What good shall you do with the knowledge you have earned?

A picture of a grassy compound of a university campus. A white car is nestled on the right side of the photo.

This picture of a small green grassy compound of my university campus was taken during the first weeks when I first enrolled in my PhD programme about three years ago. I remember I was ecstatic because the initial proposal to my PhD thesis that I spent two weeks crafting was accepted by my potential supervisor at the time, at which he said, “it’d be an honour to supervise you.” I was at the time slowly healing from severe work burnout and I was losing a sense of who I was and what I was good at. I was desperate to grapple at any semblance of validity to prove that I was, ahem, in Thor’s voice, “still worthy”. The fact here was that my supervisor himself never knew his words actually helped to open doors for me.

I was in a social science programme and while most of my work involved making sense of huge chunks of social media data, I was privileged to have been able to afford a computer and a variety of software where I could spend a large amount of my time working from my home office, 80 km away from the university. I was also lucky that my supervisor trusted me with the autonomy to figure things out on my own, provided that I would always go to him first whenever I stumbled on my work — where, even so, most of our meetings took place online or through phone calls. That being said, unlike a number of doctoral students, I did not spend much of my time on the campus. I have not even explored the full campus — if you ask me where this one particular building is, I still had to look it up. But today after dropping by the library to return some books, and on top of the fact that I just received my Senate letter the day before confirming I am officially a Doctor (!!!), I could not help feeling the tiniest bit of emotions, “So I spent three years here! And it’s done! Now what???”

The one constant question I kept asking myself throughout my doctoral journey, and moving forward is, “What good shall I do with this knowledge I have earned?” My research involved going through over 50,000 public tweets of political nature and figuring out their relations and some form of opinion leadership emergence. In accordance to Twitter policy, users on Twitter with a public account were considered to have made their tweets publicly viewable and available, and therefore informed consent was not needed and their tweets could be published in an academic work alongside their handles. But I realised a few things — women users — who were especially vocal on their stance — were disparaged, cyberbullied, harassed, and doxxed based on the fact that they are women-representing, more so than their views. I had to take a break from working for a few days after having to analyse lines of tweets with words such as “b**ch, c**t, b***na” etc. It, however, worked differently for men-representing users — while they were just as provoked, little of their gender was mentioned in their ‘debates’. All of these tweets were public, and while according to the policy it was OK to publish them, I felt it wasn’t right to disclose and out these women, of whom these vile tweets were directed, even more. “What good shall I do with this knowledge I have earned?” I asked myself, while trying to figure out how to go ahead with this research anyway. After consulting a number of experts, I was advised to not disclose the handle, and rephrase the tweets that were going to be used as samples. It was definitely a lot of work (!!!) but there was that feeling that you have done the right thing, and despite the painstaking hours rephrasing thousands of tweets, it was WORTH it. This was just the start of so many things, and while I am now at the end of my doctoral journey, I can’t claim to be an expert of things, only that I am now more equipped to find out ways on how to figure things out.

The question “What good shall I do with this knowledge I have earned?” is especially monumental now in the times when technology — my field — had been used for numerous reasons to oppress rather than liberate. A lot of times, it was described as ‘indeliberately’ causing harm, reducing the matter of the widening gap of inequalities in the tech industry and the harm our products and processes perpetuated as just an ‘oopsie’. Furthermore, having a good intent is not enough — you can post all the black squaresall the black and white photos — but if none of your intent is accompanied by an actual thoughtful rumination and reflection of how it could do good in the simplest goal of recentering the people who actually deserve it, and doing no harm towards everyone and the ecology as a whole, we might need to rethink some of our existing processes.

What good shall you do with the knowledge you have earned?

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