Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why isn’t my mother a mechanic?

Image

As a child, my mother had her own overalls. She grew up stripping engines and cleaning carburettors. She was the daughter of a mechanic and master builder. Then she became a librarian.

As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up playing with punch cards and radio telescopes. My father was a physicist and astronomer. I built rockets, robots, computers and oscilloscopes with him. Then I became a film maker.

Eventually I returned to the study of rockets and robots but from the perspective of trying to understand why our sciences seemed to be gendered and what happens at the intersections of society and technology.

In Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo wrote “My mother was a computer” to launch a meditation on the gender implications of information technologies as she touches on the changing social status and meaning of occupations. For example, clerking was once a male occupation, now primarily female. And some traditionally female crafts have at times been male only guilds, eg. knitting.

In My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles takes this sentence  as her title; ‘as a synecdoche for the panoply of issues raised by the relation of Homo sapiens to Robo sapiens, humans to intelligent machines’. Hayles takes the gender and status implications of our changing technologies in society and raises them to a discussion on our kinship relations to machines, engaging with Moravec’s ‘postbiological’ future.

I love robots because they teach us what it is to be human. Robotics explores our inner space. Our automatons and artificial intelligences imitate life. So we have to work out what it is we are imitating and every choice we make building an imitation being says something about what we think we are, and what we think we aren’t.  So who we are, as well as our society, shapes our technologies, while our technologies change the world.

Hayles’ trilogy of books, Writing MachinesHow We Became Posthuman and My Mother Was a Computer describe an arc that starts at the binary opposition of embodiment and information, engages with the materiality of literary texts and then extends the ideas of ‘intermediation’ into computation. She takes Latour’s call for a turn from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ literally, as Hayle’s ‘materiality’ is the  intersection between matter and meaning, or “dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies”.

This is a call echoed by Rodney Brooks and Raffaello D’Andrea amongst others, that we start asking social questions more than technological ones in robotics. By extension, a social question is a business one because if someone needs something then they will value it. Not always as highly as they ought, but nonetheless we’ve had enough ‘build it and they will come’! While there are some technical questions (and some people) who are best in an abstract realm, there are many unanswered pragmatic ones.

The materiality of robotics is my area of study, both in the broadest sense of how do some robotic designs come in to being and not others, but in the minute details of whether or not the materials used in robotics affect the demographics of robot designers.

Robotics is gendered. While women are more equally represented these days in health, medicine and biological sciences, it is clear that engineering and the physical and computing sciences are still heavily male biased. [insert all the books, articles and reports written on gender inequality in STEM here] This hasn’t changed much over time either. And for the record, this is still the case in politics, finance and business.

I watch this trend up close in Silicon Valley and both the VC and startup worlds are heavily male dominated. It seems as though rapid innovation exacerbates innate biases at a systemic level [insert another book here]. Of course, there are many fabulous women in both startups and in robotics. Of course, some women achieve success, recognition and reward. It’s just that overall, the odds are not in your favor if you are female and you shouldn’t have to work twice as hard to overcome them.

Do you even want to do what so many men do? Maybe some women want different work lives? Maybe some women want different robots?

It’s time to talk more loudly about both gender and biology. I believe that biology plays a strong part in these differences and we risk becoming a society that refuses to talk about difference – because we want to respect everyone’s equality. Our anodyne culture makes it hard to celebrate different mindedness and different bodiedness. This is worrisome, especially as our ability to tinker with our selves increases. Let’s not do a Dr Lawrence Summers here and shoot the message because we don’t like the messenger.

There are many reasons why women are not in robotics and getting them more engaged in school is only one answer. We must simultaneously address improving the pipeline at every point right up to promotion to CEO or Board, better family life balance, more equitable pay (especially in light of women’s higher rate of p/t or interrupted work), more role models, less innate bias and finally, better value given to areas traditionally female, which will in turn allow more women to import their skills and experience into areas which are, so far, traditionally male.

My mother isn’t a mechanic, but she is a maker. She taught me kitchen chemistry and real cooking. My mother made clothing from necessity and then for pleasure. She taught me 3d modelling, design, aesthetics and problem solving skills in the process. When I was young, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I wanted to be a physicist, an astronaut, a test fighter pilot and explore outer space. 

