Sharing things

Transcript for 2.1 Max and Melissa

Transcript for Sharing things 2.1 Max and Melissa.

Amalie: Hi I'm Amalie, I'm a current student and I'm the host of Sharing things. Sharing things is a conversation between two people who have just met but who share a connection to the University. We start with a meaningful object that they've brought to the studio and we take it from there.

In this episode you will meet Melissa Terras and Max Sanderson. Melissa is the professor of digital cultural heritage at the University and Max is the lead producer of audio at the Guardian.

Let's see where this takes us.

[Sharing things theme music]

 [All laugh]

Amalie: Ok cool, I'll just do a like a basic spiel - welcome to Sharing things. What have you brought to the studio today and why? how we like to start this conversation.

Max: Me first?

Amalie: Yeah, go ahead!

Max: So I've brought a book which I feel is slightly boring, but it is a book by Oliver Sacks, who is a neurologist, and it's called ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ and yeah I mean, it's basically just a collection of stories about patients. He was a neurologist who worked with patients with often problems that other specialist medical professionals didn't know how to diagnose, so-- including a man who mistook his wife for a hat and there's about 20 different case stories in there.

They're really wonderful, they kind of-- he was very into making medicine more human and more personal so I thought that people's experiences and people's life narratives were as important in conditions and so he kind of pulls that out, and then he does this wonderful thing at the end of each chapter where he does a postscript and sort of does this incredible-- He like flips it so that somehow this person's story, which was very personal to them, tells you something about your own brain or the society you live in and he's just a wonderful writer, and the reason it's important to me is because I read it whilst I was at uni and decided to change course to do neuroscience because of this book, and another one, which I've lost, which I'm very upset about. But yeah, because of this book.

Amalie: So what exactly was it about this book that made you want to study neuroscience?

Max: So I was doing a science course already, I had a really brilliant physics teacher, but I was kind of doing medical sciences and I knew I was interested in it but didn't really-- It was kind of all right and I think I just-- it was just so fascinating to hear about, you know, these cases I would never have heard of and just find out more about the brain and also just how mysterious it is. He's very honest about the fact that he's kind of like, I think this is what's going on but we won't ever know, but that's ok.

Amalie: The brain is mysterious.

Max: Oh for sure!

Amalie: Yeah! [Laughs]

Max: Yeah and the other thing was, you know, at the time like a lot of young men I was like, struggling with mental health stuff which has been around, you know, for a long time, still here.

Amalie: Yup.

Max: Always. And it was nice, you know, I think there's a line in there where he's talking about people talk about disorders and pathologies very negatively and actually what he's saying is, you know, we're all different and people experience things differently and everyone's got a different mind and that's ok. And so it was kind of therapeutic in a way it made me realise that it's ok that my mind works differently to other people and let's just try and think about why it works differently and then go from there.

And so my whole degree and interest in the mind and the brain is massively therapeutic because it's just… well, it's mind-blowing to find out about it, right? But then it's also like, wow - we don't know what's going on out there and it's really complicated, so stuff is probably going to go wrong. And yeah that's ok. And so I was just completely enamoured by this man and the way he wrote about science and I was just like, right, got to get into neuroscience.

Amalie: Yeah, so it was kind of like, it got you a sense of validation almost... that your experience was valid.

Max: Yeah, it's that everyone's different and that's ok and also just like, the way that he wrote about it was so enticing and the stuff I was learning was so boring, a lot of it, and I just thought wow this neuroscience stuff, like obviously he's a brilliant writer but it's super interesting. And I just want to learn more of it and I think, yeah, looking back I was very lucky because it's quite-- I'll put these in quotation marks it's quite a 'sexy' science, so if you want to work in like, you know, science communication... it's quite a good one to have knowledge of because not many people go 'oh the brain, what a boring subject' it's kind of like... the way I always think about it is, you know, if you do anything in science communication about space or the brain, people are going to love it. It's very hard to do a bad story about the universe or the brain and, you know, I think there's almost a sort of poetic beauty in that as well.

Amalie: Yeah, so what did you bring today?

Melissa: So I've cheated and I've brought two things which are seemingly unrelated but then turned out to be amazingly related in a really strange way. So one of the things I like to do for a hobby is go to flea markets and look at the detritus of the past. I don't often buy a lot of stuff but I really enjoy flea markets, especially international ones, and just you know, browsing at looking at the remnants of society. Most of my work's about digital and looking at the computer all the time, so actually seeing the physical remains and things that people don't want anymore. And I do pick up things that really take my fancy so I picked up this wooden box, so I've first brought a small wooden box.

