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?

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

Regarding the pain of others

It was a full hospital trip day yesterday, as my mother had a health scare and was admitted for the day. The day before, I received yet another rejection from a company who initially wanted to consider my remote role, but then decided they “need to move fast” and unless I reconsider to relocate, then I am accepted. My mother, I thought. Thank you, but my personal challenges, of which I have disclosed much earlier to them — I refrained from using personal ‘limitations’ these days because limits are just what they do, they limit, but challenges? We can navigate challenges — unfortunately are leaving me bounded to this place. Thank you for your time, they said. We’ll think of you when we have some other opportunities.

I laughed at my own naivety of believing every thinkpiece written during the first few months of the pandemic outbreak about the shift to WFH (work from home). How working from home, and working from anywhere you want, while at the same time exposing the disparity of gender and race gap in many industries (but then again, it doesn’t take wfh and the pandemic for anyone to see this) also now opens the opportunity for underrepresented communities — those with disabilities, those with caregiving responsibilities, those who for many other reasons could not commute or relocate, etc. — the chance to join the legion of respectful employments again. Respectful in a sense that their limitations — excuse me, no — challenges are secondary to their potentials and skills of doing amazing things that able-bodied and privileged people are not judged on when they are about to enter the workforce. Respectful in a sense that they should hear none of the comments about their bodies or their children or their ethnicities or their identities or their sexualities when they show up, filled with hope to the brim, during interviews. It was so funny to think that only during the pandemic the able-bodied and the privileged could think of working from the comfort of their homes, possibly with maids and AC, and then resumed to being non-inclusive back again three months in. Oh, we could not accommodate remote roles, they said. Being inclusive and thinking of our employees who perhaps are living with immunocompromised family members, or even with chronic illnesses themselves, lol idk what’s that? We need to move fast, they said. As someone who had remotely project managed a team for 6 years, how is moving fast and hiring remote roles mutually exclusive?

It’s also funny how a lot of things we wanted to do boils down to “If only I had more money…” That itself speaks about a lot of things. That’s the thing, the billionaires, the ones with money, are too much focused on power and doing harm. I was thinking that if only I have the funds, I would open a remote agency who would focus on hiring women — especially from underserved groups — who are unfortunately bounded to a place and wanted to do just as amazing things as people who could pack up and move across the country for the positions they are hired for. We could outsource project management to small startups, we could do design, we could do programming, we could proofread and edit works, we could talk about the intricacies of navigating work while caring for others who are fully dependent on us, we could find ways how to do better, we could amplify each other’s voices and abilities, we would uplift each other, we could become a community that we could have ever hoped for. One day, perhaps one day.

Reading in my tabs:

  • Decolonial theory as sociotechnical foresight in artificial intelligence.
  • This just in: Anyone producing films for public viewing in Malaysia — including videos shared on social media sites TikTok and Instagram — will require a state-issued license under a rarely-enforced law. Lol.
  • This is why we can never have nice shiny techy things, someone is bound to abuse them: Google’s contact tracing system collects live location data, and the UK government admits to breaking privacy law with its contract tracing app.
  • “Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on what makes a decent man.
  • “To insist that contemporary photographic practice — and I mean to include a majority of the international news coverage in newspapers like this one — is generally made (and published) for the greater good is to misconstrue history, because it leaves out the question of “Good for whom?”” Teju Cole asks us to reflect the power of photography as a weapon of colonialism. Related reading: Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.
  • “How do we structure and govern Amazon in a way that is faithful to the principles of democracy? An answer lies in anti-monopoly policies that constrain and reduce Amazon’s dominance and reallocate power to the millions of individual workers, independent firms, and members of the general public whose labor, enterprise, consumption, and support have made Amazon a trillion-dollar corporation.” Imagining a democratic Amazon.
  • “One of the notable things that arose in our research was the local specificity of the different recipes we found, how consciously families retained the cuisine of their very particular villages several generations into exile. Those who were old enough to actually remember their pre-1948 villages spoke in incredible detail of the plants and animals they cultivated, the wild herbs, the spring water, etc. These memories are graven and unchanging, impressed upon them forever by the trauma of exile. Everything since then is the absence of those tastes and smells. Since then, their staple foods have been provided by food rations, etc., and their largely agrarian lives suddenly pressed into crowded refugee camps. They have adapted recipes to accommodate new ingredients or compensate for absent ones, but there is this sense of constant, permanent nostalgia. Because it is so specifically political a trauma and a nostalgia, it is actively held onto, not overcome or forgotten in a generation like that of so many other peasants forced into the city in so many other places. The nostalgia is handed down, like the keys to the family’s house, from one generation to the next, as a conscientious political act.” I am really loving this article on kitchen anthropology in Gaza — one day I wanted to work on projects such as this.
  • Meet the creatures of the night sea.
  • “…when the neighbours called it a nuisance, we watered it.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice, and S.A Chakraborty’s The City of Brass.
  • Listening: Really loving this new podcast from TED called Pindrop, described as “a deep dive into the ideas that shape a particular spot on the map. Weave through the streets of Bangkok with a motorcycle midwife. Time-travel with dinosaurs behind a hardware store in New Jersey. Meet a guy who dresses up as a luchador to protect citizens from traffic in Mexico City.” It’s like travelling through a podcast.
  • Viewing: On My Block.
  • Food & Drink: Rice congee with soy sauce and anchovies, and apple juice.

