The age of un-empathy

“My Spotify drains my phone battery”, she said.

“Do you listen to it on streaming or offline?”, I asked.

“Why, yes I do listen to it on streaming!”

“So you see both the 3G access you are using and the app itself use battery. You can see battery use by app and make choices accordingly especially when you are outside and worried you couldn’t recharge your phone.”

“How do I do that?”, she immediately wanted to know.

Cue, search through settings and battery use data on her 4 year old Samsung Android phone.

“The guys at the Samsung store didn’t help me”, she lamented.

So we opened the settings to check battery use and she was horrified.

“Where did all these apps come from? I am not using them”, she said.

“Not right now, perhaps, but they may be running in the background or operating on a pull mechanism”, I said, weakly. And clearly, unhelpfully.

We then discussed what “pull” means, what other common uses may be battery-draining, how it may be necessary to behave differently to conserve battery, how some apps more than others drain battery, and other things she now needs to know, just so she can use the technology she deems essential to her work and her outside-work life.

There were several such moments, as I helped this 65 year old friend of mine. She needs to get to grips with some essential technology tools and social media as she works on taking her business global.

The detail about her age and her business are material here lest the rest of this reflection should get drowned in the assumptions that just because she is older, she is not “smart enough” or “compos mentis”.

She isn’t the first among my over-55 friends whom I have recently helped with their technology and social media needs. Phones and social networks all play a key role.

It is soon clear that much of the technology design has forgotten technology also serves our ageing population at hand.

IMF depiction of our ageing populations

Mobile phones have several non-obvious hidden access features, sometimes resistive touch screens, complicated pathways to switching off default settings on various apps and in case of Android phones, a fragmented ecosystem that confuses older users who did not cut their teeth on technology.

Social networks have arcane and complex privacy settings, light coloured buttons, light grey ellipses to access extra features, drop-down menus hidden behind little arrows, and of course, their own lingo for features.

It may even seem the ageing user is misbehaving i.e. not behaving in accordance with the designers’ expectations of their ability to make use of features they should be able to see (never mind almost universally weakening eye sight with age) or discover. Because, hey, it is so intuitive, you know!

What is wrong with this picture?

Is technology meant to exist for its own sake? Or is it meant to serve someone?

What are the design assumptions at work here? Do we care whom we are including — and whom we are excluding — by our design choices?

Can the growing numbers of ageing people be this invisible?

Post script

As she started to gather her things and prepare to leave, I said, trying to be helpful, “Of course, you could just buy a portable battery pack so you are never out of battery when you leave home.”

She put her things down and looked at me sternly, “That is now for another day, Shefaly. I cannot cope with this any more.”

Related reading:

Why I think “digital native” and “digital immigrant” typology is short-sighted and unhelpful

Twist in the tale: Watson (contd.)

Continuing the story of James Watson, Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories first issued a press release distancing themselves from Watson’s view on intelligence of black people and now have suspended him, pending further deliberations at the Labs.

Considering all his engagements are being cancelled by hosts in a hurry to distance themselves from Watson, the Cambridge Union Society may be the only place where he is apparently still scheduled to speak.

Several terabytes of data packets are floating on the web about “what he said” and “what is being done” by way of cancellations of appearances.

But while all this goes on, his book “Avoid Boring People“, which admittedly does sound like the title of a Dilbert comic, is in the top 100 books on Amazon-UK.

If the “what” of the whole story bothers you much more than the “why” does, here is a story for you to consider.

During my MBA, we had to watch a film as part of course materials. The film was called Skokie, named after the Illinois village where the story takes place. It is a Jewish majority village through which a Neo-Nazi group wishes to march. One survivor of a concentration camp decides that ignoring is not enough; he will take action. The story depicts the views of several generations from fear, bad memories, disgust, helplessness, concern to shoulder-shrugging indifference amongst teenagers in the village. You can probably read the synopsis much better here.

So what? If you have not seen the film, you cannot guess how it ends. When the film ended and the lights went back on, the boisterous, high decibel MBA group was in a shocked silence, something that affirmed the essential humanity of many in my mind.

After much national debate and court cases involving the ACLU, the Neo Nazi group pulls out. Their leader says that the objective of the march was to create greater awareness of the Neo Nazi movement. With so much public attention having been paid, at government’s and taxpayers’ expense, that objective had been achieved and the march was no longer needed.

Surprised? Now consider this! Is it possible that by discussing the issue over and over again, Watson’s idea of “racism” is being propagated much more than it might have done as any other interview in a British Sunday paper? And that the very same people are propagating it as claim to be horrified by it?

If it bothers everyone so much that Watson is being racist, don’t you think it is time to stop promoting and discussing the idea till the world is aflame?

Oh and by the way, will you be buying the book? Millions apparently are.

Whatever your answer: ask yourself why. “Why” is the essential question in Science and if more people asked it more often, the world might just have been a better place.

Scientists as "people"

Long post alert!

The Science Museum in London has cancelled a talk by James Watson, of Watson & Crick fame. The museum takes exception to his remarks made to the Sunday Times where he says that black people are essentially “less intelligent” than “ours”. At the time of writing this post – Thursday 18 October 2007 – Watson’s scheduled appearance at the Cambridge Union Society is still on. Cambridge Union Society is a debating society so such people, as Watson or Jean-Marie Le Pen, are almost grist to the mill.

