The accidental techie (7): Lost and found

 [ 1) the accidental techie2) the uninvited3) transference california4) flow5) shadowing6) going inside 7) lost and found, 8) 20/20]

Growing up I wanted to be a botanist just like David Bellamy, but changed my mind when I found out that I would have to cut up dead animals in biology to get to my goal. For a little while I wanted to be a police officer when the local bobby came into school, but back then there were height restrictions, and I was far too small.

After that, I switched to wanting to be a journalist, and indeed years and years after I first thought of it, I got a pgdip in journalism which was great fun hanging out with twentysomethings again and flashing a press card but I just couldn’t hound people for a story when they were at their lowest ebb. Deciding, however, to become a university lecturer was such a gradual, accidental thing, that I barely remember a time now when I didn’t want to be one.

It began in my final year of computing undergrad at LJMU when a gang of us went to karaoke night at the pub and then back to ours where we found a bottle of Ricard behind the fridge. It was covered in dust and God knows what or how long it had been there, but one of the lads was like: This is how you drink it. He mixed it up with water and sat clutching the bottle to his chest, literally all night, telling us about his broken heart after his summer of love in France, whilst we laughed a lot, like you do in a bubble of Ricard sharing stories with friends.

The next day we all had final year project meetings, three of us with the same supervisor. I wonder if he noticed that we were acting stranger than usual. I was a bit overexcited in that had-too-much-to-drink-and-no-sleep way and couldn’t stop babbling on, but felt better about it when Ricard man came out his meeting dying of embarrassment as he had actually fallen over partway through.

Our supervisor was such a lovely man and did great lectures – not that I appreciated them at the time – and it was during my meeting, that he asked me what I wanted to do when I left university. He was really cool and had helped me back in my first year shortly after a friend from home had taken his own life and I was finding it hard to make sense of things. That year I got exactly the pass mark in the supervisor’s exam, not a coincidence I know, I have done it myself for my students. I thought really hard about his question and as I looked into his kind face, I said that I wanted to be a university lecturer, like him. He said: You’ll need a PhD, which seemed like such a daunting prospect that I immediately dismissed it as a possibility.

Growing up on our council estate, very few people had jobs. It was a time of upheaval and massive job shedding in the steel and chemical industries, redundancies, lay off, mines closing, and so on. So the idea that you could choose a job and a career path and not just take anything that you were offered, and feel lucky, was still an alien concept to me. Someone asking me what I wanted to do with my life, like I mattered, like it was important, and then listening to what I had to say and not telling me what I should do, was just such a gift, that years later typing this, I am as touched as I was right back then in that room with that man who talked to me like I had potential and that I was a person who could choose.

I did get a PhD. The opportunity came by accident, not long after I had completed an MSc in AI, again an accident, which had come about because someone re-posted an advert the admissions officer at Aberdeen University sent out via email in a last-ditch attempt to fill 20 places on his MSc with exchange programs to France. I only saw the advert because after I graduated I stayed on at LJMU for the summer, employed by my lovely supervisor to create tutorial materials, which I really enjoyed, and also it was great as I had access to everything I needed to apply for jobs.

I saw the advert as a way to live in Paris and remember going round to the AI lecturer and asking if she would write down some words for me to get me on the MSc as I wanted to live in Paris. She was slightly, in the loveliest way, offended, and asked me why I hadn’t chosen her AI module. Simples: It was 4-6 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and the parallel computing module was on a Monday at a more sensible time and had a 50% coursework so I could know that I had passed before going into the exam. I’d learnt occam and became a huge fan of the origami editor (can’t find a link, only one to 3D origami modelling which looks fascinating). Her help totally got me on the course however, the admissions officer sent me to Chambéry near the Alps, but me being me, fell in love with all that fresh air and cycling so much so that I didn’t want to go back to rainy England. Though, I did hitch to Paris that summer to see a friend from the course. Christ, I also hitched round the Dorgdogne, getting a lift off a slightly scary bloke he pulled over a few times to say: Madame, vous etes tres belle. But, that’s a different blog.

