OU blog

Personal Blogs

Picture of Christopher Douce

Decolonising the curriculum in our distance learning environment

Visible to anyone in the world

On 21 March 2019 I attended a seminar that was co-organised by UCU, the University and College Union, and the university BME (black and minority ethnicity) staff network. 

I attended for a couple of reasons: firstly, I'm broadly interested in diversity having carried out research into technology and accessibility and have a hidden disability, and secondly, one of my colleagues, Mustafa Ali, was going to be giving a talk. It turns out that Mustafa couldn’t make it to the talk, but what follows is a summary of some of the key things that I took away from the event

HE sector perspectives on decolonising the curriculum

Aravinda Guntpalli, Senior Lecturer in public health defined the term decolonisation as “freeing a country from being dependent on another country”. This could be understood in terms of political, social and economic dependence. Another comment I noted was that terminology and language has a legacy which imposes a particular view about how the world works.

Aravinda’s talk also included some statistics: in the OU, only 10% of students are BME.  It’s important to note that there is a significant attainment gap between white students and BME students.

Towards the end of her presentation, we were introduced to the history of the decolonising the curriculum movement, which has its root in the Rhodes must fall campaign (Wordpress) in 2015.  There was also a reference to a UCL campaign called: why is my curriculum white? (NUS website)

I made a few notes during the Q&A session. A question that I noted down was: ‘how can we decolonise?’ A response that I recorded was that it’s necessary to consider the process of teaching, the materials that we use to teach, and the learning environment that we establish. The voices that are exposed and valued can and will differ between subjects. It is important to consider which voices are exposed.

Reflections

The most striking point that I took away from the session was the extent of the attainment gap between white students and BME students. (I’ve asked Aravinda for an official reference; I’ll update this blog when I’ve done a bit more reading and research).

I found the history of the Rhodes must fall campaign interesting. As I was listening I remembered attending a widening participation conference some year back, which I wrote a couple of blogs about: Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference blog of day 1, blog of day 2.

I remembered something about the co-creation of curriculum, a collaboration between students and a lecturer at Kingston University. This was something that I summarised briefly in the penultimate paragraph of the blog about the first day of the conference. I then had a thought: this whole subject, of relevance and potential bias within materials has a history that obviously goes back a lot further than the events of 2014.

I attended this UCU seminar after attending another seminar in the school of computing and communications. My colleague, Michel Wermelinger had been giving a talk about one of the fundamentals of computer science: algorithms. During a part of the talk, he shared a case of where a Google algorithm was misclassifying images and producing results that were considered to be deeply offensive. A popular article, entitled: Rise of the racist robots – how AI is learning all our worst impulses (The Guardian, 2017), presents a number of case studies.

I once had a call with a student who said something that was both a comment and a challenge. He said: “all the module materials are written by white people”. I started to mentally work through all the names of the academics that I knew who had worked on the module that we were discussing. I had to agree with him. He did have a point. I also understood that although computers are mathematical machines, algorithms are created by people and are fed with data, which are also chosen and created by people. Bias has the potential to affect all disciplines.

When we were into the Q&A session and delegates were discussing what we might be able to do, my mind wandered to the module that I’m currently studying (or, should I say, trying to study!): EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy. A question that came to mind was: was that module doing anything to consider different context? I then remembered that it had a whole series of case studies from different contexts: from England, from Singapore, from South Africa and from India. Differences in practices and perspectives were being exposed to learners so they could think about how they related to (and differed from) their own contexts. One view of difference and diversity is that is can be a constructive and a critical tool, from where we can understand and appreciate different perspectives.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Animal Computer Interaction : Seminar

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 4 Nov 2018, 11:09

As a part of my job I regularly visit the Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  On the 5 June, I managed to find some time to attend a seminar by my colleague Clara Mancini.  Over the last couple of years, I had heard that Clara had been doing some research into the subject of Animal-Computer Interaction but we had never really had the opportunity to chat about her work.  Her seminar was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the various ideas and projects she was working on.

After a short introduction, Clara mentioned a number of topics from human-computer interaction (or 'interaction design').  These included topics such as the use of ambient technology.  This could include the use of smart sensors that can be embedded into the fabric of buildings, for example, so their environmental conditions and properties can dynamically change. Other topics include the use of augmented reality.  This is where additional information is presented on top of a 'real' scene.  You might say that Google Glass is one product that can make good use of augmented reality.

