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.

One Response to “One Word, Much Conversation”

  1. nick Says:

    The use of “mom” in new media is indeed a rich topic, new media your momma jokes aside.

    I say this even though I don’t think “so easy, even your mom can do it” has become a very dominant meme. Google finds only about 166 pages that contain “so easy, your (mom | mother)”. By comparison, there are almost twice as many hits for the rather obscure phrase “sucks blue whale”. But 166 is indeed about ten times as many results as for “so easy, your (dad | father)”, and the “mom” phrase seems to have been used a bit in regard to RSS and podcasting, two relatively recent technologies. Many of the top search results for both the “mom” and the “dad” phrase are critiquing the use of the phrase, by the way.

    There are at least a few important factors at work here besides the denigration of women, though. The more obvious way to replace the monkey would be to say “so easy, your kids can use it.” By switching that around, those who use the new phrase are acknowledging that the young are savvy and that older generations are catching up to them. The humor of the statement comes from the generational reversal. I also imagine that people might more easily see moms, rather than dads, as being willing to use new media technologies – for instance, for some reason Google returns 364 hits for “mom has a blog” and only 95 for “dad has a blog”.

    The best “your mother” statement I’ve heard in new media and computing discussion was by Miguel de Icaza, who described one difference between proprietary software and free software as being that “proprietary software means you have to say no to your mother.” Or, as he said in an interview:

    If your husband or your children or your mother ask you for a copy of proprietary software you legally should say no. You legally should not share a copy of the software.

    Of course, this statement has nothing to do with anyone’s mother’s technical incompetence; it’s pointing to one ramification of non-free software, that it’s illegal to loan a Windows install CD to someone who you love, who gave birth to you, raised you and cared for you. And maybe there’s the suggestion that a world in which we could legally share software with others would be more familial?

    Well, that’s exactly the sort of place in discussions of computing and culture where I think it’s perfectly apropos to say “your momma.”

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