No grab-bag candy game

Feeling this article especially while currently job hunting in the midst of the pandemic, with a dash of the rise of neoliberalism where your every worth is commodified: 

Where does ambition go when jobs disappear and the things you’ve been striving for barely even exist anymore? And what if the things for which you’ve been striving no longer feel important because they’re the spoils of a rotten system that needs a complete overhaul?

I spent some time last week articulating my professional goals because more so than just for looking for the right kind of job, I wanted to make sure my values and those of the organisations’ I am going to collaborate with are going to align. While I am not ready to divulge these goals yet, to summarise they are something along the lines of wanting to work for the companies or organisations: who empower the communities they serve and ensure they are included in every process from start to finish, who consider to reflect and continually improve on the disparities of power produced by the existing values, practices, and narratives of how they design their processes and products, and finally who aspire to use their privileges to open doors and provide equal opportunities for disadvantaged groups to seek respectful employments. If you take a look at the goals, you’d notice how, in all the goals’ vagueness (because I am not sure yet which of my many skills specifically would be of good to this) that these goals are no longer confined of my own. Granted these are ambitious, but I am allowed to have radical imagination, because without imagination there is no hope, without hope there is no course of action. Most importantly, my radical imagination must no longer be centered around myself, it should also include for the liberation of others.

The last paragraph of the article pretty much shares my sentiments:

At the same time, my ambition for my community and the wider world has gotten bigger and broader. I don’t know exactly where I fit in it, but I do know that I want all workers to be treated with dignity and respect — a small, humble ask that requires an unending amount of work. And I want all people who are unable to work or unable to find work to also be treated with dignity and respect. I want to become more active in organising, I want to be a resource for those looking for guidance in their careers — at least while we’re living under capitalism — and I want to make enough money to be able to throw some of that money at the world’s problems. My medium-size dreams for myself may be getting smaller, but my ambitions for the greater wide world have to be enormous. It’s the only way to get through.

Inspiring these goals are also the words of Toni Morrison’s, whose words, more so than just adornment, had been my lodestar to answer the question: “what good shall I do with this knowledge I have earned?” which is the question that I have asked myself repeatedly during my doctoral journey.

Reading in my tabs:

  • “Garner did not appear to display aggressive behaviour in the interaction that led to his arrest. That’s because it wasn’t his behaviour that was threatening to the officers — it was his body.” TIL: how fatphobia plays a role in justifying violence against Black Americans.
  • How the pandemic is disproportionately disrupting mothers’ careers.
  • “Some of the biggest events in 2020 have demanded more of our time, more direct action, and have been more emotionally taxing than we’re used to. The result feels like a mental DDoS attack that drags down our mental health, allows misinformation to thrive, and even makes the job of delivering news more difficult.” Our ability to process information is reaching a critical limit.
  • “The first real symptoms were not mine, but my cat’s. Miette, who kisses me on the lips each morning to see if I have become food yet, became deathly ill with a stomach virus two days after my return; my other cats soon contracted it as well. I know what you’re thinking, but please let my husband have this. It pleases him so much to believe that our cats might have had coronavirus ‘before those cats in Belgium’. If I one day win the Nobel, it could not confer a greater distinction.” A thoughtful and poetic account of having coronavirus by poet Patricia Lockwood.
  • “We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.” RIP John Lewis.

