diet v battery farming it would be binary and an easy choice but add in free range and we see the complexities of life, the sliding continuum from left to right. We know life is complex but it is easier in decision making to just have two options, we are cognitive misers and hate using up all our brainpower. We want to see a change in state or a decision made. It also reflects the natural rhythms of life like the tide: ebb and flow, the seasons: growing and dying, it’s not just our neurons its our whole bodies which reflect the universe so patterns in nature resonate with us.

I began this series with an end in mind. As human-computer interaction (HCI) is an ever expanding subject, I wanted to pin it down and answer this question: What am I thinking these days when I think about human-computer interaction?

For me, HCI is all about the complexities of the interaction of a human and a computer, which we try to simplify in order to make it a self-service thing, so everyone can use it. But with the progress of the Internet, HCI has become less about creating a fulfilling symbiosis between human and computer, and more about economics. And, throughout history, economics has been the driving force behind technological progress, but often with human suffering. It is often in the arts where we find social conscience.

Originally though, the WWW was thought of by Tim Berners-Lee to connect one computer to another so everyone could communicate. However, this idea has been replaced by computers connecting through intermediaries, owned by large companies, with investors looking to make a profit. The large companies not only define how we should connect and what are experience should be, but then they take all our data. And it is not just social media companies, it is government and other institutions who make all our data available online without asking us first. They are all in the process of redefining what privacy and liberty means because we don’t get a choice.

I have for sometime now gone about saying that we live in an ever changing digital landscape but it’s not really changing. We live the same lives, we are just finding different ways to achieve things without necessarily reflecting whether it is progress or not. Economics is redefining how we work.

And whilst people talk about community and tribes online, the more that services get shifted online, the more communities get destroyed. For example, by putting all post office services online, the government destroyed the post office as a local hub for community, and yet at the time it seemed like a good thing – more ways to do things. But, by forcing people to do something online you introduce social exclusion. Basically, either have a computer or miss out. If you don’t join in, you are excluded which taps into so many human emotions, that we will give anything away to avoid feeling lonely and shunned, and so any psychological responsibility we have towards technology is eroded especially as many online systems are binary: Give me this data or you cannot proceed.

Economic-driven progress destroys things to make new things. One step forward, two steps back. Mainly it destroys context and context is necessary in our communication especially via technology.

Computers lack context and if we don’t give humans a way to add context then we are lost. We lose meaning and we lose the ability to make informed decisions, and this is the same whether it is a computer or a human making the decisions. Humans absorb context naturally. Robots need to ask. That is the only way to achieve a symbiosis, by making computers reliant on humans. Not the other way round.

And not everything has to go online. Some things, like me and my new boiler don’t need to be online. It is just a waste of wifi.

VR man Jaron Lanier said in the FT Out to Lunch section this weekend that social media causes cognitive confusion as it decontextualises, i,e., it loses context, because all communication is chopped up into algorithmic friendly shreds and loses its meaning.

Lanier believes in the data as labour movement, so that huge companies have to pay for the data they take from people. I guess if a system is transparent for a user to see how and where their data goes they might choose more carefully what to share, especially if they can see how it is taken out of context and used willy-nilly. I have blogged in the past how people get used online and feel powerless.

So way back when I wrote that social media reflects us rather than taking us places we don’t want to go, in my post Alone Together: Is social media changing us? I would now add that it is economics which changes us. Progress driven by economics and the trade-offs humans think it is ok for other humans to make along the way. We are often seduced by cold hard cash as it does seem to be the answer to most of our deficiency needs. It is not social media per se, it is not the Internet either which is taking us places we don’t want to go, it is the trade-offs of economics and how we lose sight of other humans around us when we feel scarcity.

So, since we work in binary, let’s think on this human v technology conundrum. Instead of viewing it as human v technology, what about human v economics? Someone is making decisions on how best to support humans with technology but each time this is eroded by the bottom line. What about humans v scarcity?

Lanier said in his interview I miss the future as he was talking about the one in which he thought he would be connected with others through shared imagination, which is what we used to do with stories and with the arts. Funny I am starting to miss it too. As an aside, I have taken off my Fitbit. I am tired of everything it is taking from me. It is still possible online to connect imaginatively, but it is getting more and more difficult when every last space is prescribed and advertised all over as people feel that they must be making money.