Clara also spoke of the interaction design process (or cycle), where there is a loop of requirements gathering, designing and prototyping, followed by evaluation.  A key part of the process is that users are always involved.  ACI is very similar to HCI.  The biggest difference is the users.

History and context

It goes without saying that technology is being used and continues to be used to understand our natural world.  One area which is particularly interesting is that of conservation research, i.e. understanding how animals behave in their natural environment.  One approach to develop an understanding is to 'tag' animals with tracking devices.  This, of course, raises some fundamental challenges.  If a device is too obtrusive, it might disrupt how an animal interacts within its natural environment.

Another example of the application of technology is the use of computer driven lexigraphic applications (or tools) with great apes.  The aim of such research is to understand the ways that primates may understand language.  In conducting such research, we might then be able to gain an insight into how our own language has evolved or developed.

Products and systems could be designed that could potentially increase the quality of life for an animal.  Clara mentioned the development of automated milking machines.  Rather than herding cows to a single milking facility at a particular time, cows might instead go to robotic milking machines at times when it suits them.  An interesting effect of this is that such developments have the potential to upset the complex social hierarchies of herds.  Technology has consequences.

One important aspect of HCI or interaction design is the notion of user experience.  Usability is whether a product allows users to achieve their fundamental goals.  User experience, on the other hand, is about how people feel about a product or a design.  A number of different usability experience goals have emerged from HCI, such as whether a design is considered to be emotionally fulfilling or satisfying.  Interaction designers are able to directly ask users their opinions about a particular design.  When it comes to designing systems and devices for animals, asking opinions isn't an option.  Clara also made the point that in some cases, it's difficult for us humans to give an opinion.  In some senses by considering ACI, we force ourselves to take a careful look at our own view of interaction design.

Aims of ACI

Clara presented three objectives of ACI.   Firstly, ACI is about understanding the interaction and the relationship between animals and technology.  The second is that ACI is about designing computer technology to give animals a better life, to support them in their tasks and to facilitate or foster intra and inter species relationships.  The third is to inform development of a user-centred approach that can be used to best design technology intended for animals. 

Clara made the very clear point that ACI is not about conducting experiments with animals.  One important aspect of HCI is that researchers need to clearly consider the issues of ethics.  Participants in HCI research are required to give informed consent.  When it comes to ACI, gaining consent is not possible.  Instead, there is an understanding that the interests of participants should take precedence over the interests of science and society.

Projects

Clara described a system called Retriva (company website), where dogs can be tagged with collars which have a GPS tracking device.  Essentially, such a product allows a solution to the simple question of: 'if only I could find where my dog was using my iPhone'.  Interestingly, such a device has the potential to change the relational dynamics between dog owner and dog.  Clara gave an example where an owner might continually call the name of the dog whilst out walking.  The dog would then use the voice to locate where the owner was.  If a tracker device is used on a dog, an owner might be tempted less to call out (since he or she can see where the dog is on their tracking app).  Instead of the owner looking for the dog, the dog looks for the owner (since the dog is less reliant on hearing the owner's voice).

Dogs are, of course, used in extreme situations, such as searching for survivors following a natural disaster.  Technology might be used to monitor vital signs of a dog that enters into potentially dangerous areas.  Different parameters might be able to give handlers an indication of how stressed it might be.

As well as humanitarian uses, dogs can be used in medicine as 'medical detection dogs'.  I understand that some dogs can be trained to detect the presence of certain types of cancers.  From Clara's presentation I understand that the fundamental challenges include training dogs and attempting to understand the responses of dogs after samples have been given to them (since there is a risk of humans not understanding what the dog is communicating when their behavioural response to a sample is not as expected).

One project that was interesting is the possible ways in which technology might be used to potentially improve welfare.  One project, funded by the Dogs Trust, will investigate the use of ambient computing and interactive design to improve the welfare of kennelled dogs.  Some ideas might include the ways in which the animals might be able to control aspects of their own environment.  A more contented dog may give way to a more positive rehoming outcome.

Final points

Clara presents a question, which is, 'why should we care about all this stuff?'  Studying ACI has the potential to act as a mirror to our own HCI challenges.  It allows us to think outside of the human box and potentially consider different ways of thinking about (and solving) problems. 

