Let’s Talk! Human-Computer Interaction: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (2)

[Part 1]

I chuckled when I read Rebecca Solnit describing her 1995 life: She read the newspaper in the morning, listened to the news in the evening and received other news via letter once a day. Her computer was unconnected to anything. Working on it was a solitary experience.

Fast forward 20+ years and her computer, like most other people’s, feels like a cocktail party, full of chatter and fragmented streams of news and data. We are living permanently in Alvin Toffler’s information overload. We are creating more data per second than we did in a whole year in the 1990s. And yet, data or information exchange is why we communicate in the first place, so I wanted to ponder here, how do we talk using computers?

Commandments

Originally, you had to ask computer scientists like me. And, we had to learn the commands of the operating system we were using say, on a mainframe with VAX/VMS or DEC; on a networked workstation with UNIX, or a personal computer which used MS/DOS.

Then, we had to learn whatever language we needed. Some of the procedural languages I have known and loved are: Assembler, Pascal, COBOL, ADA, C/C++, Java, X/Motif, OpenGL (I know I will keep adding to these as I remember them). The declarative PROLOG, and (functional, brackety) LISP, and scripts like php, Perl, Python, Javascript. The main problem with scripts is that they don’t have strong types, so you can quite easily pass a string to an integer and cause all sorts of problems and the compiler won’t tell you otherwise. They are like a hybrid of the old and new. The old when computer time was expensive and humans cheap so we had to be precise in our instructions, and the new computers are cheap and humans cost more, so bang in some code. Don’t worry about memory or space. This is ok up to a point but if the human isn’t trained well, days may be lost.

As an undergraduate I had to learn about sparse matrices to not waste computer resources, and later particularly using C++ I would patiently wait and watch programs compile. And, it was in those moments, I realised why people had warned me that to choose computers was to choose a way of life which could drive you mad.

How things have changed. Or have they?

Dialogue

When I used to lecture human-computer interaction, I would include Ben Schneiderman’s eight golden rules of interface design. His book Designing the User Interface is now in its sixth edition.

When I read the first edition, there was a lot about dialog design as way back then there were a lot of dialog boxes (and American spelling) to get input/output going smoothly. Graphical-user interfaces had taken over from the command line with the aim of making computers easy to use for everyone. The 1990s were all about the efficiency and effectiveness of a system.

Just the other week I was browsing around the Psychology Now website, and came upon a blogpost about the psychological term locus of control. If it is internal, a person thinks that their success depends on them, if it is external their success is down to fate or luck. One of Scheidermann’s rules is: Support internal locus of control, so you make the user feel that they can successfully achieve the task they have set out to do on the computer because they trust it to behave consistently because they know what to expect next, things don’t move around like the ghost in the wall.

Schneiderman’s rules were an interpretation of a dialogue in the sense of a one-to-one conversation (dia means two, logos can mean speech) to clarify and make coherent. That is to say: One person having a dialogue with one computer by the exchange of information in order to achieve a goal.

This dialogue is rather like physicist David Bohm’s interpretation which involves a mutual quest for understanding and insight. So, the user was be guided to put in specific data via a dialog box and the computer would use that information to give new information to create understanding and insight.

This one-to-one seems more powerful nowadays with Siri, Alexa, Echo, but, it’s still a computer waiting on commands and either acting on them or searching for the results in certain areas online. Put this way, it’s not really much of a dialogue. The computer and user are not really coming to a new understanding.

Bohm said that a dialogue could involve up to 40 people and would have a facilitator, though other philosophers would call this conversation. Either way, it is reminiscent of computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) a term coined in 1984 that looked at behaviour and technology and how computers can facilitate, impair, or change collaborative activities (the medium is the message) whether people do this on the same or different time zone, in the same or different geographical locations, synchronously or asynchronously. CSCW has constantly changed and evolved especially with the World Wide Web and social media.

I remember being at an AI conference in 1996 and everyone thought that the answer to everything was just put it online and see what happened then. But just because the WWW can compress time and space it doesn’t follow that a specific problem can be solved more easily.

Monologue to Interaction

The first people online were really delivering a monologue. Web 1.0 was a read-only version of the WWW. News companies like the BBC published news like a newspaper. Some people had personal web pages on places like Geocities. Web pages were static and styled with HTML and then some CSS.

With the advent of Web 2.0, things got more interactive with backend scripting so that webpages could serve up data from databases and update pages to respond to users input data. Social media sites like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter were all designed for users to share their own content. Newspapers and news companies opened up their sites to let users comment and feel part of a community.

But this chatter was not at all what Bohm had in mind, this is more like Solnit’s cocktail party with people sharing whatever pops in their head. I have heard people complain about the amount of rubbish on the WWW. However, I think it is a reflection of our society and the sorts of things we care about. Not everyone has the spare capacity or lofty ambition to advance humanity, some people just want to make it through the day.

