On building and sustaining

A collage of six men diving

Men diving. Credit: Patchwork of Narratives

I woke up Sunday morning wanting to read more about Lebanon. Two of my best friends from university are from Beirut, and the uninformed, almost selfish me at the time never got around to inquire them more about their beautiful country. I know that the country at the edge of the Mediterranean, despite boasting a population of over 18 religious communities, is a small one — no less than 12,000 sq kilometres — in fact 12 times smaller than the New York state. The country is roughly rectangular in shape, that my friend Sami told me that you could drive from one end of the country to the other only within 2 hours. Newly recovering from the Civil War that lasted from 1975 till 1990, Beirut in particular was nicknamed ‘Paris of the East’ after World War II, attributed to the fact that Lebanon was once colonised by the French and that was where the cultural and intellectual influences came from. There were plans of me visiting, but something got in the way (two things actually — my PhD and then the current Lebanese revolution) so I told them I’ll finish this PhD first and while at it they’d need to yallah get a new, shiny, trusty government before I come visit.

I realised all these years I have always been interested in the matters of human organisation, maybe partly due to the fact that I was used to managing a team before. I am interested in the dynamics of people in a team, and that no two teams are ever the same, and despite multiple articles posted about how to build the perfect team, there is in fact, no perfect team. More so than ever, I am interested in the matters of collective solidarity and action of people who converge together united by one goal or shared grievances — and despite all odds and complexities of their backgrounds — an organisation emerges amidst these all. By now, you would probably have recognised I am talking about social movements, a research area I feel very strongly about. I am also interested in the contradiction of this scenario — where within the rigidness of organisation, entropy still makes way, of which plans were constructed to the most meticulous details yet some parts still fail. For the life of me, I don’t have the best examples right now, except that if you have ever watched La Casa de Papel, you would understand what I’d mean. All in all, building is just one the first steps, sustaining the organisation is another work to consider.

While Internet trawling about Lebanon, I found Patchwork of Narratives, apparently an exhibition catalogue for an urban project at Färgfabriken where cities are examined through stories, symbols, prejudice and expectations interweaving with the physical infrastructure. The thing about cities — especially the ones rebuilt out of wars and destruction — are often caused by the greed and intervention of others (I’m looking at you America). This edition particularly tries to capture the souls of Mostar and Beirut, two cities which carry traumatic history and are facing great challenges. “The effects of the destruction during the war can be divided into two categories: physical and mental consequences. The physical ones are the most visible — roofs, frames, windows and parts of facades have been blown away by grenades and bullets destroying buildings and creating vacant dwellings next to the streets that are full with grenade shell holes”, a reminder of what the cities once went through, their dwellers unable to forget, as long as the buildings are still there. “How could one commence his or her own mental reconstruction when the physical environment is destroyed? “

I have always heard about the Old Bridge of Mostar, and its tradition. “One of the most important traditions of Mostar is the diving off of the Old Bridge, which has occurred since 1567. It used to be a ritual where young men dove off the bridge in order to prove their manliness and impress young women.” The tradition is carried until today, where little boys learned to dive until they are skillful enough to do that on their own. A diving competition is held every year. It is said that every Mostarac man had ever dived from the bridge.

Of all the things man builds, nothing in my eyes is better and more valuable than bridges. Bridges are more import than the houses, brighter than the temples, because they are intended for a greater number of people; they are everybody’s property and equal to all, useful, always erected in a meaningful way, at the point where the highest number of human needs cross. — Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina (1945).

What’s interesting is that shared architecture like the Old Bridge, forms a heteropolis, which refers to an urban assemblage that thrives on differences. “In that single space there is the piecing together of all sorts of people and narratives.” Mostar itself was said to mean ‘bridge-keeper’ after Suleiman the Magnificent commissioned for it to be built in 1557. When the bridge was attacked in 1993, it destroyed the very idea and identity of Mostar where the fear of the Other through the ‘bridging’ is shredded away, until the bridge was rebuilt in 2004.

There has never been an original Whole into which all parts could once again harmoniously fit, but only antagonistic pieces that different forces try to exploit and put together in conflicting ways.

All of this reminds me also of the book called Frankenstein in Baghdad — it is a small book, but had strongly impacted my understanding on wars, survival, and rebuilding lives so much, along with An Unnecessary Woman — all of these stories about resilience and reclaiming any semblance of normal life (is it any?) after wars. Rebuilding is already a work by itself, sustaining it is another.

