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The Wikipedia wars: does it matter if our biggest source of knowledge is written by men?

Wikipedia is the world’s most popular encyclopaedia, a collaborative utopia. But only one in every ten of its editors is a woman.

Wikipedia is “like a sausage”, its founder, Jimmy Wales, told a reporter in 2004. “You might like the taste of it, but you don’t necessarily want to see how it’s made.” Back then, the free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit was an exciting new, scrappy, collaborative utopia. Now it is the most influential source of information in the world. Wikipedia is often the first search result when we google something, our first destination when we want to understand something, and the place where academics, journalists and politicians first brief themselves, even though they might pretend it is not.

Dismissed as dangerously unreliable in its early days, Wikipedia has become more rigorous over the years, with references essential to the survival of any article. We trust the website much more: amid the early panic of the ebola outbreak, the Wikipedia page for the virus was seen as an authoritative, reliable source, receiving as many hits as the World Health Organisation’s online ebola fact sheet. Wikipedia has become one of the most recognised brands in the world and for many people it is the portal to knowledge in the 21st century.

Yet when it comes to how it is made, Wikipedia is a colossal failure. Only a tiny proportion of users now edit articles and the overwhelming majority of those editors are male. The most recent survey by the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity that supports but does not control Wikipedia, found that 91 per cent of the editors are men. More optimistic surveys have put the figure at 84 per cent – but still, Wikipedia has a huge diversity problem. Instead of being the egalitarian “sum of all human knowledge”, as Wales had originally hoped, the English version of Wikipedia is mostly the sum of male knowledge.

The gender disparity has skewed the encyclopaedia’s content – not only which pages are created but also which ones are worked on and improved so that they reach a high standard. Take its “List of Pornographic Actresses”; it is meticulously referenced, with clear sections according to decade. The page is organised, clean and easy to use. Compare it to the “List of Female Poets”: a sprawling dumping ground, organised by name rather than date, unreferenced and of little use to anyone unless they want to know whose name might come after Sylvia Plath in an enormous alphabetical list. The list of poets has been edited 600 times, by nearly 300 editors. The list of female porn stars is a newer page but over 1,000 editors have edited it more than 2,500 times.

Female poets at least get their own list. In areas such as science and technology, women are severely under-represented. If there is not a decent biography of a given woman on Wikipedia, users will assume she cannot be notable because she doesn’t have a proper Wikipedia page, so the marginalisation becomes circular and self-perpetuating. The biographies that do exist often put a woman’s status as a wife, mother or daughter in the first paragraph, before or next to her notable achievements. These personal details are more often an afterthought in biographies of men. Conventionally female interests are also neglected: there’s a single page for all six series of Sex and the City, whereas there are 43 separate articles on Top Gear. And when it comes to articles on topics such as rape and abortion, the gender gap among editors really begins to matter.

Wikipedia knows this is a problem – there is even a Wikipedia article on the subject (“Gender bias on Wikipedia”) – but no one knows what to do about it. Sue Gardner, a former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, set a goal in 2011 to increase the proportion of female editors to 25 per cent in four years. Just before she left her post in 2014 she confessed that she had not cracked the problem. “I didn’t solve it. We didn’t solve it. The Wikimedia Foundation didn’t solve it,” she said.

At the annual Wikimania convention in London last August, Jimmy Wales said the organisation had “completely failed” in its attempts to increase women’s participation drastically. “We’re really doubling our efforts now,” he said. “We didn’t do enough. There are a lot of things that need to happen to get from 10 per cent to 25 per cent: a lot of outreach, a lot of software changes.”

 

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Elsewhere on the internet, women outnumber men on some of the other most visited sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and in many online games. Why do they feel less welcome on Wikipedia? “I don’t want to get into a fight on the internet. Ugh,” says Zara Rahman, 26, originally from Man­chester and now living in Berlin. She trains journalists to use data and technology, so you might expect her to feel at home on Wikipedia. But her experience there left her “really annoyed. Just exhausted.”

The frustration stemmed from her experience editing the online entry for Hedy Lamarr, a 1940s Hollywood star and long-neglected inventor. Lamarr devised a crucial technique that paved the way for wireless communication, but her scientific achievements had barely a mention on her Wikipedia page when Rahman first looked her up. She edited the article to reflect the significance of Lamarr’s invention, referencing it in the first paragraph, but her changes were quickly reversed by another editor, on the grounds that Lamarr’s acting career was more noted by historical sources than her invention. Then someone added a line to the opening paragraph about how a film director had once commented on Lamarr’s “strikingly dark exotic looks”. The editing community allowed that to stay in.

