My talk for @GGMUK’s conference last weekend

I spoke at the Geek Girl Meetup conference last weekend. It was more of a general riffing along the lines of ‘pay more attention to how and why you use technology’.

What is technology? We’ve always had it and we know how it changes, and with it how we progress as human beings.

When I was asked to speak at today’s conference, the work of one of my favourite writers came to mind. Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine and the former publisher of the Whole Earth Review spoke in his most recent book What Technology Wants about the technium –  ‘a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us’. It’s a brilliant book that traces the history of technology, of us as people and how we’ve interacted with various kinds of technology. He says we create our own problems because of our interaction with some form of technology – going back to the wheel (think cars, then accidents, the awareness technology to alert us and so on). So we have a choice between the two and as humans, we tend to go with solutions which tip the overall balance in favour of progress over time. I tend to agree with this.

In as much as there are people who complain about attention deficit disorder and the like, and yes that, and trolls, are real problems, I’m confident that we’ll rise above it in the long run. 4chan probably isn’t going to be shut down any time soon, even if the Emma Watson story was a hoax, but the sheer number of people – men, women, media outlets even – who are rising up against people who troll talented women writers, gamers, celebrities is rising – that’s why I’m optimistic.

I think it is incumbent upon us all now more than ever to be mindful of technology even as we use it. It is very easy to get lost in the flow of doing things – of checking email, stalking people on Facebook, announcing things on Twitter, communicating with your team on Slack. It’s important to stop and take stock every now and then about the relationship we have with technology and what it is doing for us that makes us better. Because that is the ultimate goal, right? It can be small things. When I realised that having my mobile phone next to my pillow was affecting my quality of sleep, I created a self-imposed rule to never bring it in to the bedroom at night. It’s been 2 years now and it’s working pretty well. Of course I wish I had that level of control in other areas of my life, but – small steps, as I said!

DO YOU NEED THIS?

Ask yourselves this, when you get excited by that latest piece of gadgetry: DO YOU NEED THIS?

Do you really need that connected watch? The Apple Watch has surprised many people’s expectations of the technology that can be packed in to a watch. I’m not enamoured by it at all, even if it is a really good piece of design. I got the Pebble, I got a Nooka, I have a Fuelband – they’re all great in different ways but none have lasted a few months of use because all I really need is a very basic device to tell the time! In short, it isn’t for me.

And do YOU need this is very different from do THEY need this, they being an alternate group of people who in all likelihood live very different lives from you. This is where technology can make a tremendous impact on the lives of people who do not have the same access to resources that you might. Project Mudra is a great example of this: it is a Braille dicta-teacher built using Raspberry Pi and Arduino by a couple of Indian students. Existing resources apparently assume previous knowledge of Braille, and this teaches Braille by voice, thereby bridging a gap that was previously unaddressed.

DO YOU NEED THIS, HERE?

The next thing I think is important for us to consider is what technology means to us in our specific situation. Do we need our washing machines to message us when the laundry is done? Consider Cloudwash, a prototype for a connected washing machine which is pretty amazing from a tech POV. I can see some use, personally, for it in some parts of the world – in New York when I lived in a building where the laundry room was in the basement I could have certainly used that for example. But in London most flats and houses have their own washing machines, so I don’t see the value here.

Do we need fire alarms to be more sensible (Nest), for a way of going through the barriers that doesn’t involve rummaging in a bag for a wallet that has your Oyster card (Fin)? Yes, I can see uses for all those things, as a Londoner.

And of course one basic thing that still hasn’t been sorted yet: for self-service machines in the supermarket to be more intelligent (unidentified item in the baggage area)!

But in a different context, these pretty cool things are probably not much use at all.

But every time I go back to India to visit family, I realise how pointless all those developments would be in that environment. No tube barriers, no fire alarms in the house. Connectivity isn‘t as robust on average so that’s a priority instead. So no market for Nests and Fins – not a viable one yet anyway. But people have mobiles. Everyone does, pretty much – people in rural areas have mobiles where they might not have a TV or the internet. So mobiles are sorting out problems – from cutting out middlemen (M-Farm, Sokotext) to providing solar energy where electricity doesn’t exist (M-Kopa Solar) to allowing refugees to text back their needs to the WFP (Geopoll) to even monitoring foetal heart beats in local hospitals (Winsenga).

Scanadu is making diagnosis of diseases almost magical, if you ask me – when I first show this video to people they laugh – but if you think about it, holding something up against parts of your body to figure out what’s wrong with you is quite a natural behaviour (holding your hand against your forehead to check for fever, holding thermometer in mouth and so on) so holding a device against, say, an arm rash isn’t that strange from a behavioural point of view. Still, there’s something about making people perform the role usually performed by doctors and nurses that makes them laugh – uncomfortably, it would be seem. So it isn’t going to be mainstream soon – and it is going to rub up against regulations, so those problems will have to be sorted out. Are the inventors going to be held liable if something goes terribly wrong when someone uses it wrongly, for example? There are societal constraints that need to be considered even if technology itself – the ability to actually build this – is not a problem at all. That’s where a lot of innovation stalls, actually. It stalls because people don’t correctly pinpoint what kind of constraint they’re up against, and therefore what they need to overcome.

DO YOU NEED THIS, HERE, NOW?

And some things will probably never really have a role to play – let’s be honest!

I will leave you with a few thoughts on what I think is one of the most important ways technology has certainly changed my life over the last few years. Over a decade ago I did my Master’s dissertation on social capital, the benefits that derive from interaction and cooperation with and between groups. Things have changed vastly since the 1970’s when Robert Putnam wrote his seminal Bowling Alone. He claimed that technology and mass media were passive entertainment channels that encouraged the creation of narrow focus groups that never branch out.

But subsequent research proves that ubiquitous technology brokered by the internet is actually good for social interaction. Technology has supercharged the creation of social capital today like never before. And it makes it easier to tap into skills, get advice, feel part of a community even if you don’t have one physically near where you work or live.

Ada’s List, where over 700 women in tech now participate online sharing thoughts all the time, asking questions, helping other women get jobs, learn about new projects and tools and getting more visibility for all of us, is one such community and it is amazing to see the different nodes of this network grow stronger by being a part of it. I invite all of you women in tech to join in.

Find your community, and grow.

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