‘As We May Think’ – part 4

Bush moves on from describing several recording techniques to problems of storage and of processing data. As he puts it: Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record.[1] There exists a distinction between creative thought and repetitive thought, which can be taken over by machines. Bush already envisioned such a powerful and fast electrical machine.

Moreover they will be far more versatile than present commercial machines, so that they may readily be adapted for a wide variety of operations. They will be controlled by a control card or film, they will select their own data and manipulate it in accordance with the instructions thus inserted, they will perform complex arithmetical computations at exceedingly high speeds, and they will record results in such form as to be readily available for distribution or for later further manipulation.[2]

First of all, the control card could be considered computer hardware and seems to refer to the Central Processing Unit or CPU. The control section “determines the sequence of operations”, whereas the Arithmetic-Logic Unit or ALU is responsible for the basic arithmetic and logic operations. In some way the CPU selects its own data and manipulates it according to instructions such as arithmetical computations and finally stores the result. This is called the “fetch-decode-execute” cycle. [3]

Since Vannevar Bush intended his memex as “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library”, it can be compared to what we call a Personal Computer.[4] In order to store “all his books, records and communications” his memex would use improved microfilm. The main memory of a computer has however evolved massively over time. In 1952 the magnetic-core memory appeared where two wires changed the direction of the magnets and a third wire detected the orientation. Only in 1971 the first integrated circuit memory chip appeared with a transistor-capacitor combination. The random-access memory or RAM could be either dynamic (DRAM) or static (SRAM) depending on whether the values had to be refreshed periodically or not. Since SRAM is more costly but faster, it is used for the cache memory of the CPU. Computers also store data and programs that are not in use all the time in secondary memory such as magnetic discs, CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs. [5]

The memex also had to be “mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility”.[6] To continue the comparison between the memex and PC, let’s take a closer look at the description of this new machine Bush envisioned.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. (…)

There is, of course, provision for consultation of the record by the usual scheme of indexing. If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one of his viewing positions. (…)

As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item while he calls up another. He can add marginal notes and comments, taking advantage of one possible type of dry photography, and it could even be arranged so that he can do this by a stylus scheme, (…)[7]

Most the functionalities Bush enumerates would now be called computer peripherals “used to input information and instructions into a computer for storage and processing and to output the processed data”. One important input device is the keyboard that uses mechanical or electromechanical switches to change the flow of current. A microprocessor then needs to interpret the changes and send a signal to the computer. In the memex levers are used to browse books, which can be compared to scrolling nowadays. These levers could be considered today’s mouse, whether mechanical or optical. A mechanical mouse uses a rubber to measure horizontal and vertical movement and translates it to cursor movement on the monitor, whereas an optical mouse uses a light beam and camera to translate motion. The monitor or display serves as the primary output device and it employs the same cathode-ray tubes or CRTs as television and radar systems.[8] The stylus Bush envisioned became widely used only after the invention of touch-screens which are now not only employed in portable devices such as smartphones and tablets, but also in 2-in-1 laptops. Finally, to access records by indexing could be similar to the file structure in computers that refer to memory locations.

[1] Bush. As We May Think. Chapter 3.

[2] Bush. As We May Think. Chapter 3.

[3] David Hemmendinger. 2016. Central Processing Unit. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Britannica Academic. Consulted 3 march 2016. http://academic.eb.com.kuleuven.ezproxy.kuleuven.be/EBchecked/topic/130429/computer.

[4] Bush. As We May Think. Chapter 6.

[5] David Hemmendinger. 2016. Main Memory. Secondary Memory. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Britannica Academic. Consulted 3 march 2016. http://academic.eb.com.kuleuven.ezproxy.kuleuven.be/EBchecked/topic/130429/computer.

[6] Bush. As We May Think. Chapter 6.

[7] Bush. As We May Think. Chapter 6.

[8] William Morton Pottenger. 2016. Peripherals. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Britannica Academic. http://academic.eb.com.kuleuven.ezproxy.kuleuven.be/EBchecked/topic/130429/computer.

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Digital Media and Technology in the classroom and beyond

Digital Media and Technology has transformed how we teach, learn and present. Robert Reuter introduced us to new media and tools that can enhance teaching and learning during a workshop at the University of Luxembourg. Based on the eight learning events defined by Leclercq and Poumay from the university of Liège, we uncovered online tools that can enhance teaching and engage the students.

