What good shall I do with this knowledge now?

A hand holding a bouquet of flowers with alphabet letters 'DR'

If it isn’t quite obvious from the picture above, I have passed my viva examination with minor corrections!

While I understand having nerves would be natural in times like this, I was initially shitting hard, concrete, rigged bricks. My viva was scheduled to be on Friday morning and I have scheduled a practice with a friend two days before so I could pretend-present my slides and she could become my pretend-examiner and ask hard questions, but I had to cancel it because I caught a fever of which I realised was largely psychosomatic. I had a call with my supervisor earlier in the week, of which I conducted with no holds barred — I literally lamented to him of how nervous I was, that I was afraid I might freeze in the middle of a question and the examiners might find me a fraud, and that despite having gone through the thesis again three times before the exam, I might lose sight of the important points and said something contradictory of which the examiners might catch and mark me as a fraud again. It was a vicious pattern! My supervisor, calm and collected as he always was, assured me that I had nothing to worry about, and adding into the pressure, said that “I’m sure you will do great.” He did not just say well, he said great. I walked out of the call convinced that he wouldn’t take anything less than great, and if I were to perform anything less than great, then, what kind of a mentee would I be after he had invested so much time and effort in my development?

A week before the exam, I decided to text a couple of friends who had defended their thesis to ask about their experiences, and what advice they might have to deal with nerves. I collected more wisdom than I expected, which is a given because I am blessed to be surrounded by people with much self-assurance, kindness, and intelligence I could ever aspire to have. Someone I looked up very highly to mentioned that the morning of her viva exam, she walked into the room telling herself saying, “So if I fail, I fail.” situating herself in the fact that she had done her best, and that a PhD, however a monumental event in one’s life, does not define your life entirely. I talked about it with my mother, and while she obviously looked worried — “but, you’ve done the job, they should pass you anyway,” then 10 minutes later, “RIGHT?” — I think about the notion all the time. I decided that I was going to adopt that confidence, in hopes that in some ways it would seep into my bones and become mine.

The day itself, surprisingly, was rather breezy. I signed into the Webex call initially nervous of course, but my examiners, in all their unbridled wisdom and experience, had made the session so comfortable I realised I had SO much to talk about my research when prompted. They have proven again and again that what it takes to dispel all the nerves in amateur academic researchers such as myself is to believe in them and their hard work, and I was very grateful for that. The questions they posed to me were more around their curiosity about the research more so than the horror stories of ‘grilling’ and ‘scrutinising’ of every chapter that I had often heard of. After an hour, I was ushered out of the call, and when I came back in, I was inundated with a flurry of congratulations.

My work isn’t quite over. On top of the list of minor corrections, one of the examiners suggested my thesis for an award and a book publication, so there’s more work. My thesis has survived three significant events in the history: a government change within electoral means, a government change with non-electoral means, and is currently surviving a global pandemic. Which is to say in extension, the whole journey is also a test on my character, my professional and my personal growth, and what good I shall do with this knowledge now. That was the question that had kept me grounded throughout my doctoral journey: What good shall I do with this knowledge now? In all its vagueness of what ‘good’ entails and how wide the scope is, I know for once the focus would be on minimising harms for all diversity of people, and that requires a great deal of unlearning and framework building of which I needed to find out where to start.

In my list of questions I prepared for myself before the viva, one of it was: “What advice do you have for researchers entering your field?” My answer, although I did not get asked this in my viva, was: 1) When it comes to writing research about technology and politics, always critically analyse every issue from the point of the intersections of gender, race, class, and other possible human diversity in your thesis, because if we fail to do this, we fail to see how technology could harm people in the margins, and 2) Cite less white men, and re-center the work and experience of others who would be largely affected by technology, which is to say, not white men.

In my journal, I wrote a reminder to myself to write about this word when I had successfully defended my PhD — opsivo — which is Greek to describe “an act of arriving too late to the feast, or to feast today with the weight of all the wasted yesteryears”. I had ‘kept’ the word tucked between the pages for months, convinced I was going to write about it to describe my feelings today. Little that I know today that I would not describe the yesteryears — filled with failed relationships and severe work burnout and friendships gone awry out of different directions — as wasted, but more so as a journey, a test that had contributed to my growth to who I am today. I wouldn’t say I would thank all of these people involved in these experiences, but I would say my resilience and tenacity was also what bounced me out of all them. I am not late to the feast, but rather, I am exactly where I needed to be.