Once in France, another advert for the next job – which again got reposted from elsewhere as they were having trouble filling the position, it was for a GUI programmer in some random place called Lausanne – popped up in my inbox, I couldn’t wait to send off my CV. Alas, I made such a hash of the interview and I was so upset, it was such a lovely town where people spoke French slowly and in such a gentle way and were so helpful, that I remembering standing in tears on La Place de la Riponne, desperately yearning to stay. So, much so that the minute I got back to my computer in Chambéry (via Geneva, two trains, and a party at the local language school – imagine waiting that long nowadays) I emailed the interviewer to explain that I was normally brilliant at interviews and if he could only give a second chance he would never be sorry.

I am not sure I kept that promise because I still remember his super red face during a massive outburst in a meeting: I hate her, she comes in here full of her own ideas. I won’t lie, it was hurtful. I thought I was supposed to have my own ideas. Isn’t that the whole point of a PhD? I thought I saw him a couple of years ago on the tube, and had a flashback to that day.

After my PhD, I took a year off to go travelling. This was because when I left Switzerland I was given a lot of my tax back so I was given a lump sum. I asked a few people around me what they would do with it. The responses were varied: 1. Put a deposit on property. 2. Buy a car. But, you need roots to do that, so seeing the world was a unique opportunity. Now, with a property and a car and a family and responsibilities, I am so glad I went.

It was a bit stressful dropping out as well meaning people advised me that it was a bad move.  In that time my peers would be publishing and getting jobs, and generally getting ahead of me and I would have trouble getting a job when I got back. I didn’t have any difficulty at all but because I figured I was behind, I went straight to lecturing instead of a post-doc. If I had to do it all again, I would have applied to post-docs and got some publishing going and some guidance. I did apply for one post-doc, but the supervisor there was so unpleasant, even when offering me the job, in a you are so not any good but I can’t find anyone better way that I turned it down on the phone. I remember her saying to think about it. And, I was like: No need. Instead, I got the job I had always wanted and chose a difficult path for myself, lecturer. It’s only saving grace was that it was in human-computer interaction (HCI), a subject which fascinated me in Switzerland as a GUI programmer and PhD student, and ever since as HCI lecturer, researcher, and UX consultant. After life gave me the opportunity to be a mum, a dialysis nurse, and a cancer patient, going back to HCI and lecturing helped me find my way back to myself after a lot of joy and pain.

I don’t know how the world works and I do often ask what it’s all about, Alfie? But, there’s one thing I am starting to believe, just by dint of experience, is we get the same lessons over and over and over, until we learn it.

Inasmuch as I thought I had learnt to choose what was right for me, I hadn’t at all. When I went to interview for my first lecturing position, I was in a waiting room with other people and I was overwhelmed with a sense of despair, like a drowning sensation. Fool that I was, I ignored my gut instincts and accepted the job because there were two people there with whom I wanted to work with, and I was slightly starstruck. I didn’t get to work with anyone, I was put in an office by myself, with no furniture and one of the secretaries used my office for storage and couldn’t understand why I got upset. I kid you not. I had to beg the head of department for some furniture and a laptop. I had to figure everything out by myself, and the lecturing was such a small part, I had to get a team, get funding, do all this stuff, all by myself, without any support. I was the first lecturer they had come in from the outside in years, and it never occurred to anyone that I may need a bit of help. Every other lecturer either came in at a senior position with their own team, or they had come through the ranks all the way from undergraduate and were supported. I was outside of that and only when I requested an exit interview on my way out the door after an awful time did the head of department admit that they hadn’t treated me very well. I had just felt so lost in the supposed job of my dreams.

The next time I ignored my instincts at a job interview, it didn’t end well at all, either. When would I learn? It was for a usability consultant position. I applied for it, as I was lecturing HCI part-time and had suffered a miscarriage and we had not long moved to London, and I was super sad, super lost. I thought getting into a full-time schedule would keep me occupied so I didn’t sink into a sadness I couldn’t get out of, and also I would meet some new people, and make some new friends. Again, sitting in a waiting area talking to people I felt that same drowning sensation and again, I ignored myself and took the job, convincing myself that it would be ok. I had the worst time ever.