Learning and Teaching Events

Most teaching occurs according to the reception – transmission model where the teacher stands in front of the class to transmit knowledge into a rather passive audience of students who simply write down what they are told. The students, and in general the audience, expect more of teachers and presenters nowadays. When we want to understand a new online tool for example, we don’t always ask our colleagues for help. Instead, we turn to the internet to find a good tutorial on YouTube for example. This learning event is called imitation/modelling and is often skill oriented. The third learning and teaching event centring around the teacher’s initiative is called practice/coaching, also called exercise/guidance for specific skills such as writing or presenting which require practice and feedback, trial and error.

Learning does not always start from the teachers, but can also be initiated by the student. Sometimes a teacher only provides data or sources and lets the students explore the information in events such as exploration/procurement or documentation. The experimentation/reactivity method works mostly in natural sciences where students are actually allowed to manipulate and modify the material at hand. Some museums also allow experimentation with tools from the past. One of the most known learning events starting from the student’s initative is creation/confrontation in writing essays or creating original presentations. Finally, debate/animation allows an audience to interact with a speaker and stimulates interaction. The final and most central learning event is the meta-reflection of how you learn, which can be stimulated through writing about your personal experience.

Digital Media and Tools

Directed Teaching

1. Reception/Transmission

Teachers and presenters nearly all rely on a presentation tool while talking to the audience. The most well know tools are PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Presentations and Prezi. Other digital media that can be added to a presentation are YouTube videos, images, and even cartoons. Sometimes the video you need to illustrate your talk does not yet exist, so you need video-creating and editing tools, such as PowToon. You can also design a presentation bearing in mind that the slides will be shared more publicly with tools such as SlideShare from LinkedIn. These tools also offer inspiration to create your own slides.

2. Imitation/Modeling

One main scenario when thinking of digital media to support imitation/modeling is offering instructions to follow a certain procedure. Think of using the Learning Management System of this university, Moodle. The easiest way to demonstrate the use of this online platform are screenshots with additional explination and circles and arrows added with Photoshop. Another way to explain this procedure is through a screenrecording video where you explain while you are performing the necessary steps. Students can afterwards look at the video at their own pace and pause it if they can’t keep up.

3. Exercise/Guidance

Sometimes the students or the audience needs to be familiar with certain key concepts before the lecture or speech even starts. In this case, they need to prepare at home so that the more interesting ‘homework’ or activity can be discussed during the lecture. This teaching method is called ‘flipped classroom’. Certain online learning platforms such as Codecademy or Kahn Academy free up time for more important or advanced topics during class.

Inquiry-based Learning

4. Exploration/Documenting

If students need to take the iniative in their own hands, the teacher should provide the necessary sources and tools. Historical sources that are easily accessible online can be found on platforms such as Europeana and archive.org. Voyant-tools can provide a preliminary look at certain metrics in text mining, and tools such as Coggle or Mindmeister allow students to create mindmaps containing links to other materials.

5. Experimentation/Reactivity

Experimentation often happens in the labs of natural scientists, but one tool digital historians can experiment with is Nodegoat (see Fabio Spirinelli’s blogpost). Another impressive project that allows for experimentation with sources is Pelagios where students can annotate maps and discover the spatial dimension in their sources and get an introduction into the functionalities of the semantic web.

6. Debate/Animation

Debates can take place on Moodle forums, but also on other social media such as Twitter, Slack, and ResearchGate. Since debate allows participants to gain insight into each others views, this teaching and learning method should be used more often. It also means the teacher can understand how students interpreted the material or course. At conferences the Q&A sessions can spark discussion and lead to new research questions.

7. Creation/Confrontation

The best way to learn is through creation, because it requires higher order thinking, creativity and originality. In history the tool Timeline JS lets students create their own timelines, so that they need to think about the discrepancy between continuity/discontinuity, longue duréé and histoire événementelle, and macro- and micro-history. Tools for creative writing include OneNote and Scrivener, but creating a video using moviemaker takes creative writing to a new level. Often visualisations can communicate results and explore data, where the creativity and decisions of students are central. Visualisation tools include Tableau and D3.js. Finally, coordinating team work in creative tasks requires a certain effort. A tool such as Trello allows teams to create online boards containing lists of tasks and links to material for inspiration.