Amalie: So what do you think drew you to this?

Melissa: It's the shape… and a handle and it's just a really nice decorative item. It might be for pencils, it might be for hat pins, it's been fairly scuffed, it's rosewood, probably around 1850, but the interesting thing about it is it has a signature or two on it. So it has a signature on the bottom of the person who presumably owned it, which says ‘Gabrielle Dobremerand inside it on the bottom there's another stamp that says ‘H Dobremerso that must have been her parent and then she got this box and she thought I'm going to write my name on it, and inside there's some pencil marks where she's been practicing her signature.

So it's this sense of this was a Victorian box that belonged to someone and I like the fact that it's a woman who's reclaimed it and she's there and she's spent a long time like making her signature really nice on the bottom in some kind of ink and it just feels like a really physical, nice item.

Max: Do you know-- have you found out or tried to find out who the person is? Because it's quite an interesting name!

[All laugh]

Melissa: Well... Well… so what I did was I set up a search on eBay for that and I have lots of searches just, you know, ongoing... and I got an e-mail just before Christmas to say that there was a postcard on eBay that was sent to Gabrielle Dobremer. And so I bought it and it's from 1905 in France and the interesting thing is it's a postcard she had sent to herself and all it says in the text is 'souvenir'. So from that, I have her address-- it's the same signature on the box and on the postcard…

Amalie: [gasps] yes it is, look at that!

Melissa: So from that I can tell her address, and from that I can look her up in the genealogical records online, because you can go back to it online. From that I know she was born in 1890, she was 15 when she sent this postcard so she must have been on family holidays and I just think that's fascinating. I feel like it's from Dr Who, that this is someone… I've put these two items together and there's some space-time continuum kind of opening up here.

Amalie: This is turning into an investigative podcast.

Melissa: yeah!

Max: Do you know why it was in Scotland?

Melissa: Um, no, I bought this in a garage sale in North Hertfordshire, this one.

Max: Ah, oh really?

Melissa: And, I don't know, I think the person I bought it from said that they picked it up on their travels so who knows how that ended up where it was and I just picked it up, it was a nice thing. But this-- I didn't know that it was a name in Paris, now I know where she lived, also from the records where she was born. And you could look on Google Earth and like, start to follow this and this is like an-- I don't want to use the word insignificant, it's a person in time that I don't think that you normally read about. It's a woman who was born and had a life. But it's just this insight and I'm kind of fascinated how the digital has allowed me to kind of start to piece this together and the relationship of the past with the present through the digital and that sums up, this is my kind of research area, but actually this kind of investigation where… actually bringing material objects together and the relation of the material world to the digital becomes this whole fascinating interlinking and it makes me think of what you were saying about knowing how your brain works. And for me this is like, magical thinking and that sparks in me that kind of view, a different view of the past...

Max: And it's-- because when you're talking about it then, the other reason why I wanted to bring a book is because I love books. Weirdly didn't read a lot before I left university and then since then I've just made up for lost time but the thing that I really love as is reading so I read Marcus Aurelius his sort of book of stoic remarks... Ugh what's it called? I can't remember.

Anyway, I should know and you know, I find it so fascinating that I can read the words that Marcus Aurelius, in whatever year it was, wrote down and they somehow resonate with me and it's sort of similar to the connection you made to this woman and there's something so fascinating about it and that's one of the reasons I love books is it kind of transports you to different places and you're in someone else's head and it rings true with what you're saying and I love the fact that there's more you could find out about that and you could go to a specialist but I almost feel like you don't want it's like she's your-- and you've created this vision of her and she's yours!

Melissa: Yeah and you know, I'm quite happy to use my ninja internet and archival skills, like next time I'm in Paris I'll go and visit where she lived and then I'll go to the archives and I'll look to see whether or not there are any more births marriages or deaths, because my stuff is so digital that finding things in the real world that you can kind of play with it really teaches me a lot about real life items.

It's very easy to sit behind your computer all the time and not really engage with objects and museums are about objects and libraries are about books and to cover that engagement, so it's a sense of real engagement with the past, and the magical kind of... I just love that she's 15 and she's sending herself a postcard to just says 'souvenir'!

