The Token Skeptic Interviews – Gia Milinovich (Meets The Blues Brothers – Kind Of)

I’ll be away volunteering for the next few days at several conferences in a row (check out the work of the Media140 Perth team here) – in the meantime, feel free to be entertained and enlightened with some behind-the-scenes stories and interviews from the Token Skeptic podcast - and check out Sharon Hill’s latest “Sounds Sciencey” at CSICOP with “You are Not Entitled to Your Own Bigfoot Facts”! I’ll be back blogging as usual early next week.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I think about something I don’t like, this image occasionally comes to mind:

…which inevitably ends up with me doing something about it - which runs the risk of ending up with the equivalent of this:

But occasionally things work out and I’m very glad when they do.

Photography by Vincent Connare

This was the situation that faced me when I realised that I couldn’t find many interviews with Gia Milinovich online – that is, ones that focused exclusively on her career as a media professional who has reported upon technological advances in computing and who has been for some time on the cutting edge of applying such innovations… and I wanted to know why she calls herself “a science groupie and professional dork”!

I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t readily find out this information beyond a Wikipedia page and Gia Milinovich’s official website – especially after being both moved and infuriated to the point of Blues Brother’s disdain about her accounts of being marginalised, despite her impressive career.

Her experiences are documented in an article she wrote for The Guardian – called “The Lady Vanishes: Invisible Wife Syndrome”:

When we first met, I was the expensively groomed television professional, working on mostly science and technology shows, and he [Professor Brian Cox] was the newly appointed physics academic with a student’s wardrobe and a single bed. All that remained of his music days with D:Ream were a few William Hunt suits in his wardrobe and framed backstage passes on his bathroom wall. It may have been my love of the Apollo moon missions or him telling me he worked at Cern, but we instantly struck up a geeky friendship. Together we started writing ambitious documentary ideas with the sole aim of “making science part of popular culture”. Fast-forward 10 years and we’re a lot closer to our goal, but it’s not quite how I imagined it would be.

As a result, I was very pleased to interview her for the Token Skeptic podcast – an episode called “On How Now You See Her”, as I couldn’t get out of my mind the tremondous influence that television and online media has upon society’s understanding of technology and science, and why it seemed so difficult to find out more about women who contributed to promoting such an understanding.

Gia Milinovich is an American film blogger and producer; her career in television has involved working on mostly science and technology shows. She produces websites, writes and lives in London. She has presented TV programmes such as Channel 4′s Demolition Day (2003–06), as well as Sky Sports, Nickelodeon and BBC Radio 5 Live shows dating back to 1995  She produced the ‘behind the scenes’ website for the film Sunshine, the film 28 Weeks Later and was part of the technical support team for the BBC programme Electric Dreams in 2009.

*****

Kylie Sturgess: Now the first thing that came to my mind when I read about your work – why don’t you consider yourself a science communicator? 

Gia Milinovich: I tend to call myself a science groupie? That’s, in a way, more because I feel a bit more like a cheerleader than someone who has enormous amounts of knowledge to pass on. If you think about it like music, for example, there are music journalists who may not be musicians themselves, but they know a lot about music; they write about music in an informed way. Sometimes they can write things that make people think, “Ooh, I’m not knowledgeable enough or cool enough to like this particular kind of music,” sometimes they can write about things in a way that makes their reader think, “Wow, I need to hear this band,” or what have you. I think the same can be said about science communication as well.

I’ve always been really big on trying to make science part of popular culture. One of the things that music and films and all of those things have are fans. That’s, I suppose, what I would prefer to call myself. Because to me, that makes other people like me that don’t have a background in science think, “Yes, I can like this and I don’t have to know a whole lot, but I can think it’s really cool“.

Sturgess: At the start of your career as a TV presenter, what were the attitudes towards computer technology like – were people generally intimidated about what the future had to offer, or keen to know more? 

Milinovich: Well, my first job doing technology was a radio program in 1994. I’d already started presenting TV a few years before. And so in 1994, I started doing some stuff on a BBC Radio program called “The Big Byte”, which was the first BBC show about the Internet, basically.

I was one of a few women who were on the program, and I didn’t really know a whole lot about technology. I did a little bit, but I hadn’t been on the Web before. Very few people had been on the Web. Our office was the only place in the BBC that had a connection to the Internet. I think we were the first one that had an email address as well at the BBC. It was really, really very early days.

At that point, honestly, I didn’t feel there was any real distinction between men and women that worked on that program, because it was such a new and exciting thing for all of us. There were a few people who were incredibly knowledgeable already. But most of us, we were getting our first look at the Web. It was so exciting that it didn’t matter if we were male or female. I did quite a few things coming from a female slant on that program, very specifically a female slant. But I’ve never felt that being a woman has prevented me from doing technology things in the media, at all.

Sturgess: Has it changed much since, do you think? 

Milinovich: Has it changed? I think television itself has changed, yes. I mean I started presenting twenty years ago, now, which is an incredibly long amount of time ago, so I think TV has changed a lot. There’s so many more channels, there’s so much more competition for viewers that it has changed. It has changed for women in that… I mean it’s always been like this, but I think the focus on your physical beauty is greater than maybe it was before. Maybe it’s because I was twenty years younger and I didn’t really think about it, I don’t know!