Meta-Reflection

In order to reflect upon courses students often need to write an essay and send it in at the end of the course. This material then ends up in a filing cabinet, never to be seen again. To engage the public, students could create their own blogs with tools such as WordPress. Blogging makes students think twice before writing and allows for discussion with other readers as well.

Interactive evaluation: quizzing with Plickers

Sometimes the audience needs to understand a key concept before the presentation can continue. One way of testing whether students have actually understood, is to quiz them during the presentation. Several applications already allow people to ‘vote’ or answer multiple-choice questions online with tools such as Google Forms for example. Plickers on the other hand provides QR-codes that can be printed and even linked to the names of students to be distributed during class. The presenter can show a question on the screen (using a screen cast method such as AirDrop for iPhone) and let studens hold up their QR-code in the right direction with their answer towards the top. The application then scans these codes and automatically compiles a small bar chart containing the number of students who answered correctly. Based on the results the presenter can either explain the concept again when less than 25% understood. If 50% of people in the audience answered correctly, the presenter can ask them to explain it to each other. Only if 75% grasps the concept or idea explained, should the lecture continue.

 

For more information on the eight learning events, see Leclercq and Poumay, 2005.

‘As We May Think’ – part 3

Besides creating audio records instead of writing information down, an image says more than a thousand words. Vannevar Bush already envisioned an entirely different experience for researchers.

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two together.[1]

Although still images already provide a lot of information together with their tags, commenting while photographing might be easier using a video camera. Most devices such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones already contain cameras, but a Go Pro or other hands free camera increases the ease of use. However video production consists of planning during pre-production, capturing during production and processing in the post-production phase.[2] Bush was already aware of these phases.

As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.[3]

The process of recording information is constantly improving, especially after the invention of an optical head-mounted display such as Google Glasses. It displays information and communicates with the internet using natural language voice commands. Furthermore the glasses include a touchpad and a camera which can take photos or record videos just by voicing the command “record a video”.[4] This technology can improve the research process since it “1) provides workflow guidance to the user, 2) supports hands-free operation, 3) allows the users to focus on their work, and 4) enables an efficient way for collaborating with a remote expert”.[5] Although the glasses were already tested in the healthcare and industry maintenance fields, the Glass Explorer program ceased to exist. Ivy Ross and Tony Fadell took over, but the release date of their new product remains unknown.[6]

[1] Bush. “As We May Think,” Chapter 3.

[2] Dustin Freeman, Stephanie Santosa, Fanny Chevalier, Ravin Balakrishnan and Karan Sing, “LACES: live authoring through compositing and editing of streaming video,” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2014, 1207-1216, doi: 2556288.2557304.

[3] Bush, “As We May Think,” Chapter 3.

[4] “Google Glass,” Wikipedia, accessed March 7, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Glass.

[5] Xianjun Sam Zheng, Patrik Matos da Silva, Cedric Foucault Siddharth Dasari, Meng Yuan, Stuart Goose. “Wearable Solution for Industrial Maintenance,” Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstract on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2015, 311-314, doi: 702613.2725442.

[6] Nick Bilton. “Why Google Glass Broke,” The New York Times, accessed March 7, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/style/why-google-glass-broke.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone&_r=1.

The ‘neutrality’ of search engines

The past two weeks I had a “presentation skills training” where we had to choose a topic that was completely new to us. Because I was quite interested in looking at a tool most of us use every day, I decided to take a closer look at the Anatomy and Workings of Search Engines. Since one of those search engines has become a common verb in most languages, let’s start from the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “to google”:

Pronunciation:Brit. /ˈɡuːɡl/, U.S. /ˈɡuɡ(ə)l/

1. intr. To use the Google search engine to find information on the Internet.

2. trans. To enter (a search term) into the Google search engine to find information on the Internet; to search for information about (a person or thing) in this way.

Since people use Google and other search engines regularly, they tend to rely on four common assumptions as identified by Bettina Fabos in 2003:

  1. Search engines are impartial information tools.
  2. Search engines search the entire Web, gleaning the most relevant results.
  3. Search engines vary greatly, thus offering choice and a competitive marketplace.
  4. Search engines are the only place to go for relevant information on the web.

Before I can contradict these four assumptions, it is important to understand the structure of the search engine industry.

