July 9, 2005

One Word, Much Conversation

by Mary Flanagan · , 4:27 pm

This past week, an incredible group of women met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London as part of the workshop/talks in the Cybersalon series put on by London’s SMARTlab and the ICA. The participant’s backgrounds spanned disciplines from game design to mobile technology design to arts activism to organizational collaboration. To fuel the discussion, speakers (including yours truely) were asked to choose their favourite misused word in technology-culture and speak about it.

Participans and their words included Dr. Lizbeth Goodman (“presence”), Diane Fox Hill (“X”), Katie Salen (“blog”), Mary Flanagan (“new”), Zann Gill (“acronymitis”), Niki Gomez (“wearable computing”), Eva Pascoe (“wireless”), Emma Westecott (“interactive”), and Suzanne Stein (“mom”). I was surprised to find myself captivated by these talks and the overall format was so effective! In particular I’d like to note Stein’s discussion of the word “mom” or “mother,” a word used now in technology development arenas when desiging for the lowest common denominator user –ie, “its so easy even your mother can use it.” From her first hand industry point of view Stein problematised this positioning of the mother, noting that design teams want to use this category to replace the old adage “so simple, a monkey could use it.” What might be more effective is to design for those users in terms of their needs, not in the existing use of language in which ‘complex’ or ‘cutting edge’ designs are ‘dumbed down’ for a larger and larger audience. Great observations, Suzanne; ones that are particularly difficult to spot as problematic from colloquial use.

In my segment I discussed the rhetoric of the “new” including the newness of computer game studies, arguing for another look at the role of games and play in history and in particular 20th century art movements. I then took the liberty of discussing a second problematic term in my own realm of research, “girls”; designing for girls is a very complex and admittedly too-far-reaching a term to be effective unless one is working with girls and tries to address through design the complex nature of their diverse experiences.

The resulting talks created a multifaceted and fascinating set of mini-conversations focused on the role of technology in everyday life and in particular the gender implications in these locations. I wish I could experience more of the series.