NOT EQUAL?

I don’t suppose anyone who reads my words will examine them with as much attention to detail as I write them.  I would be very happy if that were not the case, if a whole range of people did spend hours poring over my words, but reality tells me that is probably not happening.

So it may come as a surprise that I am worried about my so-called valorisation of women pioneers of the highly sophisticated calculating machines and their spin-offs.  I am concerned about the unexpected consequences of a handful of women, many years ago, who helped develop nuclear and atom bombs?  By this I mean that Jean Jennings et al, and Grace Hopper did help develop those weapons of mass destruction with their work at ENIAC. Why should I hold women up to closer scrutiny than the many men involved in computer technology.  I know there are many people out there now involved in designing new, remote ways to kill our enemies.  It is unfair surely?

Is it because there are so few women in that world and they just stand out more, or is it that women are, perhaps, too equal to men?  It has become clear to me today that women should be, better.  More humane, compassionate and considered. That is what I expect.  When I found they had feet of clay, my heart sank and I was forced to accept that we humans are, at heart, all fallible.  When the Nazi guards explained that they were only obeying orders, we dismissed this as merely an excuse, we can’t hold those American women up to a lesser scrutiny than the other small cogs in rotten machines who let bad things happen, can we? We are all capable of making the wrong decision and therefore we must always be careful of the consequences of our actions, espousing the next new things, following orders blindly, before actually thinking them through.

Advertisements

THE INHUMAN CONDITION

entire Cyborg

I have been thinking about cyborgs recently.  Are we that far from the science fiction notion of becoming half human, half machine? A pacemaker for my dodgy ticker, well that’s mainstream these days.  Maybe I’ll chuck out the glasses and get some new eyes that can automatically enhance the information  sent to my brain and adjust to different light qualities?  Or a chip that can hear colours transforming the frequency of light to that of sound and hear it through bone conduction.  A new hip perhaps, (a hip chip?) with a chip in it that makes it possible to ride a bike for longer periods over harsher terrain?  New hands to replace useless arthritic claws, strong enough to open the devilish packaging now mandatory for food producers, or impervious to extreme temperatures but delicate enough to enable me to incise into my etching plates?  At what stage do these enhancements change us from human to cyborg, or in fact make us posthuman, even transhuman?

The term cyborg is a little outdated as these days we can readily accept the intrusion of technology into our bodies, seeing those springy appendages of Oscar Pretorius as something to envy – only his legs mind you. The definition of a cyborg used to be a body which was dependant on something electronic or mechanical to exist, nowadays I cannot envision existing without my electronic devises, I feel diminished without them.

It seems that if the technology is good for the person and doesn’t threaten his/her humanity then it is acceptable but if it helps to make a person achieve beyond their human capabilities then this is perceived as threatening. Man as superman belongs in the comics or with Nietzsche, not our everyday lives.  The ethical choice is that I have a right to enhance and you have a right not to enhance.  It’s your body, your right to enhance as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, but there must be no coercion to enhance, or not to.

The tendency is to think that technology outside ourselves, when  it can be turned on or off,  is acceptable.  I find myself sometimes making cyborgian assumptions, like the phantom rumble in my pocket where the phone usually resides even when it’s not there. Trying to scroll down a paper page. Searching my brain like it was a Google Search. Trying to pinch zoom the view like it was a screen when I just wanted to see a sign somewhere far away.  So I suppose that most of us can be termed everyday cyborgs – when we wake up in the morning the first thing we do is check our mobiles, the device is the life-blood of our social reality, they symbiotically exchange information with the world.  We don’t notice the device, we achieve social union using technology. We meld into the computer and become part of it.

And then, if our bodies are beyond helping what about our brains?  Can our brains keep on living even after our body dies? Sounds like science fiction to me, but celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested that technology could make it possible.  “I think the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer,” Hawking said, “so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and to provide a form of life after death.”

Some people are actively working to develop technology that would permit the migration of brain functions into a computer. Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov, for one, hopes someday to upload the contents of a brain into a life-like exoskeleton as part of his 2045 Initiative.  And a separate research group, called the Brain Preservation Foundation is working to develop a process to preserve the brain along with its memories, emotions and consciousness, called chemical fixation and plastic embedding, the process involves converting the brain into plastic, carving it up into tiny slices, and then reconstructing its three-dimensional structure in a computer. This then offers the possibility of a machine which is dependant on human consciousness to exist – a reversal of our initial definition of a cyborg yet no less valid or frightening.  I must ask, is this an attractive promise of possible life after death?