I gave up when I entered my teens. There was no career pathway for women in space, no role models, no encouragement. That has changed now, but the deeper lesson I learned was that in the world we have unequal access to technology, by gender or by race or global location. I saw this with the spreading of computer technology and the internet. If you live in some parts of the world, you don’t have access to technology and you can’t shape the building of new technologies and it’s hard to be an innovator.

Maybe innovation needs more makers and fewer mechanics. Maybe my mother was happy never becoming a mechanic. But she never got the promotions or the pay that she deserved. And her skills as a maker are far less valued than those of a mechanic.

My siblings followed in my father’s footsteps and got PhDs in the ‘hard’ sciences. By contrast, my mother and I are just Masters, and masters of the ‘soft’ sciences. But we are also makers. And I believe that the Maker movement is one way of encouraging us to value more varied contributions to science/technology. At every level of expertise,  I would like to see more women making a robots, which in turn may lead to more interesting robotics, a robotics that is useful and appealing to the rest of the world.

See this post in International Womens Day wrap over at Robohub – your global source for news and views about robotics!

Lean methodology and technology

Lean startup methodology is the most interesting methodological shift in transferring technology to use of the century, in combination with changes in the technological scaffold that make this possible.

outline what this means?

And of course, it’s simply a combination of scientific method, sociology, or design, in business language.

What is human-robot metacommunication?

Chris Chesher, Unversity of Sydney, describes the conceptual challenges that robotics poses for media and communication studies. While this is still in press and subject to change, I found that this list is something I will want to refer to again! The transition from broadcast media to the internet and mobile media is complicated. Just as some theoretical models have emerged to understand computers, a ‘universal’ medium, the rise of robotics is going to create new layers of differentiation.

a. Robots are explicitly quasi-others, challenging traditional Humanist taboos against the agency and anthropomorphism of objects.

b. Robots have physical particularity, presence and autonomous activity, in contrast to other media such as printed, audio and screen-based media, which tend to be positioned as transparent and standardised and mass-produced media.

c. Robots use multimodal elements (movements, sound, screens, ‘emotion’) that aspire to create meanings that combine several media (facial expressions, movement relative to personal space, speech and so on).

d. Robots work with greater degrees of feedback than traditional computers. Robots perceive and interpret user actions, and modify their behavior within cybernetic loops.

I think that there may need also to be a separation between the metacommunication of robot as human proxy and the very specific and asymmetric human-robot and robot-human communication. Chris Chesher is one of the few theorists I’m aware of who attempts to deconstruct what a robot communication is.

[image of Waseda Talker 2007 - one of a series replicating human vocal production ]

Secret Life of Pronouns

Image

“The Secret Life of Pronouns” by James W. Pennebaker is a book I wish I’d read before finishing my thesis. It makes a strong case for words having the power to reflect changes in our society and perhaps even be transformative. Sometimes highly relevant work is just too many disciplines away from your research area for it to register. (I felt the same way on discovering the work that Joanna J. Bryson was doing in the AI and philosophy areas on robot ethics and robots as slaves.)

Why was this relevant to me? My thesis was that analyzing the names we gave robots, particularly research robots in competitions rather than consumer products, illustrated the underlying social relations we have with robots and my conclusion was that we treat robots as slaves based on robot names having most similarity to 18th century slave names, rather than pet names, gadget names or personal names. My background is cultural theory, which analyzes objects and relations as texts and communications.

James W. Pennebaker is a social psychologist, the Regents Centennial Liberal Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and highly cited author of 10 books and almost 300 scientific articles. The Secret Life of Pronouns describes a large long term research project that connects the way we use small functional words with the way we behave and are positioned in the world, our ‘social and psychological processes’.

“The smallest, most commonly used, most forgettable words serve as windows into our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The ways people use pronouns, articles, and other everyday words are linked to their personality, honesty, social skills, and intentions…. Using computerized text analyses on hundreds of thousands of letters, poems, books, blogs, Tweets, conversations, and other texts, it is possible to begin to read people’s hearts and minds in ways they can’t do themselves.”

The Secret Life of Pronouns is one of the new breed of big data scientific research projects. Using computation power and masses of data, the researchers are able to transform subtle social differences into significant correlations and robust data sets. We still argue over whether or not gender or class exist, or more precisely, we usually agree that they exist but risk being labelled polemical when we attempt to label something as gender or class related. So many other factors are more overt and specific to the group/people.