Some related, some not:

Wholehearted and sure

A morning wet market.

A morning wet market in Kuala Kedah

From Austin Kleon’s blog, I found these words of Wendell Berry’s from his 1968 essay called A Native Hill:

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice. My return, which at first had been hesitant and tentative, grew wholehearted and sure. I had come back to stay.

It’s the start of school holidays in Malaysia today. I live in a small town of a fishing port near the mouth of Kedah River, and often the way I could tell it’s the school holidays or any long public holidays is by the way out-of-state cars would drive within the stretch of the road leading to and from the jetty. The road is populated by villages and residential areas on each sides, and because it is a small town, life tends to lean more on a slower, chillier side here. There’s a lot of jaywalking, random children playing by the roadside, some unspoken rules of road-hogging by motorcycles on the left side of the road (we drive on the left side of the road here, one of the still many ways we experience colonial hangover probably) and rempits — a phenomenon that has stemmed out of socioeconomic inequalities more so than ‘public disturbance’ as stated in the link — so locals would know to drive within a safe, acceptable speed limit.

A car with an out-of-state plate number was tailgating me as I was driving home today. As I swerved to the left lane to give him way and watched him sped onward, I found myself saying, “You are in my town. I don’t appreciate the way you impose your urgency on us.” My town. It surprised myself even saying that, and to be honest I wasn’t even saying it out loud, and said to no one in particular, as I was driving alone — and probably for that reason it makes it even more personal. A few months ago I still had difficulties accepting that I might be a resident of this town forever, and to be honest I might still have. But the slow easing of accepting this small town as my town, and to jump to defense every time people make uninformed comments about how backwards we are here as I launch yet into a tirade of criticism of unequal resource and wealth distribution that’s happened in this country and state that has made us appear backwards, I can safely say that, maybe I had come back to stay. Wholehearted and sure.

On being a researcher

I have been thinking a lot about what it entails to be a good researcher, more so than in academic context, but beyond that. I have always thought the first step to be a good researcher is to have some amount of curiosity, which I generously possess. I have been told that I am a strategic thinker by my friends, which often surfaces during one of those random online quizzes like which IKEA furniture are you (apparently I am a chest of 4 drawers), or which Hogwarts house you belong to (definitely Ravenclaw). Other criterias I could think of include being analytical (which means a healthy amount of overthinking), committed, diligent, disciplined (for without these three, one could crumble under the stress and uncertainties a research journey could bring), has the ability to communicate well (since researchers generally will need to document and present their research constantly), perceptive to the world around them, empathetic, and has the ability to be objective (note that I didn’t write unbiased, for it is almost impossible for everyone to lack of biases, but one is able to learn how to suspend them), and above all, truthful and reliable. It’s definitely a tall order, but it can be done.

There’s an article mentioned in Nadia Eghbal’s newsletter today on an oceanographer who had been helping a team of coast guards to devise ways to find out how people get lost at sea, so they could locate them faster. Eghbal mentioned that Art Allen’s, the oceanographer, career is one of a quintessential independent researcher, and I couldn’t agree more. “I’ve only thought about one problem in my life,” says Allen. “Which is how to improve Coast Guard search and rescue.” It is also an advantage that Allen is “gifted at finding things out. I could get good data out of the sea.” — which I believe is more attributed to his years of experience and sharpening his skills. Allen also said that as people came to him for help, he “had a talent for creating knowledge” — which, in academia context, could be linked to the section of research significance. Another thing that caught my attention was also when Allen was reminded of what his brother said, “a good scientist asks the right question and a good engineer solves the right problem.” In the intersection of his skills as a scientist and his aptitude to solve problems, Allen found out that he emerged as a researcher having to do both. Like Eghbal, I was also caught attention by Allen’s comments about “no one really knew”, and the part about his aunt who studies the genetics of mushrooms, “I don’t know why she finds mushroom genetics beautiful and fascinating, but she does.” Sometimes even the most experienced researchers also do not have all the answers, and by humbly admitting it, I find that’s really comforting.