But are we not moving ever closer towards some kind of symbiotic relationship with the technological other?  The technological construct now enters the flesh in unprecedented degrees of intrusiveness and the nature of the human-technological interaction has shifted towards a blurring of the boundaries between genders, races and species, following the trend of the contemporary inhuman condition.  The technological other today – a mere assemblage of circuitry and feedback loops – functions in the realm of an egalitarian blurring of differences. Has cyborg tendencies inspired a philosophy that seeks to make us so superhuman that we will not die?

LOOMS AND LAPTOPS

Old Looms

The loom was the first piece of automated machinery.  It was basically a simple system although it looks really complicated. There are horizontal rods, which connect with vertical rods with hooks. The horizontal rods interact with the punched cards which either have holes or un-perforated card (yes or no, on or off, one or zero, good or bad). If they move, then the vertical rod is moved. If the hook at the rod top is moved into the path of the griffe as it rises, then the hook is raised, and the thread is lifted. That creates the shed for the weft to pass through.

As a weaving system which withdrew control from human workers and transferred to the hardware of the machine, the Jacquard loom was bitterly opposed  by workers, who saw in this migration of control, a piece of their bodies literally transferred to the machine.  The Luddites opposed this automation and were supported in the House of Lords by the poet Lord Byron.

Charles Babbage, interested in the effects of automated machines on traditional forms of manufacture, published his research on the subject The Economies of Manufactures and Machinery in 1832.  He later said that looking back on the early factories was like seeing prototype ‘thinking machines’.

It was the Jacquard loom that excited and inspired Babbage (maker of the Difference Engine) who went on to build his Analytic engine, in which he was greatly helped by Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of previously mentioned Lord Byron. It was Ada who commented that if the Difference engine could simply add up, the Analytic Engine was capable of performing the whole of arithmetic.

Charles and Ada developed an intense relationship and in agreeing to write the footnotes to – and to translate from the Italian – Louis Menebrea’s Sketch of the Analytic Engine invented by Charles Babbage (1842) Ada produced the first example of what was later to be called ‘computer programming’.  The introduction of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating his looms, the punched card, was copied by the pair to attain the varied and complicated processes required to fulfil the purposes of the Analytical Engine.

Old fashioned telephone exchange

Reality does not run along the neat straight lines of the printed page. Only by criss-crossing the complex topical landscape can the goals of multifacedness and the establishment of multiple connections begin to be attained.  Where there are a jumble of voices, ideas, and gossip, where there are people talking at the same time, where there is empathy and discourse, that’s where you‘ll find the real world of women.   The Internet shatters the myth that women are victims of technological change.  Weaving and typing, computing and telecommunicating, women have been tending the machinery of the digital age for generations, enjoying intimate relations with the techniques and technologies which are revolutionising the Western World today.

laptop and hands

A SICK JOKE

Simone de Beauvoir must be turning in her grave.  Is it some kind of sick joke?  After years, decades, nay centuries of effort to get gender equality into our social order, women have now achieved that great accolade – for which, as far as I know, they never strived – they have been granted the chance to be given frontline combat roles in the armed forces.

Sicker and sicker.  Although there have been women with background roles in the armed forces before, women in the UK can now be deployed at the very front of where the action is with a primary role to kill.

So from our traditional life-giving roles, which we have taken for granted for too long, we now have arrived at that apogee of equality, we have been given the wonderful chance to be life-takers.

Oh joy.  All the women throughout the ages, suffragettes, Greenham Common women, technological innovators, we/they have all now failed.

I have called myself a feminist with pride, but what I really was yearning for was the chance to make the world a better place, a place in which a woman’s touch would turn this planet into a peaceful place.  I have never supported war in any guise, and do not recognise that there is any ‘just war’ and it is never right to take life.

 

 

Genderquake

It is generally agreed that there have been limited choices of employment for most women outside the home throughout the last few centuries.

Considering some of these opportunities, it seems that in the textiles industry women’s work was to programme the looms with punched cards, but it was also a woman who saw this and realised that this binary code was perfect for programming computers.

In offices around the world women’s typing was supposed to be intended only for the eyes of men, the bosses.  However the development of new techniques by Pitman and Gregg made shorthand a private female code, another language, another code.

In the production of miniature components women were small, weak and powerless but it was their hands that were more agile, dexterous and best suited to micro processing thus replacing men on the factory floor.

As it turns out, women have not merely had a minor part to play in the emergence of digital machines.  When computers were vast systems of transistors and valves which needed to be coaxed into action, it was women who turned them on.  When computers became the miniaturised circuits of silicon chips, it was women who assembled them.  Theirs is not a subsidiary role because when computers were virtually real machines it was a woman who wrote the software on which they ran.