The word more apt for the journey so far today, I guess, would be — phlotimo — literally translated as “love of honour”, essentially “at its core, is about goodness, selflessness, giving without wanting anything in return and the force that drives individuals to think about the people and the world around them”. Although still virtually untranslatable, it is what I would aspire to achieve in my journey of what good I shall do with this knowledge that I have earned.

Coronavirus-related reads:

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

Viva week!

Halloween in Harlem“, Amy Stein.

Taking a break from writing non-work things this week as it is my PhD viva voce examination week! In the meantime, wash your hands, keep your social distance, stay home if you can, vow to fight fascism, and wish me luck! 🧿

April 2020

Every day I take a 1-second video using the app 1 Second Everyday to record what’s happening in my life. This is for April 2020, the month we lost the one with the unbridled talent, Ben Withers, as the lockdown was further enforced, and it was also the month where I received the news where I will be defending my PhD thesis online.

The tools at our disposal

Last few weeks, it was reported that Malaysian authorities had turned away a boat carrying about 200 Rohingyan refugees, including women and children that was said to enter the country ‘illegally’. The justification provided was that the country was in the midst of battling Covid-19, and by letting in foreigners, which includes these asylum seekers, would further risk the spread of the virus of the country. In doing so, however, it meant risking the lives of the actual human beings, having to gamble the fate of their lives seaborne after they had fled persecution and violence in Myanmar and other countries they had been seeking protection from. Human rights organisations all around the world condemned Malaysia’s decision, saying that the virus is no basis for pushing the refugees back into the sea, and that the action violates international obligations of providing access to asylum and not returning them to the places where they risk being tortured. Meanwhile a great number of Malaysians however, citing that the influx of Rohingyan refugees had been problematic — the cause of increasing crime and violence, and the fear of “having to compete for jobs with them” (verbatim quote) — applaud the move. While some of us, knowing that we are dealing with human beings with actual lives and emotions and supposed agency here, are left befuddled as we defended against xenophobia and racism left and right, which sometimes came from our very own (sometimes seemingly progressive) friends and family. 

I recently read this novel The City and the City by China Mieville. It is set in two separate fictional cities, Beszél and Ul Qoma — with governments, languages, customs, and traditions of their own — forced to share the same territories with each other. The structure of the city works in such a way that for example, one building might be located in Beszél and the other end of it in Ul Qoma. There are also some areas which are ‘cross-hatched’ and shared by the two cities, but having different names according to the respective cities. While the architecture of the city might sound peculiar enough, the sociological model of it is even much more interesting. The residents of both cities are not allowed to cross into each other’s city, and those who do so are often severely punished by a secret organisation called Breach. Moreover, the residents of each city are not allowed to look at people or objects from the other city. They were taught from the young age to take no heed of what’s happening on the other side, so the ignorance spilt into their adult lives where they have pretty much internalised this construction of reality.

In a seemingly similar premise, there was also Black Mirror episode where you could ‘block’ people in real life by pressing a button, much like what you could do in Facebook or Twitter. In a way, when you block someone, you also refuse to associate yourself with the stance and ideas belonging to that person.

I have been thinking about the construction of reality a lot after the Rohingyan refugees’ issue, especially of how some people are adamant of demonising the asylum seekers in the same playbook as the white nationalists of the United States’ perspective towards migrants, “they’re going to steal our jobs!”. I have also been thinking especially of what makes my views and the views of some people of whom I have gone to school with, grew up with, and worked with, differ in many ways. It brings us back to understand the sociological issues at the root — that how we build our realities were borne out of the different lives we lived, that the choices and how we see the world was constructed from the tools at our disposal. Eventually this construction of realities lead to the construction of values, yet again, will be encoded into the lives and the system we design. This is perhaps why the anti-vax movement was so gungho about refusing for their children to be vaccinated, or that there are some Americans filling up the streets, ignoring social distancing, to protest against the virus (?). This is also perhaps why some people in the middle class range hate the poor, refusing to believe that the rich never was on their side, and would never ever save them anyway.