A second reason connects back to an earlier example and relates to questions of sustainability.  Food production has significant costs in terms of energy, pollution and welfare.  By considering and applying technology, there is an opportunity to potentially reconceptualise and rethink aspects of agricultural systems.  A further reason relates to understanding about to go about making environments more accessible for people who share their lives with companion animals, i.e. dogs who may offer help with some everyday activities.

What I liked about Clara's seminar was its breadth and pace.  She delved into some recent history, connected with contemporary interaction design practice and then broadened the subject outwards to areas such as increasing prominence (welfare) and importance (sustainability).  There was a good mix of the practical (the challenges of creating devices that will not substantially affect how an animal interacts within their environment) and the philosophical.  The most important 'take away' point for me was that there is a potential to learn more by looking at things in a slightly different way. 

It was also interesting to learn about collaborations with people working in different universities and disciplines.  This, to me, underlined that the boundaries of what is considered to be 'computing' is continually changing as we understand the different ways in which technology can be used.

Acknowledgements:  Many thanks to Clara for commenting on an earlier part of this blog.  More information about Clara's work on Animal -Computer Interaction can be seen by viewing an Open University video clip (YouTube).

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Jackie Doorne, Friday, 19 Jul 2013, 14:13)
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

ESRC seminar: inclusion, usability and difference

Visible to anyone in the world

On 22 April 2013 I managed to find a bit of time to attend a seminar that touched upon some of the themes that I recently blogged about, namely, the way in which technology can be made available (and can be used to help) different groups of users. 

During the day there were a total of five presentations, each of which touched upon many of the different themes that continue to be a strong interest: accessibility, usability, and the way in which technology can potentially help people.  Like so many of these blogs, I'm going to do a bit of a write-up of each presentation, and then conclude with a set of thoughts and points which emerged from the closing discussion.

Older people and on-line social interactions

The first talk of the day was by Shailey Minocha who talked about a project called OCQL (project website) that has been exploring how technology may be able to be used to help and support older people.  If you're interested, I've written a brief blog summary of an earlier workshop that Shailey and her colleagues ran.

Some of the issues that the project aims to explore are the different motivations for being on-line, understanding various advantages and disadvantages and corresponding potential risks and obstacles. Another aspect of the project was to explore whether we might be able to offer advice to designers to allow them to create more usable systems.

Shailey touched upon challenges and dilemmas that users may face.  One challenge is how we might help to create formal and informal support networks to enable users to not only get online in the first place, but also help users to develop their technology skills.  One comment that I noted was that 'buying a [internet] connected computer is easy, it's continuing to use it that is difficult'.

Shailey gave us a flavour of some preliminary findings.  A simple motivation for getting connected is a desire to keep in touch with people, which is connected with the advantage that certain aspects of technology has a potential to reduce social isolation.  Some of the obstacles included the need to gain technical support and the challenges that lie with understanding certain concepts and metaphors that are a necessary part of being on-line.  The perceived risks include fears about a loss of privacy, concerns about knowing who or which organisations or products to trust.  The perceived disadvantages include the fear that technology might take over the lives of the user and this might take the user away from other events and activities that were important.

I remember a really interesting anecdote of a user who started to use an iPad.  The device was used so much (to keep in contact with distant friends and family), that this took away from time socialising with other people who lived nearby.

Shailey also left us some recommendations.  Training, it was suggested, should be personalised to the needs of individuals.  One-off training sessions are not sufficient.  Instead, training should take place over a longer period of time. 

For those who are interested, here are two links to some related resources.  The first is a link to a paper entitled, Conducting empirical research with older people (ORO repository), to be presented at a human-computer interaction (HCI) conference.  The second is a set of web resources (Delicious) that have been acquired during the project.

Towards the end of the presentation I noted two really interesting questions.  The first was, 'to what extent is the familiarity of technology a temporary problem?', and the second question (which is related to the first) is: 'putting age as an issue to one side, how can we all prepare ourselves to become familiar with and work with the next big technological innovation that may be on the horizon?'

The haptic bracelets

Simon Holland, from the department of Computing and Communication introduced us to devices known as the Haptic Bracelet (Music Computer Laboratory).  In essence, a haptic bracelet is a wearable device that you can put on your wrist or ankle.  The word haptic, of course, relates to your sense of touch.  The devices can be controlled so that they can vibrate at different frequencies or produce rhythms.  They also contain accelerometers which can be used to detect movement and gestures. 

