Women, the Web, and the App Takeover

Here’s what was important this week…

Today is Pi day. Here is more than you probably ever wanted to know about pi day.

Last Saturday, March 8 was International Women’s Day. Started as a revolutionary holiday to honor the achievements of women, International Women’s Day is recognized in many countries. However, in Nepal it is recognized by women only, rather than as a day where men pay tribute to the women. Nepal also has another holiday that only women observe:

“In early September in Nepal, Hindus – who make up 81 per cent of the country’s 30.5 million people – celebrate Rishi Panchami, a festival that commemorates a woman who was reborn as a prostitute because she didn’t follow menstrual restrictions. It is a women’s holiday, and so Nepal’s government gives all women a day off work. This is not to recognise the work done by women, but to give them the time to perform rituals that will atone for any sins they may have committed while menstruating in the previous year. (Girls who have not begun menstruating and women who have ceased to menstruate are exempt.)”

However, the interesting thing about a cultural distaste and monthly banishment that occurs surrounding menstruation, is that “they talk openly – more openly perhaps than the average teenage girl in the UK might – about what they use for sanitary protection. Some use sanitary pads, some are happy with cloths, although they dry them by hiding them under other clothes on washing lines.”

Speaking of sanitary pads and periods, this Indian inventor recently went viral again for his sanitary pad revolution… on which he gave a TED talk about in 2012 and was featured in this Fast Company article in 2011. So if you missed it all three times, go read about it.

I’d apologize to the men reading this newsletter for all this menstruation talk, except that “Menstruation is something men can learn about but never experience. Yet, our society treats periods as personal and private, something sort of gross that shouldn’t be discussed except in hushed tones or vague references.”

Just as important as sanitary and menstrual autonomy (perhaps an odd thing to call it but I’ll stick with it) is digital independence and knowledge for women. In fact, “In addition to providing a platform to share their voices, technology makes information easily available so girls and women can learn and make informed decisions.” However,  “In low- and middle-income countries, 300 million fewer women have mobile phone subscriptions than men, and globally, an estimated 200 million fewer women are online. According to a report from the UN’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development, only 29 percent of women in the developing world are online.”

Although it still isn’t widely accessible globally, the Web turned 25 on Wednesday and all sorts of celebrations were had. Pew Research released a study about the web, and culminated that into 15 theses about the web compiled from experts in the field. I’ve excerpted some of those here:

  • Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.

  • The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.

  • The spread of the ‘Ubernet’ will diminish the meaning of borders, and new ‘nations’ of those with shared interests may emerge and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.

  • The Internet will become ‘the Internets’ as access, systems, and principles are renegotiated

Those last two theses I find especially interesting, as they are nearly in opposition with each other. As Ian Peter writes about the last thesis:

““The Internet will fragment. Global connectivity will continue to exist, but through a series of separate channels controlled by a series of separate protocols. Our use of separate channels for separate applications will be necessitated by security problems, cyber policy of nations and corporations, and our continued attempts to find better ways to do things.”

This could happen through shared, local mesh networks, or through a more insidious method perpetrated by authoritarian governments that develop their own, bordered version of the web, or something else entirely!

An additional thesis that I find quite relevant considering my role in IT support:

  • Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.

As Nishant Shah continues on that thesis, “It is going to systemically change our understandings of being human, being social, and being political.It is not merely a tool of enforcing existing systems; it is a structural change in the systems that we are used to. And this means that we are truly going through a paradigm shift — which is celebratory for what it brings, but it also produces great precariousness because existing structures lose meaning and valence, and hence, a new world order needs to be produced in order to accommodate for these new modes of being and operation. The greatest impact of the Internet is what we are already witnessing, but it is going to accelerate.” (emphasis mine)

A website has been established to celebrate the web’s birthday (fittingly). On it, Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, lists off some of the challenges in allowing the web to continue to succeed:

  • How do we connect the nearly two-thirds of the planet who can’t yet access the Web?

  • Who has the right to collect and use our personal data, for what purpose and under what rules?

  • How do we create a high-performance open architecture that will run on any device, rather than fall back into proprietary alternatives?

While the web is 25, the Internet that it is built on is much older, and the infrastructure is fairly deprecated. Occasionally it takes some reminding that “The web doesn’t run on some ethereal cloud but on real physical networks which have taken considerable investment to produce.” This is especially important to remember as the Internet of Things and ubiquitous or pervasive (or whatever buzzword it is referred to as of late) computing becomes more common on the marketplace and in our everyday lives.