Web 3.0 is less about people and more about things and semantics – the web of data. Already, the BBC uses the whole of the internet instead of a content management system to keep current. Though as a corporation, I wonder, has the BBC ever stopped to ask: How much news is too much? Why do we need this constant output?

Social media as a cocktail party

But, let’s just consider for a moment, social media as a cocktail party, what an odd place with some very strange behaviour going on:

  • The meme: At a cocktail party, imagine if someone came up to us talking like a meme: Tomorrow, is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one. We would think they had banged their head or had one shandy too many.
  • The hard sell: What if someone said: Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book in our faces non-stop?
  • The auto Twitter DM which says follow me on facebook/Instagram/etc. We’ve gone across said hi, and the person doesn’t speak but slips us a note which says: Thanks for coming over, please talk to me at the X party.
  • The rant: We are having a bit of a giggle and someone comes up and rants in our faces about politics, religion, we try to ignore them all the while feeling on a downer.
  • The retweet/share:That woman over there just said, this man said, she said, he said, look at this picture… And, if it’s us, we then say: Thanks for repeating me all over the party.

Because it is digital, it becomes very easy to forget that we are all humans connected together in a social space. The result being that there’s a lot of automated selling, news reporting, and shouting going on. Perhaps it’s less of a cocktail party more of a market place with voices ringing out on a loop.

Today, no one would say that using a computer is a solitary experience, it can be noisy and distracting, and it’s more than enough to drive us mad.

How do we get back to a meaningful dialogue? How do we know it’s time to go home when the party never ends, the market never closes and we still can’t find what we came for?

[Part 3]

Human-computer interaction, cyberpsychology and core disciplines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey! We’re not all doctors, baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sit. Feast on your blogs

My blogging tag cloud generated by wordclouds.com

I have had this blog 11 years now. It feels like a lifetime ago when I first installed WordPress complete with the Kubrick WordPress theme as a place just for me to come and figure out what I thought.

Recently, I discovered my Top Posts for all days ending … which sounds very dramatic and very satisfying, so thought I would look at my most popular top 11 posts of all time and remember how I wrote them. In order of most popular first, here goes:

1) Stalkers in space and Facebook in your face, (February, 2007)

I wrote this blog as I was fascinated by someone’s reaction to me googling them even though everyone else I knew had been online for years and so didn’t mind, but then that was from an era where we decided what to put online, nowadays because of genealogy websites and companies house there is a lot more information in the public domain about a person than they may even realise, anyone can find out anything. The Internet makes it super easy to become a Stalker!

But even now, this blog post gets read by someone everyday, and in the top ten search terms of all time there’s: facebook 1995, facebook, facebook screenshot, old facebook, early facebook screenshots, facebook webpage, facebook 2007

The other three terms are: ruth stalker firth, design pattern, IT security.

I love search terms. They are fascinating. So, I was saddened when Google decided to keep search terms private as I am a total nerd and love patterns (see 3) in statistics and words, which is why I find the above tag cloud completely beautiful. However, I do remember there was a lot Stalker search terms kept coming up and bringing them here.

And, people googling me helped me to decide to put up an About page as I hadn’t had one for a long time. I find About pages really interesting on other peoples’ websites so am thinking that people might want to know more about me. I added a Now page inspired by the NowNowNow initiative and I use it myself. It is like a to-do list.

2) User motivation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, (December, 2007)

I remember being very pregnant writing this and I had been already given the news that there was a problem with my unborn child’s kidneys. So, I came here to think about Crannogs and holidays instead of googling renal fetal problems and driving myself mad with worry.

For me, technology is all about people, and humans are the central factor in any design project. Maslow’s hierarchy is a lovely way of organising things from social media (see 4) to chakras, though he only used two women in his sample of people but since women have rarely been written about, I am glad he used two. I can’t find anything better to organise our human experience which is to be felt, seen, heard. Soon I will write about Maslow’s hierarchy of technology.

3) Using patterns to shape our world, (March, 2007)

I’ve long been excited about patterns. In my PhD research I looked for patterns in my big data and graphical-user interfaces, which reminds me of the time my husband and I were in a restaurant arguing about whether object-oriented design was good for graphical-user interface design, the people on the next table asked to be reseated far away from us.

I have written quite a few blogs about finding the patterns in storytelling, in data (see 10), and in design. This was the very first blog I wrote about it and it thrills me to see that it gets read nearly as often as the social media blogs.

4) Maslow’s hierarchy of social media, (April, 2015)

I love thinking about social media, again what motivates people to share which is the need to be experienced. This is one of my favourite blogs as it was the first time I figured out what social media was about and how we use it. From this blog came the social animal on social media series which regularly gets hits because we like to know why we do what we do and social media is fascinating.