For ages they didn’t give me any work to do and made me just sit about in the office and could I please answer the phone and empty the dishwasher? I asked for the time off to give some lectures that we had agreed I would do during my interview should I get a job there, but they were unimpressed – that I should think I was entitled to that sort of thing. Who did I think I was? I pointed out that I had nothing to do and really I could empty the dishwasher on my return. Grudgingly they let me go and then gave me a biggish project with terrible timescales and a supervisor who after it all went badly wrong, admitted when I asked him – you always have to ask people otherwise they just hide in the corner and refuse to accept that they are responsible too – that he was too intimidated to supervisor me or offer any advice. (I was using cultural probes to get the information I needed and wrote about it later so I pulled something good out of the whole fiasco.) They had very specific ways of doing things but he couldn’t bring himself to tell me instead he would come to my desk and talk about nothing in particular for at least an hour at a time all about how good he was (another woman would rewrite everything I wrote instead of explaining what was required so that it felt very much like shifting sands) and make me feel stressed about the time I was losing and I would ask if what I was doing was ok and because he never said it wasn’t I assumed I was on the way to giving him what was needed for the project we were working on! So peculiar. I struggled a lot and was already not 100% given the bleeding I was still managing and I was struggling from anxiety (like I do sometimes) and couldn’t get on public transport which one of my colleagues took as yet another sign of my diva-ness. When I look back I see that I was a bit of a mess and shouldn’t have been there at all, but only one person noticed.

He was one of the tech lads and one day he came over to me and asked me to go to the shop with him. It seemed a peculiar request but I went along anyway. We walked there and he just talked a bit about the weather, and insisted that I try coconut water (yuk) and then on the way back he finally said what he wanted to, which was not to take on so, not take it so personally, and so on, and explained that their passive-aggressive behaviour was on them, including how they regularly told him there was no work for him and he was there on a week by week basis. Baffled, by the term passive-aggressive, he explained it to me and made me laugh by saying that when he got the manager a cup of tea, he would spit in it. Brilliant. But, not true, he was would never have done such a thing as he was such a lovely gentle soul.

I got fired shortly afterwards and was hustled from the building like I’d done something wrong. The reason I was fired: I didn’t fit. I never saw my tech guy again. We didn’t fit in that place, I know that as his kindness that day helped me get through a tricky patch. He was good at his job, he fixed things for me a few times, but they didn’t treat him well and let him know regularly that he was surplus to requirements and that his job was not secure. I hate them to this day for that as it was his lifeline but they didn’t bother to check. They just didn’t care. He had his struggles so that he could see suffering in others like he did that day with me. But, it wasn’t the sort of environment in which people behaved like that, it was a bruising one (I remember one female colleague refusing to let me speak one day because: You know everything.) it took a few days before anyone noticed that he hadn’t turned up for work. I think they wanted him to fix something. But he wasn’t able to because he had already taken his own life. Someone, weeks later, left me a message to tell me that they were buying a park bench in his memory. Which twentysomething in the history of the world has wanted to be remembered with a park bench? #ffs. That’s for old people. He just wanted not to have his job threatened everyday. He wanted to feel secure. He wanted to feel like he mattered – Maslow’s basic needs – without them we feel deficient. They bought him a fucking park bench. They’d have done better to give him that in wages.

I fell pregnant not long after this, and when my baby was born with kidney failure, I tried to have a job and be a mum but did one lecture and realised that I couldn’t teach and worry about her blood pressure and vomiting at the same time. It wasn’t fair to my students. And, there was no way I could hold down a job as a usability consultant, not without having flexible hours – which as we all know are not flexible at all – and not in a passive-aggressive environment like the one I had experienced. And, even though the hospital told us to go about being normal as possible, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do anything but sit by my baby’s bed and be with her in case she was only passing through. I needed to be by her side. I didn’t want to miss a minute as beautiful and as heartbreaking as it was. I couldn’t act like everything was normal.