Amalie: Do you have any theories about like who you think she was?

Melissa: So I know the genealogical records so she had three or four brothers and sisters. Her mother and father lived in this house, she would have been in her early twenties when the Great War started... so there isn't any records so far of marriage or children but then you get into that, well if that's the case there's reasons why lots of women couldn't get married, then because of what was happening to the young men of the same age so it is a kind of really interesting period of time. So you know it's just really fascinating how you can have a name from someone now and find out so much about them online.

Max: Do-- do you... Because you know, from day to day you kind of digitise stuff but there's something in the fact that it's a physical object which is something you're passionate about but then at the same time you digitise your... is there this kind of inattention where you're kind of like, I want to digitise but also the same time, I think people should have more objects?

Melissa: I think what I'm surprised with, is it's almost like a physical link data thing so to find two physical objects where I've almost cross-referenced them in the real world, randomly, this was, you know, I bought this from a postcard seller in Paris!

But the fact that we can do that now, I start to think differently about the past and it's not that I think that people should have objects because I think most people have too many objects, myself included, but I've always been drawn to older objects or the way that my brain works is, that magical kind of, tapping into that aura of the past and that way of kind of looking at the world and that what is left over and what survives and what doesn't and it is random and it's not that I buy things for expensive reasons, most of the stuff, I mean this was £10 which is more than I would normally pay and this was like £2, but a lot of my stuff is 50p or a euro or whatever and I come home from Munich with a broken abacus and my husband goes 'great' and I'm like 'but it is an object'!

Max: I was going to say how does your husband like this…?

Melissa: He puts up with it, Very accommodating of my... but it's just that sense of there's so much interesting things around. And I think in our current society we're just encouraged to think that you have to buy new and that now is all that we have, where we're complex beings who are made up of layers and layers and layers of experience, just as the world is made up with different layers.

Max: And it's the same with books so, I mean I'd probably be more environmentally friendly to have a Kindle and there'd be less space in my house taken up with my books but I just I can't read on screens at all, I mean if I'm reading a book I want to have the physical thing in my hand and it becomes... it becomes so much more than like an object, and it's sort of the same when you talk about the objects it's like, it's more than... it's how it makes you feel, it's the kind of response you get from it which I think we kind of lose out on a lot in modern day society where people, you know, want everything done quickly and they're on social media and it's all very instant and yeah I do think we have a problem where we're buying too much stuff. But yeah, it's like... I want people to feel more emotional, more connection towards their stuff and I don't think that's a problem, but yeah, I don't know what I'm trying to say-- I love books!

[All laugh]

Melissa: They’re material objects, and I don’t think it's wrong to have that emotional attachment to them, I'm not sure I will ever feel the same way towards a PDF. Yeah like, even if it's the same thing.

Amalie: Yeah, there's something about turning the page and just seeing the progress as you read and seeing how long you have left that I find very therapeutic.

Max: Yeah, I’m slightly sceptical of people who don't read. I've got lots of friends who don't read and I'm like 'I don't know what you do with your time'.

Melissa: It's a way of trying to sooth, calm, learn. It's a way that I think we're encouraged to not think like that around our phones or around Netflix, or around-- they're designed for distraction, right?

Max: Yeah, and it's also that thing of people only want to do stuff that they get a positive feeling out of and I think it's really important to like, read books you don't like or, you know, I think somehow social media has kind of accentuated that. It’s kind of this 'I need to feel good all the time and if it's bad then I don't want it'.

[Sharing things theme music]

Amalie: What is your relationship with digital media and this digital age that we live in, just... out of curiosity?

Melissa: I'm probably trying to wean myself off it a bit. I grew up with the internet in that I started to become a heavy internet user in 1992/1993... And actually I learned how to programme websites and that was what led me to the career I was doing. I was doing art history and English literature at Glasgow University, my masters is in Greek art, and we got trained up on how to programme websites in like 1995, and I was all over it and then I taught that course next year and then I changed to computing science and then I did a PhD in engineering and analysis of ancient documents using computing.

So it really was like, the internet has changed my life in so many ways: I met my husband online on online dating, my job was to teach at a library school how the internet worked and I got the job in like 2001. No one knew how the internet worked in 2001 so the job advert was like really, 'please come and tell us how it works' and one of the things you had to be to do was to be able to put things online that was really was on the job description like 'tell us how it works'!

