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Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 23:59

I've worked with computers and software almost all of my life. The tech industry has created a lot of amazing things, and we continue to crank out more of them every day. (I mean, we pretty much bumble through the actual development and testing process, but in the end we kind of get things to mostly work. Usually.)

One place where I truly think we are falling down, though, is bridging the gap between the technologies we create and humanity as a whole. We build social networking tools without considering what kind of behaviours and societal norms they'll encourage. From a place of relative privilege, we may be oblivious to how our creations can be turned to disturbing ends. The choices we make determine whether new technologies will work for the benefit of all, or deepen the many inequalities that exist in our world.

One day, I hope to engage in my own research, looking how people change when they're using or building software: how the norms set by technologies and technical communities influence people's behaviour; why people seem to so readily commit acts or omissions online that they might consider unethical offline.

I don't think I would know that this kind of research career was even possible if it wasn't for danah boyd.

If you've read much anything about online youth, especially when it comes to topics like bullying, social media, and privacy, you've almost certainly encountered her work. Her extensive writings span a dizzying number of facets of online interaction, identity, and culture. Especially on the topic of youth, Her research has often shown that the "conventional wisdom" surrounding how people use the internet is baseless and mistaken, with obvious ramifications for technologists and policymakers alike.

I really don't get the impression that academia in its current incarnation makes it very easy to engage in this kind of cross-disciplinary research -- inquiry that's not only valuable, but profoundly important if we are to build out the future in a way that makes things better for all of humanity. danah has shown not only that this work is meaningful and that it's worthwhile, but also that it's possible to make a brilliantly successful go of it, and that's something for which I'm very grateful.


Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging about women in science, technology, engineering and maths. You can find more information at the Finding Ada website.

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012 23:38 (UTC)
My strong impression is that academia is wedded to its pigeonholes, and cross-disciplinary research means an uphill battle against people who feel threatened whenever their personal pigeonholes appear to be questioned in any way. (See, if you are being cross-disciplinary involving their pigeonhole, it implies they are not sufficiently important and are missing something, and We Can't Have That.)
Friday, October 19th, 2012 12:32 (UTC)
I agree with everything you wrote here, but I especially agree with your second paragraph. For myself, I am very interested in ethnocomputing, but in keeping with your critique of academia I have been told that there is no interest in pursuing such research at my University.