The accidental techie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ part 2 ]

Three years of Bikram yoga

the 26 Bikram yoga poses

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

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

True flexibility requires tremendous strength.

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

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

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

A more acceptable me

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

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

On and off the mat we are the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flexibility without strength could be damaging

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

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

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

Balancing Act

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

Namaste!

Westworld and the ghosts of AI

source: lamag.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alone Together three years on: Is social media changing us?

technology-disconnect-s from vortaloptics.com

You are not alone – Oprah Winfrey

Alone Together (1)

Three years ago, I watched social psychologist Sherry Turkle’s TED talk (2015) and then read her book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, (2011) which prompted me to write a blog called: Alone Together: Is social media changing us?

Rereading my blog, I see that my opinion hasn’t changed and on checking, neither has Turkle’s. She now consults on reclaiming conversation ™ to stop the flight from face-to-face conversation.

I am not so sure we don’t want to talk face to face at all, rather it’s just technology gives us the option to avoid those particular prickly peeps we’d rather not see face to face if we can.

Added to that, I don’t believe that technology is taking us to places we don’t want to go. We have no idea what we are doing online or where we need to be, and I am tired of hearing technology described as an unstoppable force outside of our control as if it were freak weather or a meteorite zooming towards earth about to destroy us all. Economics is often the driver of technological advancement and human decisions drive economics.

Glorious technology

Our behaviour online and towards technology reflects us in all our glory – the good, bad and the ugly – along with all our hopes and fears. I do not believe that we expect more from technology and less from each other. Instead, I believe that we turn to technology to plug the gaps and find solace in those moments when we feel alone, afraid, unloved, and indeed sadly, sometimes, unloveable.

Life can be crushingly hard, and many of us know that there are certain people in our lives with whom we will never have the rich, robust and trusting relationships Turkle believes have been eroded by digital technology. Some people are just not up to the job. It may be the same with our friendships online but the hope is there.

Many of us just want to get in and out of any given, often potentially stressful, situation – work, meetings, the playground, the hospital, the dinner table, events with relatives – without saying or doing anything to cause any bad feeling. So that when we do finally get to our tiny slivers of leisure time we can use them to fill ourselves up with what makes us feel better, rather than analysing what we didn’t get right.

If that means staring at a tiny screen then what’s wrong with that? One person I know spoke of their phone, and the access it gave them to an online friend, a person they hadn’t met at that point, as an Eden between meetings. And, why not? Whatever works.

That is not possible now

Turkle says that we use online others as spare parts of ourselves, which makes me believe that she hasn’t really engaged with people on Twitter in a normal way in conversation, and she hasn’t ever met people who do that offline either. Many people make new friends on Twitter and meet up #irl a long time afterwards and then only occasionally. Their relationships are mainly based online. Rather like families who live a long way away from each other. It doesn’t mean it’s less real or not important. It just means they are physically not there which might be difficult but we don’t want to not have any contact with these people because we love them. Maya Angelou said something really beautiful about this when she was on the Oprah show one time. She said:

Love liberates it doesn’t bind. Love says I love you. I love you if you’re cross town. I love you if you move to China. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to have your voice in my ear. But that is not possible now. So, I love you. Go.

We want to be in contact with people whom we love and appreciate, and who love and appreciate us in return. Those people who make us remember the best bits about ourselves. We like people who like us. It is that simple and these people are not always in our daily lives. It’s not for nothing that vulnerability expert Brene Brown says that people armour up everyday to get through the day.

To cultivate the sorts of relationships Turkle feels that we should be having without our phones takes not only a lot of time and energy (and Brene Brown books) but a fearlessness which is not easy. Our greatest fear is social rejection and a robust conversation can leave us badly bruised. Online it is slightly easier because if a person drops out of your life, then you have some control over the day to day reminders unless you turn stalker, which is understandable as the grief of any online loss feels just as real. However, know this:

You are not alone

When we seek answers to our problems emotional like grief, or physical, spiritual, legal, fiscal. Technology really does say: You are not alone.