My first question was, 'okay, so all this stuff is pretty cool but what on earth can it be used for?'  Simon clearly had anticipated this thought and provided some very compelling answers.  Fundamentally, it can be used with the teaching of music, specifically with the teaching of rhythm, or drumming.  Drum kits have pedals; drummers use both their hands and their feet.  Simon told us that he imagined a device that was akin to an iPod: a form of music player that could help musicians to more directly (and immediately) learn and feel rhythms.  When I started to think about this, I really wanted one - I could imagine that a haptic iPod could add a whole new dimension to the music which I listen to as a travel across London on the tube.

Its one thing listening to a piece of music through headphones, it's something totally different if you're feeling beats and vibrations through the same limbs that could be creating exactly the same rhythm if you were sitting at a drum kit.  I've noted the following quote that pretty much sums it up:  'at best, it goes through your two ears... [but] how do you know what limb is doing what?!'  All this can be linked to a music education approach called Dalcroze Eurhythmics (wikipedia), which was something totally new to me.  Something else that I hadn't heard of before is sensorimotor contingency theory (which I don't know anything about, but whatever it is, it sounds very cool!)

Early on in his talk, Simon suggested that these devices have the potential to be an assistive technology.  One area in which these devices might be useful is with gait rehabilitation, i.e. by providing additional feedback to people who are trying to re-learn how to walk following a brain injury or stroke.  Apparently a metronome is used to help people to move in time with a rhythm, which is a useful technique to regain (and guide) rhythmic motor control.  One of the advantages of using haptic bracelets is that the responses or feedback they could provide could be more dynamic.  Plus, due to the presence of an accelerometer, different feedback might be presented in real-time - but this is mostly conjecture on my part; this is something that is a part of on-going research.

During the final part of Simon's slot, we were given an opportunity to play with some of the bracelets.  Pairs were configured in such a way that we were able to 'send' real-time rhythms wirelessly to another user.  When we 'tapped' on a table, the same 'tap' was picked up by someone else who was wearing another bracelet.

We were introduced to other (potential) uses.  These included sport, gaming, and helping with group synchronisation (or learning) in dance.  Fascinating stuff!

Digital inclusion in the era of the smartphone

Becky Faith is a doctoral student at the Open University who spoke about some of her research interests, and it was all pretty interesting stuff.  One of her areas of interest is how technology (particularly the smartphone) can be used as a means of support for vulnerable people (and how it might be used to gain support from others). 

During Becky's talk I was introduced to a range of new terms, phrases and frameworks that I hadn't heard of before, such as capability theory (which might relate to what rights people may have but are not aware of) and technofeminist theory.   I also noted questions that related to the roles of the private sector versus the state in facilitating access to technology.  This reminded me of one of the drivers for good interaction design and usability: that it can lead to higher levels of productivity, more effective sales and lower costs.  Since goods and services are now on-line, facilitating digital inclusion also, fundamentally, means good business sense.

Becky's session was also very interactive.  We were given a challenge: we had to find out a very specific piece of information using our smartphone (if we had one).  This was to find the name of our MEP.  We were also asked how we might feel if this was our only device.  I, for one, wouldn't be very happy.  I (personally) feel more comfortable with a keyboard that moves than one that is only visible on a screen.

The activity gave way to a debate.  Some users will be faced with fundamental access challenges.  These could be thought of in in terms of the availability of devices or availability of signal coverage.  Ultimately, there is the necessity of understanding the needs of the users, their situations and the kinds of devices and equipment they may have access to.  A thought provoking session.

Careware

Andrew Stuart from Careware (company website) started his presentation by describing a question that he had asked himself, or he had been asked by someone else (I didn't note down the exact wording!).  The question was, 'why can't I find my dog using my iPhone?'.  Dogs go missing all the time.  The company that Andrew established created a GPS dog collar, which allowed dogs to be found using iPhones.  A great idea!

