Tag Archives: science/technology: internet

Star Trek is Scaring the Ladies: Why Women Don’t Major in Computer Science

New research is discovering that the “ambient environment,” the passive context in which activities and decisions occur, can have a big impact.  In a paper by psychologist Sapna Cheryan and three colleagues, they recount how the ambient environment affected men’s and women’s interest in majoring in computer science and their sense that they were capable of doing so.

To test this, they invited some of the respondents into a neutral room, while others entered a room covered in “computer geeky” things: a Star Trek poster, comic books, video game boxes, empty soda cans and junk food, technical magazines, and computer software and hardware.   (Don’t kill the messenger; these were items that other college students had agreed were typical of a “computer science geek.”)

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Photo credit: Sapna Cheryan, via Lisa Grossman at Like a Radio Telescope.

Cheryan and colleagues found that men (the dark bars in the graph below) were unfazed by the geekery (they were slightly more likely to be interested if the environment was stereotypical, but the difference is within the margin of error). Women who encountered the geeked up room, however, were much less likely to say that they were considering a computer science major (the light bars).

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This research is a great example of the ubiquitousness of the cues that tell us what types of interests, careers, hobbies, and activities are appropriate to us.  Our ambient environment is rich with information about whether we belong.  And that stuff matters.

Source: Cheryan, Sapna, Victoria Plaut, Paul Davies, and Claude Steele. 2009. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97, 6: 1045-1060.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Do High Prices Make America the Global Leader in Broadband?

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

According to an op-ed in the Times, America is the global leader in broadband, with high speeds and great service. And it’s all because the government restrained “onerous” regulation and let companies like Verizon do what they want and charge what they want.

It was written by the CEO of Verizon, Lowell McAdam.

I pay Mr. McAdam’s company about $115 each month for my land line, wi-fi, and cable (all FIOS).  Mr. McAdam compares the U.S. favorably with Europe, “where innovation and investment in advanced networks have stagnated under an onerous regulatory regime.”  I asked a friend who lives in Paris what he pays for his FIOS phone, wi-fi, and cable.  The monthly bill:  39.90€ ($52) or half of what I pay Verizon.  Maybe there’s an upside to stagnant and onerous.

There’s nothing wrong with getting what you can afford, and it occurred to me that U.S. broadband is the best because we can afford more.  Onerous regulations or no, most other countries are not as rich as the U.S.  What if you looked at broadband and per capita GDP?

The OECD did just that with data from June 2012 (their several spreadsheets on this are here). The purple bars are broadband penetration and the bumpy red line is GDP per capita. Do you see a correlation?

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Consider France: As of a year ago, the country had greater broadband penetration despite a lower per capita GDP than the U.S. ($35,133 vs. $46,588); that’s 25% more broadband on 33% less income and at half the cost to consumers.

If you re-rank the OECD countries factoring in per capita GDP, the line-up changes.  Notably, the U.S. and Luxembourg drop well below the OECD average, despite being among the wealthiest countries.

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Of course, not all broadbands are equally broad.  Verizon sold me on fiber-optic with their assurance that it was dazzlingly faster than their DSL that I had been clunking along on. This graph breaks down broadband into its various incarnations.

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The U.S. is slightly above average on all broadband, but when it comes to a high fibre diet, we are ahead of several other countries that have greater total penetration.  On the other hand, the Scandinavian countries are ahead of us, as are, impressively, the Asian countries.

This is not to deny U.S. advances.  TechCrunch summarizes more recent data from Akamai on these changes:

the U.S. is currently second in the price of broadband for entry-level users. The nation is also third in network-based competition, second in the fiber-optic installation rate, first in the adoption of next-generation LTE, ahead of Europe in broadband adoption, and doing quite well in Internet-based services.

Still, the U.S. lags behind other, less wealthy countries.  InnovationFiles, using Akamai data for different variables, has a less congratulatory view.

  • The U. S. has picked up one place in the “Average Peak Connection Speed” that’s the best measurement of network capacity, rising from 14th to 13th as the measured peak connection speed increased from 29.6 Mbps to 31.5 Mbps.
  • In terms of the “Average Connection Speed,” widely cited by analysts who don’t know what it means, the U. S. remains in 8th place world-wide. but we’re no longer tied for it as we were in the previous quarter; Sweden is right behind us on this one.
  • In terms of “High Speed Broadband Adoption”, the proportion of IP addresses with an Average Connection Speed greater than 10 Mbps, we remain in 7th place, but now we’re tied with  Sweden.

The title of CEO McAdam’s op-ed is “How the US Got Broadband Right.”  Given the content, I  guess “We’re Number 13!” wouldn’t have been appropriate.  Even “We’re Number Seven (Tied With Socialist Sweden)!” doesn’t quite have that affirmative zing.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Modern Social Problems and Vintage Technology: Google’s Project Loon

Screenshot_2As our society becomes increasingly technological, I love stories that remind us of the value of simpler ways to solve problems, like a faux bus stop to catch escapee nursing home residents or dogs that are trained to sniff out cancer (both stories here).