In real life, difficult relatives and tough-love friends don’t make the best agony aunts and may make us want to keep our questions to ourselves. We may forgo the embarrassment or shame by keeping our anonymity and seeking counsel elsewhere. Giving and receiving advice makes the world go round. In the book Asking for a Friend, the history of agony aunt columns is given over three centuries, and even today with all our technology, they remain as popular as ever.

But, if we can’t wait for our favourite agony aunt or uncle, a quick google/bing or peek round Quora can give us the reassurance we need. No, we are not shoddy, terrible people. Our thoughts and feelings are completely normal. The article What’s wrong with Quora? says that we may prefer a dialectic communication (a chat) say on Twitter, but we don’t use it in the same way as the didactic Q and A on Quora. We may never join Quora or Mumsnet but plenty of us (lurkers) use these and similar forums to find answers and feel better about the difficult circumstances we often find ourselves in.

It is reassuring to know that someone somewhere has already asked the question, either under a real or false name, and some other lovely human has written something underneath which just may help.

I don’t really believe that anyone of us is afraid of having a regular conversation because we have a phone. Turkle mentions research done on teenagers a lot, but they are specific user group and shouldn’t be taken as representative of the general population nor the future. How many teenagers want to talk to anyone? The teenage years are torture. As adults, however, because of the way society is set up, we often have to spend time with people we wouldn’t choose to, at work or in families. In the past we may have tried harder, felt shittier, been robust or at least tried to tell ourselves that, nowadays, it is more acceptable, a relief even, to be alone together, and to save our thoughts and feelings for those we love and who love us in return, wherever and whenever they may be.

Sociability amongst strangers

At school pick-up one day, I walked over to a mum whose kid plays with mine. She was staring at her mobile phone not typing or speaking so it didn’t feel like I was interrupting anything when I said Hi. She looked up at me and immediately looked back down at her phone. I stood awkwardly wondering what to do next. Then another mum came over and said: Hi. Mobile phone mum looked up, immediately put her phone in her pocket, and began an animated conversation with the new mum.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle says that even a silent phone disconnects us, it indicates that any conversation can be interrupted at anytime as the phone has an equality with the now. In this way, Turkle believes that mobile technologies erode our empathy for other people.

I find this an old-fashioned view. Turkle and others are basically saying that technology is a thing outside of us, an unstoppable force over which we have no control and which carries us away to places we don’t want to go.

I beg to differ. Like Marshall McLuhan, I believe that technology is an extension of us and how we behave. And, more importantly, we can choose how to use it and we just must take responsibility for our actions. Mobile phone mum is a perfect example. She knew exactly what she was doing when she wordlessly wielded her phone at me and then put it away for the next mum.

The smartphone in and of itself is an amazing invention. It is a mini-computer which is all people could talk about wanting back in 2007 during some usability research I did for Orange. It thrills me everyday, I kid you not, to hold so powerful a device in my hand (see Augmenting Humans and Travels without my phone).

I think this is because I was fifteen years old when my parents first got a phone in our house and I’d barely gotten used to the excitement of it ringing when I went off to university to not have a phone number to give to people. I would go to the phone box if I wanted to phone someone. As a student in France I could only make a phone call if I had money and if I had remembered to go to the tabac to buy a phone card. I wonder how different life would have been, and indeed how different life is for students today, with a mobile phone and instant access to anyone.

Back then, I wandered around the world unreachable. Unless you knew my address and wrote me a letter, or you came to visit, you couldn’t contact me. Sometimes I was lonely. I spent all my time in shared spaces indoors and out, private and public (like parks and cafes, flats and universities) alone and with people, friends and strangers. In fact one time I was sat in the park in Chambéry and a friend I hadn’t seen in weeks who had moved to the Dordogne, wandered across and said: Thank God, you’re here. I was running out of places to look and was worried you’d gone away. I’ve nowhere else to stay tonight.

Feeling at home in shared spaces can be difficult and so designing public spaces to make them seem more friendly and safe and accessible remains a fascinating area of research. In Jane Jacobs’s classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Bill Hillier’s Space Syntax, the question often is: How do we make the public more sociable?

Many people think that the mobile phone is an invasion of the public by the private. Dom Joly’s I’m on the phone sketch is as funny today as it was when mobile phones were new. Similarly, last summer in the Louvre, I couldn’t get near the Mona Lisa because it had a billion people in front of it taking selfies.