STATUS BOARD

What a feminist act

Joanne Petit-FrèreTapestry of Braids #1 (Woven while Discovering bell hooks on YouTube), 2020 (via Something I Saw)

My job interview went well yesterday, I think, and I have come to realise that I might be hired (again) because of my tweets. Apparently the CEO had been following me for quite sometime and had seen me tweeting for quite some time, some quite conspicuously and recklessly on the topics of writing, technology, politics, and many others (although my latest tweets were about, well, cakes.) This was not the first time I received a job offer of some sort through Twitter — which is why I contemplated a lot whenever I am presented with the possibility of deactivating my Twitter account because I have had many interesting opportunities and made many long-time friends over the cursed bird app. 

The other day while updating my CV, I could not believe how much it was a mental battle I have had within myself whether I should change my name to “Zana Fauzi, PhD”. Here I am, having completed an independent research where I have produced an in-depth, critical, and original scientific work within a stipulated time frame, hence a major feat that deserved the merits of my doctoral degree, but still shudder at the thought of referring myself worthy of the “Dr.” title awarded to me. It especially hit me hard this morning when some of my friends, as part of friendly banter, began telling me their shoulders hurt, or that they have a rash, further trying to invalidate that only medical doctors deserve the title. They meant nothing malicious, but the imposter syndrome had been something in my mind from the first time I was asked about my research and when I tried to explain it as best as possible, I was cut off mid-conversation, especially by men, and being told I should do my research this way and that way — their way. How many times I have heard people saying — in reference to another friend who had done her PhD years ago — that she is ‘chill’ because she chooses not to use Dr. in her name? Not to mention, being a woman in a tech industry and only in one of the many occasions, having to hear the next Project Manager should be a man, because only men could think objectively — I mean, in lieu of so many other examples and here I am only anecdotally throwing one: have you seen how the male leaders react to world issues vs I don’t know, how Jacinta Ardern did? 

I know I am not alone — you could throw a stone in a crowded room of women (but please don’t, I don’t condone violence) and you would hit one with profound imposter syndrome as a result of the systemic biases exercised upon us. This is why I am going to listen to my fellow badass woman PhD, Dr. Jr Thorpe, that “using my well-earned “Dr.” is a feminist act: because for men, it’s an unwelcome challenge that women would present themselves as highly qualified — and require that they be addressed accordingly.” I worked hard for this — of course with the support of my loved ones and the privileges of my life entailed that soon further obligates me to do good things with my earned knowledge — and I am worth being taken seriously. The Dr. is going to be here alongside my name whether you like it or not.

Reading in my tabs:

  • If there’s one thing you must read this weekend, make it this. “Silicon Valley has never shied away from calling its products magical, and in a sense, they are. They can make an entire army of workers disappear behind the smoke and mirrors of the user interface.”
  • Predictive policing algorithms are racist. They need to be dismantled.
  • “Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places.”
  • “As both object and subject, the aims and applications of AI have been brought into question. At the heart of these discussions are questions of values and the power relations in which these values are embedded. What values and norms should we aim to uphold when performing research or deployment of systems based on artificial intelligence? In what ways do failures to account for asymmetrical power dynamics undermine our ability to mitigate identified harms from AI? How do unacknowledged and unquestioned systems of values and power inhibit our ability to assess harms and failures in the future?”
  • “When you work remotely, mentorship is stifled because there is no learning via osmosis. You can’t model your behaviour on your successful teammates because you only see them on Zoom and in Slack. Whatever process they are using to achieve their results is opaque to you. Much of the language used around remote work (and remote events) assumes that one is in the mid-to-late stages of their career. When you’re young, you don’t need “focus” or to “get things done.” You need exposure to new ideas and people. You need the serendipitous fortune of sitting in on the right meeting, attending the right happy hour, or earning the respect of the right observer. All of the above is more difficult in a remote environment.” I agree with some parts and have some reservations on the other points in this article, but these are the things we need to be aware of when thinking of working remotely, or working from home.
  • Astronomers found a giant intergalactic “wall” of galaxies hiding in plain sight.
  • Idris Elba to read me bedtime stories? YES PLEASE.
  • “Ready for a change, the elbows waited. The hands gripped hard on the desert.” On this day in 1945, the first nuclear bomb test in the continental United States occurred at the Trinity Site, in New Mexico.