Reading in my tabs today:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard.
  • Listening: I returned to listening to alt-J shows in La Blogothèque, which at one point was my Saturday morning routine.
  • Viewing: I started watching Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, and I liked it so far!
  • Food & Drink: I have been busy working on my viva preparation, so I only made egg sandwich and iced lemon tea.

On thin places

Someone in my Twitter timeline today, of whose newsletter I am subscribed to, wailed, “I don’t want to send a newsletter today, I don’t feel like it!” and it was echoed by a number of other people, which I find both surreal and funny, of whose newsletters I am subscribed too as well. I wanted to shout the same into the disembodied void that is social media that I don’t feel like writing too, except 1) I have abandoned my book newsletter for so long, and 2) I actually do want to write something today.

The moment I received the news that my PhD viva is going to be held, like, soon, like every sane people I head over to the Internet to look for every single tip imaginable to go through the day. A very energetic YouTube video from a certain Dr Valerie Balester from Texas provided somewhat of comfort when she mentioned she had chaired over 65 thesis defenses and only one had failed, “If you have done the work, you most likely will pass!” to which she made a point to repeat a couple more times. In writing, repetition is very often a useful literary device, often employed intentionally to catch a reader’s attention, emphasise points, and further persuade the reader. Many famous speeches contain repetition, from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” to Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on These Beaches”. In the case of Dr Valerie Baster, I guess it worked as well because I am now reminded I have done the (very hard) work of getting to where I am now, so most likely I will pass.

Some Internet trawling through away, I also came across this list of 40 potential questions to be asked for thesis defense, of which I have worked through halfway today. In addition to that, while rereading my own thesis, I have placed myself in the shoes of the most meticulous and the most finicky examiner ever, and listed down 29 tough questions I would ask the candidate/myself about her/my thesis. A friend who had passed her PhD viva last year said I don’t have to be this overprepared, but I’d rather be overprepared than underprepared (but can you ever be just prepared?)

In other news, I am intrigued by this idea of ‘thin places’ after reading yesterday’s The Isolation Journals. According to Jordan Kisner who wrote the prompt for yesterday on the topic, the idea of ‘thin places’ comes from the “Celtic mythology that the distance between our world and the next is never more than three feet (i.e. just a little more than an arm’s reach away). There are “thin places” where that distance shrinks and then vanishes, where you can glimpse some other world or way of being for a brief moment. Often, “thin places” are literal places, geographical locations that feel holy or otherworldly, but you could also imagine these kinds of thresholds popping up anywhere: in a hospital room, in a bar, in your apartment, in your relationship, in you. A thin place may also be a moment, a time when you were briefly suspended between a world/life that you knew and something totally new, different, awesome, frightening.” I have been thinking about the idea of my own ‘thin place’ for a moment now, especially during this lockdown, and it does not have to be somewhere physical. Maybe it’s when I got my hands on a good book and am curled up in my favourite blue sofa in my home office, surrounded by my cats. Maybe it was when I decided to put on a coat and took a stroll along the Bosphorus, watching local old men in blazer fishing by the Galata Bridge, which is a rare occurrence in my country as blazers are often reserved for special occasions. Maybe it’s both. It can be both.

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. My copy of Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard arrived today, and I could not wait to dig in.
  • Listening: Ibrahim Maalouf.
  • Viewing: Watching Community between breaks of working on my viva presentation slides.
  • Food & Drink: Mother made chicken rice for iftar today. I felt like having a glass of iced Milo, which I realised is a quintessentially Malaysian drink.

No such thing as unpractical knowledge

It’s the first day of Ramadan and it’s the first time ever observed in a government-sanctioned coronavirus lockdown. Ramadan has always been a communal month for us Muslims, where we focus on praying jum’ah and doing more good and at the same time take part in joyous iftars together with family and friends, so I am slow to accept the fact that while it’s completely different, it should not take the joy away from the holy month. It might be that it’s only the first day, and unlike everyone, I always take time to invite in acceptance, and I allow that for myself this time.

