iPad Therefore I Am: Women, Gadgets & Well-BeingS

On Sunday, Barack Obama railed against "iPods, iPads, Xboxes, and PlayStations" which make information "a distraction" but a new study finds a link between happiness and access to technology, particularly in developing nations. Why is there such a disconnect?

Technology alone cannot help or hurt anyone - the programs we create and hardware we use are just tools, put to work by the person punching the buttons or running the program. But this idea persists: that "responsibly" used technology - normally associated with learning or productivity - is automatically good, and anything else is automatically bad. Obama's remarks and the study summarized by the BBC are just two more notes in what appears to be a global love-hate relationship with technology. Far too many share the President's assessment that technology is becoming harmful. (It is important to note that Obama did not denounce the Presidential Blackberry.)

Thing is, these types of platitudes ignore what many in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields already know - unlocking the appeal of social games and technology may be the best way to recruit women and minorities into embracing careers in tech.

This is more difficult than it would appear. Perceptions around who is welcome in the technology based fields tend to focus on a geeky white male archetype, excluding all the ways in which others interact and influence technology. The Awl points us toward this Fox broadcast where the peg appears to be the novelty of women leveraging computers and - *gasp* - hacking:

The perception that women are less inclined to use technology is reinforced by some dismal career statistics. In 2007, Infoworld posted a call to action about women and technology, revealing:

It may not be surprising that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women filled only 26.7 percent of computer and mathematical positions in 2006. What's troubling is that this percentage has been declining for some time. And the descent has been nearly universal across all IT job categories. For example, women accounted for 16.6 percent of all network and computer systems administrator positions in 2006, down from 23.4 percent in 2000. At the management level, the imbalance persists. Among computer and IS managers, for example, 27.2 percent were women in 2006. By contrast, women held 66 percent of all social and community service management jobs last year.

While STEM fields are struggling to recruit underrepresented groups, research shows that young women are tearing into newer technologies like video games and social networking. To return to the tech and happiness study, the research specifically mentions mobile phones and other communication devices as being essential to happiness (along with the attendant ideas about access to technology signaling prosperity.) So if these technologies are essential to social involvement and professional advancement, why would we demonize methods that allow people to become more familiar and comfortable with technology?

Some researchers in STEM occupations are taking those maligned Xboxes and Playstations and applying the principles of play to entice users into considering technology rich career paths. The Georgia Institute for Technology noticed a huge gap between those who entered computer science fields and those who graduated. As a result of their research around African American males, they identified video games as a possible point of entry, and are currently conducting experiments to see if game enthusiasm can be parlayed into choosing computer design and game creation as a possible career path.

While more research is forthcoming (I personally can't wait to see the research on social games and applications of technology), it is vital not to demonize technology as "good" or "bad" - particularly when we are so far from understanding its full potential.

After all, like the idea that an infinite amount of monkeys pounding on typewriters might eventually produce Hamlet, all our digital procrastinating might eventually produce the cure for global warming. Or at least a cool new iPad game.

Obama on "iPods, iPads, Xboxes, and PlayStations": "Information Becomes a Diversion" [Fast Company]
Technology linked to happiness, study claims [BBC]
Social websites harm children's brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist [Daily Mail]
For BlackBerry, Obama's Devotion Is Priceless [New York Times]
Meet Women Who Use Computers [The Awl]
Women in technology: A call to action [InfoWorld]
Gaming Masculinity: Video games as a reflection on masculinity in Computer Science and African American culture [Conference Notes] [Racialicious]
Infinite Monkey Theorem [Wikipedia]