Andrew's company later expanded to create devices, such as a tracking belt, which could be used with vulnerable people.  Tracking dogs is one thing, but tracking people is a whole other issue.  The idea of people wearing tracking devices obviously raises serious ethical issues, but the necessity for privacy needs to be balanced against the desire to ensure that vulnerable people (who are sometimes family members) are cared for and looked after.  It is argued that personal tracking devices can help some people to maintain their independence whilst allowing family members not only peace of mind but also open up new ways to offer personal support.  Users of a personal tracker can, for instance, press a button to alert other people of difficulties or problems.  A GPS belt (instead of a collar) is a device that is very different from a mobile phone (which, arguably, with its in built GPS facilities, can almost do a very similar task).

Andrew's presentation touched on a number of different issues, i.e. centralised telemedicine through call centres versus the use of individual devices for families, and the roles that local authorities may be able to play.  There were also hints of future developments, such as the use of accelerometers to potentially detect falls.

Open University modules such as Fundamentals of Interaction Design touch upon subjects such as wearable computing or wearable interfaces.  It was interesting to see that two presentations demonstrated two very different types of wearable devices - and both presentations were about how they can be used to help people, but in very different ways.

Exploring new technologies through playful peer-to-peer engagement in informal learning

The final presentation of the day was by Josie Tetley, from the Health and Social Care faculty.  Josie spoke of an EU funded project called Opt-In which 'aims to explore if and how new technologies can improve the quality of life of older people' and investigates 'whether existing pedagogic approaches are the best way of enabling older people to learn new technologies'.

Getting people to play with technology was one of the topics that were mentioned, both in a research lab, but also as a part of informal social settings.  Josie also spoke about the different research methods that were used, such as questionnaires, diaries and semi-structured interviews.  One point that I've noted include that some technologies can lead to obvious instances of deskilling, such as overreliance and use of satellite navigation systems.   

Some preliminary findings include that some users are interested in certain applications, notably video telephony applications such as Skype or FaceTime (wikipedia).  Technology, it was also said, can be readily accepted.  I also noted a really good phrase, which is that good technology transcends all age groups.

Summary

All in all, a very interesting event.  I have to say that I wasn't quite sure what I was letting myself in for.  I didn't really know too much about what was on the agenda before the morning of the seminar.  I was more guided by the words of the title that sparked an interest.

The most significant point that I took away from the day was that my conception of what an assistive technology was had been fundamentally broadened.  Another take away point related to the importance of considering the types of learning that are appropriate to different user groups. 

It was also great fun to hear about different research projects and gain an awareness of new ideas and frameworks.  Learning about subjects that are slightly outside our own discipline has the potential to be both rewarding and refreshing.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Sharif Al-Rousi, Friday, 10 May 2013, 10:58)
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Mathematics, Breaking Tunny and the First Computers

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 15 May 2017, 12:11

Pciture of the Colossus computer

One of my interests is the history of computing. This blog post aims to summarise a seminar that as given by Malcolm MacCallum, University of London, held at the Open University on 30 October 2012.  Malcolm used to be the director of the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research, Bristol.  Malcolm began by saying something about the institute, its history and its research.

This blog complements an earlier blog that I wrote to summarise a lecture that was given at City University.  This earlier lecture was entitled Breaking Enigma and the legacy of Alan Turing in Code Breaking and took place back in April 2012, and was one of a series of events to celebrate the centenary of Alan Turing's birth.  Malcolm's talk was similar in some respects but had different focus: there was more of an emphasis on the story that led to the development of what could be arguably one of the world's first computers.

I'm not going to say much about the historical background that is obviously connected with this post, since a lot of this can be uncovered by visiting the various links that I've given (if you're interested).  Instead, I'm going to rush ahead and introduce a swathe of names, terms and concepts all of which connect with the aim of Malcolm's seminar.

Codes, Cyphers and People

In some respects the story of the Enigma code, which took place at the Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park, is one that gains a lot of the historical limelight.  It is easy to conflate the breaking of the Enigma code (Wikipedia), the Tunny code (Wikipedia) and the work of Alan Turing (Wikipedia).  When it comes to the creating of 'the first computer' (quotes intentional), the story of the breaking of the Tunny code is arguably more important. 

The Tunny code is a code generated by a device called the Lorenz cypher machine.  The machine combined transmission, encryption and decryption.  The Enigma code was very different.  Messages encrypted using Enigma were transmitted by hand in morse code.