“The page is actually worse than when I first found it,” Rahman says. “As it currently stands, a comment by a man about her appearance is more important than the fact that she basically invented wifi.” Lamarr’s invention is mentioned “something like three screens down. If you were looking for quick headlines about this woman, you’re going to stop at the fact that she appeared nude in a scene. That’s all you’re going to remember about Hedy Lamarr.” Sources matter on Wikipedia – the more references a fact has to back it up, the more likely it is to remain on a page – but that can lead to a systemic bias. “Of course her [Lamarr’s] acting career appears in more sources,” Rahman says. “She was a woman in the 1940s, there were men writing, and the men were writing about her being beautiful and exotic, not about women contributing to science.”

Rahman had dabbled in editing before she arrived at Lamarr, but after this encounter she stopped. “I wanted to edit because it’s fun and I think it’s important, but a Wikipedia editing war is not my style,” she says. Editors can be notoriously brusque, sometimes forgetting social niceties when they change other people’s work. The internet is littered with the blogs of bitter ex-Wikipedians who have been burned by rejection and the often fraught arbitration process the encyclopaedia uses to resolve disputes. Plus, Rahman was aware that she had hardly any clout, in Wikipedia terms, because she had not edited much before.

The Wikipedia machine relentlessly churns out information over which women struggle to have any influence. Photo: Jonathan McHugh/NS

The conflict and hierarchy specific to Wikipedia may have been dispiriting but it was an internet-wide problem that ultimately put her off. “I’ve seen so many women be trolled and abused online, I don’t even want to dip my toes into that,” Rahman tells me. “I use the same Wikipedia name as I do for my Twitter and my blogs. If things are going to get vicious, it would be very easy for someone to find where I work as well as my email address.”

It is not just new users who feel alienated – even women such as Theresa Knott, who has been editing Wikipedia since its launch in 2001, have stopped contributing. She was once a leading figure on the encyclopaedia, elected to administrator and then arbitrator status, a role akin to that of a high court judge. But gradually she lost interest and she last edited in 2012.

“When Wikipedia was smaller it was a very different beast,” Knott tells me when we meet near the London mixed independent primary school where she teaches science and computing. “I met a lot of people and had great discussions in the early days. I wasn’t drawn to it because of the community but I stayed because of the community.

“Now editing is more of a solitary thing than it used to be because Wikipedia’s so much bigger. I think women like group activities more than men do; women like to socialise, and because it’s bigger I suspect it’s less appealing to women than it used to be.” When the community was smaller it was more collaborative. Editors took time to help each other learn the ropes, Knott says. “Now, it’s got very formal. I feel sorry for people whose articles aren’t the minimum length and don’t have at least one reference in them, because they just get deleted. That would put me off editing in the first place.”

It is hard to know how the gender gap has changed over time – the earliest survey of editors wasn’t carried out until 2010, when Wikipedia was already nine years old – but Knott says there were always many more male editors. “The women who were on there were more likely to be people like me rather than people with interest in . . .” – there’s a long pause while she searches for the appropriate words – “typical women things.” What does she mean by women like her? “Very geeky kinds of females who thought in a certain way and kind of fitted in with the men. There weren’t many women who would not traditionally be in a male sphere. When I did my physics degree, the ratio was 6:1. You kind of get used to it.”

 

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If you’ve ever clicked on the “Edit” tab on a Wikipedia article, you will understand that having a particular kind of conventionally male-brained thinking might help on Wikipedia. Reams of code cascade down the page: curved, square and curly brackets, chevrons and underscores. It looks more like a computer program than a draft of an encyclopaedia entry. If you can see past the symbols to the bit of text you want to edit, it becomes straightforward: you put your cursor in the place you want to make a change and then type, or delete. Then you write an edit summary describing your changes and click Save – though there is no guarantee they will stay. Most edits, particularly changes from new users, will be scrutinised by an army of experienced volunteers and Wikipedia robots, looking out for mistakes, vandalism, libel and things that break the site’s code of practice.

Knott has observed a gender disparity among her young computing students: the boys have embraced coding more wholeheartedly than the girls, and are more willing to do it on their own, outside class. Even if Wikipedia didn’t exist, the highest-ranked pages on Google would still be more likely to have been created by men than women, she says. “It’s not just a Wikipedia thing – it’s an internet thing.” Wikipedia is about creating content rather than websites but all the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that go into creating a page mean it has more in common with coding than editing a Facebook status, where the social network invites you to share “what’s on your mind”.

