CHI 2014 Days 3-4

I promised a more optimistic post about the rest of CHI, so here’s a quick round-up of the cool talks, projects, people, and generally awesome things I saw at CHI.

Primary Intimacy of Being by Ikse Maître from Le Pixel Blanc on Vimeo.

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CHI 2014 Interlude

I started my last day at CHI seeing Elizabeth Churchill’s plenary talk, and I was all ready to be open and excited about everything else I saw during the day. And that positive post is coming, I promise, but I’m not ready to do that yet.

I was trying to be excited about new things, so I went to the session on brain interfaces, because brain computers are cool, right?? It turned out that was not a good place for me to be, because the second talk was about using brain interfaces for drone pilots. And the speaker made allusions to video games and ‘bad guys’ and I started to feel like this was a poor imitation of Orson Scott Card. But what bothered me the most, and I suppose I am complicit here since I got up and left the session before questions started, was that no one was even asking the question of how or why this study is centred around drone pilots. I’m not even saying that there are clear cut judgments, or that drones are implicitly bad, and I would have been happy to hear justifications and rationale behind it. But I just don’t understand why it wasn’t a necessary one-liner in the talk – is it really so easy to take it as a given, as an undeniable truth, that technology to aid drone pilots is the technology we should be working on? Or does it just make everyone too uncomfortable to bring up such unpleasantness in the context of a paper presentation?  So where is the place for ethics? I don’t mean the boilerplate ethical protocols, but the professional ethics which address if a thing should even be done, and how to say no to it (which gets obviously complicated and personally damning when you bring funding, grants and sponsors into the mix).

So I started thinking about how (I assume) few of the people in the room have ever been in the position of ‘other’ and how that changes your perceptions of the world (I’m trying really hard not to invoke the term ‘privilege’ here). One of the talks from earlier in the morning was discussing performance-enhancing drugs, and I started to feel like maybe we need the opposite. In the absence of real empathy, maybe we need drugs that can make you feel weak, vulnerable, and powerless (this will be the topic of my future SF novels.)

So that’s about all I could take of CHI2014, and I had to spend the rest of the day wandering around my thoughts of our collective drug-adled, drone-fueled demise.

CHI 2014 – Days 1 and 2

This week I am happy to be attending CHI2014, the Computer-Human Interaction conference, which is generally where all the cool kids are in software and interaction design research, and where you can see a lot of the next big thing, and be dazzled by the future that’s already here.

But, my experience has been coloured by a number of works I’ve been exposed to recently which have poked a bunch of holes in the technological positivism surrounding technology innovation (and really the start-up culture that is fueled by these ideals of saving the world through technology) mainly, the new HBO show Silicon Valley, this great piece on the capitalist notions underlying gaming by Steven Poole, and this piece from Wired profiling a (somewhat failing) start-up. So let’s just say I’m taking all this in with a mindset of being rather critical (okay, full-out cynical) and not ready to drink the Kool-aid.

Can’t We Leave the Teddy Bears out of it?

So, first, let’s talk about 3D printed teddy bears. Because that is a thing that some people see the need for. I am not one of those people. I frankly don’t see the need for 3D printing of any soft substances, though I may be in the minority there. I personally feel that the power of 3D printing plastics is in either: giving new, previously unknown material capabilities to small scale one-off designers; OR, changing the way manufacturing and distribution of plastics happens, in order to minimize waste and transportation. And neither of these apply to soft materials. We already have the tools to make objects with soft materials such as fabrics and yarns in our homes. And people (mostly women) have been doing this for centuries in analog form, and decades with the aid of (often-computing-enabled) machinery. I see absolutely no benefit to reinventing the wheel in this way, with a series of expensive technological barriers separating the design and making from a human’s interactions with the materials itself. So why are we putting energy into 3D printing teddy bears? There seems to be this mentality that ‘because we can’ is a good enough reason to add a computer to anything. And I guess what bothers me the most about this is the underlying value assumption (which I may be projecting or unfairly inferring) that a CAD model and a printing machine is somehow better than a pattern and needles and a person with a brain who can use them.

