Come on, girls!

Maggie Philbin, Andrew Caspari, Belinda Parmar and Claire Sutcliffe

Last week I found myself in attendance at a panel discussion, organised by the excellent Sound Women, on “women in digital, interactive, media and developer roles”. (When I say “I found myself” I am using rhetorical flourish, you understand – I didn’t end up there by accident; I bought a ticket and went along.) The evening took place at Absolute Radio’s Golden Square HQ and was introduced by their COO, Clive Dickens, and chaired by Maggie Philbin of Tomorrow’s World fame. The panellists were Claire Sutcliffe, who founded Code Club which does exactly what I was recently complaining we needed someone to do; Belinda Parmar, founder of Lady Geek; and Andrew Caspari, head of a lot of music- and radio-related things at the BBC.

There was a lot of debate over why there aren’t more women in tech, and what might be done about it, and there were some interesting stories from audience members. The one which really made me stop and think was from a woman who grew up in Malaysia where, she said, IT was “the thing to get into” in the eighties, and as many girls studied it as boys because it was covered in the school curriculum at a time where in the UK, the only children getting into programming were the ones who did it at home as a solitary hobby (who were almost all boys, because, and I apologise for the sweeping generalisation, boys are more likely than girls to engage in solitary hobbies. Quiet at the back).

So we have a problem that is at least in part specific to the UK, and specific to the way that technology is perceived here. We don’t think of technology as a creative discipline. Claire said that if you show a kid an iPhone and explain that they can sit down and make a new iPhone app then and there, they are thrilled. Nobody had told them it was possible. All kids like technology, but nobody is helping them to make the link between writing code and making cool new things.

College brochures don’t show the potential outputs of a career in engineering, but a picture of someone sitting in front of a screen showing a load of unfamiliar gobbledegook. No wonder girls don’t want to do it – it’s as if you advertised a theatre studies course by showing someone sitting in their bedroom learning their lines, rather than up on a stage, dazzled by spotlights. We need to make technology aspirational in a way that appeals to to young women, and right now we’re really bad at it.

We also need more woman role models in technology. Women – watch out, here comes another sweeping generalisation – can be a bit crap at blowing their own trumpets, and it is easy to hide your light under a bushel and be satisfied in quietly doing your job well. But we owe it – not just to ourselves, not even just to the girls who we might inspire by showing them that careers they never even thought of can be creative and satisfying, but actually to all the potential consumers of all the cool things that girls might build if they are encouraged to work in technology – to stick our heads up above the parapet and say “yes, there aren’t many women doing this job yet, but I love it and here’s why I think you should give it a go.”

But individuals can only do so much, of course, and young woman may have already had their prejudices about technology ingrained before we persuade them otherwise (though it’s never too late! My degree is in art history). Where it really has to change, though, is in schools. In the long run, only government has the wherewithal to make changes at the level needed to support a thriving digital industry in the UK that will appeal to bright, curious, creative children of both sexes. But right now, there’s no reason for them to do it. Industry created the problem, industry will reap the biggest benefits from solving it, and industry has the means here and now to start making a difference – to go into schools, to talk to children, to bridge that gap between what they know they can do and what they can really do, and encourage them down the path we so urgently need them to take.

 

Gadgets

I’ve just been reading a piece on The Next Web called The 7 Most Beautiful Gadgets ever made. It’s a necessarily subjective judgement, of course, but I can’t help feeling it was written by someone with an eye for function over form. The Sony PS3 is an impressive beast, if that’s your bag, but beautiful? Never.

Maybe the problem is that when it comes to technology, we’re not very good at aesthetics. It took the arrival of tablets on the mass market for us to realise that everything we’ve ever done on the web is ugly, and that it’s possible to present digital content in a beautiful way. Why we have managed to do this with apps but not with websites is a mystery I haven’t solved (update: see the first comment for a good answer to this), but I’d like to think that we’ll catch up with ourselves eventually and start making everything beautiful.

But in the meantime, we can try to stop confusing how stuff looks with what stuff does. For Le Corbusier and the modernists, beauty was in usefulness, and the most beautiful thing was the thing that worked most perfectly. But then where would you classify an umbrella, which is beautiful and conceptually brilliant and only works if it rains directly downwards and there’s no wind? I think you have to allow for different versions of beauty, because form and function don’t always work in perfect harmony. So I have made two lists: the seven most beautiful gadgets ever made, and the seven best-designed gadgets ever made. There is no crossover, although I suspect my definition of “gadgets” gets a bit expansive towards the end.

The seven most beautiful gadgets ever made

7. The glass kettle

Glass kettle

I had one of these in the first flat I lived in after I left university, so for me it is the very symbol and essence of grown-up-ness. Of course, if you live in London it gets scaly and ugly after five minutes, but in its pristine condition it is a lovely thing, and watching water boil through glass is about as mesmerising as watching fire burn.

6. The spout bottle opener

Spout bottle opener

Most bottle openers are functional. This bottle opener is functional, but it’s also beautiful. I would like to live in a world where everything was as sleek and shiny as this.

5. The gramophone

A gramophone

I wish we still listened to music on these. I would have one in every room.

4. The iPod classic

iPod classic

Yes, I know they have gotten smaller and better since the original, but this is genuinely a design classic. The TNW piece includes the iPhone, which is arguably the most influential piece of design of the last decade, but that doesn’t make it the prettiest. iPhones are clunky and ugly. The first iPod was stunning, and just because it got smaller doesn’t mean it got better, aesthetically speaking. The Mona Lisa wouldn’t be better if it were smaller.

3. The Fender Stratocaster

A Fender Stratocaster

Another perfect piece of design. I could have done a whole list of musical instruments – have you ever seen anything as beautiful as a violin, or a saxophone, or a grand piano? – but the Fender Strat won out. Look at those lines. And yes, I know a guitar isn’t really a gadget, but I figure if TNW can have a car, I can have a guitar.

2. The Motorola RAZR

Motorola RAZR

You can’t fully appreciate the beauty of a RAZR from photos. I had two RAZRs in a row – I can’t remember what happened to the first one – and I loved them like you love a pet, even though they didn’t really work. It didn’t matter that they didn’t really work, because they looked and felt so perfect. It’s the only phone I’ve ever owned that would make people squeal when they first saw it, and although it might be obsolete in terms of technology, it’s still far and away the best-looking phone I’ve ever seen.

1. The arc light

arc lamp

Yeah, I’m not sure it’s a gadget either. But, well, it has electricity. Also, I just wanted an excuse to publish a big picture of an arc light. Impractical for all but the largest room, ridiculously proportioned and impossible to combine with any normal furnishings, it is the very epitome of form over function, and it’s one of the most perfect things I’ve ever seen.

The seven most perfectly functional gadgets ever made

7. The tea strainer

6. Velcro

5. The ring pull

4. The pencil

3. The zip

2. Scissors

1. The wooden spoon

(Actually, you can get beautiful versions of all of those things, too.)

I would love to know what your nominations for either list would be.