I came across Shakira’s — whose hips don’t lie — tweet where she graduated from an Ancient Philosophy course from the University of Penn through Coursera. I am pretty sure at this point of time the course is already brimming with new applications, but what caught my attention was her remarks on how her “hobbies are unpractical”, which in my opinion, what hobbies should be?! So very often we are presented with the idea that our idea needs to ‘practical’ — which is another word in a capitalistic sense, ‘commercial’ thus ‘be able to make money out of it’. I remember the times (this is where I went the Internet boomer route) when we built Geocities websites and Myspace sites for fun. Who cares if it was filled with glitters and haphazardly placed gifs and annoying autoplay sound bytes, it was the time when we had the separation between fun and work and we knew they were not going to house our resume. Andrew Granato wrote in one edition of The Margins:

I think the main thing that is being lost in this shift is the (relative) ability to experiment freely and have a culture that reflects that option. The old internet was less overtly commercial and more willing to suspend disbelief about something that was obviously dumb if there was fun to be had from it, and so you could screw around and float in a sea of people doing the same thing and it wouldn’t matter at all. It was often innocent in the sense that people didn’t much assign real meaning to it, so you could start things and abandon them in this other sphere of life without feeling like it was even really you that was doing it.

It also reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s 1939 lecture to Oxford students, Learning in War-time (although I am not fond of the narrative of war to equate this time of the pandemic) where he urged students to persevere in knowledge-seeking, whatever that entails, in the advent of World War II. He posed the very same question I kept thinking today, about this business of learning ‘unpractical’ knowledge as the civilisation seems to come to a halt, as your friends, your family, and yourself are struggling to live. However, Lewis said, “The war creates no absolutely new situation,” and urged everyone to aim for any forms of knowledge-seeking because all human cultural activity certainly will not cease even during any crisis, so might as well make the best of it. Learn whatever you want to learn, as long as you are learning.

…it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.

Reading in my tabs:

  • We need to prepare for the next wave exacerbated out of Covid-19: the mental health crisis.
  • “Employers claim that workers are one of their top priorities, but don’t back that up by offering paid sick leave, thereby revealing a truer and deeply ingrained attitude that worker health is ultimately not their problem. But as COVID-19 has revealed, it is their problem–because it is a shared, collective problem with direct effects across a chain of workers, employers, and consumers.” Paid sick leave flatterns the curve.
  • “The coronavirus has been anything but a great equaliser. It’s been the great revealer, pulling the curtain back on the class divide and exposing how deeply unequal this country is.” Asha Jaffar, a volunteer in Nairobi, Kenya, tells the New York Times about the impact of the pandemic.
  • Wow what the hell: Amazon-owned Whole Foods is quietly tracking its employees with a heat map tool that ranks which stores are most at risk of unionising.
  • “Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.
  • “In your extended absence, you permit me use of earth.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark.
  • Listening: Back to listening to Faraj Suleiman‘s music while I work on my viva voce preparation.
  • Viewing: This hilarious Hamlet as a vlogger adaptation. And also, as a fan of walking videos, I also recommend watching this 18-minute video walk-through of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens’ Japanese pavilion in full bloom, in full screen and with headphones on.
  • Food & Drink: We were preparing corn fritters and passion fruit tea for iftar, when neighbours arrived to send their homemade dishes. I love this neighbourhood already.

On affordances

Tape as pandemic cultural element

Lately I have been thinking about the concept of affordances when I came across posts such as above and the many ways people use other things to function as face masks. As I am writing this, words appear on my computer monitor that was propped on top of three of my childhood hardcover encyclopaedias, as a way to level the screen with my eyes. The books would still function as books, but they are also thick and sturdy enough to serve as a leveller for my computer monitor. I am a pacifist and would never condone the act, but I know someone who had used a thick book to swat insects. The examples I cited here show the affordances of the hardcover encyclopaedias, or in simpler terms, the potentials of how a material could function other than what it was intended to be used as e.g. hardcover books were supposed to be read, not to be used as a leveller or to harm other things, but there was no way to stop them from being used as such. It was first introduced by Don Norman in his book The Design of Everyday Things (the book used to be my bible in design school until I learned that it lacked a number of significant gender and racial-based analysis) of which he mentioned, “An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used. A chair affords (‘is for’) support and, therefore, affords sitting.” Affordances serve as a guideline in how we navigate the world — which is the crux of interface design, physically and virtually — as the more affordances of materials we are familiar with, the more likely we are able to navigate the world as smoothly as possible.