Some related, some not:

  • “My desire to work is primarily motivated by my curiosity about a certain set of questions about the world.” Eghbal wrote about her 4-year project looking at how open source software is produced, from an economic and anthropological lens, reimagined as a PhD — not to be framed as an anti-PhD post — but to show that there are many other possibilities a research could be done beyond academia. Also check out her list of building blocks which can be adapted to anyone’s research project.
  • “Human brains are hard-wired to fill in blanks when they see them,” said Helen R. Friedman, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis. “In difficult times, when life begins to feel out of control or when faced with an emotional dilemma, working on something that has finite answers can provide a sense of security.” On crossword puzzles solving as a search for connections and answers.
  • “Any young writer who (isn’t) fully dominated by the algorithm is to me, godlike, because it’s so hard to resist. If you are under 30, and you are able to think for yourself right now, God bless you.” Zadie Smith on fighting the algorithm.
  • Surely the Greeks had a word for this.”

The Earth is singing

(Note: I almost did not want to publish this because it felt like it was written with less thoughts than the rest, but I decided to keep it because I wanted to see the pattern of writing I did on days when writing even at least 300 words a day did not seem to come easy.)

I don’t think I have anything much to write today because, well, it’s OK to not have anything much to write some days and it’s OK to just not clarify why, which I am trying very hard not to do now.

My 2020 Moleskine planner arrived this week. After all these years, I am still a loyal Moleskine fan despite reports of its deteriorating paper quality, and despite the abundance of other brands of journals and planners in the market currently. There are lots of journals and planners with fancy covers and slightly thick and better papers, but oftentimes I would still find myself picking up a Moleskine. It’s a notebook that I don’t have to be careful with — I can throw it on the backseat on my car, glue papers all over the pages, write with a pressure hard enough for my handwriting to be felt on the other side of the page, staple notes all over them — sod all, I’d return and still refer to the notes in the end. I should probably write about what I write in my Moleskine (no you’re not seeing them twice — and no I don’t have a journaling system whatsoever) but I will think about it. It’s mostly full of notes screaming about my disbelief of the way tech industry had taken a direction — something like this today (see? You’re also fuming now.)

I also got a panini press the past few weeks, which I have wanted to write about since I have gone on carb overload and were obsessed making various paninis of all kinds, then I found other topics I wanted to write more about rather than about getting a panini press. A panini press is lovely, you should probably also get one.

And if you haven’t been here long enough already, you would have noticed I am a big fan of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her boisterous personality, so here are her answers to the questions people have asked her. Some personal favourites include:

  • On writing. “I like the possibilities that you have when you are writing. They are infinite. I always feel as though the story is there, floating around in my peripheral vision, I just need to catch sight of it for a second.”
  • On the comment that she’s always naturally self-confident, and if this is more than just her front stage persona. “I think confidence can be tied to permission. If you feel you have a place somewhere, you are more likely to assert yourself. Assertiveness isn’t a quality women are traditionally taught to possess and there are lots of professions where a woman can feel like a trespasser.”
  • On having to remind yourself about what your job entails. “I had to remind myself that my job is to move people, not impress them.”
  • Like a lot of us, Phoebe was also struggling to understand what some of the entries in her Notes app are about. “You reached deep into his heart, grabbed the grenade, pulled the pin, then ran away shouting sorrysorrysorry!!!”

Some related, some not, who cares:

  • Our planet’s magnetic field is “singing”. The European Space Agency just released a recording of the frequencies generated as a solar storm collided with Earth’s magnetic field.
  • I just subscribed to Flow State newsletter to get notified about new music every day. Yes, every day. You will be sent music recommendations along with some context about the artists and their work at 3 am ET so they will be ready for you when you start your day. Paying subscribers have access to over 300+ hours of music, and personalised playlists. Best part? They’re curated by humans, not algorithms.

