Ada Lovelace Day 2013 – my talk

Photo by Paul Clarke

I was invited to speak at Ada Lovelace Day Live which took place at Imperial College in London last night. I was given 10 minutes and decided that rather than talking very quickly about some arbitrarily selected bit of my work – which is fairly disparate and fragmentary out of context – I’d put something together that contextualised the philosophy of the event and my approach a little bit. Of course, in the process, I showed some of my work and my hobbies, too. I made some of the titles in BBC BASIC, which was good fun, and lovely to see on such a big screen! My dream is to run a whole talk off a BBC Micro sometime. Anyway, I digress.

There’s a lot of talk about why more girls aren’t into techie stuff. One way or another, people ask what is it about technology that makes it unappealing, or different to the kinds of things girls like. In other words: what is the PROBLEM?

I want to take another approach. I’m more interested in what happens when you stop thinking about the problem for a moment and just enjoy yourself. I’m more interested in why so many women – so many people – are already into this stuff.

WE DO IT BECAUSE IT’S INTERESTING.

I don’t think of myself as a woman, most of the time. What’s it like to be a woman in technology? Well, without getting too wilfully philosophical about it, I don’t actually self-identify as principly female – I don’t define my thoughts in terms of ‘female thoughts’, I’m not aware of the way I read or write or watch things or ride a bus or use a computer as uniquely ‘female’. I don’t find it useful or convincing to consider my behaviour or interests ‘female’ before I think of them as mine. All I know is what it’s like to be me.

Some of my interests are ‘male’, some are ‘female’. People have asked me if I was ‘a tomboy’, growing up… and I’m sure a lot of you can relate to that. I’ve been told that my interests are “more like a boy’s than a girl’s”. Make no mistake, I have plenty of girl interests too! But of course, they align more closely with expectation, and go unnoticed.

But I’ve been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to see interesting things for what they are. INTERESTINGNESS is everything. I feel strongly that we need to take a break from hand-wringing and asking what it is that we’re doing wrong, and start remembering that the reason we do the things we do, and the reason we do them well, is that we love doing them.

We need to be shamelessly demonstrating our passions – not because it’s surprising, or quirky – not as a reaction – but absolutely independently of our ideas about ‘women’, we should be allowing ourselves to do these things because they are fun.

Perhaps we can demolish preconceptions without ever mentioning those preconceptions, because demonstrable passion yields impressive results, and when you have these results, we have a kind of proof that silences arguments.

Obstacles to interestingness are, I think, the key thing to bear in mind, and the best way I’ve found to address them is through demonstrations of fun. I’m lucky enough to only do things that I find interesting. The reason I don’t feel any direct threat or limit from society is because I only ever work with the currency of enjoyment. Perhaps it’s naïve, and I know that there is more to society’s subtle limitations than our immediate perceptions, but I feel remarkably defended from glass ceilings and everyday sexism and all kinds of irritating assumptions by the fact that I’m absolutely committed to fun.

WHAT ELSE MAKES US DO IT?

We associate it with good things.

This is a very nostalgic little collage for me. The games on the left are two of my favourite text adventure puzzle games from the early 80s – the machine in the middle is the Acorn Electron, which I played these games on, loading them off cassettes. The top right is another favourite game of mine, Repton 2. At the bottom right there, a child I found on the internet, pretending to be me.

In my experience, this is how passions are born. I have entirely positive and fun memories of computing. I was a young child in the early 80s when home computing was in its technicolour infancy, when typing pools were a strong enough memory that it hadn’t seriously occurred to anyone that computers were supposed to be a male interest.

It’s no coincidence that I’m now involved with various retro computing events – I worked at the major annual UK retrogaming expo REPLAY, and I co-hosted the ZX Spectrum 30th birthday party that happened at the BFI last year.

Obviously this is a niche hobby and I am an extreme example – most technical people don’t fixate on the early days of their passions to these lengths. But positive memories are the bedrock. They establish the subconscious notion that programming and gaming is fun and social and creative – and actually NOT gendered, in any way.

When I was about 13, I entered a school programming competition with my friend Sarah. Sarah’s mum was a maths teacher in my school. I was just a nerd. Sarah and I designed an animated Easter card in Pascal on the school’s Archemedes A3000s. It was fun and exciting, and typing in those bloody co ordinates took DAYS. We worked through lunch breaks and evenings to get that graphic finished. Neither of us thought there was anything remotely unusual about us being interested in computers. They were just another tool for doing creative stuff, and we loved it, so we got on with it. By the end, we weren’t doing it for the competition anymore, we were doing it because we were SO INTO IT. And because we loved doing it, we did a good job of it. We won the competition, and were awarded a giant bar of Galaxy chocolate, each.

These days, I still write new programs in those old languages, for fun. I also write simple things for arduinos and other devices sometimes. And I write about working with machines.

So what else makes us do it?

It’s relaxing. It’s fun to have fun. It is, in fact, not stressful to have a hobby or an interest, and indulge it, sometimes. I wonder if we realise it’s OK to relax into something ‘nerdy’ without it being a competition and without feeling it’s pursuant to a career and the associated pressures.

We’re encouraged to be social. There’s still something ‘wrong with you’ if you don’t want to do sociable things. This is true of everyone of every age and gender, but I think it’s fair to say the social pressure weighs more heavily on females.

People don’t know how to handle contented loners, or how to cope with solitary hobbies. Of course, this is all a bit disingenuous. Geeks can be some of the the most sociable people in the world. But what I’m saying is: let’s not feel we have to make things ‘girl friendly’ by engineering “social” tech opportunities. It could even be a bit off-putting and stressful to women with a particular mindset. “I have to try harder to mix, socialise, and fit in. I can’t even be a geek properly…”

But it is relaxing. Programming, electronics – actually any kind of making – can be incredibly calming and focussing, if you have the kind of brain that needs to focus on something. You might learn something you wouldn’t learn in a spa. It’s therapeutic. There are worse things for your brain to fixate on and there are less useful things to learn.

So in summary… We are interested because it’s interesting. One of the reasons people like me stick with it beyond all the other interesting things is because it caught our attention at the right moments in our lives. It felt like a viable option long before we realised we weren’t supposed to be interested in it. And it feels like a viable option now, to anyone who finds it sufficiently stimulating that many of the obstacles lose their relevance and power.

What if it’s not a challenge, or a chore, or a duty – or even an social obligation that we get into this stuff, but a simple pleasure that originates from within? I really feel that if we can remember this stuff is fun, everything else will fall into place.

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