We need to find a way to get back to a technological shared imagination which allows us to design what’s best for all humanity, and any economic gain lines up with social advancement for all, not just the ones making a profit.

Codependency or Collaboration? Human-Computer Interaction: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (4)

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

The fig tree is pollinated only by the insect Blastophaga grossorun. The larva of the insect lives in the ovary of the fig tree, and there it gets its food. The tree and the insect are thus heavily interdependent: the tree cannot reproduce without the insect; the insect cannot eat without the tree; together, they constitute not only a viable but a productive and thriving partnership. This cooperative “living together in intimate association, or even close union, of two dissimilar organisms” is called symbiosis. (Licklider, 1960).

The above quotation is from JCR Licklider’s seminal paper Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960). I had to grit my teeth as he kept going on about man and men and computers. To distract myself from the onset of a patriarchal rage, I decided that I needed to know the precise definition of seminal. Google gave me seed of semen.

The original meaning of the word computer actually means a person who did calculations, like women in 1731 who ran a household and were advised to be clever with their husband’s wages, and whilst I am wondering about who is the tree and who the insect in this scenario of man-computer symbiosis, I am thinking that it really isn’t a good idea to aspire to have computers and people functioning as natural living organisms who cannot survive without each other. I love technology I really do, but the idea that I cannot function without it is, at the very least, disturbing.

We got a new boiler the other day complete with a smart thermostat. The smart thermostat uses an app now installed on everyone’s phone along with our locations activated to see if we are home or not and the thermostat uses the information and corrects the temperature accordingly. It will also build up patterns of our daily routine what time we get up, have a shower, take a bath, etc., so that it can be ready for us. But, only if we are home and have our phones charged. Thankfully, there are buttons on the thermostat if the WiFi goes down, apparently the earlier versions didn’t have them, and we can also log into a web browser to make changes to its routine.

Theoretically I should be thrilled, it is better than my Fitbit asking when my period is due so that it can tell me when my period is due – and since that blog, I have been given Google adverts for different sanitary products, I told you so! – or Google Nest which needs you to tell it how you want your house to run rather like my Fitbit. And, I do like data and patterns so I am interested in what it collects and what it does and if it is clever enough to respond to a cold snap or whatever.

But old habits die hard, so far we have got out an old room thermometer to check if the smart thermostat is measuring the temperature correctly as it seemed a bit high. It was right. (Just checked it, it says 25.8c the room thermometer says 22.8c quite a big difference) I guess I have just worked in computing too long and I have technology trust issues. If the Sonos is anything to go by when the WiFi goes down we are completely without music, well digital music at any rate. Last time, we got out the guitar and turned into the Vonn Trapps, I am not even joking. The alternative would be to keep other music formats and a player. But that idea doesn’t do a lot for me, I am more of a donor than a collector. I hate stuff filling up my space.

When I reader Licklider, I am reminded of ubiquitious computing rather than any other technology. I know I would rather my tech be ubiquitious than making me feel codependent on my mobile phone. All these apps for my heating, my music, my blogging, my Bikram, my electricity, my gas, it is slowly but surely turning into the precious and I feel like Gollum. I worry about my phone and can’t stand anyone touching it. Whereas ubicomp had the idea of one person, lots of computers interacting with, if I was doing it, the physiology of a person and making changes accordingly, rather than with the person’s mobile phone’s location, which strikes me as being a bit simplistic and not smart at all. (Just ‘cos you call it smart doesn’t make it smart.) And, then collecting and sharing over the Internet which causes us all to have the symptoms in the above codependent link – my phone does make me anxious and I try to please it all the time. I am forever staring at it and hoping it is doing ok, and I don’t like that feeling.

I have spent a lot of time writing about what social media can do for us, and how we can feel connected. But, in this scenario when it is not other people and it is an app, or sometimes it is other people via an app, if we are not in control, we become disconnected from ourselves and then we become addicted to the app or to the person. We give away our power and our data. The problem with these apps is that we have no control and we are barely a factor in the design. Our mobile phone is the factor in the design and it trains us to be codependent, addicted, anxious. Warmth after all is the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and I am staring at my bloody phone hoping for the best. This is not symbiosis, this is codependency.