This weekend we were treated to another such story, this time by Google. The company has announced a plan to bring internet to the whole world… with balloons.  The very first launch of a gas balloon was in 1783.  Two hundred and thirty years later, the company aims to deliver what is arguably the defining feature of our age — the internet — with helium-filled balloons.  That technology will then bring almost countless other technologies, such as medical advances and agricultural information, to people who are largely excluded from them now.  A fantastical plan.

Here’s how it’ll work:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Social Networking and the National Movement to “Know Your IX”

I absolutely love this photograph of a collage on the wall of an activist in the rather new national movement to hold colleges and universities accountable for sexual assault.  Referencing Title IX and the “bigger picture,” it documents cross-college efforts to use the amendment to ensure that sex crimes on campuses don’t interfere with women’s rights to equal access to education.

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What is exciting is that this is a national movement. The many college names pinned to the board are just some of the schools that have filed, are filing, or will file Title IX complaints with the Office for Civil Rights. “Oxy” is my school.

I’ve been somewhat involved with Oxy’s role in this movement — the credit goes to Drs. Caroline Heldman and Danielle Dirks and the dozens of survivors who, as part of the coalition, have publicly and confidentially shared their stories — but I’ve had the pleasure of talking to journalists about our case.  Regarding the national movement, they often ask me “Why now?”

Why Now?

This is a tough question to answer and, first and foremost, credit goes to the extraordinary people at the center of this fight, such as Annie Clark, Andrea Pino, Dana Bolger, and Alexandra Brodsky at Know Your IX.  As Margaret Mead famously said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

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Importantly, though, the efforts of this small group have been greatly enhanced by the internet and, specifically, social networking sites.  Students (and sometimes faculty, staff, and administrators) are no longer confronting these issues alone.  They are reaching out across campuses and talking with each other; they are teaching each other how to file federal complaints; they are building and sharing templates; they are sharing stories of institutional foot dragging and spin and developing effective resistance and protest strategies.

For example, Annie Clark, who filed federal complaints against the University of North Carolina, helped Profs. Dirks and Heldman at Occidental College file their complaints: “Over the past few months,” she writes:

I have spent countless hours with them on Skype and the phone in order to share information and help the[m] write their complaints. Yet, six months ago, I had never even heard of Occidental College — and many of the 37 women there who filed had not yet heard about Title IX protection against gender discrimination beyond athletics.

These coalitions are creating both activist networks and fast friends. This is a picture of students at Swarthmore (Swat) showing their love for students at Occidental (Oxy). Both campuses filed Title IX complaints on the same day:

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As Prof. Dirks explains, this collaboration is a big deal:

[L]earning the stories of other survivors who are actively pushing their colleges and universities to create safe and equitable learning environments has opened the floodgates of what students now feel empowered to do.

This is all possible, of course, because the internet is still at least a somewhat democratized technology. You and I are equals on the internet, at least in principle.  So we all have the opportunity to produce content.  In contrast, other forms of media — TV, radio, movies, magazines, books — typically offer us only the opportunity to consume.

The activists in this movement have a platform and a megaphone, then, metaphorically speaking.  The technology — and our regulation of it in ways that preserve its democratic nature — is helping enable this movement.  Just as the TV made a huge difference in shifting popular opinion about the Civil Rights Movement.  Accordingly, we need to remember this when corporations fight to own and control the internet and its distribution.  For reasons like this one, we should be fighting back with the goal of making the internet a public utility.  Democracy depends on it.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday Fun: 1967 Futurists Imagine the 21st Century

Screenshot_1In this charming minute-and-a-half, Walter Cronkite demos the home office of 2001, as envisioned in 1967.  Amazingly, reality seems to have far outpaced their imagination!

I love the first line, by the way: “This is where a man might spend most of his time in the home of the 21st century.”  Apparently professional futurists in 1967 couldn’t imagine women working!

Via Cyborgology.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Reconnecting with Waste through Social Media

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

Humans produce waste. A lot of waste—much of which comes from our very bodies. Indeed, the average American produces 7 pounds of organic waste per day, largely made up of feces and urine. Cities have to somehow manage this waste, manage these now expelled parts of human bodies, manage that which we produce, drop, leave, and conscientiously ignore. Such management is typically engaged by an underclass of workers, the sanitation department, waste management employees, septic cleaners. When all goes well, waste remains invisible. Unsmelled. Unseen. Silently moved through underground systems and channeled out in ambiguous ways. This is a process to which most producers of bodily waste remain blissfully ignorant.

