Accidental techie (3): Transference California

Transfer effects, The Design of Everyday Things

[part 2]

In the ’90s I went to my first international conference to present some research. It was very exciting. I stayed in a hotel near Stanford University and got to walk about across the huge campus everyday.

At the drinkies on the first night, I ended up at the wrong ones. I seemed to be at a 20-year reunion which took me a while to realise as I was there thinking: I don’t remember all these people from today. They were very nice about it and we laughed as I squeezed through the hedge to the AI crowd. It turned out that my really nice wine glass stood out amongst everyone else’s plastic cups and it made for a nice ice-breaker.

At the drinks, I met two PhD students from Cambridge University who had planned a road trip when the conference was over and asked what I was going to do. Of course, I hadn’t planned anything, but I didn’t have to fly back out from L.A. for another seven days. So, they invited me to go along with them which I did and had a fabulous time. We saw everything San Francisco, Yosemite, Berkeley, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, Death Valley. California, baby! It was great fun and I was sad to say goodbye when they dropped me off at the airport.

I can’t really imagine doing that now. I have been a married sensible woman and mother for so long that the idea of jumping into the back of a car to drive all round California with two men I’ve just met is just so alien to me now, set as I am in my small life in it’s routine (yawn), that I can hardly remember how it seemed so easy and so natural. I wonder what happened to them, did they finish their PhDs? Did they get jobs? Stay in academia? I can’t even remember their surnames to google them. Although, I did have a bit of a crush on one of them (the nice one), I’ll be honest I used to google – well search online, was it Yahoo? – for him a bit afterwards.

But, on the last day of the conference when they offered to take me with them, I remember getting my things together whilst feeling really stressed. What if they went without me? What if they changed their minds? What if they thought it was a terrible idea?

As it was they turned up early and helped negotiate my hotel bill, I remember the louder one of them saying: Her going I am going to charge you an extra day for no reason, is that ok? is like: I am going to punch in the face, is that ok? And I was so grateful for his loudness. He told her that no she couldn’t charge me for an extra day for no reason, and no, it was not ok.

Several days later as we were standing in Death Valley, he wanted us to run about on the sandy earth barefoot to see how it felt. I didn’t want to, but he set up a series of stepping stones, like a towel and a book and stuff, and he was like: Go on try. And, I again I didn’t really want to but since he and his mate had already, I did too. I was part way through when he removed everything and took my shoes so that I had no choice but to run all the way back to the car over the boiling hot sand, but when I got there, he drove off, and there I was left in the middle of Death Valley. It felt like an eternity and I had that ground falling away feeling and a sickness in my stomach. They drove back round and were laughing. I got into the car and asked for my shoes, I was too choked up to speak.

I grew up right at the foot of the Cleveland Hills, you could see them from my bedroom, not too far from the part known as California as the local Iron Ore Rush was a bit like the Californian Gold Rush, so the story goes. On Sundays, my dad would tell everyone to get ready for a walk up the hills. But so many times, my brothers and my dad would set off without me. I would come downstairs all ready and excited to go and they would have already gone leaving me with that ground falling away and sick feeling. My mum would say: Oh but they looked everywhere for you. Yeah, like there was anywhere to hide in the two-up two-down on the council estate we all called Cardboard City.

Years later they told me that they would say: Shhh let’s sneak off before Ruth gets downstairs, and when I said that it was cruel, my dad said: Oh but you were such a whinger, and he didn’t want to have to carry me home when I got tired. I remember everyone laughing and making it clear in no uncertain terms that my feelings and opinions didn’t matter, I was to shut up and stop crying. In fact my mother’s favourite line was: You’ll never get through life if you cry like that, Ruth.

I cannot think who I am more disappointed in: My mum for going along with it, or my dad for being so feeble as to not hold an honest conversation with his only daughter. I am amazed I trust anyone at all, or perhaps that it’s, perhaps I don’t trust anyone, really, whether I’ve known you all my life or for the last five minutes, you may still lie to me and sneak off, or pretend to leave me stranded in a place where I would die, as a joke, how funny, and then laugh at my tears.