On the Outsourcing of Smelling the Roses

On to my problems with the Internet of Things.  Yesterday I saw a presentation talking about the IoT and trying to re-think the economics underlying it, based on the principles of building sensors with the cheapest possible materials. And, it was quite a good presentation. But, I still have problems with the whole topic. To start with, why must we always bring houseplants into the discussion of the IoT? (and yes, I am guilty of this myself.) But honestly, is taking care of houseplants really the task that plagues us all? (I can see the b&w infomercial now: tired of coming home to dozens of dead and rotting houseplants? Computers are here to help!)  From the plant’s point of view, how are we as a society enabling these plant-murderers, as we stand idly by while they show no regard for plant life, lacking knowledge or ability to take care of them on their own??? Maybe we need a shift in plant-human relations altogether, rather than embedding a bunch of sensors in pots.

But what really concerns me with the Internet of Things is the idea that everything can be – or is somehow better when – quantified, monitored and automated. I tend to think of the uses for IoT as applied to everyday interactions that are a pain and a chore, so how does our relationship with a thing (an orchid, microwave, significant other) change when we are constantly outsourcing our responsibility to sense and monitor?  What is left for our own senses when so much of our interactions are mediated by technological means? Is it necessarily a better interaction this way?

Humans and Humans First

Now, on to the things that gave me hope and didn’t make me feel like giving up and moving to a cabin in the woods. A wonderful presentation I saw on making culture by Andrew Quitmeyer brought up these two common conceptual missteps: de-skilling of humans, and digital exhaust (i.e. superfluous digital add-ons). And I argue that we need to be more conscious of these issues in any and all CHI. Another wonderful and entertaining presentation on ‘AnarCHI’ was a much-needed wake-up call to take responsibility for what we are doing and the politics, or ethics, underlying our work.

So basically, this is what I’ve got after the first two days. I initially thought that the re-naming of the HCI field to CHI was merely a method of creating better acronyms and bad puns (like this year’s theme, ‘One of a CHInd’), but I think there’s really something else at play here. I think the ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery) consciously puts ‘Computer’ first in Computer-Human Interaction, and I think we need to re-think our priorities on the matter. We need more options for looking at HCI on equal grounds with Human-Human Interaction or Human-Thing (non-computer) Interaction. Plenary speaker Nathan Eagle brought up an excellent example of the failures of CHI: a mobile application for predicting Cholera in Rwanda that didn’t work because the data and the algorithm were predicting the wrong thing, based on the wrong assumptions, and not as good as simply talking to people on the ground. So let’s do more of that in CHI, let’s not forget to talk to people on the ground.

Celebrating Women in Computing – Part 3 – Negotiation

The final technical session I saw was with Jerie Shaw from the University of Ottawa, put on by the NSERC/Pratt & Whitney Chair for Women in Science and Engineering.  This was a really great session, which both reinforced my own experiences, and opened my eyes to some of the challenges of negotiation (or really, of communication in general) that women face.

A lot of the standard advice was repetition of some negotiation workshops I’ve seen before – determining the best acceptable alternative, looking for other ways to create value, etc.  There were also some points that were new to me, like the ‘dual concerns’ model that described positions like competing, accommodating and collaborating.

While I am probably the first person to cringe when someone brings up a topic along the lines of ‘Men are from Mars / Women are from Venus,’ I have to admit that I identified with almost all of the characteristics of ‘Female Typical Communication’ :

  • indirect when giving orders
  • maintain equality in relationships
  • interrupt less
  • talk less about personal achievements
  • change statements to questions
  • more likely to use disclaimers, hesitation

It isn’t effective for women to simply emulate ‘Typical Male Communication’ – instead there are ways for women to convey confidence through competence and communality.  All in all, a really interesting session and I will definitely be putting some of the methods and tips into practice during my own negotiations.

Celebrating Women in Computing – Part 2 – Making Apps

One of the technical sessions I saw at ONCWIC was by Susan Ibach from Microsoft.  She highlighted how easy it is to start making mobile apps, and how influential apps can be.  This was probably one of the sessions that provided the most pragmatic advice, but also the least directly related to issues around women specifically in computing.

Susan went through the steps of app development, starting from a simple idea, understanding what already exists, and defining what your app will do better, what it will be best at.  She noted some great tools (admittedly Microsoft-centric products) such as:

All of this was great, and shows that the barriers to entry for app development are lower and lower all the time.  But it left me wondering – why aren’t more women making apps?  From what I remember, when Susan asked who had made an app before, there were only half a dozen people in the (very crowded) room who raised their hands.