 

Search Industry Structure

LESSON 1: Search Engines are not impartial, they are part of an industry.
Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 10.21.04
Search Industry structure, based on the article by Bettina Fabos in 2003, using the Eleanor template from slides carnival.com
Directories are quite simply databases that contain information. In this case they contain web pages in indexed lists to feed the search engine providers. Search engine providers may use existing directories, or build their own directories by crawling the web. In order to understand the workings of search engine providers, a good starting point is the famous paper dating back to 1998 by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, PhD students at Stanford University and founders of Google. You can understand crawling as spiders that are sent out over the web to the location that the URL server gave them in order to gather the information in a web repository.  After collecting web pages, the indexer will convert web pages (also called documents) into a list of word occurrences or hits and add sufficient metadata which is stored in barrels. The sorter than needs to invert this index by converting the list of words attached to each document into a list of documents for each word.
So imagine looking for Katy Perry (famous example in this video). Simply put, the search engine provider will compare a list of documents containing the word ‘Katy’ to a list containing the word ‘Perry’ and feed back only those documents containing both words, preferably close to each other. However, you don’t want just any document that contains Katy Perry, you need relevant web pages. This is where the ranking algorithm comes into place, especially Google’s PageRank algorithm. The algorithm looks at the ‘popularity’ of a web page based on how many other (relevant) web pages refer to it.
Finally, the search engine portal is any website containing a search bar, which means even this page could be understood as a search engine portal. The importance of portals lies in their usability and their user friendliness.

 

Sponsorship

LESSON 2: Search engines do not search the entire web, especially not the deep web. Some directories only include paid-for content.
Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 13.32.26
Models of sponsorship, based on the article by Bettina Fabos in 2003, using the Eleanor template from slides carnival.com

 

Google’s initial strategy was selling their technology as a search engine provider not only to other search engines, but also to other websites that use Google’s technology to power search on their own website. This strategy brings in some money, but it’s not a continuous flow of cash. Therefor, some other search engines chose to focus more on marketing agencies trading for space thus including sponsored links. Within the search industry structure, it is clear that the best way to appear in search results over different search engines, is to pay in order to add (commercial) content to the repository. However, in order to determine the efficiency of advertisements, search engines and marketeers have agreed to a pay-by-performance strategy, which means advertisers only pay the search engine when someone actually clicks on a link. Other search engines have gone for more aggressive strategies such as paid inclusion, where the advertisement appears in every search, but had to sacrifice users because of it.

 

‘Googlearchy’

LESSON 3: There is little competition in the marketplace, with mainly American companies dominating the search industry.

The search engine industry used to be dominated by three main companies: Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Add to that the current trends in voice search and as this infographic beautifully demonstrates. Amazon might not be the richest company, but they certainly have the first-mover advantage and are quickly connecting their Alexa voice assistant to cars and home devices, effectively taking over parts of our lives.

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 13.55.09
Infographic showing companies leading the space race in voice search (search engine watch).

This beautiful infographic also shows the challenges related to monitising voice search. Noble as the goals of Google may be in its promises of search engine integrity, the main thing that counts at the end of the day, is money. The reason Amazon holds such a large segment of the market, could be due to the connection with their online store possibilities and connections to apps and services such as music streaming services.

Conclusion

LESSON 4: There are other places to go for information other than search engines. - perhaps the library? -

Independent institutions such as the university, but also public libraries should warrant access to knowledge that does not necessarily have a commercial value. Therefore, these public institutions need to counteract the commercial interests of search engines by focussing on Open Access. In this regard, the Digital Humanities field is one of the first and most important advocates for Open Access. It is this years main theme of the Alliance of Digital Humanities conference in Montréal Another important yet political and legal institution working on Open Access is the Open Access Infrastructure for Research in Europe or OpenAIRE. Preferably Open Access information is accessible through Google, but we also need to think about back-ups and other ways of disseminating information.

‘As We May Think’ – part 2

In the first few chapters of “As we may think” Bush discusses the difficulties on how to create a record. He already envisioned solutions to shorten the process of creating and spreading research.

To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution. To consider the first stage of the procedure, will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record?[1]

After the invention of the Voder which emitted recognizable speech when typed to, the Vocoder did exactly the opposite. “Speak to it, and the corresponding keys move.” Another technology already in existence at the time Bush wrote his influential article, was the stenotype “which records in a phonetically simplified language”. “Combine these two elements, let the Vocoder run the stenotype, and the result is a machine which types when talked to.”[2] The technology that enables devices to respond to spoken commands called speech recognition, exists in both mobile phones and tablets, as well as laptops. Most common uses include dictation, search and giving commands to computers. Another example of speech recognition is Apple’s Siri, a personal assistant on their smartphones.