On novelty, and burnout should make us angry

A few months ago a friend came to visit and we talked about projects we could venture into, if we had all the right resources: financial, skills, time, etc. (of which I think skills would be no problem, the other two, on the other hand, would pose some slight problems). She mentioned about an entrepreneur / motivational speaker she heard, which seems to be sprouting like wild mushrooms amongst our community at the moment, again, if you have all the right capitals — social, cultural, financial, network, etc. — who held a ‘clinic’ for bloggers to ‘make money’. I don’t endorse the money-making method through ads, affiliations, and product placements (of which products are usually health-related products not endorsed by our Health Ministry and bordering dangerous anyway — think of skin whitening products, detox tea, etc.) not only for the fact that they can be a bit hokey, but also because they lack novelty. Novelty here is defined in a sense of something that will last, that will endure, despite the changes in trends in media or features of the platforms, of which ad marketing don’t usually do — you got your audience, they stepped in, they looked away, they don’t stay. They aren’t organic, and they usually don’t return. Meanwhile, you are happy talking about purely the high numbers of one time customers you acquire after running the ads, devoid of context, not because your products are good and speak for themselves. I told my friend the methods proposed by the ‘clinics’ won’t work long, and if we ever want to find ways to market our products effectively, whatever they may be, there is no easy or fast way to do it. Good ideas are time-tested ideas, like all good things should be. (Maybe a useful supplementary read: The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising.)

I have been thinking about novelty ever since design Twitter was talking about the proliferation of Behance / Dribble designers. They are good and they do this to build their portfolio, sure, but a lot of the UIs they posted on these platforms are devoid of the context of the design briefs or the real world scenario of which many designers out there were often presented to work from. In return, a lot of the UIs were purely aesthetic, merely pushing pixels, and as we all know, designers are more than just pixel pushers.

There’s also the conversations among STS (Science and Technology Studies) Twitter that I found myself in after enrolling into PhD. There were so many instances where people in tech overlooked the work of the STS researchers, which were often conducted with social sciences and humanities in mind, and plunged right into tech solutionism in order to solve some real world problems. The problem is exactly that — they are real world problems, and if you don’t heed the findings of social science researchers on whose work are built on the foundation of understanding people and society, then you’d lose its novelty.

There was a WITI edition where Noah Brier talks about his neophiliac tendency to music and books, of which he refers to a previous edition about ‘news peg’ — a term to refer to releases or events that quickly becomes the catalyst for an endless spree of op-eds — “It is better and more freeing for places to write about what is interesting and meaningful, even if it is completely decoupled and floating in space, far from something that needs to generate sales.” I guess looking at the broader picture, we should be discarding move-fast-break-things and instead move-slowly-do-things-more-meaningfully, now will that new motto work?

Unrelated, but still good things:

  • Questions to ask yourself before asking for someone’s help.
  • “My burnout made me desperately angry and resentful. But I’ve come to see that burnout should make us angry. It’s a side effect of an economy that is rigged from the start, where work no longer ends at the end of the workday and our agony is used to sell us bath bombs and expensive yoga retreats that we can’t afford.”
  • A very insightful thread on navigating and respecting boundaries regarding unloading emotions, even among your closest friends.

More than just data points

(Update Nov 21: I should revisit this post about the quantification of relationship below to include more critical views regarding neuroatypicality, which I sorely lack awareness of and in the process of learning more. If this hasn’t been updated yet, know if you read it, you should consider your thoughts along those lines too.)

I received news from my supervisor that I have another week to receive feedback about my thesis corrections. Which means, I have another week of possibly lounging around. I say possibly because one could never think how hard it is to just lounge around without any sense of guilt finally creeping in before one starts conjuring some tasks to busy oneself, which includes checking books out of the library and reading them voraciously in this longest one week of awaiting what sort of pummelling feedback one would receive.

Which is why I am thankful when the third season of The Crown Season 3 dropped this week, because it means I have the entire week to binge the entire season while obsessively fact-checking the events through the Internet. I LOVE Olivia Colman, but I was somewhat skeptical as to how the third season would fare seeing how fantastic Claire Foy, Matt Smith, and the rest of the original cast were, but I was so wrong. Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies et. al owned the new season effortlessly and almost without friction, almost made me forgot how these were different people altogether off screen, and Helena Bonham Carter as the lively Princess Margaret was iconic. At this point of time I am convinced that if there was an entire movie where Olivia Colman was just to sit down and read her entire grocery list, I would still probably watch.

The best and most heartbreaking episode? Aberfan. Look it up first if you want — or don’t — either way, be prepared with lots of tissues.

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown Season 3

I’m very amused upon finding this article on a slew of new start-ups who want to help people manage their relationship the way they would with sales leads. In turn, your friends and your families are turned into data points, and we all know our relationships are not something to be measured solely through quantifications, but this is somehow what this is turning into (I gagged at the mention of ‘quantified self movement’).

