Category: black history month

Remembering Professor Halcyon Lawrence

On the last day of Black History Month, and the eve of Women’s History Month, I wanted to take some time to tell you about Professor Halcyon Lawrence, who is a part of both of these histories. She was a brilliant, kind, pathbreaking, and warm colleague, and she died suddenly in late October 2023.

It has taken me a while to make these thoughts public because she was such a special person, and I wanted to do justice both to her and her work in writing about her. I know I have missed many things below, but one other reason I feel it’s important to post this is because, thanks to the boom in “generative” AI, hundreds of random sites started posting fake, Chat-GPT generated obituaries of her right after her death. These were full of misstatements and outright falsehoods, but unfortunately many sounded true enough that well-meaning people intending to memorialize her and spread word of her passing accidentally (and understandably) shared them. In this current moment, the hype around AI-generated informational poison knows no bounds, and unfortunately that means that nothing is off limits.

One of the things that was so important to Halcyon in life was making sure that humanity did not get lost in the course of deploying technology, and that people were centered in any conversation about how machines should work. So I am trying to honor that part of her message with this post that pushes back, in some small way, against the inhumane AI-generated text that is starting to take over the web. If you are a person who knew and admired her, please leave a comment to add your memories of, and experiences with, Dr. Lawrence. (There is a moderation delay as I manually approve comments.)

Dr. Halcyon Lawrence was a good friend and colleague whom I had known for over a decade. She was a graduate of the technical communication PhD program (now defunct) at Illinois Institute of Technology, and at the time of her death was an Associate Professor of technical communication and user design at Towson University in Maryland, having earned tenure early. (A Towson graduate has written a very moving remembrance of her here.)

She was an amazing scholar, and a unique and original thinker who studied how linguistic imperialism embedded itself into speech technologies, and how this issue could be averted and countered by both technical and nontechnical means. At the time of her death, she was one of only a few scholars working on this problem, which affects the majority of English speakers in the world.

She was also the kind of person who let everyone else know how much she valued and appreciated them every time she talked to them, and her good example rubbed off on others. As a result, I always tried to let her know how much I valued and appreciated her every time we talked. I was so thankful for how she had taught me to be more open in that way, particularly when I realized, in retrospect, that we had talked for the final time.

Dr. Halcyon Lawrence delivering a keynote at a conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California in 2017. Photo by Mar Hicks.

Prof. Lawrence was originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and this deeply influenced the work that she did: she focused on linguistics and technical communication, with an especial interest in studying how accent bias in automated technologies opened up new questions and areas of study. She often pointed out that even though the number of people in the world who speak English with a “nonstandard” accent–in other words, not British, American, or Australian–matches or outnumbers the people who do, speech recognition technologies barely take this into account.

As someone who herself often needed to code-switch to be understood by automated systems, she felt this inequitable part of technological “progress” acutely. One thing she always highlighted was that she could use clear speech strategies to communicate with people who didn’t immediately understand her accent (such as speaking more slowly, hyper-enunciating, etc.), but doing these things with machines was rarely as successful. People can meet each other halfway, while machines have often been programmed to refuse to do so. And this, she pointed out, was an intentional, political, technical choice on the part of the largely white and U.S.-based technologists who initially designed and deployed these technologies. If you’d like to read a chapter she wrote on this topic from a book I co-edited, you can read a preprint for free here: Siri Disciplines. Below, you can see a photo of her presenting this work at Stanford, at one of the conferences that led up to the publication of that book.

Dr. Halcyon Lawrence speaks at Stanford in 2017. Photo by Mar Hicks.

Halcyon had the ability to hold audiences rapt when she spoke about her work, both because of what she was saying and because of how she communicated. In the spring of 2023 she gave a talk to my graduate seminar that my students gushed about for weeks afterward. She made her lectures participatory and engaging, always meeting people where they were without giving up where she was coming from. I was so glad to have funding to invite her to come speak to my fall 2023 class as well (via videoconference), and she had been looking forward to it. But when we talked via email just a week before, she knew she was ill and needed time off to rest. She thought she had more time left than just a few short days, so I was deeply saddened and shocked when I heard about her passing. The historian in me recognizes that if there were less structural racism in the medical systems that we rely on in this country, she may well not have ended up in the sudden, dire position that she did.

The memory that seems to resonate for many people who knew Dr. Lawrence is how unusually kind and engaged she was. Halcyon was well known and loved in her field, and many other fields, for her kindness and generosity of spirit, her intellectual fearlessness, and her willingness to mentor, help, and support her fellow scholars. Her razor sharp insights and her dedication to building more inclusive communities and technologies, especially speech technologies, impacted multiple disciplines and powerfully influenced how people thought about the relationships between speech, empire, and technology. Colleagues in her field are in the midst of preparing a special section of Communication Design Quarterly to commemorate her work’s impact, and I greatly look forward to reading it. Even in her lifetime, her work was highlighted in the press for pointing out an important new dimension in the fight against biased and broken tech.