There is too much emphasis on being normal and business as usual. During that first lectureship, a professor in conversation one day, casually asked me if I had really gone travelling for a year. Surprised, I asked him what else he thought I might have been doing. He said that a gap like that normally meant one of two things: a pregnancy or a nervous breakdown. Sad but true, nothing much changes. Society dictates that we not mention our kids or our mental health in case it affects our job prospects. We all pretend, we all suffer and bleed in silence.

I went to a women’s networking back to work thing when my girls both started school as I wanted more than just a bit of volunteering at the school and the odd web design job, and my previous boss at Westminster University was no longer working there. So, off I went to explore new possibilities. Wow. Part way through the day though, someone asked me something, I don’t remember what exactly, and I said that my baby had been born with renal failure and I had had cancer and everyone was horrified. I wanted to say that I hadn’t really had a choice in whether I got to be a stay-at-home mum or not. But, they didn’t want to hear it, they wanted me to stop making everyone uncomfortable and said I shouldn’t ever mention it not in that room, not on my CV, and definitely not in interview. These are some of my defining life experiences, how could I pretend not to have had them? How could I act as if they hadn’t changed everything. I was lost for words. I was lost.

I saw that I wouldn’t get the answers I needed, and finally understood the lesson, I have the answers I need, no one else knows what’s best for me. When I am lost, I need to find myself, no one can find me for me. So, I left the networking group and started applying once more for HCI lecturing positions. Course, all anyone sees is the gap on the CV and the lack of published papers, but I just didn’t want to publish, I just wanted to teach and not have to research teaching and education. I just wanted to teach and keep up with HCI so that I could teach it well. One time, I even got an email back saying I didn’t have the right skill set. I mean seriously?! I don’t have the skillset to teach HCI? I don’t have the skills to do the job I have already done?

A professor friend who gave me a reference said: Why not lecture something else? Does it have to be HCI? That advice was pure gold and the answer was: No it didn’t. So, I got myself back into university life on one of those zero hours jobs lecturing other people’s slides on web technologies.

Though I will be honest and tell you that I had the same sinking feeling during interview, can you credit it? I ignored myself again, but you know what, this time, it was ok, I did it to get my feet under the table, and they were desperate to fill the position so I started straight away and I had the experience to know what I needed and how to ask for it, and it seemed a small price to pay to hang about in the library. I love libraries and students who are on the whole so inspiring. In fact, I enjoyed it for a couple of years until my mum was dying and instead of struggling, I just said, I need to some time off, but as zero-hours contracting is the worst sort of job, they just fired me, thanks very much. I got that email the same day someone else who was a ‘proper’ member of staff was leaving. He got a cake in the common room and drinks. I got a brusque email. Zero hours are the worst. I miss the library, I miss the students, I miss my mum, but not the slides.

It’s autumn once more, and I have that new term, new academic year feeling and I am ready once more, for more HCI, for more lecturing, for more life, more students and more laughs. This time, older and wiser, I am ready to listen to myself and my gut instincts, and I am so pleased. I no longer feel lost, in fact I am starting to feel found and I like that. I like it very much. With the way technology has expanded over the last few years, there are so many different ways to teach, and I am looking forward to exploring them all and finding myself somewhere new in a new landscape, lecturing the HCI course of my dreams, which is what I always think. And, this is what I love about HCI and technology it is always changing, always expanding, and there is no need to get stuck or feel lost. I just to have to remember to go with the flow and remember where I have been. I am experiencing. How cool is that?

[ part 8 ]

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.

Let’s talk! #broadcastsfrommybooth

I have been struggling to blog for a while now which was making me miserable as I like nothing better than to get a large cup of tea, swizzle round on my chair and tippety-tappety-talk into my computer.