If there are going to be more female editors, Wikipedia needs to learn from websites where women feel comfortable. Some believe Wikipedia “editathons” might be the answer, where editors meet in person to work on neglected topics together. These are encouraged and supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, which sometimes provides tea, biscuits, laptops and trainers to help new editors learn the craft. Recent editathons have focused on topics such as ballet, Australian female neuroscientists and women in Jewish history.

While increasing the coverage of women on the site, these meet-ups are also more likely to attract female editors in the first place. Claire Millington made her first edit at a “Women in Archaeology” editathon in 2013. We meet at a café next to Senate House Library, where she has been working on her classics PhD at King’s College London. Her thesis is on the women who served in the households of Roman auxiliary army commanders, a group of women that has never been systematically studied. “There’s a pattern in what’s written about women and their achievements, and it’s basically that they’re not written about,” she says. “I don’t want Wikipedia to be a place where women are written out of history again, because if it’s not on Wikipedia, it’s not visible.”

Millington sees it as her duty to make sure that her academic field is properly represented on Wikipedia. She creates new articles and nurtures them, keeping them on a watchlist so that she can check on new contributions. So far, she has not yet found any edits that she’s wanted to change. Wikipedia’s genteel classics pages are unlikely sites for bitter editing wars, but Millington has yet to experience the encyclopaedia’s aggressive side, and has organised her own editathon, encouraging her colleagues to participate.

“I think the interface is the one thing that Wikipedia, Wikimedia, really needs to address. It’s not immediately intuitive,” she says. “It’s great if you’re techy – and there are a lot of people involved in Wikipedia who are techy – but the majority of the population are used to getting their phone out of the box and turning it on and using it. It’s not that women can’t do it, it’s just initially it’s not very welcoming.”

Is there another reason why women are less willing than men to contribute to Wikipedia: that women like to feel they have comprehensive knowledge of something, backed up by evidence, before they claim to have the authority to comment on it, whereas men are more prepared to blag? It takes confidence to believe you have the right to write an encyclopaedia entry, something men might have in greater quantities.

“[That’s] not really plausible,” says Charles Matthews, a former Cambridge academic and one of Wikipedia’s most prolific editors, when I put this to him. “To the extent that women have a different working pattern, they are more likely to be patient writers, that’s all. And motivated by different considerations.” The idea of different working patterns has come up before as an explanation of the gender disparity, in another way: several studies have found that women have less free time than men to dedicate to projects such as Wikipedia because they do more of the childcare and housework.

For Matthews, maybe the gender gap is being blown out of proportion. “There are other, similar systemic issues that are also important. Do Hollywood films get better coverage on Wikipedia than Bollywood? You bet,” he says. “We’re beginning to think there’s less of a gap in terms of writing rather than tech maintenance work on the site – which is lost if you treat all edits as equal.”

I can’t help thinking that if women were more confident about asserting their knowledge, they’d feel more at home on Wikipedia. Roberta Wedge, a former gender gap project worker for Wikimedia UK, agrees. “I think far fewer women would describe themselves as experts than men, but you don’t need to be an expert to edit Wikipedia. And there are many ways of contributing, like photography, like labelling and categorising things. Like adding links between articles so that when you’ve found an amazing, obscure woman you can make sure the article can be found from other places.”

Wikimedia UK hired Wedge for four months last year to address the gender disparity. She helped with editathons and attended related conferences. As she told me while she was still in the post, “My job is to say: there are fascinating women out there on the historic record, we need to get them reflected on Wikipedia, and men and women can add to that.”

The focus seems to be on making sure “female” subjects and women’s biographies are adequately represented, rather than recruiting women to edit, but the hope is that once those topics are better represented, ­female editors will feel more welcome.

But there is a limit to what the international Wikimedia Foundation can do. It’s a charity: there is no army of engineers who can make the editing interface more friendly, no funding for focus groups to reveal what women want from Wikipedia. Any intervention beyond that would undermine what makes Wikipedia great: the fact that it is built from the ground up, a collaboration that polices itself. The answer to the problem has to come from within Wikipedia. Ideas from the site’s discussion boards include a Girl Scout achievement badge in Wikipedia, and persuading celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey to ask their audiences to try editing. But ultimately it is up to women to choose to get involved, and up to existing contributors to make them feel welcome.

After several months away from Wikipedia, Zara Rahman met Wedge at a conference, and Wedge persuaded her to give it another try. Rahman has made a few additions to the biography of Marie Tharp, an oceanographer who created the first scientific map of the ocean floor. But she still sounds badly bruised by her experiences on Wikipedia, and is wary of becoming more involved. I ask if she even uses the site for reference any more. “Of course,” she laughs. “Where else do you get your information from?”

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.