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice, and S.A Chakraborty’s The City of Brass.
  • Listening: The soundtrack from the series Trinkets.
  • Viewing: I am obsessed with Netflix’s Trinkets, particularly for Moe Truax who emits some serious Eliza Dushku vibe (of whom I have a crush on).
  • Food & Drink: Jalapeño bagel with cream cheese (why did no one ever told me they’re super spicy???) with iced vanilla latte.

Brave wild failure

I am currently reading S.A Chakraborty’s The City of Brass — of which I am so excited for — because it has all the ingredients I loved in a novel (djinns! Middle Eastern folklore! Female protagonist! Cairo! Politics!) It tells the story of Nahri, an orphan and a con, who never knew her origins and family, who lived during the 18th-century Egypt and found herself accidentally summoning a djinn and being transported to an ancient city filled with mythical beings after an exorcism gone wrong. I am only 20% in so far and it is still too early to tell, but I am enjoying it so far. It was described to have the elements of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, both of which I LOVED, so I couldn’t wait to delve into it every night before bed (where I often do my reading). But also after a conversation with a friend the other day about the book, I realised as someone who was so used to reading historical fiction most of the time, I needed to reframe the way I read fantasy because I was fixated on some historical inaccuracies and political correctness. I am that bad! But also I have been thinking, the fact that I was able to read voraciously — a practise that had never changed ever since pre-corona anyway — but being unable to enjoy the book and where I pivot to nitpicking, is this because of academia or the quarantine brain or a combination of both? Either way, I need to figure out how to read more appreciatively.

This isn’t something new, but I have been having trouble to write these past few days. If you do hang out here long enough, you might have noticed I haven’t written here just as frequent as I did last year. The initial practice of writing 300 words a day that I started last year somehow started to dwindle in 2020, and it was funny because in 2019 I was writing my thesis almost every day and then I turned to write in this blog almost every day before bed. But now, meh. It felt like all the vocabulary I picked on the previous years doing PhD somehow fell apart this year, locked away in isolation along with the rest of the (most of) the world, hibernating in hopes to emerge to articulate the state of my mind better, but they turned to mush whenever I tried to materialise them onto paper. I hope this attempt is one of the kinds of brave wild failure Padgett Powell talked about.

To conclude, I still could not stop thinking about this question and answer in this excellent interview with Jia Tolentino — you should read it, it’s full with amazing gems with how we could reframe quarantine and hope — that read:

INTERVIEW: What’s one skill we should all learn while in quarantine?

TOLENTINO: How to make someone feel loved from a distance.

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

No such thing as neutrality

There has never been Palestine on Google Maps.

I had been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist over the weekend and was struck at how much of his central argument — that there is no such thing as neutrality — should always be one of the tenets and cautionary tales when dealing with technology. According to Kendi, one should strive to be antiracist, which is more than just, well, not being racist. Not being racist is the barest minimum anyone could do in a racist, non-neutral system, hence it is a stance that still in some way reinforces the status quo.

I remember spending years in tech industry being internalised with the idea that our products were built on a neutral ground. The codes, being just words and numbers, were pretty much objective so there was no argument that it is productive enough to discard human biases and judgements out of the equation. But then again I kept thinking, if there is such term as ‘tech for good’, is there such thing as ‘tech for evil’, albeit subtlely?

And then again technology, just like any other creation, is a product of human beings. When this is the premise, it means that any form of technology is encoded with years of human biases and structural inequalities, some of them unintended, but some of them much more deliberate than the rest — which means they can never be neutral. Of course none of these ideas are new, but it seemed groundbreaking to me when I first discovered it as a first-year PhD student who returned to school after years of spending time in an industry I believed to contribute so much to the advancement of humankind, only to realise it had also inflicted harm on so many people for as long as the field had ever come into existence. 

But the good news is that both the tech scholars and practitioners are also becoming more aware of this issue. In that sense, there is so many work now being done to mitigate the gap between our technologies and the harms it produced from their creators’ ingrained biases. There were still some disagreements between them, sure, but there is great progress in acknowledging that there is no such thing as neutrality in technology. Right now, I am observing all of these developments with very great hope that from all of this, we can incrementally learn how to do better.