5) Chemotherapy: The year of my hair, (October 2012)

My hair was always my crowning glory and people would comment it on it all the time. It was big and black and beautiful, though for many years, out of a bottle. So, to be completely bald wasn’t much of a giggle even though it was only for four months. Sadly, though it never grew back in quite the same way, my hair is a lot less curly now. When I took off my wig and had a shorn head, people used to tell me that I was brave for getting a haircut that short. It felt really nice and furry and my baby girls would rub my head.

Brave was the term people used again when gave up the hair dye so I am not surprised that Fifty shades of my grey hair, (December 2016) came in no. 12 of all time even though it is relatively new. People like pictures to guide them through their own hair growth. I know I do. I still look at both sets of pictures to remember where I’ve been, because even now I want to dye my hair black and so remind myself how long it has taken to get where I am and how my dyed hair didn’t look very good anymore.

6) Cognitive Science for IT Security, (August, 2007)

This one was written for my students when I lectured at Westminster. It is one of my favourite subjects as it involves how we think and technology and how the two don’t always fit together too well. It was the saddest of days when I couldn’t lecture after my daughter was born, not least of all, because when I was ready to return the course had changed and this topic had disappeared because I had made it up and no one else had my unique skill set to teach it.

7) Why my coffee machine is so sexy, (February, 2007)

I have been in love with my coffee machine forever. My husband and I were newly married and were totally broke, and we spent a month’s rent money on this coffee machine which we ordered from a dodgy Italian website which didn’t say anything at all, so we didn’t know if they’d got the money, or if they really existed, or if we’d been ripped off. Ah, the joys of early international Internet shopping.

8) Bad design: Fresenius Applix Smart food pump, (December, 2008)

I took this one down as it attracted a lot of negativity. I talk about it here but I reread it again today and it is a good blog, a solid UX review, and there are comments by people who agree with me which I had forgotten about as I, like most humans, tend to remember the bad stuff more easily. What occurred to me today is that the blog is a demonstration of the medium is the message. People got so focused on the criticisms I had, that they thought I was criticising the purpose of the foodpump which I wasn’t. I thought about putting it back up but then thought again. I would never write another blog like it and I only want to spread positivity.

After this post, and apart from one about augmented and virtual realities and wearables, I didn’t blog again until 2011, and when I did it was about WordPress, this was when I had just finished chemotherapy and was about start radiotherapy and more surgery that I had the energy to think about things – seriously though, would I listen to myself? I had two small children to look after, one who was about to have another big surgery too. I hadn’t slept in years. However, it was important to me to think about technology and people, it’s what I do, it’s what I’ve always done, so I read all of Alan Dix’s TouchIT and took notes so that I could feel more like myself. I lost the notes before I got the chance to put them online, but the experience in itself kept me going, so thank you Alan, for sharing your book-to-be online, it kept me going.

In 2012 I managed to blog about embodiment during chemotherapy and the experience of my daughter’s first day at school, which was really nice. It brought me back to me and helped me remember how I like to write.

9) Katie Hopkins’s #fatstory one year on (January, 2016)

This one is a pop psychology blog about why Katie Hopkins is so mean. It gets hits all the time and is always in my most popular this week. I have no idea why people want to read about her. I guess it is the same reason I needed to write about her. I just wanted to understand why someone would be that mean, which is probably why my blog on Prejudice: The social animal on social media (April 2016) comes in at no 13 on the all time blog hits.

10) Storytelling: Narrative, Databases, and Big Data (April, 2016)

I was asked to lecture the module introduction to databases and the notes were a bit dry so I wrote this blog for my students to let them know that while we were linking together small tables of ten rows, people working with databases have millions and millions of rows to manipulate. Database design is exciting and patterns are where it is at.

11) Bikram: Heat is the way to inner peace March 2015

I love yoga. I started doing yoga when I was 14 years old, and am a trained teacher (of course I am, if there’s a formal way of learning anything, you can count on me to be your most enthusiastic student. Sign me up!). Bikram is just another wonderful variation of this wonderful gift. I love the heat, the sweat, and the way my body feels bending over lots of times in a hot room. I would recommend Bikram to anyone. It is a super hard discipline and never gets any easier, but I love it.

And, I love blogging. I love this space of mine. I write slowly and at great length. I used to have yoast installed which tells you how to make your blogs more SEO friendly, and says basically: 300 words long, H2 headers must have the keyword of the blog in them as the title must too, and you must sprinkle the keyword through the text. Yawn! I switched it off.

I take my time to write my blogs as I am not doing them to impress a search engine. I edit a lot, otherwise I end up with a blog like this one which as I reread it now, is a little disconnected and full of it’s brilliant, I love it. Pressing publish after grappling to understand something I didn’t before is just brilliant and yeah, I love it. I am so grateful to WordPress and Tim Berners-Lee for creating a platform for me to explore what’s on my heart, and for anyone who takes the time to read what I have written. Thank you.

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]