As an opposite, there were also what we would call ‘disaffordances’ and ‘dysaffordances’ — the former stands for the functions which prohibit people to do something (e.g. a lock refraining a door to be opened, a fence keeping people out of a land, a fingerprint scanner on a phone that did not allow access for others except its owner) and the latter, on a more intentional scale, the cues that require some users to misidentify themselves when they are about to use them (e.g. a non-binary person that was forced to select either only Male or Female in a form, a black person who was failed to be identified on a facial detection technology unless they put on a lighter mask). In a way, the study of affordances, disaffordances, and dysaffordances, could serve as a blueprint in how to design a product while taking consideration and action of how it could benefit and harm every group of people imaginable. I have mentioned it numerous times, but if you would like to learn more, I would recommend Sasha Costanza-Chock’s paper and her latest book Design Justice. She’ll also be talking in this Data & Society Databites session next Wednesday on a more GMT+8-friendly time, so RSVP here!

On a personal note, I just received an email saying that my doctoral examination is to be conducted viva voce online on 8th May, which is like, in two weeks! Time to get back to work.

Reading in my tabs:

  • Maybe we’re all so anxious because “emotional contagion” is a thing.
  • “How should we self-optimise when we’re suddenly having to meet our deadlines with our roommates, kids, and inner critics screaming in the background?” We need to stop worshipping at the altar of productivity, especially right now.
  • “We have now spent a month debating how these technologies might threaten our privacy – but that is not the greatest danger to our democracies. The real risk is that this crisis will entrench the solutionist toolkit as the default option for addressing all other existential problems – from inequality to climate change. After all, it is much easier to deploy solutionist tech to influence individual behaviour than it is to ask difficult political questions about the root causes of these crises.” The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level.
  • “Occluded by the foreground subject of our heads like a Baroque portrait painting, the Zoom background is just a glimpse into whatever space we happen to be in at the time: the corner of a room, the top of a table, a slice of view from a nearby window. It’s just what the camera of our laptop or phone can capture, a fixed, mechanical view. And yet that bit of information communicates so much, particularly in our current quarantine. It shows off, intentionally or not, both where we choose to be and where we are able to be during this crisis.” I have been thinking about this distinction of public vs private sphere in video calls a lot, especially as I am about to ‘invite’ my thesis examiners into my house as my viva is going to be conducted online.
  • “Accepting that engaging with the work firsthand is never going to be completely reproducible, no matter the level of technological sophistication, what I missed most keenly was the spatial component. Interior architecture is its own kind of user interface, and a key factor in art’s enjoyment.” On the rise of the virtual gallery tour.
  • Why cross-cultural design really matters.
  • I didn’t know this! A list of magazine stories that inspired entire movies e.g. Argo, Hustlers, Spotlight, Adaptation, The Fast and the Furious, and Boogie Nights, among others.
  • This poem is called “First lines of emails I’ve received while quarantining.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In The Dark, another apt reading during these times.
  • Viewing: Still binging on Community over meals.
  • Listening: Prince all day.
  • Food & Drink: My uncle, who lives nearby, dropped Nasi Royale at our doorstep.

Words have power

I think it was during my tenure in a corporate company that I was first introduced to this phrase just as potent as how it sounds, “words have power.” It was when a manager was giving snide remarks to a couple of young executives in a meeting, to which another manager called her out in a fairly diplomatic way and ended it up with these three words arranged knotted within each other, ready to affect me in years to come, “words have power.”