Image of an old geocities website on an old version of Windows with a pop up message that reads: Congratulations, You made it!

As the web matures, it is important to consider how we manage our identities on it. Every password and username created and (hopefully not) reused, is another potential vector for an intrusion in your digital and personal life by a criminal. I wrote a blog post about some options for improving how identity is managed online, and while it’s imperfect, I think it’s an important discussion to have.

I didn’t have a smartphone until a year and a half ago. Sometimes I wish I didn’t own one, because the keyboard is aggravating, or because I can’t quite use it right with just one hand. But I’m mostly grateful that it gives me portable access to the web. One thing that I still struggle to understand, however, is the fascination with turning everything into an app.

“Your platform now has a million apps? Amazing! Wonderful! What they don’t tell you is that 99% of them are awful junk that nobody would ever want.”

It’s all too common, and it’s become the trendy thing–turn things that are perfectly functional on the web, just for the sake of also offering an app. Often, the question of “what vehicle should this service be made available through” doesn’t get fully evaluated. The default can become the app.

Apps also allow us to enhance our lives, or as Evan Selinger puts it, to outsource our humanity. As he points out, “we need to consider the consequences of this latest batch of apps and tools that remind us to contact significant others, boost our willpower,provide us with moral guidance, and encourage us to be civil. Taken together, we’re observing the emergence of tech that doesn’t just augment our intellect and lives — but is now beginning to automate and outsource our humanity.” (you can even use an app to figure out why you’re fighting with your significant other)

I’m not anti-app, however. Many apps have a lot of utility (those that Selinger derides, even) because as with most things, it all depends on how you use them.

This next article was written by Selinger 2 years ago, and defends using apps for many things. (I didn’t even realize that he wrote it, as I tend to unintentionally ignore bylines when reading). Back then, he discussed why it’s okay to let apps make you a better person: “App designers in touch with the latest trends in behavioral modification–nudging, the quantified self, and gamification--and good old-fashioned financial incentive manipulation, are tackling weakness of will. They’re harnessing the power of payouts, cognitive biases, social networking, and biofeedback. The quantified self becomes the programmable self.”

One app that he brings up that also gets mentioned often on productivity sites is “Freedom is a productivity app that eliminates distraction for periods ranging from one minute to eight hours by disabling a computer’s capacity for networking–cutting off Facebook, Twitter, online shopping, e-mail, instant messaging, et cetera. That’s right, freedom now means the willful use of technology to limit one’s options!”

I use a similar app on my Macbook called SelfControl. Apps and extensions and software in general I find to be most useful when they enhance your process flow or life in some way. Many apps are focused on making your life as efficient as possible, or as a popular LifeHacker series focuses on, what you use to help you work (not necessarily apps but they come up often). Of course, the apps I use most often are messaging-based, and those are also very popular as I’ve previously discussed here.

Apps can get a lot wrong, too, as the sector creating apps isn’t representative of the population. Mike Lavigne calls fellow app designers to task when it comes to designing apps for women: “It’s time we designers stop pandering to cultural norms, start disassembling our stereotypes, and get in touch with how people–who have a huge amount of variability–actually feel about themselves.”

The latest app being hyped is called Spritz, a speed-reading app. I value skimming and deep reading (and re-reading) when I’m reading on the web. There are several downsides to speed-reading, such as a probable diminished comprehension and retention, as well as increased load on working memory, as this Atlantic article details. “But maybe apps like Spritz (there will doubtless be copycats) aren’t meant for Ulysses. That is, they’re not for reading; they’re for obligatory information processing—all the digital chaff we sort through with each glance at the RSS reader or inbox. And maybe that’s why we really do “OMG need” things like Spritz these days. Not for the joy of reading, but for the duty.”

The music this week is a pop classic, at least of the last year or so: Pitbull, ft. Ke$ha with their song Timber.

I chose to feature this song as well, because Grantland published a profile on Kesha recently (and her rebranding away from Ke-dolla-ha), and it’s really worth the read.

If Kesha isn’t your style, here is Wolf Alice with Leaving You for a bit more of a folk-blues-rock style?

Or you can try Josef Salvat with his song Every Night, for a groove feel.

Thanks, as always, for reading!