And so that as in, being there and going 'wow, this is really interesting, information technology' but why I think I really liked it was this kind of spark, I could see the sparks of information that kind of plugged into how my brain likes to go and be all over the place. And I became really heavily a user of the internet and then when social media came along, I was a big user of Twitter, still am, but that's changed a lot especially over the last couple of years. And I went to a phase of grieving for my internet because my internet was a lovely place where not many bad things happened...

Max: Sort of like peer to peer?

Melissa: Yeah and everyone was, and they were all geeks that were there, they're just a small community but a really geeky community. But now it's like, it's everybody and which is fine for democratisation of everything but...

Amalie: So you're like an original internet user?

Melissa: Yeah well, World Wide Web, yeah.

Max: I mean it was fine before capitalism came.

[All laugh]

Melissa: Yeah it didn't used to be, the first five or six years it was all the geeks hanging out and talking about obscure stuff, and Twitter as well was like that - the first couple of years it was the best playground.

Max: I remember reading about all this sort of like sort of new age hippies taking LSD and talking about the internet it was set up as this kind of utopia and it was like a solution to what they saw as the problem with society and now it's...

Melissa: And I know in 2000 people started to figure out how to make money out of it... and I think it's still a magnificent thing to have been part of that and to be part of this transformation of society you know, but the same time it's... I think it's wreaking a lot of stuff now that we don't really understand and we won't for a long time and about bonds between people and disrupting those as well as disrupting attention spans. And as much as there are benefits in being able to buy postcards off eBay from Paris...

Amalie and Max: Yeah...

Melissa: You know [laughs].

Max: That's my issue, ok I've got lots of issues with it, but mine is, as I was sort of saying about like reading stuff. You don't particularly like, you know, I think speaking to people you disagree with is hugely important and I've just, I've quit Twitter now just because I can't...

There were people who I followed who I know and who I worked with who I respect massively and the way that they behaved on Twitter made me respect them less and I think it is Twitter-- especially the kind of sort of politics, the polarisation stuff that's happening on there, it's not going to do me any good and I found it quite depressing.

Amalie: Yeah people just shout at each other.

Max: Yeah and it's like well, I don't understand, you're not solving anything, you're literally not going to solve anything.

Amalie: And you also just find the people who also agree with you.

Max: Yeah, yeah, yeah completely and it's, I mean obviously capitalism is horrible and I don't like people knowing what I'm doing, but yeah I'm kind of ok with that I think because the first time I had a computer was probably '95 and I was six so it's just kind of always been there, but the effect I think it's having on the art of conversation, you know, we're all here to have a conversation, but then at the same time maybe that's just, maybe I'm being an idealist - I'm an old fogey or something or maybe that is the future of kind of human... 'cause I think the other thing I always think about is, people talk about Twitter making us like this and it's not - they don't come out of a vacuum these platforms, the reason why they're popular, apart from having very clever people making it as addictive as possible, many of whom are neuroscientists, it represents the fact that humans want Twitter and they want that conflict and they want Instagram and they want to curate their life so I think it's always dangerous to say like Twitter is causing anything because it's a reflection of us I think, that's what I find interesting about it. But it's just not a reflection I like.

Amalie: Yeah I feel like a lot of social media gives you a fake feeling of like, being social when you're not, really, or you are but you're not really.

Max: But yeah I mean Sherry Turkle is this amazing psychologist over in America and she talks about, you know, we've never been lonelier because you kind of feel like you're interacting but actually the only way you can interact in a kind of biological, physiological sense is sitting around this table now because we are social creatures and we're having a nice conversation, there's going to be dopamine released and that's a nice part of being human. And so you're doing the part of socialising, but you're not getting any benefits and so Sherry Turkle's argument is that's why we're so lonely now even though we're so connected.

Melissa: I've been trying, over the past, trying to choose whether or not to use a machine or to look a human in the eye and talk to them, so at the supermarket we could use a scan thing or you could actually go through, and it takes longer, I don't use Uber, I phone up a taxi company. For mental health things, for a connection to other humans and to go into shops and to look people in the eye, and to say something about the weather because I suppose spending so much time online and so much time at home - I damaged my back and I was in the house for a long time on my own with my children - and so the internet was great for that, but at the same when you start to realise that you're having most of your conversations in that kind of asynchronous way rather than going 'Hi, how are you? Awful weather we're having today!’

Amalie and Max: Yeah!