Reader and fellow blogger Madhuri, who is a biology PhD and (ed.: until July 2007) a post-doctoral researcher in the US, has also taken exception to this remark by a scientist held in high regard, even as his shortcomings as a person increasingly raise questions about his judgement.

There are two separate issues here – one is the appropriateness of Watson’s growing tendency to be direct and in current terms, politically incorrect; and the second is the issue of intelligence. In this post, which I aim to finish in the next 15-20 minutes, I shall only write about the former, hence the title of the post: Scientists as “people”.

The questions to ask are:

Why do some people express opinions that outrage most people today?

Where do these views come from?

Is there a “right” way to judge their appropriateness?

Are these views to be taken seriously?

If these views are likely to cause harm, what is the mitigation, short of confining such people to an institution?

Watson is now 82. When he was born, eugenics was a well-funded branch of scientific research. He comes from an age where social norms were different and certain behaviours were acceptable. For instance, Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to enabling Watson and Crick’s “discovery” was glossed over for a long time in history. The sort of behaviour meted out to Franklin would – in theory – be unacceptable behaviour today, but it was acceptable then. To turn the issue on its head, today perhaps a woman scientist will fight back. Why did Franklin not make that choice? For part of the reasons, I refer you to the brief history of women in Cambridge in the comments section from an earlier post. Franklin’s contributions being key to the Triple Helix discovery puts to rest any doubts about her inherent capability as a scientist. But since 1901, only 3% of Nobel Prize winners have been women.

In 21st century reality, women researchers are still treated as second-class in many laboratories. A super-smart friend of mine was a mature PhD student in environmental chemistry, in Cambridge. She told me of how a young 22-year old male PhD thought it was ok to talk down at her, asking her to run his errands. She set him straight, but one has to wonder where he learnt it was ok to talk down to a colleague like that? As Ali G would ask “Is it because I is a woman?” Not an insignificant proportion of his bad behaviour was down to his maleness and his evident sense of being born superior. But some of it was definitely learnt. It is hard today to fathom a life where a man can go unchallenged for a whole 22 years! Perhaps that is how his father treats his mother? Perhaps his laboratory seniors and Professors overlook his social faux pas and thereby encourage them?

Larry Summers found to his peril that the scientific establishment’s treatment of women can never be explained away satisfactorily, whichever way you frame your argument. Empirical evidence shows that it is a complex of factors – most of them institutional – that has held back women’s progress and participation in science, as well as their rightful claim to credit for some of the most lauded scientific achievements of the 20th century.

Just like the state of women in science is a complex reality, so are the views expressed by Watson.

Some of it is down to his upbringing. Some of it is down to an establishment that prized his genius so much that it never rebuked him. Some of it is down to the fact that he is antediluvian and therefore espouses antediluvian views. This is not an ageist comment. This is something that scientists have been struggling to understand for a while.

Recent research shows that while younger people, who make an effort to be politically correct and fit with the evolving norms of acceptable behaviour, can change, older people genuinely find it difficult to change. This is down to how our brains age. An older research paper suggests that older people say prejudicial things because they just cannot help it. They lose their inhibitions as their brain’s ability to inhibit inappropriate thoughts diminishes. Recent research by the same Bill von Hippel of University of Queensland confirms the finding that as we age, our brains’ frontal lobes atrophy and so do the functions associated with the frontal lobes such as planning, reasoning, judgement, impulse control and motor control.

This may also explain why Watson thinks that if it can be done, girls should be made pretty. Hardly an appropriate remark!

So is there a right way to judge the inappropriateness of some remarks? Back to Watson and Franklin, to judge events from back then through a lens of today would be incorrect. We cannot revise history but if we do not learn from it and change ourselves, we will soon be repeating it, to paraphrase Santayana.

If these views are not to be taken seriously, what about the harm they may cause? Madhuri suggests that people with bigoted views still serve on funding committees and can hamper the chances of perfectly good candidates who do not suit their criteria of being “ours”.

Here is my take on it.

I would immensely prefer a Watson, a poor old dear with diminishing control over his frontal lobe and his mouth, whose opinions are out in the open, to a smart-arse who espouses just the right views in public and then goes inside and strikes out all minorities – gender, race, colour – from the list of potential beneficiaries of funding.

Do Watson’s views harm his workplace? Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories, which host Watson, have a diverse community of researchers, even though a vast majority of them are male. But there are signs of hope. There are some women as well as several non-white – mainly Indian and Chinese – researchers. Admittedly I did not click to see each researcher’s mugshot. But from the name list, it appears there are no black/ African-American/ Afro-Carribean researchers at CSHL.

Is this all down to Watson’s racism? I do not think so.

The United States passed its civil rights act in 1964 and by all accounts, the country still struggles with where it stands on race. Surely even scientists appalled by Watson’s racism can see that it is not all his fault.

Watson will be dead in a few years’ time, but if the youth of the country is still bigoted, we have a bigger problem at hand than just the utterances of an old man of DNA.