So to wrestle back some sort of control over my writing, I began to talk tech over on YouTube and now I have embedded it here on a specially created Broadcast page. Ta daaa! The result is that I am feeling much happier.

The first time my girls caught me watching myself on TV and transcribing what I said, they thought it was really amazing and wanted their own channels but after a minute or so they started doing impressions of me falling asleep saying: I am very excited about technology. And, they have a point. I do sound a bit monotonous in What am I doing? but that is better than the video Our human experience on social media I seriously look like I am about to cry. It seems that I am not a natural in front of the camera.

My original idea was #broadcastsfrommybooth as I film myself in an old fireplace in my bedroom – my one fabulous go at interior design, even the carpet fitter thought I was mad – but it is a bit long to say in each video, and every word counts.

I use a Google Pixel phone. The camera is fabulous but doesn’t sound brilliant since the Pixel doesn’t allow you to use a plugin microphone, and if you change to a different camera app, the sound doesn’t really improve enough to make it worth the diminished video quality. Apparently, Pixel 3 will fix this problem but they said that about Pixel 2 and when I tested one, it didn’t seem to use the external mic. So, I will just use what I have.

I tried filming on my laptop with one of those headphone mics plugged in lying across the keyboard. It had great sound, but a terrible picture, I look like Voldemort (take a look – 1st Broadcast from the booth) so I turned off the softbox to get my nose back but then I looked like a guest on Most Haunted (check out Privacy and technology) although thankfully you can’t see up my nostrils. What is it with filming and noses? Softboxes are fabulous but it has taken ages to position them just right.

YouTube Creator Studio has lots of editing tools so you can trim your uploaded video, add notations and helpful graphics which I will do once I get my story straight. Currently, I don’t script my videos which I should do – it is a YouTube rule – but it’s a bit tricky talking about my own ideas in a couple of minutes. I just need to practice.

I manage to wear a lot of black even though that is a big no-no and try to follow the other YouTube rules like put face powder on to so as to not be shiny and distracting. I also stare right into the tiny lens and bring my energy to no one in particular which is easier said than done, believe you me.

Speaking into a tiny lens for a maximum of five minutes is very different from lecturing to computer scientists in a purpose built room for at least an hour where I get moment-by-moment feedback. However, I am enjoying the challenge. I gurn a lot and sometimes my hair looks a bit crazy though I bought a hairbrush this morning. This afternoon, I was drinking tea in between takes so my lipstick is all over the place. Yes that’s right, I look like I don’t know how to put on lipstick.

What can I say? YouTubing is much harder than it looks and I am in awe of those who make it look so great but now I have my first real subscriber over on YouTube who is not a member of my family and thinks I have useful things to say, I am inspired to talk more to my audience.

Today, I talked a lot about The Social Animal on Social Media and tomorrow I will tackle Web Design. I can’t wait!

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.

Productive or Experiential? Human-Computer Interaction: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (5)

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

Recently, I met up with an old friend and as we reminisced about our university days, she wondered if I still went about asking people really nosy questions. Now, I don’t exactly remember asking people really nosy questions, but I do like things to make sense and in my experience, people like to fill in the gaps in their stories and show me things because they know I care.

That said, back in April, I was in Naples where a man came out of his booth to ask me to stop staring at his funicular. I told him that he shouldn’t have it out in public if he didn’t want me staring at it. I remain very pleased to have managed that in Italian, though I still can’t understand why he was so upset about my admiration.

Italian funicular employees aside, I still believe as I have said here many many times before, we all want to be seen, we all want to be heard, we all want to matter. We make sense of ourselves, of others, and the world around us with stories. And, we do this even if we are not trying to write software, we are doing it to tidy up ourselves and our minds.

The thing is though, I thought I went into computing to get away from humans but really all I have done in my job is gravitate towards people to ask them about their life experiences to figure out how technology could make their lives easier, faster, better.

So, I was taken by HCI Professor Brenda Laurel’s division of what software does for us. In her book Computers as Theatre, she said that there are two types of HCI :

  1. Experiential computing for fun and games.
  2. Productive computing which is measured by outcome or seriousness with implications like writing a book and transmitting knowledge.