Often called the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace was undoubtedly an interesting character. The question is still open for debate, was she a promiscuous, spoilt society heiress or a gifted mathematician and original thinker?  Some (man) called her not only irrelevant but delusional – I can’t remember his name now.

As the brilliant daughter of Lord Byron, her mother feared that Ada would inherit her father’s volatile ‘poetic’ temperament, so she raised her under a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics. Ada had a fascination with machines from childhood, designing fanciful boats and steam flying machines, and poring over the diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.

In correspondence with Charles Babbage, who was working on the ideas for a machine that is now recognised as a forerunner of the modern computer, Ada demonstrated her gift for mathematics and was described by him as “the enchantress of numbers”.  She was introduced to him by another female scientist famous in her day, the mathematician Mary Somerville, who mentored Ada during her relatively short life.

Babbage was impressed by the mathematical skills Ada possessed and invited her to make notes and translate a piece in Italian written by Luigi Menabrea describing Babbage’s ‘analytical engine’, so that it could be published in England.  Her footnotes include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine, while she also speculated on its future ability to create graphics and complex music.

She must have inherited some of her Father’s brilliant poeticism, however, as she also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities.  Her mind-set of “poetical science” led her to ask basic questions about the Analytical Engine examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.  Maybe she was just more practically prescient than the focused men around her?

Her lasting legacy as role model for girls and young women considering careers in technology is remembered on Ada Lovelace Day (this year it’s on 14th October 2014) which is dedicated to the celebration of the achievements of women in science and technology.

Image

Hot at 100

Last week London’s Selfridges played host to an Intelligence² debate concerning the possibility of looking attractive in old age, yes even at one hundred!

There’s a broad perception that female beauty and glamour have a sell-by date, I can’t imagine why – but does that have to be the case?

In a world where anything can happen, anywhere, and anyone can watch there should be room for everyone.  If you’ve got the time, inclination and money you can choose Botox, liposuction, plastic surgery, dermal fillers et al to hold back the effects of time on your body, but if you just can’t be bothered, why should you?  One of the most beautiful faces I have seen is of an old woman with a serene smile on her very wrinkled face; the wrinkles, so fine, detailed and lace-like, were permanent evidence of a life lived well and happily. What could be nicer?

However I think that if you are doing all that hard and painful work for yourself, that’s fine, but if you want to be the object of admiring gazes then please don’t be fooled.  Young men and old men alike will always choose to see a beautiful young woman reflected in their gaze and not a good-for-her-age granny.

Image

My idea of real beauty.

Women’s Work

Women’s work is a term used particularly in the West to indicate work that is believed to be exclusively the domain of women and associates particular jobs with women. It is particularly used with regard to work that a mother or wife will perform within a family and household.
The term may be pejorative, when applied to men performing roles which are largely designated for women.
The term “women’s work” may indicate a role with children as defined by nature in that only women are biologically capable of performing them: pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.
It may also refer to professions that involve these functions: midwife and wet nurse. “Women’s work” may also refer to roles in raising children particularly within the home: nappy changing and related hygiene, toilet training, bathing, clothing, feeding, monitoring, and education.
It may also refer to professions that include these functions such as that of teacher (up to the age of puberty); nurse, governess, nanny, care worker and au pair.
“Women’s work” may also refer to roles related to housekeeping such as: cooking, sewing, ironing, and cleaning. It may also refer to professions that include these functions such as maid and cook.
Though much of “women’s work” is indoors, some is outdoors such as: fetching water, grocery shopping or food foraging, and gardening.
When they leave the domestic environment “women’s work” has usually been involved with the low-status microprocesses of textiles production (Spinning the yarns, weaving the yarns, sewing the material and selling the clothes); secretarial work (typing, shorthand, telephonists, accounts, post office); the production of miniature components (micro-chips, valves, cogs, wheels); women were supposed to be the insignificant and inconspicuous, invisible and unconnected element, kept apart by demands of home, family and husbands, isolated in this way they couldn’t organise themselves into communities, unions or pressure groups after the fashion of men.
Middle-class jobs like teaching and nursing were “women’s work” but working under the guidance of  patriarchal hierarchies like doctors, headmasters and managers.
The guerrillas in their midst were missed, ignored or overlooked, those apparently well-behaved creatures who spent their time making lists, detailing procedures, typing, sorting, coding, folding, switching, transmitting, receiving, wrapping, packaging, licking the envelopes were thinking all along.