Medarbejderstafet: Winnie Soon

In this instalment of "Medarbejderstafetten" ("Get to know your colleagues"), assistant professor Winnie Soon talks about her research in programming and culture. She also shares her thoughts about the importance of feminism in the field of IT, and gives examples of the way she works as an artist-researcher (Interview in English).

Winnie Soon (Photo: Johanne Vejrup Nielsen) - click the image to see a larger version.

Name and title: Winnie Soon, assistant professor
Department: Digital Design and Information Studies

What is your research area?

- My research is primarily situated in the interdisciplinary and emergent field called Software Studies, intersecting Computer Science, Cultural Studies, Media Studies and even Digital Literature. It has a close relationship between art and culture, specifically. Broadly speaking, Software Studies examines cultural implications of digital platforms, computation, software and artefacts.

- I’m interested in researching things underneath what we normally can see and experience (such as infrastructure in digital context). A concrete example would be the graphical and animated icon called “throbber”. When you watch YouTube and the video is loading, you see a buffering icon. The round animated thing seems like a visual object, but I’m more interested in what happens behind this visual object. How does the buffering icon convey to us, how is the data processed, how is the infrastructure designed culturally and technically?

- This means that in my research, I often have to deal with a lot of technical materials, for example reading technical specifications and source code, programming - or designing custom software art works.

- Many of our digital platforms/artefacts present one side of the story. As an ordinary user - for example on Facebook – it’s difficult to understand the logic and the implications of what you see. My research is trying to bridge this gap.


Tell me something about an object than can be found in your office!

- This is an art object by a musician and artist called Henrique Roscoe. He made a project called “Dot, a videogame with no winner”. Usually with games you have a score, you have a winner and a loser - game over! This is not a game in that sense. It’s a live software-based interactive performance, where the audience controls the audio and visual effects via a game console.

- I saw his live performance in the UK, and I really liked the work. That’s why I bought this “album” that contains a few images of the work as well as a memory stick with video and music in relation to the audio-visual “game”. I also like the cover a lot - it’s a hand-made printed circuit made with conducting materials. I really like the work, it’s very DIY and unusual.

- This object reminds me not to be afraid of creating something wild or weird - and to be bold to pursue what you truly believe in. I’m also an artist-researcher, that’s why I do a lot of weird stuff as well. Often you’ll be questioning yourself and asking: “Why am I doing this?” But you always have an audience – you’ll always find someone who will appreciate your work.


What is the main focus of your work at the moment?

- Currently, I’m working on a book project with Geoff Cox who is an associate professor at the University of Plymouth and affiliated with our department. The idea of the book came from the courses that Geoff and I taught called Software studies and Aesthetic Programming, respectively - in the Digital Design Bachelor’s degree programme.

- The working title of the book is “Aesthetic Programming”, and it’s an introduction to programming, where readers can learn practical and technical programming syntax, functions and concepts. However, the book is not only about computation in a technical way - but also about computational culture, considering computation as part of our culture. It takes a more humanistic approach to discuss cultural implications of code, offering a critical examination and engagement of programming.

- We believe it’s important for the humanities to engage with programmable technologies, and we hope the book offers a new way to think about computation and programming - beyond science disciplines. We hope to introduce and demonstrate a new perspective of computational thinking through the practice of programming and the theory of computational culture reflexively.

- It’s something I have experience with, because I also teach programming, and as an artist I work in relation to programming, software and computation to reflect our everyday cultural systems.

- A concrete example is my project “nonsense”. It’s an art work that I made with a “dislike” button, similar to Facebook’s “like” button (that was the time when Facebook only had a like button, but not other emoticons). When you click the “dislike” it exponentially increases the total number of dislikes - not just by one like.

- It calls for our attention to think about the economy, datafication and commercialisation of likes through language, a button, a number and a web interface. It’s also about bots and click farms – to remind us that those who are clicking the “like” button are more than humans. I believe that projects like this can help us think critically about cultural systems.


Questions from Christian Ulrik Andersen. What role does feminist IT play in research today? And what role does artistic practice play in IT research?

- In a broad sense, feminist computing concerns identity, equality and diversity. Unfortunately, computing, programming and engineering are still regarded as very male-dominated areas. You can see the students’ gender ratio in technical-oriented departments, and in companies like Google. This has an impact on how computational systems are structured and design nowadays. Equally important is that it also affects how women may perform and conform in IT-related areas.

- I think it’s important to have this feminist perspective in teaching and research to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive environment in which different voices, not only women but also other gender types and minorities, can be registered and heard. It’s something I care about and I know it is not easy to break the ideological conception that technical stuff is better for men, for example. I constantly hear my female students saying ‘the guys are better at programming’ and they often take up other roles in a group project.  

- One of the reasons is that there is indeed a lack of women role models in IT fields. I try to have women instructors in class, because I think it’s important for the students to experience a different dynamic in the classroom, and break the cultural construct of gender roles in a society. After a semester teaching, the instructors are now passionate in programming and want to continue perusing in this area. I think it is important to understand why less women are found in IT-related areas - do they have equal opportunities and a comfortable environment (without bias) to learn technology? From a teacher perspective, I think it’s important to cultivate a more inviting and diverse learning environment such that people can explore their full potential.


(Second question)

- Artistic practice is a very important part of my research. I see artistic practice as a way to engage with IT infrastructure, software and platforms. I think artist-researchers in particular are very sensitive to the materials that they use – for example: Why is the “like” button this iconic word, sophisticated colour gradient, rounded-corner shape and updated number? Also the click actions and consequences. Although they are not physical objects, I still see the buttons, words or programmes as the materials that constitute our culture, shaping our behaviors.

- I believe there are some kinds of knowledge you have to gain through making stuff or constructing, or engaging with things. For example, you can’t read a book about how to ride a bike and then say “I know how to ride a bike!”. I personally work better when doing something beyond and in combination with reading theoretical texts.

- Making computational art works allows me to have a freedom to think beyond a confined structure. And for me, it’s also one of the channels to disseminate my thoughts and research outside academia.