When Halcyon and I were both at Illinois Tech, it was always a treat when she was in her office and free to talk at the same time I had free time. A few minutes of conversation with her could truly light up your entire day. One afternoon, we walked out to the lakeshore in Hyde Park, where she told me about her upbringing in Trinidad and Tobago, surrounded by devices on the cutting edge of computing because of the work her father did. She was always comfortable with technology–just never comfortable with needlessly ceding power and agency to it. She wanted it to be firmly human-centered, and serve people’s needs better. While still a graduate student, for instance, she collaborated on a project to help the Chicago Transit Authority make the stop announcements on the ‘L’ and on buses more easily understood in high noise environments. If you have ridden public transit in Chicago, you have probably benefited from her work.

One of my first meetings with Halcyon is the memory that feels most fitting to end with: I will always remember how, when I interviewed for my job at Illinois Tech, she (as a grad student) was the only member of the department who stayed for the final meeting of the day, to talk to me some more as the sun set and the roads iced over on a cold Chicago winter night, instead of leaving early like all the faculty in the department had. I kept letting her know that she didn’t have to stay just to keep me company, but she truly wanted to stay and talk to me. She valued ideas, but valued the people they came from even more. Her intellectual practice was strengthened so much by her approach to people, and I will always remember the impact this had. Over the years, I have often found myself thinking of how she did things when I am trying to do better. It was an honor to have known her and learned from her.

Rest in peace, Professor. You made such a positive impact on so many.

What the Histories of Hidden Women Mean For Nations

I recently wrote a post for the MIT Press blog about the connections we can tease out between US history of computing and British history of computing. The two aren’t so similar as they may seem, and the things we can learn about the US from the British context might surprise you.

From the MIT Press Blog:

Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race has praised Programmed Inequality, saying, “Marie Hicks’s well-researched look into Britain’s computer industry, and its critical dependence on the work of female computer programmers, is a welcome addition to our body of knowledge of women’s historical employment in science and technology. Hicks confidently shows that the professional mobility of women in computing supports the success of the industry as a whole, an important lesson for scholars and policymakers seeking ways to improve inclusion in STEM fields.” 

In this post, Marie Hicks explains why, even today, possessing technical skill is not enough to ensure that women will rise to the top in science and technology fields, how the disappearance of women from the field had grave macroeconomic consequences for Britain, and why the United States risks repeating those errors in the twenty-first century.


Margot Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures is a masterpiece of history of technology. It shows how the struggles of black women impact technological advance in ways that we still don’t pay enough attention to.

The film based on that book takes things in a more feel-good direction, telling audiences an inspirational story about the triumphs of NASA’s black women mathematicians or human “computers.” At the end of the movie, the United States is coming from behind in the Space Race, and though Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson are all still being denied their civil rights in the wider world, they emerge as heroes, and as respected movers and shakers at work. All’s well that ends well, the film seems to say.

Despite not allowing black citizens to reach their full potential in any sphere, the US still manages to “win” the Space Race by putting a man on the moon. The book shows how critical the submerged, highly skilled labor of these women was—why it was instrumental to US success—and finds a place for them in the canon of technological greats. A skeptical reader, however, might be inclined to question whether the contributions of these women really did make a “make or break” difference. Was there really such a strong connection between their work and the US winning the Space Race? Is there another case in which we can see the flip side of this scenario, where a nation has failed on the global stage because it did not harness the power of women’s technical skill?

As it turns out, there is a very good example of exactly this kind of failure. It’s the subject of my recent book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Their Edge in Computing. The twentieth century history of our closest historical cousin allows us to see very clearly what would’ve happened if NASA and the United States had done anything less than they did to leverage the skills of black (and white) women workers… Read the rest on the MIT Press website.

Getting your bearings if you were surprised

In the wake of an election that has chagrined many, I made up a list of 10 films for students in my “Disasters” course. My intent was to help them get a sense of why we are where we are today, in a way that wouldn’t require them to add to the mountains of reading and problem sets they already do for their courses.

The list is below–they’re mostly documentaries. But not the boring kind. I decided to leave it handwritten, rather than type it up, because I think we could all use traces of each other as human beings right now. Plus, that way you can see my “Depress-o-meter” rating for each film (in the margin). I did that so you won’t end up watching something terribly depressing when you’re already crushed, as my students seemed to be this Wednesday  when I saw them in class.

Racism, Community, and Healthcare

This week my STS students read Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, by Alondra Nelson. Professor Nelson, who teaches sociology at Columbia University, delves into the history of healthcare reform through the healthcare initiatives of the Black Panther Party–with fascinating results.

Below, the students in the class have aimed to summarize the salient points of this important new book, while adding their own insights and questions.

Inventing America: Black History

Inventing America: A chronological selection of Black Americans’ impacts in politics, law, medicine, technology, art, and culture         

This post has a timeline with more information and resources to accompany the Black History Month timeline poster you may have seen on campus at Illinois Institute of Technology. Continue reading