But back to Licklider and his seed of semen paper, a lot of what he was trying to imagine was probably about cooperation or collaboration of the kind I have blogged about before: a space of solutions to explore, with the computer doing the grunt work and the human doing the thinking. And, I believe it is possible to do that even with apps.

In a post, David Scott Brown, looks at what Licklider suggested in Man-Computer Symbiosis and what is possible today: shared processing, memory, better input-output, different languages, etc. And, I would add, in fields where the language is precise and limited, for example, Trading think about: buy, sell, high, low, and often over the phone so applications of AI are useful and will be able to do all sorts. All the data and conversations can be recorded and used and mined. It is extremely exciting, and memory and storage is it seems infinite which would make Licklider’s mind boggle.

As an undergraduate I had to learn sparce matrices, memory was something not to waste, it was expensive. In his paper, Licklider says:

The first thing to face is that we shall not store all the technical and scientific papers in computer memory. We may store the parts that can be summarized most succinctly-the quantitative parts and the reference citations-but not the whole. Books are among the most beautifully engineered, and human-engineered, components in existence, and they will continue to be functionally important within the context of man-computer symbiosis.

Imagine his face looking at the data centres all over the world storing memes and cat pictures and abusive tweets repeatedly without checking if they have already been saved, without indexing, without any sort of check on redundancy, an endless stream of drivvel. I am sure even Tim Berners-Lee wonders sometimes about the monster he has created.

And, books take so long to write, beautifully engineered they are, we lose ourselves in them and learn from them, they take us out of ourselves in the same way our phones do, but we are addicted to our phones and to our social media to that little hit of dopamine that social media gives us, which our books don’t always do. Books are work and we are passive whereas on our phones we feel active, but because our phones are controlling our homes and training us to be codependent and anxious and powerless, it is a vicious circle of more phones, fewer books.

In these times when I look at where we are going and I am not feeling good about it, like Licklider I turn to nature, as the best designs are in nature. I also look to the wisdom of yoga. So this is what I have:

When a bee gathers pollen, it also gathers a small amount of poison along with the pollen, both get transformed into nectar in the hive. The yogis say that when we learn to take negative situations and turn them into wisdom, it means we are progressing, and becoming skilful agents of the positive.

So, even though I worry about what happens when my whole life is literally on my phone and the world’s nature reserves are all full of data centres which contain every last terrible expression of humanity, and we are so disconnected from the nature around us that the oceans are filled with plastic, and many of us are in offices far away from the natural world staring into our bloody phones, and many of us do it to create technology. Surely we can create technology to change where we are. If we want a symbiosis we must make a human-planet one not a human-computer one. I don’t care what my Fitbit says I don’t want any technology in my ovaries thank you very much.

So, with that thought and the amazing technology I have at my fingertips today, I want to share an animated gif of my cat drinking from his water fountain. Licklider said:

Those years should be intellectually the most creative and exciting in the history of mankind

And, they are. I remain hopeful that we can collect enough data on ourselves to become self-aware enough to transform it into wisdom and create something better for all humanity and our planet. In the meantime I will be enjoying watching my cat have a drink of water and I am sure Licklider in 1960 would have been just as amazed too to see my cat drinking from the fountain on a phone more powerful technologically and psychologically than he ever could have imagined. It remains to be seen whether this is progress or not.

[Part 5]

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

Steve Mann, Augmented Reality Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

My name is Ruth

You’re the one, because you said so.
– Danielle La Porte, White Hot Truth

One night a Naomi I know and I, were contemplating the window of Ruth and Naomi (above). Naomi said that the embrace looked particularly passionate and wondered what sort of relationship Ruth and Naomi were having. Influenced by the Bible and not so much the window, I said that Ruth was passionately supporting Naomi. And I thought and still think, Ruth is one cool chick you would definitely want to be around in good times and bad.

