do ALL things!

Arts, tech, and not having to choose just one as a young girl

by creatrix tiara | head img: media arts centre san diego

UPDATE: An updated and edited version of this post is up at Geek Feminism.

I had just listened to “The Way We Teach Computing Hurts Women”, a podcast episode by WYNC’s Manoush Zomorodi, talking about how to get girls interested in tech and computer science, from childhood to university. It talks about a lot of different approaches and is really fascinating. There’s some history about Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer period, as well as discussion of Hello Ruby and Goldiblox, which are aimed at getting very young girls interested in computer science and engineering.

(What would have been great would be a mention of Lauren Ipsum, an Alice-in-Wonderland style book about computer science principles. Also lady pirates.)

I have SO MANY FEELINGS about this, mostly to do with being involved in tech as a young girl but fading out of it until very recently.

So you know how you hear celebrity artist or sports types talk about “I could sing before I could talk!” or “I was dancing before I could walk!” and so on? That was me, but with two things: I was reading and using computers before I could talk. (Or maybe even walk.) There is even a pretty adorable picture of me around age 2–4 on the computer mucking around with Harvard Graphics or the tutorials for Microsoft Works.

(Yes I had an odd idea of fun.
But you could make databases for skiiers and snail races!!)

This isn’t me — this is Jacob, by Ellecer Valencia. The photo of me wouldn’t have been too far off, though.

When I was about 8, the day my sister left Malaysia for the UK (for good), my parents got a telemarketer call advertising computer classes. My mum asked me if I was interested — I remember being very sleepy because we were caught in traffic jams to and from the airport. I muttered a Yes but kinda forgot about it.

The school was named CAL and they had divided up their classes by year level — Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, there might have been another one. They did a pre-test with me and said I could skip the Beginner level and go straight to Intermediate. I was the youngest person there by a year.

This was before Windows 3.1 was really much of a thing, and when we were still working with 5.25” floppies. We learnt newspaper layouts, basic animation, and coding in Pascal. Mostly we cheated on the exams and looked forward to playing the various Super Solvers games.

those blasted elves.

The Internet came to Malaysia circa 1995, and once I got online I never left. About the only time I took a significant break from the Internet was in 1997 when we had my first big national exam, the UPSR (which tells you which secondary school you go to), and my parents suggested that I go offline and quit computer classes for the year. I was allowed online just once, to write in the memorial book for Princess Diana.

Other then that — I was actively online all the time. I joined an online kids’ media site and reviewed books, I started webzines and wrote fiction & poetry. I hosted picnics on Geocities chat and virtual cities on AOL. When I really got into Aqua and Savage Garden, and then fandoms in general, my use of the Internet really took off. I was an amazingly prolific fanfic writer, made a ton of friends via online fandom, and even changed my life in very significant ways — such as making one of my closest friendships with someone who met me through a fansite I made for her TV channel, or choosing the Australian college I lived in based on having seen some Livejournal comics about exchange student life by one of its residents — where I met my matey: first boyfriend/significant relationship and now one of my closest friends.

In recent years it’s taken on a more activist angle: first with Malaysia’s leading blog about alternative education, which could have gotten me elected into Parliament like my contemporary Malaysian edu-blogging peer; and now through talking about arts and intersectionality — gaining notoriety and (in)fame(y) by speaking up about racism in burlesque. (People still aren’t over it.)

(While I was looking up links for this, I found this super-old article about women and gadgetry that quotes me. Haha!)

The main reason I got so involved with the Internet is because it was safety and sanctuary in a hostile world. I was heavily bullied in school due to racial tension — most of the teachers were hostile instigators or at least uncaring. I didn’t really have a lot of space to express myself, because I was constantly told that my existence was wrong. I didn’t really learn a lot from the Malaysian education system: most of it was already decades old.

My friends were online. My creative expression was online. My education was online. The computer was a source of life for me, in many ways: even now I feel more spiritually connected to bits and bytes rather than trees and sea.

Ruby and her doge friend. much happy
so drawing

However, despite my affinity to computers and the Internet and the fact that I am still online all the time, I didn’t actually follow through with any sort of tech degree. Even now my dad wonders why I didn’t go into computer science. There were a few factors in effect: they weren’t really connected to gender, in that nobody told me I shouldn’t be coding because that’s a boy’s thing, but they still played into societal expectations in some ways.

Firstly, my tech was always some versions too old. This was mostly because I preferred to use gadgetry until it gave up the ghost — and this was somewhat easier to do over 10 years ago when tech was more robust. My first laptop, an Acer behemoth with Windows 95, lasted me till about 2002, having survived multiple falls and broken hardware. It was so old that it couldn’t support CSS or Javascript, which meant that I wasn’t able to learn those skills early on. Even now the Mac I got second-hand is a 10-year-old G5, and nothing contemporary runs on it. (My Android tablet is relatively newer, but 2 years on it’s already sort of obsolete, and nobody writes the software I need for Android, bah.)

Mostly, though, nobody said you could be both artsy and geeky; you had to choose either Science or Arts. Science, in this case, meant taking Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and maybe Additional Mathematics in forms 4 and 5 in Malaysian secondary schools. (Nothing that involved computers.) It was what every good student does because the whole point of Malaysian education is to study Medicine and be a doctor and make good money for your family. There wasn’t any “women can’t do Science” sentiment, and I went to all-girls schools that weren’t particularly feminist. The expectation was everyone does Science, because that’s just what you do. Arts and Humanities, so my teachers claimed, were for stupid people: people who failed their exams and so had to take Visual Art or Literature instead because those are for simpletons.