Today, as I write this I think, well why not? Why not have a Mona Lisa selfie? Why not talk really loudly on your phone in public? Why not take up space and behave like you belong?

It can be hard to feel like somewhere public is familiar and friendly, but with easy connection to the Internet anywhere and anytime, people can use their phones to engage with their location by reading restaurant reviews, historical information, the locations of other people nearby, and of course by taking a selfie. There is much research into how we can redefine public spaces with mobile technology so everyone can feel familiar in a new or intimidating place but already the phone helps.

In my time as a student, wandering about Europe, I didn’t have such a luxury and as such was always at the mercy of strangers and exhausted by trying to figure out how things worked. Strange men would come and talk to me and give me their addresses if I sat in the park or on trains or when I wandered down the street. I have fond memories of the French farmer who used to jump out when I cycled past on my way to or from Bourget du Lac. He wanted me to come to his farm and meet his son: Venez, venez, madamoiselle. My mother always warned me about strange men, she was worried I would end up behind someone’s wallpaper. (Funnily enough strange women never approached me with their pockets full of written addresses. Would I have responded differently if they had?)

My first day in France, I cried on the bus. I didn’t have the right ticket because the bus worked differently to what I had expected. The driver let me on free and the next day when I was on another bus going the other way he stopped his bus when he saw me, beeped his horn and waved at me. It never occurred to me he was waving at me so half a dozen people on the bus tapped me on the shoulder to let me know it was me. Mortified, I waved back and cried again and a couple of old ladies comforted me whilst saying Oooh-la-la as I remembered how I had gotten off at the wrong stop, gotten lost, and gave up, at which point I let some random bloke take me to my home in his car. With a phone, I would have known how the ticket system worked, where to go exactly, which stop and so on, and I would have cried a lot less. Without a phone, I saw just how kind people can be to a lost and lonely girl.

In the book Mobile interfaces in Public Spaces, the authors consider the social and spatial changes in our society which have come about with mobiles phones by comparing it to the book, the Walkman and the iPod. These are all things we have used in the past to feel more at home say on a train, in a cafe, or in the park. They allows us to be present and yet go elsewhere as I have pondered in the blog Where do we go when we go online? That said, when I used to read the English paper in the park in Chambéry, it was always a day old, a male Jehovah’s Witness would regularly appear. He wanted to check the football scores in the Premier League.

There is the worry that phones are disconnecting us from the world and people around us because these interactions will no longer happen if we are too busy staring into our screens and everyone has access to the same information. But the authors above argue that mobile devices work as interfaces to public spaces and strengthen our connections to locations.

But what about our connection to people? Well! There are times when you just don’t want to be sociable or you require a different sociability, that of strangers, say who are enduring a long commute and need to carve out a space of their own whilst in a public space.

In July, I went to a talk given by Alastair Horne aka @pressfuturist at the British Library on ambient literature, in particular Keitai shousetsu, the first mobile phone fictions or Japanese cell phone novels in the noughties. They were written by young women, in the same way that they were read, on a small screen using text language, in serial form, during a commute. It was an intimate form of storytelling which led readers to give suggestions as to how the story should continue. The phone was often an integral part of the story because the writer and reader were both writing and reading in similar circumstances, exploring the story as it unfolded, and their commute became an exciting shared experience.

Interactive fiction and text adventures are not new, but their transfer to a mobile phone was and the immediacy it offers. Ten years later with better connectivity, ambient fiction is the next step. Stories are heard in a particular place and location and the phone again becomes part of the story, the shared experience and the connection.

Shared experiences and connection give our lives meaning. But, sometimes the reality of a moment or a person in a public space – like mobile mum – can really let us down, which is why I love the power of the mobile phone in my hand. It can interrupt my reality and get me through a difficult moment and onto the next. Not all strangers are kind, but from experience, especially the ones which I have shared here with you today, I can definitely tell you, the unkind phone wielding ones are absolutely in the minority – an amazing thought which will make me cry with gratitude every time. My mother always told me that I would never get through life if I cried like that all that time. I am pleased to report I have gotten through life exactly like that, yes, crying all the time. And can say, I have been shown many kindnesses and I am  immensely grateful.