Whispering plays a big part in ASMR. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Welcome to the world of autonomous sensory meridian response videos, the internet’s soft play area

For some people, videos of people performing intricate tasks or crinkling paper can produce a satisfying tingling feeling. If you can suspend your cyncism, it’s one of the nicest places on the internet to be.

“Prob not going to make it tonight, feeling rough,” I text. I’m taking a social sick day, and what I actually mean is, “Prob not going to make it tonight, can’t be bothered to stand in a hot room, sipping a drink that I had to queue for 40 minutes to get.” What I actually, actually mean is, “Prob not going to make it tonight, a woman off the internet is doing stuff to my ears, and I’m into it.”

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos are, objectively speaking, the weirdest thing on the world wide web. They’re weirder than this, this and this. But they’re also an internet sensation. The one I’m watching, the one about ears, has over 400,000 views. A 20-minute video where a woman prods a disembodied silicone ear with various objects has been watched nearly half a million times. But why?

In case you haven’t read one of the many, many articles about what ASMR is, I’m going to attempt to explain. And boy, this is a real humdinger of complexity. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this. OK – it’s effectively a satisfying tingling feeling (or “braingasm”) that some people, myself included, get from watching and listening to other people performing, say, an intricate task. Or crinkling some paper. Or whispering in your ear. When I was at school, for example, I had a friend who used to draw on her hands in lessons. When I sat next to her, quadratic equations and conjugating “être” became background noise. I’d be too mesmerised by watching her tattoo herself in biro to even function.

A decade later I learnt that not only is there a name for what was going on in my head when I zenned the hell out in French and maths, but there are millions of other people who experience it. And, unwittingly, I suppose I’ve become a member of the nascent ASMR community. And I hate communities. And I hate hippy dippy, kale juice enemas, reiki hand jobs bollocks. And, for anyone who doesn’t experience ASMR, that’s exactly what most of the videos probably look like. A lot of it is women whispering about relaxation, in this babbling, nonsensical, stream of consciousness way. But, holy shit is it calming.  

In fact, I’m honestly not exaggerating when I say that ASMR videos have changed my life. They’re sometimes more effective than sleeping pills in getting me, an anxiety ridden insomniac depressive, to drop off. Really and truly. I mean sure, there’s going to come a point when you’re 15 minutes into a video of a woman blowing on a saucepan where you think, “What the fuck is my life?” But, if you’re truly relaxed for the first time in three years, does that really matter?

ASMR videos are the internet’s soft play area. Anyone who spends even a fifth of the amount of time that I do online will know that it’s at least 93 per cent shouty caps lock arguments. If you fancy a holiday from all that, I highly recommend you suspend your cynicism – I managed it – and get into ASMR. If you don’t believe me, just look at the comments on any given ASMR video. We all know that, a dreaded glance over the comments section of a video of a penguin falling over will usually direct you straight to someone being called “worse than Hitler”. The comments on ASMR videos are things like, “this really helped me get to sleep, thanks J” and “I want to hug whoever invented ASMR”.

Hugs. Actual hugs. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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The science and technology committee debacle shows how we're failing women in tech

It would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

Five days after Theresa May announced, in her first Prime Minister’s Questions after the summer recess, that she was "particularly keen to address the stereotype about women in engineering", an all-male parliamentary science and technology committee was announced. You would laugh if it wasn’t all so depressing.

It was only later, after a fierce backlash against the selection, that Conservative MP Vicky Ford was also appointed to the committee. I don’t need to say that having only one female voice represents more than an oversight: it’s simply unacceptable. And as if to rub salt into the wound, at the time of writing, Ford has still not been added to the committee list on parliament's website.

To the credit of Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP who was elected chair of the committee in July, he said that he didn't "see how we can proceed without women". "It sends out a dreadful message at a time when we need to convince far more girls to pursue Stem [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects," he added. But as many people have pointed out already, it’s the parties who nominate members, and that’s partly why this scenario is worrying. The nominations are a representation of those who represent us.

Government policy has so far completely failed to tap into the huge pool of talented women we have in this country – and there are still not enough women in parliament overall.

Women cannot be considered an afterthought, and in the case of the science and technology committee they have quite clearly been treated as such. While Ford will be a loud and clear voice on the committee, one person alone can’t address the major failings of government policy in improving conditions for women in science and technology.

Study after study has shown why it is essential for the UK economy that women participate in the labour force. And in Stem, where there is undeniably a strong anti-female bias and yet a high demand for people with specialist skills, it is even more pressing.

According to data from the Women’s Engineering Society, 16 per cent of UK Stem undergraduates are female. That statistic illustrates two things. First, that there is clearly a huge problem that begins early in the lives of British women, and that this leads to woefully low female representation on Stem university courses. Secondly, unless our society dramatically changes the way it thinks about women and Stem, and thereby encourages girls to pursue these subjects and careers, we have no hope of addressing the massive shortage in graduates with technical skills.

It’s quite ironic that the Commons science and technology committee recently published a report stating that the digital skills gap was costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.

Read more: Why does the science and technology committee have no women – and a climate sceptic?

Female representation in Stem industries wasn’t addressed at all in the government’s Brexit position paper on science, nor was it dealt with in any real depth in the digital strategy paper released in April. In fact, in the 16-page Brexit position paper, the words "women", "female" and "diversity" did not appear once. And now, with the appointment of the nearly all-male committee, it isn't hard to see why.

Many social issues still affect women, not only in Stem industries but in the workplace more broadly. From the difficulties facing mothers returning to work after having children, to the systemic pay inequality that women face across most sectors, it is clear that there is still a vast amount of work to be done by this government.

The committee does not represent the scientific community in the UK, and is fundamentally lacking in the diversity of thought and experience necessary to effectively scrutinise government policy. It leads you to wonder which century we’re living in. Quite simply, this represents a total failure of democracy.

Pip Wilson is a tech entrepreneur, angel investor and CEO of amicable