Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Computing’ Category

When Women Stopped Coding

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

The NPR show Planet Money aired a show in 2014 on When Women Stopped Coding that looks at why the participation of women in computer science changed in 1984 after rising for a decade. Unlike other professional programs like medical school and law school, the percent participation of women when from about 37% in 1984 down to under 20% today. The NPR story suggests that the problem is the promotion of the personal computer at the moment when it became affordable. In the 1980s they were heavily marketed to boys which meant that far more men came to computer science in college with significant experience with computing, something that wasn’t true in the 70s when there weren’t that many computers in the home and math is what mattered. The story builds on research by Jane Margolis and in particular her book Unlocking the Clubhouse.

This fits with my memories of the time. I remember being jealous of the one or two kids who had Apple IIs in college (in the late 70s) and bought an Apple II clone (a Lemon?) as soon has I had a job just to start playing with programming. At college I ended up getting 24/7 access to the computing lab in order to be able to use the word processing available (a Pascal editor and Diablo daisy wheel printer for final copy.) I hated typing and retyping my papers and fell in love with the backspace key and editing of word processing. I also remember the sense of comradery among those who spent all night in the lab typing papers in the face of our teacher’s mistrust of processed text. Was it coincidence that the two of us who shared the best senior thesis prize in philosophy in 1892 wrote our theses in the lab on computers? What the story doesn’t deal with, that Margolis does, is the homosocial club-like atmosphere around computing. This still persists. I’m embarrassed to think of how much I’ve felt a sense of belonging to these informal clubs without asking who was excluded.

Silly Season for Eric Raymond

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

Eric Raymond, widely admired for his The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is now peddling social justice paranoia. See Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs. He starts with the following,

The hacker culture, and STEM in general, are under ideological attack. Recently I blogged a safety warning that according to a source I consider reliable, a “women in tech” pressure group has made multiple efforts to set Linus Torvalds up for a sexual assault accusation. I interpreted this as an attempt to beat the hacker culture into political pliability, and advised anyone in a leadership position to beware of similar attempts.

See his “safety warning” at From kafkatrap to honeytrap. His evidence for this ideological attack seems to be gossip from trusted sources – gossip that confirms his views about “women in tech” and pressure groups and so on. This sort of war rhetoric closes any opportunity for discussion around the issues of women in technology. For Raymond it is now a (culture) war between those on the side of hacker culture and STEM, against “Social Justice Warriors” and what is at stake is the “entire civilization that we serve.”

Why are these important issues being militarized instead of aired respectfully? When did the people we live with and love become the other? Just how confident are we that we objectively know what merit is in the hurly burly of life?  What civilization is this really about?

Other reactions to this story include Linus Torvalds targeted by honeytraps, claims Eric S. Raymond in The Register and Is This the Perfect Insane Anti-Feminist Rumor? from New York Magazine.

Why empathy is the next big thing in video games

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

CBC Spark with Nora Young had a segment on Why empathy is the next big thing in video games. The category seems to map onto “persuasive games” or “art games.” Some of the games mentioned:

  • RIOT – a forthcoming game where you experience being in riots
  • Spirits of Spring – about a “young native in a mythical land”
  • Papo and Yo – about alchoholism

Ian Bogost talks on the segment and makes the argument that in empathy games one feels a different type of empathy than in narrative media. When you make the choices you have something at stake. He also made a point about empathy with systems that I didn’t quite get. He talked about systems oriented game design where you get exposed to a different system or environment and learn about it through playing. The idea is that by playing someone running a fast food chain you learn about the system of fast food. You learn to empathize with the fast food mogul in order to understand the constraints those systems are under.

HathiTrust Research Center Awards Three ACS Projects

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

A Advanced Collaborative Support project that I was part of was funded, see HathiTrust Research Center Awards Three ACS Projects. Our project, called The Trace of Theory, sets out to first see if we can identify subsets of the HathiTrust volumes that are “theoretical” and then study try to track “theory” through these subsets.

SSHRC Stories and Success 2014

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Today we had our annual celebration of SSHRC funded researchers, SSHRC Stories and Success 2014. I introduced the speakers and the theme.

Thank you Associate Vice-President Johnston. Good afternoon colleagues, it is my pleasure to introduce the theme for this year’s event, which is:

Emerging Technologies: Competing Needs and Challenges

I should begin by confessing that as I was preparing for this, I had one of those Emperor’s new clothes research moments when I realized I had no idea what really are the emerging technologies and no metric with which to evaluate my intuitions. It is easy to become convinced certain technologies one understands are emergent, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other more important trends or that one isn’t blinded by ones commitments.

Fortunately it turned out that the Wikipedia actually has a list of emerging technologies to keep me honest so I have chosen a few from that list as a way of introducing the theme and the researchers who will talk to it.