I think about this phrase a lot when a friend hurt my feelings numerous times and later when confronted, said she never meant what she said, that I should take it as a joke. I think of the phrase when speaking to another friend today, I told her despite I was struck cynical by the return of our normalcy, I know that someday ‘this’ will end, to which she said, “it’s not cynicism, it’s hope.” I think about the phrase a lot too when I was assigned to lead the digital marketing initiative at work, as I was brainstorming with the entire team to find out what sort of language would describe our team or what tone and voice we should adapt, I learned how words can embody a vision individually or collectively. When a client commissioned me to edit some documents on the topic of harm reduction, I was struck at how the organisation is working hard to override stigma and one of the ways is by using a language that humanises people like the way they should be treated e.g. don’t refer to them as ‘drug addicts’, but instead use PWUD (people who use drugs). I learned how words can uplift or oppress, how they can shape norms and culture, how they can magnify and obscure, and in a larger picture, how words can uphold a power structure or shake a system. How words matter, and how they have power. This is how I know there is a potential in words to be able to do good, and I want to be part of it.

‪As someone who tends to jump into work to get any semblance of control, it feels like the quietest revolution I have ever done since the lockdown is to heed rather than hustle and focus on just one task per day. Just one, that’s it.‬

What tiny revolution have you faced today?

Reading in my tabs:

  • In defense of complaining.
  • “What do pandemic patients need? Looking after. What do self-isolating older people need? Looking after. What do children kept home from school need? Looking after. All this looking after — this unpaid caring labour — will fall more heavily on women, because of the existing structure of the workforce.” The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism.
  • “That doesn’t mean ignoring the classand racebased stratifications that make this virus affect people differently. It doesn’t mean pretending the virus does not discriminate or suggesting that everyone’s struggle is even close to equal. But it does mean we can remember that the most effective way to diffuse collective action — and the sweeping, systemic changes it can spark — has always been to turn those who are suffering against one another.” Anne Helen Petersen on how people went on social media shame overdrive during the coronavirus period.
  • The quiet revolution of Animal Crossing. Now I feel like playing the game.
  • “…memory is your greatest ally and your primary source material, because memory is your body as it was in the world and the world as it was and will be; memory is the people you have loved or wanted to love in the world, and what are we if not bodies filled with reminiscences about all those ghosts in the sunlight?” This beautiful commencement talk on hope, loss, and finding your voice in tough times, delivered by Hilston Als at Columbia University School of the Arts on May 21, 2014.
  • Coursera is using machine learning tool called CourseMatch to match its classes to universities curriculum, so students can take these classes for free. This is great!
  • India’s digital response to COVID-19 risks inefficacy, exclusion, and discrimination.
  • I have been enjoying this little tool from NASA What Did Hubble See On Your Birthday? Turns out on my birthday in 2015, three of 79 Jupiter’s moons — Callisto, Io, and Europa — cast their shadows on the planet.
  • For my friends, in reply to a question.

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Just finished reading Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, and I am blown by her sensitivity and her awareness of her position in the racial and class dynamics as a privileged Mexican in writing a book about the subject of border crisis.
  • Listening: The new Fiona Apple!
  • Viewing: I have only been binging on Community over meals.
  • Food & Drink: We just ordered McDonald’s delivery today.

Where do we go from here?

I attended an online webinar today organised by a career platform revolving around the topic of navigating your way within an uncertain job market, like, well, today. While watching it I was texting my friend H, and she asked if there is anything interesting coming out of the webinar. The answers were something I have predicted — that the job market is going to be fragile for the next few months, which means that if you are already employed and thinking of leaving, don’t. The panels also mentioned about upskilling yourself and taking up part-time or temporary jobs in the meantime while the economy recuperates, and this is also another answer a lot of us who are job hunting is very familiar of, even if we take the intervention of the pandemic out of the equation. She also asked me how I feel after the webinar, knowing as well how devastated I am at being unable to secure a job until now. I said that it was weirdly comforting to know that somehow it is not entirely my fault, that in a way, collectively and albeit sadistically, we are all in this together.