I caused quite a ruckus when I moved myself from being placed in the Science class to sitting in the row for the “last” class because I wanted to take Literature.

the way they acted, you would have thought I was starting some sort of uprising.
(Many years later I find out that I sort of did.)

As you probably noticed, a lot of my online activity involved writing. The same people who thought I would be a computer scientist or programmer also thought I would be a world-class writer, and at the time that was my more pressing interest. I saw the Internet as a medium to post my writing, but didn’t really think about being in the bones of hardware or software or web development — it had been so many years since I knew any coding that I thought I’d missed the boat.

I didn’t want to be a doctor, or any kind of scientist, despite loving science museums as much as I loved libraries and bookstores and computers. This was mostly because the school’s take on science was super boring, but also because I felt like I had to choose: Science or Arts. The options for Science were everywhere; the Arts, less so. I had my one chance — I had to take it.

Nobody ever said that I could have done all of the above. It never occurred to me to pull a Hermione Granger and take all the subjects (well, maybe not all) — it was two distinct streams and I had to make a decision.

Ever since then, my personal and professional journeys have largely been in the arts and creative industries: media, performance art, writing, community cultural development. I wrote scripts for TV and interviewed Prime Ministers and stripped onstage while reciting adaptations of Suheir Hammad. I sang and danced and chomped the tops off roses and went viral for something I said at Slutwalk.

All of these were made possible via the Internet — whether by finding out about opportunities, getting a shot from the muse, posting my work, being known.
And yet I didn’t really see myself as the programming type.

Digital? Yes. Geeky? Sure.
Computer scientist? ehhh…

And yet there is so much I want to do with technology that goes beyond blog posts and social media and Facebook invites. I’ve wanted to get into game design for a long time, as a means of producing creative interactive experiences. I have ideas for performances that require a fair bit of geekery (such as this LED light costume). And all these apps that would make my creative life so much easier but which don’t get made because there aren’t a lot of coders who are interested enough in making them.

I have noticed how deep the chasm is between the arts world and the tech world, even now, and how I’m somehow caught in the middle.

At a meeting hosted by Intersection for the Arts one of the organisers proclaimed that we were “analogue mediums in a digital world!”, and a few days later, while volunteering at casual games conference Casual Connect, a lot of attendees were puzzled at the presence of a performance artist in their midst.

The combination of arts and tech does exist, of course: this Ask Metafilter question brings up a lot of options, and I’ve just started going to an Arts+Tech Meetup in San Francisco, which is leading me to a lot of other opportunities. The more I find, the more I wish this existed for me as a young girl — and the more I want to help young girls currently in this situation.

Lauren Ipsum and her dear Xor, who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of camouflage.

There are a lot of efforts towards encouraging young girls to get involved with tech, as demonstrated in the podcast. Girls Make Games did a presentation at Casual Connect and a big horde of us women immediately volunteered to help out! Search “tech for girls” and you find heaps of classes, workshops, camps — for Australian school girls or budding makers or young girls of color.

And yet so much of it is about getting girls involved in science or engineering. STEM. Even the first project talked about in the podcast had renamed their subject “Creative Problem-solving in Science and Engineering” — artsy little me would not have thought coding was ever an option for me.

There seems to be a little nudge in that direction: Google’s Made with Code has resources for code in the arts, and there is an Arty archetype in the Tech Girls Movement. But I would like to see more. I would like to encourage more. I want to bring more to the girls who may be where I was 15 years ago and thought that being a geek and being an artist or writer or musician was somehow a contradiction.

Now that I’ve graduated with an MFA and I’m looking for jobs for my OPT visa, I’m started to consider the tech industry again. Maybe there is a space for an artsy creative person like me — especially a queer migrant minority woman. (I don’t know if my South Asianness puts me at an advantage given my national origin.)

Maybe there are ways to reach out to young girls, young boys, intimidated artists, baffled techies, about how these worlds do not need to be separate, how left brain/right brain is a myth, how you don’t have to sacrifice one interest for another.

One of my sister’s self-portraits.

Maybe I can look to my sister, who has always been inspiration for me even from a thousand miles away, who went from a lifetime of science to a rebirth as an illustrator, and yet so much of her work is already very scientific anyway. She has a kid, Zen, who’s not even 2 yet, and already has told her mother that she wants to “do ALL things!”

And I want to help her do all things too.

So now, after not having coded anything since I mucked around with QBASIC as a 13-year-old, I’m learning how to code. I’m taking the Web Developer blueprint with Skillcrush, which is geared towards women — I mostly joined because one of the staff members totally understood what it’s like to be the Resident Geek amongst her artist friends. Asides from the classes, there’s also a pretty vibrant community — including other artsy types.

I’m also catching up on Codecademy; Javascript is a lot easier than I thought it would be! (Sort of: for loops confuse me a little.) I am also trying out Treehouse, but it seems kind of tedious for my liking — maybe it gets better later.

When I listened to this podcast, I became so inspired: I was reminded of my dream to support young artsy & geeky girls, and this was more motivation to do so. I am almost tempted to get a computer science degree, but formal education and I barely get along (also the bootcamps and intensives are way out of my price range).

But I have a vision — if nothing else, then for my niece, and 4 year old me.