I think with technology things specifically, quite often the woman can be the woman as opposed to someone who actually has knowledge or is seen as having knowledge. I don’t particularly like those things, but I don’t think that that’s exclusive to technology programs on TV. I think that’s the case with a lot of things.

Sturgess: Do you think people are more savvy now and less inquisitive, or are there still knowledge gaps in terms of how people approach technology?

Milinovich: I think there’s huge knowledge gaps, and ridiculous – yes! I was just invited the other day to talk at a kind of nerd conference, a Web geek conference. My initial thought was, “What am I going to say to Web geeks that they don’t already know?”  But then I realised that we all have our own different takes and whatever we do for our job when it comes to Web is, they’re all different things. We all have specific things that maybe we focus on and care about a little bit more than other people.

Even within a very knowledgeable group of people, there are knowledge gaps. Generally, with the public, I think people don’t tend to think too much about the things that I find interesting about technology. Which isn’t necessarily the hardware, it’s the culture, it’s the way that it’s allowing culture to change and the way that it’s connecting people in ways that we couldn’t be connected before. Those things aren’t really thought about enough, I think.

Sturgess: How would you sum up the internet culture? Do you think it’s become a positive force in society?

Milinovich: Yes and no – yes and no! Obviously the way that… I mean you and I are connected across the world, and twenty years this would have been incredibly difficult to do. And it’s more or less free, right? We couldn’t have done this twenty years ago. This kind of connection across the world is obviously a very good thing.

Ways in which I see Web culture being quite negative – and this may be a blip and I hope it is, but there’s a lot of misogyny online. I mean there is in the world, but people seem to be so much more willing to say things online that are so unacceptable. That’s a big problem. And I’ve got a 15-year-old son. I don’t really… I do talk to him about this stuff, but it’s – that kind of culture that he is growing up in, I’m quite unhappy about.

But there’s also good things – I mean my son in the evenings, when when I was his age I would have phoned up my friends and had a conversation with one of my friends for however long my parents let me stay on the phone, whereas he’s got a time limit on his computer. He goes and plays Minecraft with five of his friends. They’re all on Skype and they’re all having a conversation and killing creepers or whatever they do on Minecraft. I think that’s brilliant.

I don’t have any problem with that kind of way that kids are hanging out online, at all. I know a lot of other people do think that it’s a problem, but I think it’s a really good thing. I think it’s more the general kind of culture on the Web rather than the specific kind of kids hanging out together online, but there can be problems unless kids are spoken to about it, I think.

Sturgess: Do you think there’s any particular issues with how technology is portrayed in popular media that is problematic or even harmful? What do you think is the best way to speak up about it? Sometimes we get scare campaigns about the evils of the Internet or even dismissing certain things which are problematic.

Milinovich: Yeah. I get really annoyed when the Internet or Facebook or Twitter is blamed for something.

Sturgess: Apparently Facebook gives us syphilis. I couldn’t believe that one – I was like, “What!? How? What?”

Milinovich: No! I heard it gave us cancer, but…!

Sturgess: Oh, that too? Oh, great…

Milinovich: I didn’t know about syphilis! But any new technology that comes along, there is a group of people that are going to be terrified about it. Even things like in the 1950s, comic books were the end of society. Any kid who read a comic book was going to be a juvenile delinquent, and that’s just ridiculous. Or Victorian women, I read that Victorian women were told they shouldn’t read novels because they were emotionally immature and they wouldn’t be able to deal with the emotions in novels and things like that. It’s not a new thing.

The problem is those kinds of stories sell newspapers. You do get people, I have had people in real life say to me, “Well, I don’t like Facebook“. I just say, “OK, well, don’t go on it!” Just don’t go on it! It’s not actually a problem! It’s just people, you know? The problems, the bad things that might happen happen in the real world, they’re real world things. There’s no difference.

The problem is with society or with people, it’s not with the technology. The best way of talking about that is just being loud. The problem with the media is they want to sell papers, they want to get viewers. People tend to gravitate towards sensationalist things. If you’re not sensationalist, then unfortunately it is less likely that you’re going to get heard. But you just have to keep plugging away, I suppose.

Sturgess: Have you seen things change from your early days in presenting on technology to now? Did you find yourself adopting the role of educating the public as well as informing them, in regards to how to see technology?

Milinovich: On my very, very first presenting job, it was a teenage entertainment program, so not technology-based at all. But I remember being interviewed by the marketing development of the channel or something, and they asked me about why I wanted to be a presenter. This must have seemed so pretentious at the time, but it’s what I thought then and it’s still what I think: I’ve always seen it as, it’s not about me, it’s about the information. Therefore it’s more like being a teacher than being a pop star or something. But I’ve always seen it as that kind of role, which isn’t necessarily how it’s seen within TV, if you know what I mean.

For me, it’s always been about the information, whatever that information is. It could depend… That show that I was doing was for teenagers, it was information about the music that they loved or the films that they loved. And the same thing when I do technology things. I don’t even see it as being about my knowledge; I see it as I’m the conduit. I’m the kind of go-between between the audience and the people who are doing really awesome things.

The interview is featured on the Token Skeptic podcast, episode #111: On How Now You See Her.

Follow Gia on Twitter at http://twitter.com/giagia.

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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