I like technology, I really do. At the age of 7 I was fiddling about with my Petite Junior Typewriter in my bedroom, trying to see how it worked. Then, if we fast forward, I can see myself at the age of about 10, looking at a ZX81 as it came out of its futuristic box and wondering what it was all about. Later I found myself running a technology department in a school and teaching primary school kids how to use early networks. It wasn’t long before I was stripping down old hardware and rebuilding it for fun, something that was to get me a grad student job at a Cambridge college one day, when they caught me surreptitiously soldering a decrepit RISC-PC motherboard with borrowed tools in the college workshop (I was on a research council grant and just could not afford spare parts in those days). Occasionally I produced a bit of low key software if there was something I wanted to do that other people wouldn’t provide. However that’s in the past now. These days I tend to keep my hands a bit cleaner and sit on a lot of technology committees and the like.
Like a lot of people, I probably get my interest in all this from my parents. My father was an engineer, although he bought that computer for my brother rather than me (boys being ‘better at Maths’ and all that). My mother was the first student parent at Hull University, and at the time was working on a pre-digital research project using the university’s punch card system to analyse the linguistic structures in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, to see if they were all authored by the people claimed (which would be going it a bit even now, I reckon). So I had the idea that computer technology was full of promise and possibilities. I also assumed that it was available to me, just as it would be available to everyone.
I was wrong about that. They will let me use it as a consumer, of course, and like everyone I have to put up with the vagaries of poor IT procurement, sloppy installations, and indifferent customer support. However working in the field, influencing the field, proves a lot more challenging. Let me give you an example.
Over the years, I have been to many IT conferences, and I am invariably one of a small number of women delegates at most, surrounded by literally hundreds of male delegates. One JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) conference I attended ten years ago was a real revelation. That time, I had gone as part of a group of women and there were about a dozen of us facing 200+ men (we counted). Once we had recovered from the sheer creepiness of JISC putting us all up in a chain hotel where the first thing you saw upon walking into your room was a rather, shall we say, exotic advertisement for no fewer than 6 hotel porn channels (aimed at men, of course), we braved the conference. It ended up being something of a meat market from our point of view, with drunken men frequently looming at us with propositions galore. Few men seemed able to have a proper conversation with us about technology, presumably as they were so distracted by seeing Real Women who weren’t relatives or conference organisers/booth babes. After 24 hours of this, we decided to try a little experiment. “How many women do you think are at this conference?” we asked an unscientific sample of male delegates. “Oh, lots!” they would reply. “Half the people here are women!” When we asked the same question of women delegates, the answer was nearer 10%. Which was the right answer, of course, and there’s the rub. Women in technology are still seen as an oddity, and if one or two appear into the daylight they are noticed more than men, so people think gender isn’t an issue.
I had forgotten about the JISC conference until last week, when I sat in a meeting to talk yet again about how online learning is the future, and if we just do x, y and z (in the past this has usually involved a migration from one meagre, poorly designed US commercial platform to another, carried out by beleaguered IT staff during long, dusty August nights in a university basement) then our future will be secure. My mind was cast back to a presentation someone made in that very JISC conference where they put up slides of each university’s network structures, and pointed out how incompatible they were with one another, and how online learning couldn’t get very far unless systems were interoperable and students were able to access their learning materials and university accounts for life. And I sat in the meeting last week and cited the presentation, and realized I had probably cited it half a dozen times over the years in half a dozen ‘big meetings’ about the future of online learning. And nobody had really done anything about the problem in the meantime.
Which is why I think we need to listen to the likes of Martha Lane Fox. What we have in the UK (and even to an extent in the US) is an horrific case of IT groupthink. This is why our systems don’t work very well, and why whole swathes of society are left out of the debate. Many of those in charge of our most influential social and political systems are technologically illiterate, with it being a joke to some (Ed Balls Day, anyone?) and unrecognised by others (hence the Cambridge University CAPSA accounting software disaster). Technology is seen as something done to us, rather than for us, by a group of male tech nerds and investors in a distant room somewhere.
I have one response to that.
Please consider signing Martha’s petition for a new public internet body for the digital age, which you can read about here.