How linguistics helped me power up my language

Powering up

‘If you are a woman working in a traditionally male hierarchy, you have one of two choices: Quit or Masculinize’. Linguist Prof. Lydia Sciriha chose to end her keynote speech at the HUMS symposium with this quote from Pease and Pease (1999). As a curious scientist and keen observer of society, she has accumulated a plethora of personal stories to show how communication gaps solidify gender inequality. She shares them here with Daiva Repeckaite.

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Sensory Apparatus

‘What does it really mean to sense something?’ That was the fundamental question Dr Libby Heaney (quantum physicist and artist) asked herself when she started working on Sensory Apparatus, currently on display at Blitz in Valletta. For almost a year she worked together with Bonamy Devas (artist and photographer) and Anna Ridler (designer working with information and data). For Libby sensing means the collection of data. Science tries to measure everything and is now through so-called ‘big data’ attempting to quantify subjective things, like happiness levels or the perfect online dating match.

Second Room - Auditive AlgorithmsSensory Apparatus visualises the constant surveillance our data is under. In the first room a web of elastic black and white fibres represents a network of light and data. The experience of traversing the space and interacting with the structure is like simultaneously being sensed and sensing the internet. ‘Like the internet, you are missing out if you cannot make it past the first room’, Libby suggests.

The second room has circuit boards and speakers mounted to the walls. People curious enough will trigger a proximity sensor and a computerised voice starts talking. ‘Name. Country. Age. Address.’ What sounds like nonsense at first, quickly develops into the auditive representation of an algorithm. Passing consecutive speakers continuously reveals its different layers. These algorithms are complex programmes, designed to collect the footprints people leave while online. The information is used by marketers to direct and personalise adverts. ‘We wanted to reveal the technology. The actual objects represent the discussion we are trying to make.’

The last room is pitch black. Only when approaching the middle of the room a projector lights up, projecting advertisements directly onto people’s bodies. The commercial pieces, gathered from across Malta, follow every movement, change constantly and are reflected from the room’s glossy walls. At the exhibition opening, once people noticed they were being used as a billboard, they quickly moved away. ‘People change and behave differently in there’, Libby says, making it obvious how advertisements influence us online.

Third Room - Projected AdvertisementAs a quantum physicist this change in behaviour reminded Libby of the Quantum Zeno effect, a phenomenon where an unstable particle will not decay while it is being observed. For Libby the concept of surveillance and the philosophy behind it led her to Sensory Apparatus. French philosopher Michel Foucault came up with the idea of panopticism, that inspired the exhibition. Panopticism is a social theory extending the panopticon, a prison designed to allow one person to observe all prisoners. Inmates would know they are possibly being observed, but could never be sure. This ultimately changes their behaviour. Sensory Apparatus’ first steps can be relived in the educational room near the artworks. The artists’ personal notes, inspiring articles, and other materials are laid out for everyone to explore.

The free exhibition opens every Tuesday–Thursday from 10am–3pm and Friday–Saturday from 3–7pm at Blitz, 68 St Lucia Street, Valletta, until April 6. For more information see thisisblitz.com

Sensory Apparatus is supported by Arts Council Malta / Malta Arts Fund.

Science and Politics

DavidMagri

Think meets up with Dr David Magri to tell us more about how he is trying to help scientists and politicians to network. Evidence-based policies need the input of scientists from all fields and are the future for Malta’s policy makers to develop a better, richer, and happier Malta.

Q: In a small country like Malta were everyone knows each other, why do scientists and politicians need to network? 

A: Even in a small country like Malta, people do not know everybody. In particular, scientists and politicians are two groups of individuals with busy schedules and different priorities. Because of the inherent nature of their professions, these two groups have no natural reason to meet. Scientists spend a considerable amount of time in their office, laboratory, in meetings, out on fieldwork, and at conferences. Politicians spend a substantial amount of time in their office, in the House of Parliament, at meetings, events, and attending conferences. However, for the nation’s interests, science and research policy is important for future competitiveness with regards to technical skills and human resources. Parliamentarians and governments set the national priorities for research, but researchers need to meet these research objectives. Researchers have a better understanding of what is feasible and what resources are needed.

“Scientists and politicians are two groups of individuals with busy schedules and different priorities”

Q:How are you trying to get them to engage?

A: The Malta Chamber of Scientists has established Science in the House as a networking forum between scientists and parliamentarians. Under the auspices of the House of Representatives, Science in the House is also a poster exhibition highlighting some of the leading research conducted in Malta, particularly at the University of Malta. Now in its third year, the event continues to build momentum with greater participation every year. It takes place in the Presidential Palace in Valletta. This year a number of parliamentarians with science-related interests and backgrounds have been asked by personal invitation to attend the opening ceremonies of Science in the House.

Q:What is the role of Science in the House as part of Science in the City – European Researcher’s Night?

A: Science in the House is the opening ceremony for the Science in the City festival. During the weekend festival the Presidential Palace is open to the public in the evening. The poster exhibition is left on display for parliamentarians to view, and afterwards left on display over the Notte Bianca festival allowing the general public including students, parents, and tourists to view the exhibition. During the week an estimated 6,000 visitors viewed the exhibition last year. 


Part of Science in the City, Malta’s Science and Arts Festival

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The event is supported by the Malta Chamber of Scientists, the RIDT University Research Trust, the University of Malta and the House of Representatives. For more information see
www.mcs.org.mt/index.php/events and on www.scienceinthecity.org.mt