  • An area where there are a number of emerging technologies coming now to market is display technology and virtual reality. From consumer 3-D televisions that may or may not take off to Virtual Reality head sets like the Oculus Rift that was recently bought by Facebook for 2 billion – there is a lot of change in how we can watch on the horizon. I recently had a chance to try out the Occulus Rift development headset with content from Canadian research and design teams and it is a good news bad news story. The technology works and is solid – it won’t be long before it is brought to market, but there still is a nausea problem. Any of you who remember the VR excitement of 1990s will remember nausea was a problem then too. Maybe this is a re-emergining technology. More important than the technology, however, are the forms of engagement and immersion being imagined for the virtual and Patricia Boechler will be talking about The Third Dimension: Immersive Virtual Environments in Educational Research and Practice.
  • Of particular interest to us here in Alberta is a second category of emerging technologies and those are the emerging energy technologies and resource extraction technologies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released their 5th assessment report titled “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change.” One of their conclusions for which there is high evidence and high agreement is that “deep cuts in emissions will require a diverse portfolio of policies, institutions, and technologies as well as changes in human behaviour and consumption patterns.” That sounds like a call for social science and humanities research and partnerships. The University of Alberta is one of the places where badly needed interdisciplinary research is emerging around the challenges of the interaction of technologies, policies and human behavior. The story of climate change and how we mitigate its effects is ours to study and change and today we have Gordon Gow who will talk about Stewarding Technology for Inclusive Innovation.
  • The third emerging technology I want to mention goes under the rubric of the Internet of Things. The idea is that soon we will be able to afford to embed networked computing in everyday appliances like your refrigerator and associated consumer products like the milk that goes into the fridge. Then the fridge could keep track of the milk and automagically tell you when you needed to buy more. The conveniences are endless – I could use my smartphone to tell if I had left the stove on or really locked the door every morning before I turn back to check. But there is another side to such a network of things. Bruce Sterling, a science fiction writer, has an essay on the Internet of Things that argues that the story of the Internet of Things has an overlooked history (smart appliances crop up regularly), and that this time the story of convenience is being harnessed for economic surveillance. He rightly points out that we are not the customers of companies like Google and Facebook – the customers who pay Facebook for a service are the advertisers and those who buy data about us – . If all our appliances are capable of transmitting even more data about us, who will gather that data, who will mine it, benefit from it and sell the analysis? Kevin Haggerty, our second speaker thinks about surveillance issues broadly going beyond the hi-tech concerns I have and he will be talking about Technologies of Nature: Surveillance at the Limits of the Human.

In closing I want to say a few words about how the social sciences and humanities are turning to think through emerging technologies. The Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson who coined the term cyberspace and helped us imagine that emerging technology in his 1984 novel Neuromancer has famously said that “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Too often people outside the social sciences, arts and humanities think we are last to whom it is or should be distributed in the academy, but that is not the case historically nor today. If anything it is the social science, arts and humanities community that asks what technology is, how it emerges, how it is distributed, and how it can be used creatively. We are already deeply involved studying the emergence of technologies in the imagination and in use. We teach students to beware of the hype around technology and we teach them to use technologies creatively.  What is emergent is a multifaceted and interdisciplinary engagement in research and teaching with technologies and their very idea.

Around the World Conference

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014


Today we are running the Around the World Conference from the University of Alberta. This year’s topic is privacy and surveillance in the digital age. The Kule Institute for Advanced Study is hosting this online conference. Here are some of my opening comments,

I would like to welcome you to our second Around the World Conference. This year’s conference is on Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Age.

The ATW conference was the idea of the Founding Director of KIAS, Jerry Varsava. The idea is to support a truly international discussion around a topic that concerns us all around the world.

This year we have speakers from 11 countries including Nigeria, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, Italy, Israel, Ireland, Germany, Brazil, the US, and of course Canada.

This ATW conference is an experiment. It is an experiment because it is difficult to coordinate the technology across so many countries and institutions. It is an experiment in finding ways to move ideas without moving bodies. It is an experiment in global discussion.

International Ethics Roundtable 2014

Monday, April 28th, 2014

Last week I was at a great little conference, the International Ethics Roundtable 2014. My conference notes are at Information Ethics And Global Citizenship. I gave a paper titled, “Watching Olympia”, about the CSEC slides that showed the Olympia system developed by the Communications Security Establishment Canada. You can see the blog entry that my paper came from here.

Grad Student Mini-Conference On The Digital Humanities

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Stéfan Sinclair invited me to a half-day conference and lunchy that closed his LLCU-602: Digital Humanities – New Approaches to Scholarship course. You can see my conference notes at Grad Student Mini-Conference On The Digital Humanities. At lunch while the others were eating I was asked to talk about careers in the digital humanities. My talk was on “Thinking Through” as a practice in the humanities that is open to the digital. I started by talking about the recent Von Trotta film about Hannah Arendt which presents Arendt as an uncompromising advocate for thinking for oneself. I tried to spin out how one might think for oneself through the epochal interactive matter we have before us.

What I didn’t have time to argue was how thinking through is for me an alternative way of characterizing what we do in the digital humanities. It is an alternative, on the one hand, to Willard McCarty’s argument for modeling (as the model, so to speak), and Matt Kirchenbaum’s argument that for the digital humanities “as/is” tactical.

My argument suffers from some of the same problems that Fish finds in Ramsay’s work (in whose company I quite happy to be); namely that I find the digital humanities both to be an extension of existing humanistic ways of thinking and also a new way. I tried to show how it is simultaneously an old way of thinking and a new one. What has changed is the matter(s) we think through and the dangers we ford. The new matters are the digital evidence and computing affordances. The new dangers are the discourses of efficiency and instrumentality.

Georgia State tries new approach to attract more female students to philosophy | Inside Higher Ed

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Inside Higher Ed has a good article on the gender imbalance in Philosophy titled, Georgia State tries new approach to attract more female students to philosophy. The article discusses an experiment at Georgia State University to increase the number of women philosophers on the syllabus to at least 20 percent and then see if that makes a difference in how women students see the field. The article also goes beyond just the Georgia experiment to discuss reasons and reactions. I can’t help feeling that there is a connection between the statistics (see previous post) about women leaving the humanities for business and a philosophy curriculum with so few women philosophers.

Existential Emergency Phone

Friday, May 17th, 2013


Existential Phone

The Maker community is getting around to important philosophical kits. See the Existential Emergency Phone.

Thanks to Guy for this.