While I was looking around for more jobs to apply tonight, I was struck exhausted by the myriad of questions asked by potential employers. A lot of jobs I applied required essay-length answers to questions — sometimes reaching 5-10 questions — which made me think of how it is easy for potential employers to cull out applicants who seemed to have no prior writing background (or someone who had, like me, but did not strike enough of their fancy), and after several years of being told by a number of people that writing is easy, that it is never easy and how important it is to make yourself stand out in the job market. Questions I have received included ones from the other end of professionalism, which usually involves numbers and $$$ e.g. “What would you do in the event of an impending launch and the stakeholder wants to secure $14 million in one day and with 35 bazillion signups?” to the other end of casualness e.g. “What should we know about you that we won’t see in your CV?”. I wanted to tell them that when the pandemic eases out, one of the first things I want to do was to get six huge tacos for myself at Chilli’s, or any legit Mexican restaurants. I wanted to tell them I read at least 30 books per year, although on several occasions the amount can double up, that I can rap Left Eye’s verse in TLC’s Waterfalls verbatim, that I often offer to help my friends when they are stuck with projects because I am brilliant when it comes to breaking huge goals into smaller tasks so they feel more achievable — and that also makes me feel like I have achieved something, that I foster stray kittens occasionally because I could not bear the thought of them dying in the streets, that when I get employed, one of the first things I have always wanted to do was to purchase all the merchandise my amazing friends have produced. I wanted to write all of this, but I am not sure how profesh or how casual I should sound like, so I put the application form away for me to worry about it another day.

I was exhausted by the idea and the fact that I am constantly hustling, so today I will heed. I will heed for my heart’s content crying for me to read all the beautiful, literary lines in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (example: “Our children’s fear is a kind of entropy, forever destabilising the very fragile equilibrium of the adult world”), my body’s need to just lie down and watch Community, and my head’s need to just be immersed in whatever distractions come what may. I have hustled enough, and I just need one day to figure things out.

Reading in my tabs:

  • Don’t ask when this will ‘end’. The real question is “where do we go from here?”
  • “The long term impact of the pandemic on jobs is still unknown, but the crisis has put in stark relief the ways in which the labour of caring for children, sweeping floors, and cooking meals for elderly people is crucial for everyone’s survival, but is rarely also considered an important aspect of our economy, and the greater public good.” Care work under crisis.
  • Games like Animal Crossing are the new social media of the coronavirus era.
  • A piece on how China’s apps played a pivotal role in supporting some of the most effective tactics the country used in fighting Covid-19, and if Silicon Valley should emulate. But: “The most pressing ones seem to be that community spread is still rampant in states that haven’t closed schools or issued curfews, people don’t want to or aren’t able to wear masks, and there still aren’t enough tests. These are largely political problems, not really ones that can be addressed through apps. So for tech to help, we might need to get political.”
  • More on Covid-19 and the concerns of arising mass surveillance: Covid-19 and children’s digital privacy, and how the pandemic ushers in an era of mass surveillance in higher education.
  • “We have been living for many, many years in what Gramsci called a time of monsters, where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” The new is now being induced in a hurry, because after this, nothing is going back to normal. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and everything does feel fine—not fine like chill, but fine like china, like glass, like thread. Everything feels so fine, and so fragile, and so shockingly worth saving.”
  • Returning to Mary Oliver: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

STATUS BOARD

So now we wait

good morning to all who yearn

I am currently reading Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, a travelogue where a couple and their two children (the daughter hers, the boy his, “the us, the them, the our, the your — as soon as we started living together, when the boy was almost six and the girl still a toddler, we adopted the much simpler possessive adjective to refer to them two. They became: our children.”) went on a cross-country car trip from New York City to the borderlands of Southern Arizona to embark on two different projects altogether — the husband working on a sound project involving the Chiricahuas led by Geronimo, and her on documenting the stories of child refugees crossing the borders of Central America and Mexico into the United States. As they travelled further towards their destination, their marriage — which had shown signs of disintegration before — slowly fell apart, and within these 352 pages is a meditation of a relationship, a family borne not necessarily out of the blood but of love and familiarity and trust, and the myriad of questions on how to navigate telling stories about lives other than ours. Luiselli wrote the novel based on her own experience volunteering as a Spanish-English interpreter to child refugees in New York City’s federal immigrant court, of which the nonfiction account of this story was also documented in Tell Me How it Ends, of which I had the privilege to read last year. In my notes about the book, I wrote: “This is a book of observation and movements, and observations on movements, and movements of observations. This is a book about books.” In another page, I annotated, “Reading Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and watching how the mother (and the author) plunged into doing the kind of work they believe in, do I really want to do the kind of jobs I had been applying to?”

