Friday, October 21, 2011

Women in Computer Science

I'm going to write this post while it's fresh in my head.

Last night I watched a screening of the movie Missrepresentation. The film talks about the popular media's portrayal of women as a backlash to the progress women have been making in society in the last century, then explains how this portrayal is not just negative, but also very dangerous for all the freedoms women have recently gained. The movie discussed the idea that women still take second stage in popular media. Whether it's being the ditsy sidekick to the serious male news anchor, or being the lovesick women looking for a man in the latest romantic comedy, women are presented as existing for men. This hurts women in several ways. At a political level, this limits the way we listen to female politicians. When the media focuses on the appearance of a politician instead of the content of what they are saying, it's hard to respect them. This leads to less women in politics. At a day-to-day level, this kind of media portrayal tells women that, above all, we are valued by what we have to offer men. This is again, quite limiting and leads to young women failing to pursue important careers and ambitions because whatever it is, it isn't as important as important as appealing to men. It then becomes cyclical - with fewer women in important, powerful positions, there are fewer voices to advocate for women in the world at large.

Though the movie focused on politics, since this part of society has a unique ability to shape how empowered certain groups are in the future of our society, I really believe that it can be applied to any male dominated field. Over the summer I played in an Ultimate tournament with a team I didn't know too well and got a ride to the fields with a male student from Carleton College named Alex. We had a long trip to get there and ended up talking a lot about school. Early on in the conversation I mentioned that I had taken several classes in the computer science department and was hoping to minor. He reacted by asking me if it was difficult being in classes with so many men, before remembering that I went to a women's college.

My only experiences with the computer science field have been at Wellesley where, obviously, my peers are mostly female. To me, a computer science student a woman just because that's what I've been exposed to. But Alex' comment reminded me that the rest of the world still imagines a computer science student as male and further more, imagines computer science as a masculine field. I often wonder what it will be like to leave Wellesley with a background in Computer Science and enter a world where people say "Wow! What's it like to be part of such a male dominated field?"

That being said, what I think Missrepresentation inspired me to do, even more than before, is to specifically choose to pursue male dominated fields to work in. Computer science is fascinating and interesting to work on, but I'm in a fairly lucky position where I can take classes without having to question whether I, as a women, should study something more "feminine." I think it's important that every women have the opportunity to study what she finds fascinating and I hope that by studying computer science, I'm helping the world get just a little bit closer to achieving that goal.

Wilson Lecture Response

I meant to post sooner after having attended but simply ran out of time. The Wilson Lecture caught me by surprise - all I really knew was that the lecturer was coming from MIT and was talking about technology in the developing word. In my mind, the combination of the "MIT" and "Technology" meant something super high tech and shiny. It didn't occur to me that technology would mean any kind of innovation, even if it involves rusty pieces of sheet metal making a tool to help prepare corn. Much of what Amy Smith, the lecturer, advocated was teaching people how to invent something for themselves. It took the old saying "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" a step further, stating that if you teach that man how to teach himself, he can eat whatever he wants for a lifetime.

I thought this had interesting implication for computer science. Something that has always bothered me about computer science is how steep the learning curve is and how expensive the technology is. For example, last week my hard drive failed. I have only a basic idea of what a hard drive is and no idea of how it actually functions (I should probably take 240...) I spent several hours on the phone with a tech savvy friend back home who walked me through diagnosing it and trying to recover it. I'm sad to report that it's been deemed a lost cause and I'm now looking at purchasing a $60 replacement. After investing a large amount of time and energy into creating a collection of digital data, I then lost all of it and now lack both the expertise and the equipment to recover it - and I know more about computer science than the average person.

The point I'm making is that computer science is inherently inaccessible. This kind of technology, which requires expensive parts and expertise, is never going to be meaningful in the day-to-day lives of the majority of people on the planet, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. I think this will change in the future, as technology becomes cheaper and people become more technologically literate, and I'm excited to see what happens when it does, because the lecture got me thinking about what people could invent if we had a whole world brainstorming idea for programs and technologies.

I like the idea of a world where people could make their own computers by hand to fit their own needs, then program the specific programs they need. I don't know whether this is the specific direction that the computer science world is headed in because frankly, it doesn't sound very lucrative for the current industry, but I would like to think it is. This fantasy of mine ties in nicely with the TUIs. If people were educated in ways to make their own computers, they would surely move away from a monitor, mouse, key board and GUI set-up. Again, I don't know if this will ever happen, but I's like to see computer science move in this direction.

New Project Idea

Our group ended up running into a lot of walls while working on our old project, so we decided to go with a different prompt. Instead of designing an interface for collaborative brainstorming, we've decided to design an interface to help make ordinary people a little more superhuman.

Since we thought it would be easier to work with something we knew, we decided to start with what we needed as Wellesley students. The answer was that we needed to keep track of basic things - like exercise, sleep, water, and food - that often take back seat to school work. We decided to design a superhero suit that keeps track of these things for you, then alerts you when you need to attend to them.

What we want to make is a suit that:
1) Monitors your heart rate
2) Monitors how much water you've drunk
3) Monitors how much sleep you've gotten
4) Monitors how much food you've eaten
5) Monitors how much social time you've had

When any of these categories got low, the suit will alert you. We originally thought an app for a smart phone could alert you, but after discussing this with the class, many people suggested that it might be more compelling for the suit to alert you in some other, more easily perceived way, since that is the real appeal of TUIs.

This brought up the idea of public vs. private information. While many people in the class noted that you might not want your professor to know that you only got two hours of sleep the night before, Consuela pointed out that it might be better for people around you to know that you're having a rough day.

Some parts of this might be too difficult to implement, but I'm excited to start thinking about it. Our professor suggested using phidgets for the suit, which would be interesting to work with. Overall, I'm pretty excited to start thinking about the project more seriously.