The most recent class of start-ups to come out of the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator program included three such companies, Axios reported in August, under the headline “Startups’ New Frontier: Optimizing Your Friendships.” In fact, there are so many personal-CRM apps, you might need a spreadsheet to keep track of all their names and taglines—each a little remix of the others, contorting adorably around the limitations of the friendship-software vocabulary to say, ultimately, the same chilling thing.

There’s Dex, “a tool to turn acquaintances into allies.” Clay, “an extension of your brain, purposefully built to help you remember people.” “Forgetting personal details?” Hippo “helps you stay attentive [and] keep track of friends, family and colleagues you care for,” for just $1.49 a month. Plum Contacts sends reminders to message your friends, and rewards you with cartoon berries that “indicate how strong your relationship is.” “Build the relationships you always wish you had,” the UpHabit site promises.

There are more! “When life gets busy, sometimes we need to be reminded to enjoy our most meaningful relationships,” the creators of Garden write on their website. “Your relationships are secured for today!” the activity-completion page on Ryze announces once you’ve taken care of all your “following up.” Ntwrk promises to make its users into better friends, mentors, siblings, salespeople, and networkers; reminders to reach out also come with a summary of “what you last chatted about.” Social Contact Journal provides anniversary reminders and prewritten message templates.

Not everyone is a fan of this — including me, and this is coming from someone as a radical planner (my friends’ birthdays are plotted across the Google Calendar with reminders a day before, and I personally remember close friends’ birthdays):

But when he told some of the people on the list about it, they didn’t care what colour they were coded—it was the list’s very existence that they said signals something awry in a friendship. “They were bothered because I transformed our friendship into something on a Google Docs and not something that was lived,” he says. “They don’t like the mediation of technology helping our friendship growing stronger.”

I guess the problem isn’t largely with the quantification of yourselves into rows and columns on a spreadsheet, it’s going back to the fact that behind all of these data points — the ones you’re plotting into spreadsheets and inputting into these apps of whose personal data will be taken anyway (there is this question about ethics too as you input personal details of your friends into this app without informed consent and these apps have them at their disposal) — that these are actual human beings. But I also do understand some people need this way of quantification as a way to audit the quality and direction of their relationships with their friends and families, so I guess, some bit of balance between both?

Some related, some not:

Teach thy tongue to say I do not know

I just came back from attending a very intense and useful workshop on ethnography, an anthropological method that I always find very interesting and something which I have always wanted to learn. For those not in social sciences, ethnography is the systematic method of studying people and culture. The ethnographer in the practice of classic ethnography would stay with the group of people they are studying for months and sometimes up to years doing participant observation, in-depth interviews, recording, and other non-intrusive methods in order to document their values, their activities, their attitudes, their practices, and many more. This is a good introduction to the practice of ethnography, if you would like to know more.

I always loved (but then who didn’t) a well-researched and well-organised workshop, and I was glad to know that this workshop was one of them. Every speaker who talked about the experiences of doing ethnography — with indigenous people, with a marginalised community, among the migrants, among the village folks in Langkawi, etc. — definitely knew their research topic very well, even after some of them have conducted the research years ago.

One of the biggest questions about anthropology that I still had till this day is how to deal with the idea of anthropology as the ‘handmaiden of colonialism’ — which what it was rooted in. This, strategically as I had in my mind, is quite limited as this was how classic ethnography started, and academia has the reputation as not being completely flexible in its whole technicalities. But I was awestrucked when the keynote speaker, Dato’ Dr. Wazir Jahan Karim, who conducted her ethnography among the indigenous people in Carey Island, kindly answered my question by relating to her own experience, “I deviated from the classic ethnography approaches to show more humanism despite the protests from my professor. After all, we have to prioritise the people.” There were also many wise anecdotes coming from Dr. Wazir, among them “minorities everywhere experience a form of cultural genocide” hence “find out how these communities can progress in their own native ways, instead of inflicting our ways upon them.” Also as a curious person, I sometimes have a number of questions to ask at the end of the session, but I found that these questions were practically already answered in those talks themselves e.g. “how do you deal if the results of your research indeliberately inflict harm upon the community you’re studying?” (answer: you yourself must be aware of the politics and your own biases yourselves, if it happens, fix them) and “how do you deal with Hawthorne Effect with the people you are studying?” (answer: reframe interview questions in a form of chats, not a rigid set of interview questions. Built rapport. Make friends. Be friends.)