This chimes with anthropologist Lionel Tiger’s descriptions of designing for pleasure (experiential) or designing for achievement (productive).

But, don’t we do both? If something is designed well and is pleasurable to use, doesn’t it increase our productivity? Isn’t that what Apple has been super successful at doing with aesthetics, discoverability, and user experience? And, isn’t that the point of gamification? To make not fun things fun.

I’ve always wanted to help humans harness the power of computers, to help make their lives easier by automating the grunt work to free up more time to be creative in. I know that creativity is our life force. It keeps us expanding. It keeps us young. And like, J C Licklider, I believe that the best collaboration of computing and humans is a creative one of collaboration not codependency.

I have blogged about eliciting knowledge for web design as a way to get all the information a designer might need. And, my favourite part has always been shadowing people at work. I have done this round building sites, on bridges, chemical factories, exhibition centres, architects offices and half-built apartments, steel rolling mills, print factories, and people using mobile phones . I love to see what happens a day in the life of people doing jobs I will never have the opportunity to do. I am fascinated by people.

Ever since the first time I was in charge of changing some software, which involved users needing more fields in a database, I have loved helping people with their tech. However, simple this job was, it was my first insight into seeing how the database was there to be manipulated by the user to give new insight into the information they had. Nowadays we tell stories with databases. But, the database most always serve the user not the other way round. I think we forget this sometimes.

When I worked in the field of artificial intelligence, I purposely put errors into various parts of a knowledge based system. The idea being that the test cases I wrote to find my errors should uncover other similar errors which were there inadvertently. It needed extensive training for a user to understand what the system was calculating so that code was precious and had to be error free. And, if it needed to be changed because things are always changing in the real world, it needed a computer scientist to add more code. This I didn’t like so much. This was not empowering. Here the user and computer scientist served the code, not the other way round.

Also, it was difficult to model and represent things which experts knew inherently. So, in the case of the exhibition planning, the software I worked on used a constraint solver which could easily allocate the correct sized booths with required utilities such as electricity and water, but it couldn’t easily model or reason with exhibitor A wanting to be by the door, or not near exhibitor B, without a human. This is a common problem also for dinner planning for fundraisers, so I am told. The software has to be told the nuances of human life, but you don’t want to hard code it, as it is forever changing, which is why you either need a human, or you need a super good graphical user interface otherwise it is quicker by hand.

For a while I thought 3D applications and visualisation were the way forward especially in bridges. Bridges are enormous, last a long time, and information gets lost and the data needed to understand them is extensive, so why not visualise it. I got very excited about augmented reality, to overlay a bridge with plans, original ones, proposed changes plans. It was much harder to do back then as you needed to measure and calibrate the exact camera angle with the AR software in order by hand to overlay the original view (i.e. the bridge) with all the extra information (plans, proposed changes, future behaviour). I remember being out on a bridge for ages fiddling away. However, these days it would be much easier if you use an app you have written on the phone and it’s native camera.

But still inputting new information is not easy, especially on a mobile phone in 3D. I was playing games this morning on my mobile phone and I had trouble putting pizzas in boxes using 3D direct hand manipulation. More functionality equates to more complexity and constantly changing instructions which can be clever but requiring a learning curve as it not always intuitive, but if you are having fun, like I was, then I didn’t mind the learning curve, if it’s not fun, then we all need to be aiming for simplexity.

Experience impacts productivity and why wouldn’t it? Websites and apps are are a bit like designing a self-service instrument. As a user you figure out what is going on yourself. The better and easier it is to figure it out, the more likely you come back and the more you enjoy yourself. If not you will go elsewhere, where someone is listening, who wants to hear your story, to make you feel that you count and that your experiences matter. As Danielle La Porte said:

Design is love.

And what is love if it is not the best experience? Experiential HCI makes everything better. Let’s share the love!

 

[Part 6]