It’s April and I haven’t been able to bag a job yet. My job hunt had been going on for roughly two months now, and not only I have not received any offers, but I also haven’t been able to receive a single call for an interview. While I do understand that there’s an entire universe of possibilities and chaos that decides one’s chance at landing a job offer — which means there is a number of reasons that it’s not entirely my fault, it’s the timezone difference, Zana you’re not American, you’re a hijabi, your name is hard for them to pronounce, you have a PhD therefore you’re overqualified, it’s the pandemic after all, companies might freeze hiring etc. — I could not help thinking of what went wrong. Every single job I applied seemed promising, and I poured hours into doing the assignments (if needed) and perfecting the cover letter, but whenever a rejection letter came through — or worse, no news at all — I could not help but feel worthless.

Haley Nahman, who used to write for Man Repeller, sent out her newsletter today in which, between talking about how to smize at strangers through a civilian mask and our capacity to adapt to the New Normal (TIL the hedonic treadmill), posed a very important question that got me thinking all day, “What does it mean to launch the next phase of my career in this emotional climate?” Those who knew me, know how much of a Radical Planner I am, and I am not good with uncertainties. I have planned things out for myself — trips, conferences, milestones of the paper I am writing, etc. — down to the most minutae of details. Trying to adjust to the New Normal is throwing me off-balance since I could not plan for anything, because anything could happen. Like everyone else now, I am not sure what the future will bring — and my worries pervade into almost every conversation I have with friends over oh dear god so many different platforms now: Zoom, Google Hangout, Houseparty, Facetime etc. — apart from, we wait. So in waiting, we bake. We cook. Some of us plunge into more work. Some of us, like me, busy myself with unpaid work. Maybe this wait will make me rethink of the question Haley poses: “What does it mean to launch the next phase of my career in this emotional climate?” combined with the above question I have in my notes, “Reading Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and watching how the mother (and the author) plunged into doing the kind of work they believe in, do I really want to do the kind of jobs I had been applying to?” Maybe then there will be clarity. But for now, I shall wait.

Reading in my tabs:

  • Technology is stupid.
  • “Like many designers, I’ve been trained in the idea that user-centered design is a humane and ethical approach to design. It is rooted in empathy for people, therefore it helps us create beneficial experiences for people, therefore it is good for society. But who is the user we’re designing for? In most cases, that user tends to be synonymous with the consumer, the person with the purchasing power. But the digital experiences we create touch far more people than just the end user. […] This is how we end up with platforms that give us free content, backed by an invisible system of surveillance capitalism that extracts personal data for profit. This is how we end up with systems that can deliver anything our hearts desire to our doorstep, backed by an entire class of exploited and underpaid workers.” Rethinking the unintended consequences of user-centred design.
  • “…this technology is controversial because it involves sharing sensitive health information from billions of people via mobile devices that are constantly broadcasting their location. Some politicians and regulators have been warning that citizens’ privacy should be protected.” Apple, Google bring Covid-19 contact-tracing to 3 billion people.
  • What the world can learn from Kerala about how to fight Covid-19.
  • Surveillance may be here to stay, as every country deploys their own method of surveillance programs around the world. A fascist’s dream, I would say.
  • “It felt disrespectful to her grandmother, who’d survived the Holocaust, to watch her burial on the same platform she used for office meetings.” The global coronavirus pandemic has forced people to think about death, while simultaneously upending the ways in which we are used to experiencing grief and loss. Zoom funerals, delayed burials, and virtual goodbyes have replaced hugs, wakes, and held hands. The only option is to grieve online.
  • “When society is hit by a crisis, you can do three things: react, respond or initiate. Reacting means a negative reaction to external input, such as news or medication, for example. Responding means that you respond to an external signal to make it better, and initiating means helping even if nobody asked you to.”
  • I was a huge fan of Workflowy, but somehow stopped using it due to, lack of projects. I was introduced to Roam by a software developer friend, and I think I might like it. This interview with its founder, Conor White-Sullivan (he studied anthropology!), shows that there’s some solid thinking going on behind the scenes and the type of reading, thinking, connecting, and synthesising it’s built for, and the nested kind of thinking and organising is something that I am looking for. White-Sullivan also took the inspiration of syntopical reading from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book.
  • Fear of having to live with my mother in her old age, and mine.”

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