We also observed that some of these researchers still kept in touch with the families of whom they were staying with during their research till this day, even calling among themselves ‘dad’, ‘mum’, ‘sister’, ‘brother’ etc. “Unlike some Western researchers who came to study people and then go home to their privileged lives in their first world country,” one of them remarked, and I noticed the shade. “They are practically family,” one of those speakers beamed while speaking about the family she had been staying with. One of the participants asked, why the attachment? One of the speakers said, “Maybe it’s the social activist in us. Maybe we care too much.” And in that whole few minutes, the infamous superiority of academia we are often presented to is discarded — the certainty or the perception that you must have all the answers, the technicality, the effrontery, the performativity of intellectuallity — dispersed, just humanity, just the maybes. There was also a question posed (of which I forgot what it was about) but one of the speakers comfortably said, “I don’t know, but that’s a great question. I guess we have to find out.” I am aware that this might be the barest minimum here, admitting you do not know, but it is comforting hearing that from experienced researchers. My faith in social science and academia was restored, and I am glad that I took the time to attend this workshop.

Ben Shahn's 1954 painting Maimonides, shown here with one arm raised and the other holding a book in which is written a statement attributed to the sage that says "teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress."

Ben Shahn’s 1954 Maimonides, shown here with one arm raised and the other holding a book in which is written a statement attributed to the sage that says “teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress.” (via Austin Kleon)

Some related, some not:

  • “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know,’” said the poet Wislawa Szymborska in her 1996 Nobel Prize lecture.
  • Now reading Comparative Revolutionary Movements while waiting for my on hold copy of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, TIL: The word ‘revolution’ derives from astronomy, that was initially used by philosophers to imply a cyclical process in human events, and that it entered common political parlance only after the French revolution of 1789.
  • “Like offering thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting or natural disaster, listening and learning become ways to offer condolences without committing to the messy, crucial work of preventing tragedies before they come to pass.”
  • Chanel Miller does not give a damn. Prepare some tissues.
  • “I shall love you always. No matter what party is in power; No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied interests wins the war; Shall love you always.”

No more whoopsies

I came across this very insightful talk by Ethan Marcotte called the World Wide Work, in which he talked about automation, power, justice, and labour in the tech industry. They all might be big words to some of you, but because this is because they are just as important, and Ethan made some good points in the power of collective in making sure we as the people in the tech industry no longer overlook the harmful impacts we could inflict on other people as a result of our products and processes. It was explained in many forms of analogy — one of them refers to my favourite natural formation of all, the murmuration of starlings — and in stressing our very own individual potential in the industry and how we can become stronger and even more capable of making change as a whole community, like starlings as well, “individually, starlings are beautiful. Collectively, starlings become a wonder.” But that’s not all about it, Marcotte navigated the issue around the tendency of treating web and technology industry as apolitical, and enlightening us on how the power and greed of the elites — who owned the means, of whom we served, and who might also be some of us — could in return will be unintentionally reflected in the technology we build.

Unintentionally.

Not long after I posted the link to Marcotte’s talk on Twitter, The Engine Room co-founder, Alix Dunn posted a separate tweet referring to Tim Berners-Lee’s talk at ODI Summit, in which he said, “People are people and systems are weird, so we need to think about unintended consequences of the things we build.” Dunn quote tweeted, “I wish we could stop using the phrase ‘unintended consequences’ about harm in tech. It implies a) that positive intent of the maker matters and that it should be assumed b) that ‘thinking’ about possible harms is the bar for responsibility and c) that whoopsies is sufficient.” I read through it again and it gives me a change of perspective, the same way I came across how we should not talk about these harms as biases — for it insinuates individual accountability instead of the systemic flaw to which it originated — and thought about it, ‘unintended’, who am I kidding?