In the Humanities, and Digital Humanities especially, researchers have shown an interest in non-text materials because of the “massive increase in the quantity and availability of audiovisual (AV) materials and a rapid development in technology for handling such materials”.[3] Speech recognition is mostly linked to transcribing audio-visual materials, especially speech-to-text transcription.

Picture1
Schematic model of humanities research with AV materials

Since speech recognition systems are so domain specific, they cannot handle every domain and “even speech from the same domain that differs from the ‘training’ data may be problematic”.[4]

Speech-to-text transcriptions have historically comprised an unpunctuated and unformatted stream of text. There has been considerable recent research into generating ‘richer’ transcriptions annotated with a variety of information that can be extracted from the audio signal and/or an imperfect transcription. […] Investigations have often used speech from only a small set of domains, such as broadcast news and conversational speech. Emotion-related work in particular is very preliminary.[5]

Strategies on how to expand the role of audiovisual media in Digital Humanities was discussed during the Digital Humanities Conference 2014 in Lausanne, at a workshop by researchers involved in AXES.[6] Research fields which might benefit from speech recognition include: film, television, radio, and oral history.

[1] Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/, chapter 3.

[2] Bush, “As Wy May Think,” chapter 3.

[3] Alan Marsden, Adrian Mackenzie and Adam Lindsay, “Tools for Searching, Annotation and Analysis of Speech, Music, Film and Video – A Survey,” Literary and Linguistic Computing, no. 22,4 (2007): 469-488, accessed January 9, 2017, doi: 10.1093/llc/fqm021.

[4] Marsden et. Al., “Tools for Searching”.

[5] Marsden et. Al., “Tools for Searching”.

[6] “AV in DH Special Interest Group,” Access to Audiovisual Archives, February 12, 2015, http://www.axes-project.eu/?p=2419.

‘As We May Think’ – part 1

When Vannevar Bush wrote As we may think in 1945 he could never have imagined the technologies existing today.[1] A few of his ideas became reality in some or other form but where he “urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge”, his ideas actually affected a much larger population.[2] He came across one particular problem, namely that “publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.”[3] Even in 1945 machines were relatively cheap and dependable, so according to Bush they would provide a solution. In his opinion a record could only be useful to science when it is continuously extended, stored, but “above all it must be consulted”.[4] First he discusses multiple solutions for recording knowledge, such as a combination of a vocoder and a stenotype to create a “machine which types when talked to”. He also imagined advanced arithmetical machines that perform 100 times present speeds or more.[5] Bush even describes what we would call data mining or machine learning.

In fact, every time one combines and records facts in accordance with established logical processes, the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine.[6]

Furthermore, he explains the difference between simple selection that examines every item and the selection mechanism of a telephone that narrows down its selection by classes and subclasses, represented by each digit. However both these selection methods use indexing, while the human mind “operates by association”.[7] He figures his memex will provide the solution, for it creates trails that tie multiple items together.[8]

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 13.57.57
THE MEMEX

Finally Bush concludes that not only new forms of encyclopedias will appear, with trails running through them, he also asks himself this: “Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another?” Imagine that instead of typing this document, a machine would intercept the electrical impulses and type, without the interference of the mechanical movement of my hands on the keyboard.[9]

[1] Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.
[2] Bush, “As We May Think”, Introduction.
[3] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 1.
[4] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 2.
[5] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 3.
[6] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 4.
[7] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 5-6.
[8] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 7.
[9] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 8.

Hidden Figures: Black Women in the History of Computing

After the first full week of “being a PhD student” Eva and I went to the screening of Hidden Figures in Kirchberg. Because this film is so closely related to my research, I decided to write my first official blogpost about these extra-ordinary women. Now for the first question: what is the film about?

HIDDEN FIGURES is the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.[1]

In order to understand underlying and sometimes clear tensions, four main themes arise: segregation and race, gender and class, American society, and finally the IT culture. Although these themes seem clearly defined, in reality and in the film they often create complex narratives and scenes with hidden messages. Therefore, it does not make sense to discuss each theme separately, but to embrace their intersection.