Melissa: But I'm actually using that as a-- I am a human in the world and I'm part of this material world and as Madonna said you know, I'm a material girl, and actually going, well what does that mean and when should we actually be taking the time to engage with that, and I think there's a lot of self-care that doesn't happen when we're all looking at our phones.

Max: I've started doing that, chatting to people more, it's really fun doing it in London because people hate it, it's so much fun like, chatting to people on a tube you're like 'hello'! Everyone’s like…. My colleague just wrote a piece about it, he spent a month and every day he tried to speak to someone new, because there's like you know cafes and some scheme - it's brilliant - and they--.

Melissa: [incomprehensible] Tuesdays?

Max: Yeah or like they have an assigned table where it's like a chatting table and so if you come in and you sit and you want to have a chat with someone...

Amalie: Really? [Laughs].

Max: Yeah I love it!

Amalie: Yeah, me too!

Max: So this year for Christmas I volunteered on Christmas day with elderly people who didn't have anyone to spend Christmas with, and it was really hard work but it was exactly what you're talking about just that, you know, that basic mean to speak to people and communicate and I do think you lose so much when you're not... sat in a room with people and see, you know, I'm gesturing madly with my hands now you know, there's so many aspects of communication and conversation.

Another thing that Sherry Turkle says which I think it's really important is that the way we communicate on social media is affecting people's ability to have proper conversations because, you know, conversations is about um-ing and ah-ing and saying the wrong word and messing up whereas online it's, you know, we can curate what we're saying and we can think about it and we can delete stuff. And so people have this idea that conversations are scary because they might come away looking silly or stupid and it's like, that's a conversation!

Yeah I think it's a great thing just trying to speak to people more-- and most people love it.

Melissa: Exactly, yeah.

Max: Most people want to have a conversation they just...

Melissa: And I really like those relationships that you get with random people. So, for example, I used to buy a sandwich in the same place on the way out the train station to my work in London, and I bought sandwiches at the same place every morning for quite some time so I had quite a chat going on with the guy behind the counter and this was at King's Cross station so it was very transient, right?

And there would be queues of people just going onto the train and he'd see me and he'd just wave and we'd start having a conversation over people's heads and it was just nice like that. I never knew his name and, you know, I talked to him like every morning for about 10 years, you know, and it was just nice that there's this kind of fleeting thing. You go through the city and people that you talk to and I kind of think that life should be filler of those type of interactions and moments and we're all supposed to be so scared of strangers, but if we spend a lot of time on Twitter where lot of people are bad we can think that humans are worse than they actually are. Most people in the real world are just going through their lives doing-- I’m gesturing at my postcard and my box, and having, you know having, an experience of going on holiday with their parents and then sending themselves silly postcards because they're bored, and you know like... Most people are just kind of getting on with things and I think it's about kind of reclaiming our space and our time in some ways...

Max: But that's the thing I really like about, what you were saying about the man-- did you have the same sandwich every day?

Melissa: Pretty much [Laughs].

Amalie: What was it?

Melissa: Well actually it was a small box of sushi that I used to get from the sandwich place.

Max: There is that thing of-- and I find my, I don't know, you might be the same, my contemporaries, you know, you never meet someone and then just go 'Oh, thanks for the chat', you know, 'I'm never going to see you again, goodbye.' It's always, you know, I'll find on Facebook or add me on Instagram... and then just kind of inability to just be like 'we had a nice interaction and now we're going our separate ways' and that's ok.

Amalie: Yeah, one thing that I've been noticing lately or I've been thinking about it, is that people also expect you to be online all the time like, my friends will get mad or they'll think something is wrong if I don't reply to their text right away but I have a shared Spotify account so I have to turn my Wi-Fi off a lot to listen to music, so I'll take hours to respond and it's surprising to me that so many people think that I'm either mad, ignoring them, or all of these things just because I'm not replying to texts for like more than two hours.

Max: They think like, you're dead or something!

Amalie: Yeah, how weird is that? Also that people feel entitled to get that immediate response.

Melissa: Yeah, but how do you get anything done if you have these constant notifications?

Amalie: I know, but there's that expectation nowadays, apparently. That you have to be on demand things all the time.

Melissa: Yeah, exactly.

Max: Yeah, try working for a news organisation! I literally just tell people I don't look at emails anymore because it's like, and also when you get into that, you probably have it, when you get into the habit of being one those people who always responds, then they just expect that. You're just constantly in this state of present and there's no sense of like, you know, future, past you're just kind of there and there's notifications and it's endless scrolling and you're just kind of in this state of shock.