I felt like times and again when I talked about ‘whoopsies’ in tech (according to Dunn) I would often use ‘unintended’ or ‘nothing out of malice’ to hedge and pardon our doing. That’s internalised. As someone previously / on break from tech, I recognised that the ‘whoopsies’ happened and more so than often “it was never out of malice” — here we kept telling ourselves we are not avowed racists or classists like Robert Moses, who built an overpass bridge so low that buses which carry people of colour and less affluent could not go through to access the beautiful parks of Long Island — we are not bad people, it’s a thing we overlook, we didn’t mean it, we are just doing our job. But we have to recognise that in today’s world where there’s a wealth of information and resources coming from all directions that could educate us, there is no more room for apologies. We need to make space to recognise what harms we can inflict upon others in many ways. ‘Whoopsies’ are the typos you found on your papers the day of your submission, ‘whoopsies’ are when you accidentally stepped on a colleague’s shoes. ‘Whoopsies’ are not for when you run over people with your company’s self-driving car and certainly not for when you murdered someone in cold blood. (Serious question: what kind of moral compass these tech CEOs have? No wonder we are so screwed!) And that’s our job to make sure that in our products, our processes, our policies, our culture etc. that we do not overlook people who might not be able to experience the world as privileged as we do.

Earlier this month also I came across this article on the importance of empathy by product manager Can Duruk, recounting his moral dilemma between navigating work as sets of data and placing himself in the shoes of the users for the products he was involved in doing (oh the familiarity). He tells about a documentary on air traffic controllers he watched:

In it, the controller was talking about how he had to stop thinking of the planes as giant aluminum tubes full of people because that’s the only way he could function. You could see him tensed up as he spoke. He didn’t mean to belittle the hundreds of lives he was responsible for, he kept repeating. Just the opposite. He meant that the only way he could keep his composure, the only he could function with so many lives on the line was to not think about them.

Needless to say, I am horrified. But I was glad that in some ways, like Duruk, I too understand how he might have come to that solution. But we decide that this is a terrible, horrible idea, this idea of not thinking of people — one that doesn’t warrant a ‘whoopsie’ — even though none of us had ever been responsible for the thousands of lives of others. But if we think about it, maybe we do — perhaps not all thousands at the same time, but in a chain of events? I hate to think about it, but I hate more if I spend my life not caring.

Some related, some not:

Hope is participatory

A sculpture of a boy with colourful Dorritos coming out of his face, done by artist Seth Globepainter

Seth Globepainter in Bordeaux, France

I have been contemplating whether I should write the reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD following this post last week. Among the questions that popped up in my head was, to whom I owe these justifications to? Of which the answer clearly was: No one. But I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror last week — what an amazing set of essays about life as a millennial, politics, culture, feminism and many more, please get the book — and came upon this excerpt of hers in the first few pages of the book, where she says, “When I feel confused about something, I write about it until I turn into the person who shows up on paper: a person who is plausibly trustworthy, intuitive, and clear” and I couldn’t nod fast enough as I mutter to myself, “That’s it, that was exactly how I often deal with things so this is how I should approach this too.” So while I do not owe anyone else any justifications for the reasons why I do decided to pursue a doctoral research — of whose common end product is often centered around the idea of “a waste of time unless you want to be a lecturer” (I quoted someone verbatim, and the idea isn’t true at all which I will come back later) — I feel I at least I owe myself the clarity of mind and the chance to put what I have been thinking about on paper.

I was 35 when I enrolled in my PhD program, which is to say in the least words as possible, somewhat late in my or anyone else’s postgraduate career. Almost everyone I knew in my school was under 30. Some of them did fast track — which means they did well in their degree studies and got accepted into the PhD program without a Masters degree, which sometimes enabled them to have a PhD before 25. Unlike a lot of people I knew in my school as well, I did not have the need to pursue a doctorate to advance in my career. I was doing OK in my job at the moment, and I have always been resourceful and strategic to execute a lot of tasks, given I have enough information. My acquired skills over the years, in measurement with countless others with the same skillset in the industry that I know of, do not necessitate a need for another degree. By embarking on this rite of passage — enrolling in a mentally demanding postgraduate program in my mid-30s — it was a privilege, an option, a luxury, more so than a requirement.

At work, I remember there was a point of time where we were commissioned a project to design an internal app for a corporation, some sort of similar to one of those SAP platforms. The app would make the work multiple times easier and faster for everyone in the labour chain. However, there was one catch: it would result in layoffs of hundreds of people in the company who had been doing the job manually over the years. I kept thinking about this till today — how much of technology that I had helped bring to fruition had, in one way or another, bring harm to other people? If I have worked in a project where the new app or software would lead to hundreds of the client’s employees being laid off, was I also complicit in it? Sure, they get compensated financially, but are they also compensated in time and energy in going around to find other jobs? A lot of companies aren’t exactly empathetic to potential employees with a history of involuntary suspension — how do we measure the total mental compensation? I remember that this also happened at the same time where fiascos involving Facebook’s invisible hands into the fate of democracy had been slowly unearthed. Zuckerberg might have never predicted, or even deliberately designed his product to have this much harmful effect, but he can do something about it now — but would he? Will we have the same moral compass?