Sometimes, however, this waste management becomes a problem, and when it does, our expelled and forgotten matter spills back up into human view, reconnecting humans with the ways in which their own bodies must be managed through external structures; reminding humans of the dirty reality of organic embodiment. Such is the case in the New York City sewer system. High water levels, coupled with high waste levels, can lead to sewer overflows, flushing raw human waste into the city’s waterways — including the East River and the Hudson. Nothing reminds humans of their own embodiment like literal consumption of expelled matter. Nothing reconnects humans to an otherwise hidden process than their own shit floating down the river.

A recent solution to this problem of waste re-emergence comes from an unlikely place: social media. Leif Percifield recently introduced a social media tool called DontFlushMe, which allows New Yorkers to keep track of water levels and make waste management decisions accordingly — that is, decisions about whether or not to flush. The system works through sensors within the sewers, which notify users of high water levels via text message, Twitter, a call-in number, or by a website. When water levels get too high, users will ostensibly “let it mellow,” reducing the influx of waste into the sewer systems, and preserving the waterways.

The role of social media here is particularly interesting. Here we have a social tool, a communication medium necessarily removed from the body and physicality, working to reconnect the user to hir body, and reconnect the body to the architectures and structures in which it dwells. This form of mediated communication thins the mediating line between personal actions and public good, between expelling and consuming, between individuals and infrastructures. This tool makes invisible processes visible, and turns everyone into stewards of the shared land.

Such reconnection — between humans and their bodies; between individuals and infrastructures — is facilitated by a tool so often accused of causing disembodiment and disconnection. Social media republicizes and disseminates responsibility for that which was previously relegated out of sight, smell, and mind. This “new” technology, ironically, brings us back to an earlier time of chamber pots and smelly streets, in which bodily awareness was a communal necessity.

*Special thanks to James Chouinard for bringing this social media tool to my attention, and for sharing his vast knowledge on the Sociology of Dirt.

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Jenny Davis is a postdoctoral researcher in the social psychology lab at Texas A&M University. Follow Jenny on twitter @Jup83.

Battle in the Dark: Syria’s Communication Blackout

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

On Thursday Syria’s internet was shut down.

This is a serious situation with literal life and death implications.  Much of this story has yet to play out. Right now, I want to take a moment to explore one aspect of what this all means. Namely, I want to explore the question: why did the internet shut off now? To do so, I turn to Derrick Bell’s interest convergence theory.

Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence is a canonical statement on race relations. Bell famously argues that whites promote racial justice only when doing so converges with their own interests. The key example is the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education case, in which racial integration in schools served the larger U.S. message within the Cold War of human rights, freedom, and equality.

Although many scholars critique the strong version of Bell’s argument for its failure to incorporate agency among blacks, the root of the argument is quite useful in explaining power relations. In short, interest convergence theory tells us that the will of the powerful wades towards the direction of self-interest. When these interests converge with those of the less powerful, the less powerful are better able to achieve their will.

To a degree, I think this framework helps us understand the decision of the Syrian government to shut down communication channels. Syrian rebels utilized digital communication channels to both organize among themselves, and share their experiences — often in real time — with the outside world. This was instrumental in their cause both on the ground and internationally. The real question then, is why did the government maintain these channels for so long? This question is particularly blaring in light of extreme government atrocities, including mass killings of innocent citizens — including children. Moreover, why did the government decide to cut off these channels now?

Internet and communication blackouts are not unique among the Arab uprisings. Egypt and Libyan governments both shut down communication during their respective battles. The Syrian government, however, is unique in its deft use of digital technologies to quash protests, locate dissidents, and suppress the movement. In short, the interests of the powerful (i.e. the government) converged with the less powerful (i.e. the rebels). In addition to appearing somehow less oppressive to the international community, we see here a possible reason for maintaining Internet capabilities despite their strategic importance in the rebel movement.

However, we may speculate that the costs got too high for the government. We may speculate that in light a persistent rebel force, culminating in massive protests in Damascus – so large that the major airport had to be shut down – it no longer served governmental interests to maintain digital connectivity. The interests of the powerful and the less powerful no longer converged.

Certainly, there are other factors in play. This is a minuscule fraction of the story. With that said, this framework suggests that perhaps today’s act by the Syrian government was one of desperation. They were forced to give up a key oppressive resource (digital communication capabilities). This resource was no longer adequately effective for keep the uprising at bay. Now, they must all battle in the dark.

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Jenny Davis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University, where she studies the intersection of culture and identity. You can follow her twitter feed at @Jup83.

Social Media and the Fight over Urban Outfitters’ Appropriation of Native American Cultures

Yesterday Native Appropriations featured a presentation about Urban Outfitters, cultural appropriation in fashion, and the struggle to get the clothing chain to stop labeling clothing as “Navajo.” The presentation is great both for explaining this particular case — which included the Navajo nation sending a cease-and-desist letter demanding that Urban Outfitters stop using the term Navajo in its marketing — and also because it shows how one particular story spread through social media, which increasingly have the ability to bring mainstream media attention to stories that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.