The exception: education past the eighth grade

In the opening scene we see a meeting of Katherine’s parents with the principal of her school and her teacher, urging them to accept a scholarship and some money for the trip to send her to the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. In a reaction to an insult, Katherine proudly responds, “I was the first Negro female student at West Virginia University Graduate School.” [2] Starting around the turn of the century, “growing numbers of Black women had the opportunity to enter college and the professions,” but “the masses of Black women were still relegated to domestic and menial work.”[3] By 1952 62.4% of degrees from Black colleges went to women.[4] However, “Black women were caught between the two functions they were expected to fulfill: enhancing the material quality of life for their families, and at the same time behaving like housewives.”[5] Another important remark here is the fact that the three protagonists were educated and belonged to the middle-classes.  Even though the film does not mention or show the poorer classes, the women in this film do not represent American Black women in the 1960s, and their position was an exception, rather than the rule.

The East Group vs. the West Group at NASA

When the three women arrive at NASA, they go to the West Group for coloured people where the toilets are not clean, the desks put closely together, and the building blocks exposed. This stands in stark contrast to the architectural details and finishes at the East Group for White people, who get a nicely decorated office and even an armchair in the bathroom. Furthermore, Dorothy has to work a supervisor for the Coloured group, but because they are not assigning a permanent supervisor, she does not get the title or the pay. When she finds out about the construction of an IBM mainframe computer which will eventually take over the function of human “Computers”, she decides to take matters into her own hands. At the library the book on FORTRAN does not belong to the Coloured section, but before the guards can turn her out, she manages to put the book in her purse. She then teaches herself and her division all about working with the machine in order to keep their jobs at NASA, since “somewhere down the line a human being is going to have to hit the buttons.”[6]

In the meantime she gets Mary into a permanent position, and she sends Katherine to the Space Task Computer group. In a group of White men, Katherine faces discrimination on several levels. When she first enters, someone hands her the dustbins assuming she is the cleaning lady. When she puts the bin back down to go to her place, she is stared at as if she is an alien from outer space. Followed by that awkward entry, Katherine faces another challenge, since the bathroom for coloured women is 40 minutes away. After her boss confronts her about her constant absence, she bursts out:

Mr. Harris:            Now where the hell do you go every day?
Katherine:             To the bathroom, sir.
Mr. Harris:            The bathroom! To the damn bathroom! For 40 minutes a day!? What do you do in there!? We are T-minus zero here. I put a lot of faith in you.
Katherine:             There’s no bathroom for me here.
Mr. Harris:            What do you mean there’s no bathroom for you here?
Katherine:             There is no bathroom! There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus. Which is half a mile away! Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison? My uniform. Skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple string of pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the coloreds enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living of coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me, if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day![7]

When her boss understands that the racism and discrimination is hindering her work, he personally goes to the West Wing to break down the sign reading “colored bathroom”. In front of surprised Black women he shouts “There you have it! No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms. Just plain old toilets. Go wherever you damn well please. Preferably closer to your desk. At NASA…We all pee the same color!”[8]

Hierarchical Structures: “Fast with rocket ships. Slow with advancement.”

At NASA, there are several hierarchies, starting with Women of Colour being addressed by their first name, whereas White women and men were addressed by their last name. One finding I could not have made manually occurred to me after inserting the text in the Voyant tool.[9] Through textual analysis, it became clear that the most frequent words are Yes (71 instances) and sir (69 instances), often occurring together.[10] When talking to supervisors or other staff higher on the hierarchical ladder, others need to address them in the polite, but almost submissive “Yes Sir.”

Even middle-class and educated women were restricted to female fields, clearly demonstrated twice. Firstly, all Computers were female, and all engineers were male, accompanied by a female secretary. This restriction also shows in the tension between Mr. Stafford and Katherine twice. When Katherine arrives, one of her first jobs is to double-check Mr. Stafford’s math, which he immediately sees as an insult to his work. As a result, he makes her job difficult by crossing out all classified information, and effectively doubling her workload. Later, she has to type his reports and when she adds her name to the list of authors because she contributed, he viciously responds “Computers don’t author reports,” telling her to retype the front page.[11]

[1] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox, accessed March 16, 2017, http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/hidden-figures.

[2] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[3] Paula J. Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (Harper Collins, 2009), 73-74.

[4] Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 235.

[5] Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 248.

[6] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[7] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[8] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[9] “Voyant Tools,” Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, last modified 2017, voyant-tools.org.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.