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My contact lens has gone to the Zonules of Zinn – I blame our throwaway culture

Accidentally exploring the recesses of your eyeball.

That’ll teach me to go around quoting from King Lear. Last week I thought I was losing my mind, so said “let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven” and heaven took the hint and is now assaulting my vile jelly, my eyes. Or rather, the left one.

At the suggestion of the dizzyingly attractive Iranian optometrist at Specsavers who examined me about three months ago, I started using daily contact lenses instead of the monthly ones, whose working life I would usually extend to about a year. I was assured that not only was this naughty but that it was very bad for my eyes.

I spy

Being told you are naughty by a gorgeous woman who is so close to you, you can feel her breath on your eyelashes is not, I admit, the most painful experience a man can undergo but I do take advice, eventually, where my eyes are concerned. For, as the optician’s poster reminds us, we only get one pair. (Looking at posters in opticians can be quite rewarding. Prolonged examination of one taught me that there is a part of the eyeball called the Zonules of Zinn, which sounds like one of the lost bands from Liverpool of the late 1970s – cf, the Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen. I once asked, in the pub quiz, where the Zonules of Zinn were, and was, as always happens when I set the pub quiz, roundly and fluently abused for my efforts.)

Anyway, I duly got a three-month supply of dailies and although there was a part of me that felt I was somehow being wasteful and contributing to a culture of disposability that I strongly disapprove of, I relished my new freedom from having to put them away in a little pot every night and suspend them in a lotion so expensive it might have been composed largely of unicorns’ tears.

There was one thing I really didn’t like, though, and that was that sometimes, at the end of the evening, after a night of convivial chat and smoking and drinking my head off, they would tend to get rather difficult to remove. Something in certain kinds of roll-ups conspires to make the surface of the eyeball more adhesive than it normally is, or dries it out, perhaps, and this combined with the small but perceptible decline in dexterity that can afflict one after a bottle and a bit of Shiraz can make for a frustrating pre-bedtime experience. But with disposables it’s even worse: they’re flimsier than the normal kind of lens and now I can be in the bathroom, fossicking around the cornea for ages and ages, while the Beloved waits for me and then dozes off.

This time I was at least on my own but it was worse than usual – the damned thing just wouldn’t come out. And then something went wrong and all I could think of by way of explanation was that my fiddling about had pushed the lens round the back, behind the eyelid – if not into the very Zonules of Zinn themselves, then at least somewhere deep and inaccessible.

When I first met the Beloved, one of her best friends had only one question about me (well, I imagine she had several, but this was the first): “is he good in a crisis?” I remember, when this was reported to me, breathing a large sigh of relief. There are all sorts of questions she could have asked that would have resulted in a much more negative or equivocal response, such as is he good with money, is he tidy, is he fundamentally a decent human being, does he lust after optometrists, etc, etc? But crises I am kind of OK with – for a start, I’ve learned that a surprising number of them go away, or resolve themselves, if you don’t do anything about them.

Blue period

This wasn’t one of those crises, though, but there was little I could do about it at two in the morning, so went to bed; and anyway, maybe it would resolve itself – I recalled something about the eye being very good at expelling foreign objects. But the next morning – a Sunday, when Specsavers is shut – I saw a tiny little square of transparent blue in the sink, which I could immediately tell was about one-third to one-half of a daily contact lens, which could only mean that one-half to two-thirds of a daily contact lens was lodged somewhere in my eye.

So there we go: a culture of disposability leads to suffering one way or the other. You would have thought that someone might have worked out that you don’t make contact lenses with the fragility of rice paper just in case this kind of thing happens, but no. And I didn’t even get the gorgeous optometrist when I went to get the eye checked out.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.