While there is always a trade off between large scale quantitative research and in depth qualitative work, it is very compelling to be able to say that something was studied over millions of people or thousands of cities. If a finding is true across all of these diverse groups then we may start to see the real nature of gender, class and other culturally constructed identities. We might be able to see if things change, in which ways and whether or not changes are beneficial, although that is still a highly subjective measure!

Some of Pennebaker’s findings include that women and men really do use language differently, and that most authors can be identified as male or female regardless of their characters’ genders. Even author authenticity has a good chance of being detected, whether Beatles songs or the Federalist papers. How couples or groups relate to each other shows in word use mirroring and can predict longevity of relationships and productivity of work teams. Ultimately, social cohesion is reflected in language styles, which like accents, can be highly localized and a subtle indicator of status and group belonging. People seem to be very good at utilizing these communicative techniques without thinking about it.

“The magic of this project is not about the links between income distributions and social patterns in cities. Rather, it shows how words in the most mundane of places can reveal important information about a community’s social ties. All groups, whether families, work groups, companies, or entire cities, leave trails of their social and psychological lives behind in the words their members use in communicating with each other. Words are one of the human-made elements that connect our thoughts and ideas across people. By tracking our words, we get a sense of the social fabric.” [p.243 'The Secret Life of Pronouns' by Pennebaker, J. W. Bloomsbury Press NY 2011]

Robots, Code and Stuff

FAKE GRIMLOCK is my new favorite reading (along with The Bloggess and xkcd), because what he says makes a lot of sense. It also drips with sarcasm, awesomeness and blood. Many technology luminaries (like Eric Ries, Brad Feld, Fred Wilson and CNN) have noticed that FAKE GRIMLOCK carves through all the cream and gets straight to the coffee.

FAKE GRIMLOCK connects code and effect in a way reminiscent of Latour’s ‘Where are the Missing Masses, sociology of a few mundane objects’. Latour’s call has become a slogan for the need to reinsert the matter or ‘stuff’ of science and society back into a social constructivist STS or sociology [1]. Code is an object and objects shape us as much as we shape them.

We are changing society right here – punching code through the walls of the world. But all too often the vision is just personal or commercial success.

“STARTUP IS MAKE FIST OF CODE, PUT IT THROUGH THE WORLD. VISION IS PUT FIST IN RIGHT PLACE, BREAK WORLD IN HALF.”

Roadblocks of gender, race and class are still huge. Sometimes technological advancement is just making bigger roadblocks. Startup philosophy, which emphasizes the individual, is often powerless before huge areas of fail. We aren’t all giant robot dinosaurs and sometimes we don’t share the same visions. For example, feminism is a great conversation killer, because not a lot has changed in last 50 years. Seriously – this 1991 MIT report by Ellen Spertus is still accurate. That’s depressing. It’s great to celebrate awesome women engineers and ceos, but important to point out the systematic obstacles women face in the tech and startup worlds.

Fake Grimlock’s irresistible awesome is up against some pretty immoveable objects, but at least reading @fakegrimlock makes me feel like a raging fury in a good way.

1. Latour, Bruno 1992. Where are the missing masses, sociology of a few mundane artefacts application/pdf icon In Shaping Technology-Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker and John Law (editors), MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. pp. 225-259, 1992 [new expanded and revised version of article (35). Republication in the reader Johnson, Deborah J., and Jameson M Wetmore, eds. Technology and Society, Building Our Sociotechnical Future. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008 pp. 151-180]

SOPA strike success!

http://www.sopastrike.com/numbers

Internet Blackout

So you shouldn’t even be looking at this… but just in case you want to know more: sopastrike.com or just google it!

The page http://www.sopastrike.com/ is on strike today to fight the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Today, we are striking against censorship. Join us in this historic moment: tell Congress to stop this bill now!

I am writing to you as a voter in your district. I urge you to oppose the Senate version of S. 968, the PROTECT IP Act. The PROTECT IP Act is dangerous, ineffective, and short-sighted. The House version — just introduced by Rep. Goodlatte — is far worse.Over coming days you’ll be hearing from the many businesses, advocacy
organizations, and ordinary Americans who oppose this legislation because of the myriad ways in which it will stifle free speech and innovation. We hope you’ll take our concerns to heart and oppose this legislation.

Join The Strike! and add this to your site

Learn More: Watch the video · American Censorship page · View the Infographic
Read SOPA on OpenCongress · Read PIPA on OpenCongress

Fight For The Future may contact you about future campaigns.
We will never share your email with anyone. Privacy Policy