It is with this exact overthinking that I decided to read Sociology to understand the implications of technology on a collective, societal level.

In 2017, as I walked into the halls of my new university, I was also recovering from a massive burnout. Like a lot of people, I used to, and was internalised to, equate my productivity with my self-worth — which only very recently I realised the problems with burnout is more than just individually inflicted, or wasn’t individually inflicted at all. We launched multiple projects weeks after weeks but because there were so many other projects coming our way, I felt we didn’t get the chance to even celebrate. We moved fast and solved more things, which was great, but I felt I needed to slow down. I felt I needed time and space more for broader learning, deeper thinking, and a more meaningful rumination sort of way to figure things out. I’m only in my third — and hopefully final year — but I really enjoy this process of honing my research and writing skills, this whole journey of focusing on a set of answers that you yourself found the gap to, devising the research design as to how to find the answers, critically questioning your methods and ethics, and seeing the project to completion.

I admit it wasn’t the only path for one to spend years to read and write deeply — anyone can do so given the right conditions — for academia is also famous for being the space where it never allows one to learn things broadly and deeply given how deeply embroiled in politics it can be. But I come from the tech industry. In my experience, we didn’t really have the luxury to do those (learning broadly and deeply) in a long-running list of tasks whose deadlines are always yesterday. In return we overlooked concerns like above, not always out of malice, but out of the culture of moving fast and shipping faster — how much of technology that we had helped bring to fruition had, in one way or another, bring harm to other people? I might never have the answer for this academia vs industry anyway, but at this point of time, entering a few years of grad school seems to be the only way I could afford to hone my writing and research skills, on top of other skills I have acquired over the years.

I also do not believe it when people kept saying the only career path after PhD is academia. I have met a lot of people in the tech industry with a PhD. The founders of Ludwig, the English sentence search engine — whose app has helped me tremendously in my research writing — were PhD graduates and built Ludwig out of their very own necessity of wanting to search English sentences to find out if they are correct. One PhD also isn’t equivalent to another, and definitely does not translate to one fixed career path. The possibility is endless, one has to only learn to spot the opportunities.

Evidently with the skills I have developed, I want to do greater things. I say this a lot with the vaguest idea of what this great is operationalised as — as I saw my definition of great changes from building a highly intuitive and engaging UI (an undergrad case study) to benefitting businesses through innovation culture (my MA thesis) and advancing to understand the social implications of emerging technologies on politics (my ongoing PhD thesis). Now taking a look at this trajectory, I feel like I am exactly where I needed to be — that my growth through formal education has progressed from learning how design and technology to benefit individual users to businesses to how this will impact on a societal level, which is something the industry I had been involved in for the past 12 years ultimately needed. It is pretty vague at the moment, but the gist is this: I want to do greater things with the skills I have developed, and at the same time be mindful of the harms the industry and I have been complicit for perpetuating in all throughout the years, and do something about them. This means doing it on a more collective scale, breaking the trope of techno-determinism — no longer for any specific individuals or groups of people or businesses, but the society as a whole — as a way to make reality the vision of the industry that was initially touted to empower everyone regardless of any parts of their backgrounds.

At this point in time, I am pretty terrified when I think about my upcoming viva voce. But someone told me to reframe it this way: “Think about it, it’d be perhaps the only time you have a group of the smartest people you have ever come across to be fully invested in your research.” I might also not have the exact answers for the questions I have, but at least I am now better equipped with ways to find them out.

Some related, some not:

  • “Light, not heat.” Overheard on Twitter, of which context refers to the way social network platforms, especially Facebook, are designed to reward content driven by communally negative or extreme comments or reactions, and how we should know better. Light, not heat. (I lost the link, if you know whose comment it belongs to, let me know and I’ll be happy to credit.)
  • To be planet-centric, designers need to be diverse and inclusive in their influences and practice.
  • Hope is participatory — it’s an agent in the world. Optimism looks at the evidence, to see whether it allows us to infer whether we can do X or Y. Hope says, “I don’t give a damn, I’m gonna do it anyway.”