I'm not going to describe much of the machines since I've never seen a real one, and cryptography isn't my specialism.  Malcolm informed us that each machine had 12 wheels (or rotors).  Each wheel had a set of cams that were set to either 1 or 0.  These wheel settings were changed every week or month (just to make things difficult).  As each character is transmitted, the wheels rotate (as far as I know) and an electrical circuit is created through each rotor to create an encrypted character.  The opposite happens when you decrypt: you put in an encrypted character one side and a plain text (decrypted) character magically comes out the other side.

For everything to work, the rotors for both the encrypting and decrypting machines have to have the same starting point (as otherwise everything will be gibberish).  These starting points were transmitted in unencrypted plain text at the start of a transmission

Through wireless intercept stations it was possible to capture the signals that the Lorenz cypher machines were transmitting.  The codebreakers at Bletchley Park were then faced with the challenge of figuring out the structure and design of a machine that they had never seen.  It sounds like an impossible challenge to figure out how many rotors and wheels it used, how many states the rotors had, and what these states were.

I'll be the first to admit that the fine detail of how this was done pretty much escapes me (and, besides, I understand that some of the activities performed at Bletchley Park remains classified).  What I'm really interested in is the people who played an important role in designing the physical hardware that helped with the decryption of the Tunny codes.

Depths and machines

Malcolm hinted at how the codebreakers managed to begin to gain an insight into how the Lorenz machine (and code) worked.  He mentioned (and I noted) the use of depths (Wikipedia), which is where two or more messages were sent using the same key (or machine setting).  Another note that I made was something called a Saltman break, which is mentioned in a book I'll reference below (which is one of those books which is certainly on my 'to read' list).

Malcolm mentioned two different sections of Bletchley Park: the Testery (named after Ralph Tester), and the Newmanry (named after Max Newman).  Another character that was mentioned was Bill Tutte who applied statistical methods (again, the detail of which is totally beyond me and this presentation) to the problem of wheel setting discovery.

It was realised that key aspects of code breaking could be mechanised.  Whilst Turing helped to devise the Bombe (Wikipedia) equipment that was used with the decryption of the Enigma code, another machine called the Heath Robinson (Wikipedia) was built.

One of the difficulties with the Heath Robinson was its speed. It made use of electromechanical relays which were slow, restricting the code breaking effort. A new approach was considered: the creation of a calculating machine that made use of thermionic valves (a precursor to the transistor).  Valves were perceived to be unreliable but it was realised that if they were continually powered up they were not stressed.

Colossus

Tommy Flowers (Wikipedia) engineered and designed a computer called Colossus (Wikipedia), drawing experience gained working at the Dollis Hill Post Office research station in North London.  

Although Colossus has elements of a modern computer it could be perhaps best described as a 'special purpose cryptographic device'.  It was not programmable in the same way that a modern computer has become (this is a development that comes later), but its programs could be altered; perhaps by changing its circuitry (I don't yet know how this would work).  It did, however, made use of familiar concepts such as interrupts, it synchronised its operation by a clock-pulse, stored data in memory, used shift registers and did some parallel processing.  Flowers also apparently introduced the term 'arithmetic and logic unit'.

Colossus was first used to break a message on 5 February 1944.  A rather different valve based calculator, the ENIAC (Wikipedia), built by the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, was used two years later.

Final points

Malcolm told us that ten Collosi were built (I might have spelt that wrong, but what I do know is that Collosus-es certainly isn't the right spelling!), with the last one being dismantled in 1960.  A total of twenty seven thousand messages were collected, of which thirteen thousand messages were decrypted.  Malcolm also said that Flowers was 'grossly under rewarded' for his imaginative and innovative work on Colossus.  I totally agree.

Research into the Colossus was carried out by Brian Randell from the Univerisity of Newcastle in the 1970s.  A general report on the Tunny code was only recently released in 2000.  Other sources of information that Malcolm mentioned was a book about the Colossus by Jack Copeland (Wikipedia)  (which is certainly on my 'to read' list), and a biography of Alan Turing by Andew Hodges (Wikipedia).

Malcom's talk reminded me of how much computing history is, quite literally, on our doorstep.  I regularly pass Bletchley on the way to the Open University campus at Milton Keynes.  There are, of course, so many other places that are close by that have played an important role in the history of computing.  Although I've already been twice to Bletchley Park, I'm definitely going to go again and take a longer look at the various exhibits.