Personally, I have tried and started and given up in making an app.  I gave up because I got to the point where I downloaded the Android SDK and it wouldn’t install properly.  So I went online and couldn’t find an answer about my specific error.  And I didn’t know anyone who I could ask.  So I stopped.  Now, it’s easy to say in retrospect that I should have persisted (and I probably will keep trying at some point) but I think the more important question is what stopped me?  I like to think that I’m not the kind of person who gives up easily, yet after putting in a number of hours of troubleshooting with no progress, I didn’t see many other options.  Was I unconsciously influenced against joining an app developer community, or against asking for help, or to feel like I might not belong, specifically because I’m a woman?  Or because of other particular factors of my own social group, characteristics or personality?  I don’t know.  But I do think that even as technical barriers to entry are disappearing, social barriers are still significant.  And it’s in everybody’s best interest to figure out different ways address them.

Celebrating Women in Computing – Part 1 – Maria Klawe

This weekend I had a wonderful opportunity to go to the Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing (ONCWIC) conference in Waterloo.  There were some great talks by some great women and I’ve realized it will take a few posts to sort out all my thoughts.  So here is the first one, on the talk by the amazing Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College.

Everything Maria Klawe said resonated so much with me, but the understanding of the ‘impostor syndrome’ is probably the most important takeaway since it’s the most pervasive feeling that I’ve noticed among my own female peers.  We need to talk about this more, because knowing that so many other highly successful women feel like impostors in their day-to-day life definitely helps your own feelings of inadequacy.

Maria also brought up a lot of the reasons why women are under-represented in technology including the ways to overcome the perceived lack of ability, lack of interest, and sense of not belonging.  Fostering belonging is much more than meeting quotas in the classroom, and requires looking at and changing the culture of learning.  Maria brought up the example of diffusing the ‘macho’ attitudes of students trying to one-up each other, and also re-framing computer science classes as creative endeavors.

Finally, a point applicable to anyone of any gender, she noted that being ‘smart’ is not nearly as important as:

  • picking the right things to work on
  • persisting when the going gets tough
  • asking for (and accepting) help
  • changing strategy when necessary
  • building the right teams to achieve your goals

As someone who has been in communities and environments where being the ‘smartest person in the room’ was the be-all-end-all, these are all great points to remember and embrace.  And she reinforced something I’ve learned as just a part of growing up and working more with people: we need to acknowledge and welcome all sorts of contributions, which come in many different styles.

Learning stuff: drupal, raspberry pi, scratch, makeymakey

Last week I had the opportunity to take two amazing and very different workshops.

The first was Drupal in a day, which has inspired me to start a new project that I’ve been thinking about for a while (stay tuned for updates).  Drupal is one of those things that I hear everyone talking about but seemed overwhelming to delve into on my own. But once you know where to start, it’s an easy-to-learn tool, especially if you’ve used something like WordPress. It seems endlessly customizable, with an active community who contributes their own modules and themes. So now I just have to figure out what I want to do with it and try it out.

The second workshop was with Raspberry Pi (the famous $40 computer) and Makey Makey controller hardware. After booting up the Pi and learning the basics of Makey Makey connections (which was really fun and easy) we got to play around with Scratch to do some basic programming type stuff and pull it all together.

I had just read this article from Fast Company a couple weeks ago, and the message it conveys completely irked me. While I don’t think everyone should learn to code with the intention of becoming a hardcore developer, I completely disagree with the premise that people should avoid coding altogether and spend their time on other pursuits. I think it’s a problem that the general public is so far removed from the processes which create the technology of our lives.  Taking both of these workshops has just reinforced my belief that people should learn about the tools and building blocks of their world (and let’s face it, our world is increasingly centred around, if not entirely engrossed by computers, apps, interfaces, and other things that run on code).  I see this as a kind of technological literacy, and isn’t literacy the foundation of making informed choices, and of democracy?  To say that a career in coding isn’t for everyone therefore don’t bother learning the basics of coding is analogous to saying that a career in law isn’t for everyone so don’t bother learning the basics of, say, copyright or the DMCA. For me, learning or teaching these things as specializations for experts only is missing the point entirely. 

tl;dr coding and hardware workshops are fun, I should go to more, and so should everyone else.

Remember that Sweater Challenge?

I know, you need closure.  So I finished the sweater in about three weeks total.  Then it took me another three weeks to remember to take a picture of the final product.  Then I wasn’t really happy with the pics so I didn’t upload them (for a few months).  But, in the spirit of sharing, here you go, my two pretty bad phone photos of the finished sweater!!

finished1 finished2

I like it.

Link Roundup

Hi Blog,

Been a bit busy, but I don’t want you to think I’ve forgotten about the internet.  To make up for lost time, I’m just going to post a bunch of links of interesting things I’ve seen since I posted last.  Link party!!