Psychologists call it transference when you transfer a past experience to a present one. I am sitting here all a bit trembly as I think about it, about how abandoned I felt at the bottom of Death Valley, which was really just a revisiting of being left behind whilst everyone was up the hills. And, I am so sorry for baby Ruth and how her parents thought it was a good idea to make the whole family complicit in a lie whilst encouraging their baby girl to believe that it was her own fault and that she just wasn’t enough. Wow!

Not long after I started my first lecturing position, the only other woman in the department came in and asked me if she could lecture my course instead of me: But what am I supposed to do and why was I hired if you can teach my courses? It baffles me even now. She certainly didn’t go around asking the men of the department whether she could do their jobs for them. She probably thought she couldn’t, but that she could do mine, ‘cos how hard could it be, right? I remember her calling meetings and forgetting to invite me, and criticising me for the most random of things. I don’t even remember asking her why she was so focused on me? I was just so used to that feeling of being uncertain and wrong footed around other women, that it felt familiar. Like the men go about the world doing things and don’t have to explain anything to me, I don’t count, I am uninvited, and the women are in their own sub-culture not quite telling the truth, fighting over a limited amount of resources, the crumbs left over from the men, with the unsaid message: This is the way it is. I think again, my transference.

In my 2nd year undergraduate, I shared a house with three girls. One night, we went to the pub in the car. On the way home, they all went out to get the car whilst I was still in the pub looking for my umbrella. Of course, when I went to outside to get into the car, yep, you’ve guessed it, they’d left without me. That wasn’t the first time I felt wrong-footed when I lived with them but it was the last.

I moved out shortly afterwards, and another female asked me if I would get a place with her. I said that I would, glad that I had a plan. We went home for the holidays and she wrote to me several times to remind me of the plan. When I went back to Liverpool, she was unreachable. I learnt a couple of days later that she had moved into my old room. Dearie me. What is wrong with an honest conversation? The friend who was driving the car never forgave me for moving out, and told me when she bumped into me not long after that I would never have any friends, that I would be lonely and alone: You know that’s your worst fear. I didn’t know that it was my worst fear, and sitting here today, I am wondering how much did I contribute to these upsets with my transference. Ssssh let’s sneak off before Ruth gets here.

Interestingly, the woman who wanted my job wrote to me some years later to apologise for her behaviour, and wanted to meet for lunch. And, then not long after that another woman with whom I had done some consultancy wrote a similar email, I wasn’t very nice to you, she wrote, Let’s meet for lunch. I hadn’t really gotten that upset about that one, I just thought she was a bit weird, a bit frosty. I guess I was so used to that funny feeling of shifting sands around women, who are not telling you the truth but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s such a familiar feeling, that I guess it feels like home. My auntie who died recently, used to regularly phone me up and tell me that my mother didn’t like me, which I think she thought would help me.

I still get transference, why wouldn’t I? I am trying these days to be, as they say, the sacred witness to myself. I take a breath to get beyond that sinking feeling and ask for clarification. If someone has done me wrong or been unprofessional and it has a negative impact on me, I will speak up. Often I do it as an experiment because I am still grappling with that idiotic voice inside myself which tells me that my feelings and opinions don’t matter, and I am not enough. And, also I have a very firm rule: If someone laughs when I cry then they are not very nice. No flex on that one.

I wonder then, if that is why I went into tech. Is that why I find technology so comforting? You see, when I am sitting in front of a computer, it doesn’t press all my buttons, and when I press its buttons, even the wrong ones, it really doesn’t mind, we can reboot and start again, it doesn’t make me wrong about who I am, it doesn’t want my stuff, or my job, or my boyfriend, it doesn’t criticise me, or tell me not to be me, it doesn’t sneak off when I leave the room, and it definitely doesn’t lie to me.

Oh my, how I love computers.

Westworld and the ghosts of AI

source: lamag.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

technology-disconnect-s from vortaloptics.com

You are not alone – Oprah Winfrey

Alone Together (1)

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

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

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

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

Glorious technology

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

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

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

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

That is not possible now

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

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

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

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

You are not alone

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Sociability amongst strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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