(Picture: Wikipedia)

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Robert McCune, Monday, 12 Nov 2012, 12:23)
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time

Visible to anyone in the world

On a recent trip to Milton Keynes on 29 May 2012 I had the opportunity to attend a Society and Information Research Group (SIRG) seminar by Judy Wacjman (LSE).  Judy is a Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.   Judy's presentation, very broadly speaking, was about technology and time and whether one affects the other.  Her seminar was related to research that may feed into a book that she is currently working on.  This post is a personal reflection of some of the themes that struck me as being significant and important in my own work.  Others who attended the seminar are very likely to have picked up on other issues (and I encourage them to add comments below).

Timing

For me, the timing of her seminar couldn't have been better.  My last blog was about an event that shared practice about how lecturers and institutions could most effectively help students to develop software for mobile devices.  During this event mobility was portrayed as an opportunity, but there is also was an implicit assertion that mobile technology will change how we work.  In doing so, mobile technology can affect how we spend our time.

Productive work may not cease the moment that we now leave the office, but instead can now continue for the duration of our commute home.  Work may invade on our personal time too, since we can easily take our devices away on holiday with us.  Important messages that are concluded with a succinct, 'sent from my iPhone', clearly suggests that we are working whilst we are on the move.

Judy mentioned that perhaps some of these concerns mainly relate to 'management or professional types', and this might be the case.  But one way to really understand the issue (of time, and how it is affected by technology) is to carry out studies, particularly ethnographic studies to conduct observations about how people really use technology.

Research methods

Such methods are briefly discussed within a module, such as M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design, which is concerned with how to make devices and systems that are usable to people.  Two approaches used for the evaluation of the success of products includes ethnographic studies (observing users), and asking them to complete diary studies.  Judy's presentation emphasised the point that interdisciplinary research is a necessity if we are to understand the way in which technology impacts our lives.

Judy managed to connect my immediate concerns about mobile technology and its impact on our time with earlier debates.  Introductions of devices, such as washing machines and other labour saving devices were touted to 'save time'.  This raised the questions of 'what happens when we get that time back?  How might we spend it?'  Unpicking these questions leads us into further interesting debates, which relate to the different ways in which men and women use the time that they have available, and towards the broader concerns of capitalism.

One point that Judy mentioned in passing (which I've remembered reading or hearing before) is that perhaps we have been 'cheated by capitalism'.  Perhaps the extra time we have gained hasn't been spent on leisure, but instead has been spent on doing even more work, which allows us to buy more stuff (since, perhaps, everyone else is doing the same).  A personal reflection is that mobile devices also act as devices of consumption.  Not only do they facilitate the extension of work into our 'dead time', but also permit us to browse eBay and on-line stores whilst travelling on a train, for instance.

Technology and speed

Returning to the main debate, does technology cause us to work 'faster' or more?  Is the pace of our lives accelerating because we can access so much more information than ever before? Judy urges caution and asks us to consider causality.  On one hand there is technological determinism (wikipedia), but on the other there is social determinism (wikipedia).  Mobility can facilitate new ways of interacting with people, which may then, in turn, give rise to new technologies.  It could be argued that one helps to shape the other mutually.

Judy cautions against having the individual as the focus of our attention.  People live and work with each other.  Perhaps the household should be the focus of our attention when it comes to understanding the influence of technology on our lives.

What was clear from Judy's seminar was that there were many different areas of literature that could be brought to bear on understanding technology, time and how we spend it.  During her talk I made a note of a number of references that might be interesting to some.  The first was an edited book entitled High-speed society: social acceleration, power, and modernity, edited by Hartmut Rosa and William E Scheuerman.  The second was entitled, Shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900, by David Edgerton.  The final book that I have extracted from my notes is that of, Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other, by Sherry Turkle (MIT, homepage).

Reflections

An enjoyable and thought provoking seminar which highlighted an important point that when you begin to scratch the surface of a question you then open up a broader set of connected and related issues.  Important subjects include the importance of the wider context in which technology is used and what tools and approaches we might use to understand our environment.  I was reminded of the obvious truth that, given technology firmly exists within the human context, learning from disciplines such as history and sociology is as important as drawing upon lessons from science and engineering.

 

Permalink Add your comment
Share post

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 928088