Lately, my girls have been asking me, in the same way that I used to ask my mother, how and why they got their names. There is a story for each name. I also tell them that they are beautiful and I wanted them to have beautiful names to reflect their very essence.

My mother had no such story for me. When I used to ask her how she chose my name she used to say:

I hate the name Ruth. It was your father. He wanted that name.

When I look into my girls’ eyes I cannot even begin to imagine how she called someone she loved by a name she loathed. Although, to be fair, my dad once said: No daughter of mine was going to have the initials ARSe. So, he swapped the names around. Either way, my nickname has always been Stalker.

One auntie used to shudder as she repeated the story of how my father on the way back from registering me called in to say: We are calling the baby, Ruth. She would shake her head and tell me how she once knew an awful woman called Ruth who hung onto her husband like grim death. She didn’t like that Ruth, she didn’t like my name, and she definitely didn’t like people hanging onto their husbands like grim death. Even now, I hold my husband lightly.

A long lost friend once said she loved the name Ruth and wanted it as her confirmation name, but her Roman Catholic priest told her that it was the name of a Jezebel and not fit for the sacred act of celebrating holy communion.

Then there was that episode of friends when Rachel and Ross are deciding on baby names.

Ross: How about Ruth? I like Ruth.
Rachel: Oh I’m sorry, are we having an 89 year-old?

It seems to me that I have spent too much of life listening to what other people have to say about my name – and about me. Naomi definitely had the right idea that night in the Chapel. She was looking at what was in front of her and deciding what it meant. This is the way of semiotics and really, the only to live. No one else is an expert on me, not in the way I am. So, why would I seek an opinion from someone else?

When I offer an opinion, I wonder first whether a) I know enough, b) the other person wants my opinion, and c) will it cause offence or hurt? Then, I weigh up the need for me to say it out loud against a, b, and c. For the longest time, I really believed that everyone else did the same.

In Hebrew the name Ruth means beauty and friend. It can also mean truth and pity, and in medieval German/English: sorrow or compassion. It seems that in my thought processes around opinion giving, I live up to my name, that old, old biblical name.

The Book of Ruth has always really irritated me because it is a story conceived in a time when women were men’s possessions. Ruth’s husband dies but she remains loyal and leaves with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to go to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown, even though Ruth is a Moabite and will be leaving all she knows behind her. Ruth then works in a field gleaning wheat to support Naomi and then on Naomi’s instruction, lies at the bottom of Boaz’s bed. Eventually Ruth marries Boaz and both Naomi and Ruth are redeemed i.e. worthy and recognised once more in the patriarchal society.

The story of Ruth is often used in sermons to talk about being loyal and faithful and to love wholeheartedly, though they always skip over the other kind of loving, the lying down kind. A Lebanese female colleague once told me that she has always understood Ruth as a story of uniting tribes, and not to worry too much about the lying down.

Whatever the interpretation, we never get to hear what Ruth thinks or feels. Is she sad when her husband dies? Is Boaz sexy? Is Naomi a lovely mother-in-law? Ruth only speaks once:

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay…

No wonder she is synonymous with beauty and friend. Ruth lights the fire. But sometimes I wish she had said a bit more. Did she lose herself in people. Did she ever ask: How empty am I, to be so full of you?

I looked up the metaphysical interpretation of the Book of Ruth which says that Ruth represents divine love, the love of what is real and spiritual, as opposed to the unreal material world. So, Naomi leaves behind the immaterial and focuses on the only thing worth having, the only thing that is real – Ruth. This puts me in mind of the metaphysical poet Rumi:

Do you think that I know what I’m doing? That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself? As much as a pen knows what it’s writing, or the ball can guess where it’s going next.

My name is Ruth, I have no idea what I am doing, or if I belong to myself. I often worry about how easy it is to lose myself in anyone and everyone, when sometimes I don’t know where I end and another person begins. But then when I look to Ruth and Rumi, I feel that this may not be the flaw I think it is and I do not need to be any different. Perhaps like the one breath or the half-breath, my not knowing is a thing of beauty, of truth and of compassion, and even when it is full of sorrow and pity, perhaps it doesn’t matter, for perhaps, like Ruth, it is divine.