Yeah, I feel like, I dunno, in a weird way that's kind of the opposite of conversations, like we're narrative beings we like beginnings, middles and ends, that's how we think about our own life in a narrative way and this sort of constant like, being in the present, it just kind of...

Melissa: It's like a state of emergency all the time - for what?

Max: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa: So you can keep up with cat memes...

Max: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Amalie: But that level of present is very different from what I think being present actually is.

Max: Yeah for sure, yeah, yeah, yeah like, I've been-- I attempt meditation every so often but I'm not very good at it but I go running a lot.

Amalie: Yeah.

Max: I'm pretty sure that's kind of what meditation is like and that's, you know, being present.

Amalie: Yeah. Do you have like a moment where you remember being just present, just being like, now I'm living what life is supposed to be?

Max: Yeah, when I'm gardening, I've gone an allotment, and one day I went down and I left my phone it was really a stressful time and I weeded for five hours and I have no idea, like, I didn't do anything, I didn't think. I got incredibly sunburnt because it turns out being in like some sort of weird zen flow isn't very good when it's sunny! But yeah I was just, it was crazy I just sort of came to, and it was like six hours later.

Amalie: Hmm, yeah.

Melissa: Yeah, I've got three kids and that keeps you in the present. They're getting older, you know, my oldest is 11 and I've got twins who are nine so, three boys and, that is... you know, if you want a remedy for not being able to do anything when you want to do it, when you have so many small children, again, it's a sense of interruption but, you have to be present for them and you have to be vigilant especially when you've got twins who are learning to walk in different directions.

You know, so it's a sense of real detachment and a lot of the internet like being able to go on social media was really helpful for me when I was off on maternity leave or at the park with like three small children watching them go down the slide again and again and again and again you could actually have five minutes talking to people or other adults.

But I think for that it shows a concern then about how much we're going to allow the next generation to have their growing up shaped by this because, you know, I was sort of 17, 18 when I started getting heavily into the World Wide Web.

Max: What is your kind of manifesto for their use of digital technology?

Melissa: My older son, so he's just got his first phone and he had to promise that he wouldn't go on the dark web and buy any firearms.

Max: [Laughs]

Melissa: That was the thing we made him promise [laughs].

Max: Wow, so he could buy everything else just not--.

Amalie: Body parts!

Melissa: I know, I know, he just had this look on his face and it became, so we are talking these things through. But at the same time I feel like there isn't a manual for how to bring up children surrounded by so much distraction.

Max: Or just bringing up children full-stop!

Amalie: well yeah

[All laugh]

Max: I mean there's loads but from what I hear... that's the thing I think that's really important like you know there's a lot of stuff about screen time and is it good for children? Is it bad for children? And they don't really know - different studies seem to come out with different answers the whole time. But a colleague of mine, who writes about technology, I remember chatting to him about it and he made a really good point he's like, you know, we treat screens - phone screens or iPads or whatever - as if it's like a thing like books, you don't say book time is bad, it depends what you're...

Melissa: They did, right?

Max: Well yeah they said they were good.

Melissa: They were literally of the devil, and they were taking people's minds away here, you know.

Amalie: Yeah, you had to read with a flashlight under your duvet...

Max: It's like the context, you know, some books you read will probably be bad for you in the same way that I think like the important thing I always think about digital technology is like, why are people using it and how is it making them feel? You know, it's not good or bad, I think that we need to like move away from that, but it's getting people I suppose to kind of question and like, the interesting thing, I suppose, with you is that you are digitally literate in the sense of you understand computers and the internet and do you think that gives people a sort of better understanding of how these platforms are interacting with them?

Melissa: I think, having grown up through that phase where the internet was being-- or the world wide web was being invented and having a fundamental understanding of what was going on, it does give you a skillset to question some of the power structures, who is-- where is this data coming from and information literacy... but actually if you have never learnt about information architectures, it's very difficult to know if everything is presented on this kind of, it all arrives at once, boom the whole internet, you know. I used to have friends who would e-mail each other when there was a new website, like about anything!

Amalie: [Laughs] oh!

Melissa: 'There's a new website, we're all going to look at the new website'! You know, it was the level of like, we were in groups where people would go 'Oh my goodness there's our new website'! Yeah and now there's just this morass of information that is changing all the time, which is great in lots of ways.

But it's how we are we kind of navigate that and how we teach the next generation and that's one of the things I'm working on here at Edinburgh, is the Edinburgh Futures Institute, which is the conversion of the Old Royal Infirmary into a new centre, a new institute for data science but from the arts, humanities and social sciences and being able to teach these skills as part of ethics, justice, economics, philosophy and to have a core digital skillset understanding so that we produce those types of graduates that come through and can engage in the computational industries, plural, in ways which bring their grounding and sociology or anthropology to bear rather than thinking that all tech is good just because it works without thinking through what it's doing to people.

Max: Yeah, that's kind of like, so, you could probably even extend that to like secondary school because that kind of focussing and that specialisation I am always like, you know, I did the Irish Leaving Certificate which is our equivalent of A Levels and so I did six subjects you had to do six, you had to do English, you had to do maths and a European language. But I'm always surprised at the over here and A Levels you're getting like 15, 16 year old kids to pick their A Levels which is going to determine their university degree which, potentially is going to determine their career and it's like, this kind of specialisation and this kind of narrowing of interest, you know, it starts so young.

Melissa: So young.

Max: Even, you know, I did some work with a primary school where they have started teaching like all the kids philosophy. They all stand up there's like five-year-old kids and they give them these kind of moral dilemmas which come from like David Hume or Kant or you know whoever. But it's made so that they can understand and then they if they agree with it they go to one side, if they don't agree and if they stay in the middle, and then they ask each of the kids why they went the way... And you know something as simple as that and they-- these five year olds were so lucid and some of them were just… their answers were things I'd never thought of and I was like that, you know, that is a very good argument! [All laugh] And so you know maybe it needs to be even younger they have to start thinking about the kind of more holistic...

Melissa: I think they are, I think they are, and the University's got a lot of links to some of the schools, as part of the City Region Deal, which is the massive investment in data science throughout the whole of the Edinburgh regions and its neighbouring regions. There's certain schools that they're working with, primary schools and secondary schools that they're going and teaching practical computing but also some of these things and figuring out and doing research on how best to embed that type of teaching at different age levels because, you know, AI, tech, the internet, social media is not going away,. It's not going away.

[Sharing things theme music]

Amalie: We always end the episodes with the question, ‘If you could associate your object with one word what would it be?’

Melissa: I'm going to go with ‘aura’, which is a very big word in my area of like the past in history so the concept of aura, something that is old, that gives off some magic vibes and it's how digital doesn't really capture aura very well, an image of these things might not capture it as much, but for me with these two is the fact I've managed to track down two utterly unrelated objects are so related and there's a magic, they want to touch each other you and go 'boom' you know it's, it's... there is this something in the air and that's magical thinking from my own brain, but that's what I'm getting, I'm getting aura.

Amalie: Mmmhmm

Max: That's lovely and yeah it's sort of like a feeling isn't it?

Amalie: Yeah, they belong to the same person! How crazy!

Max: It's also, I'm sad that the listeners can't see how excited you get when you touch it and talk about it.

[Everyone laughs]

Max: One word... I mean, probably 'knowledge' which is like obviously you know a massive concept but I've found in my own life that the thing that makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile is, you know, my reason for being if you like is just to learn as much stuff as I can and regurgitate that and help other people learn and that's just, you know, books are a massive part of that and what I do day-to-day is a massive part of that and yeah, I'm glad that I found it and with more knowledge I just become more comfortable with who I am and where I fit into the world and yeah, so ‘knowledge’ would be mine.

Amalie: I really like that. Yeah, thank you for being on Sharing things.

Max: Thank you!

Melissa: Thank you!

Max: That was great, I loved that.

Melissa: Yeah, good fun.

Amalie: Can I touch that one?

Melissa: Yeah!

Max: When I first had it I thought I might be like, a box for like an opium pipe.

Melissa: Maybe it is, who knows.

Max: Well, hopefully if she was a young woman at the time, maybe she was smoking opium. Maybe that's why she--

Melissa: Why she disappears.

Max: That’s why sent herself a postcard.

Melissa: A postcard as a souvenir. Anyway it's just nice right? It's random!

Max: No, it's great!

[Sharing things theme music]

Amalie: Thank you for listening to Sharing things. Make sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Spotify or your favourite podcast platform to catch your next episode. See you next time.


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