Reading in my tab:

  • Don’t ask if artificial intelligence is good or fair, ask how it shifts power.
  • When scholars collaborate with tech companies, how reliable are the findings?
  • K-pop activism and US politics, explained.
  • “Given the unemployment landscape we’re facing, however, we need to acknowledge and plan for the reality of a rapidly expanding gig economy. Instead of hoping in vain for gig employers to reclassify their workers as employees, we should accept that the gig model will only become more entrenched, and as such we should focus on expanding the temporary gains gig workers have seen during the pandemic into a permanent social safety net.” Gig workers are here to stay. Give them benefits.
  • “In normal conversations with other people, we might choose to code-switch, alternating between languages, accents or ways of speaking, depending on one’s audience. But with automated speech recognition programs, there is no code-switching—either you assimilate, or you are not understood. This effectively censors voices that are not part of the ‘standard’ languages or accents used to create these technologies.” Speech recognition tech is yet another example of bias.
  • Defund facial recognition!
  • “But what are the things that make people panic? A sense of emergency, of unsustainability, of escalating harm and violence, of impending and irrevocable loss. That is definitely the backdrop. The already vast amount of human suffering in this pandemic is about to skyrocket as employment and housing protections are lifted; we’re going to see racial and economic inequality reinscribed so painfully with these huge disparities in the pandemic experiences of school-age children. The needless death will continue for months, all these incremental gains that people have struggled their whole lives to claim have been wiped out in a single season, and in the meantime Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee.” An interview with Jia Tolentino on the discipline of hope.
  • “In a way, quarantine marks the triumph of humanity above a human — that survival of the former might mean inconvenience, suffering, or even demise of the latter.” To believe in quarantine meant to have faith in afterward.
  • Why time feels so weird in 2020.
  • I wish someone had told me this years ago, “This type of guilt tends to go away really quickly once you’re gone. You’re going to move on to the next phase in your career, your staff will move on to theirs, and you’re going to look back and wonder why you stayed so long. Take care of your health, and don’t feel guilty.”
  • “This is the end, we leave the rest to you.” See Kaveh Akbar’s analysis of this 500-year-old Mesoamerican poem by the Nahuatl people.

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice, and finished Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop of Tehran, of whose accounts on Persian food made my mouth water.
  • Listening: “Well, before we release a product or make a design decision, we get together in a room and think really hard about what could go wrong with this product. But, it’s very difficult to imagine what might go wrong for people whose lives don’t look very much like the people who are inside that room doing that imagining.” Tech companies should make it someone’s job to think about ethics.
  • Viewing: Open a new window somewhere in the world. I love this project so much.
  • Food & Drink: I ordered margarita pizza and iced vanilla latte.

How embarrassing it is to be cruel

As a fan of commonplace books, this particular edition of Book Post on Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book caught my attention. According to the post, Shonagon was a Japanese writer living between tenth to eleventh centuries who served the empress entourage in Kyoto. She got encouraged to write after given a sheaf of a very precious paper to use, and from there she had kept the paper by her bed of which she would write her thoughts before she went to sleep or was awakened during the night — hence the pillow book. It was also said that life at the court, while very luxurious and abundant, was very much constrained to routines, much like how we have kept ourselves during the quarantine. Out of this isolation, people turned to writing and kept records of everything they encounter, also much like how some of us (i.e. me) amuse ourselves during the quarantine. Here are some of the things that I kept track of within this week:

What do we do if we found out that a close friend is unapologetically problematic?

Someone I know very close had been, in particular, unapologetically xenophobic, in light of the current migrants and Covid-19 issues in Malaysia. There were also many instances where they had been unrepentant homophobe before, and while I sat there in front of them, clearly uncomfortable, I felt it was partially my fault for not calling them in about this. I’ve been up many nights trying to figure out how to not let them off the hook because I no longer want to be complicit in their enclosed views, especially ones that could have hurt someone else. At the same time, I want to do so in a way that would not push them away from the work that could have made them a better person. Much like when some of my other friends did for me when I was less of an informed person before, I reckon.

From Dear Jezebel’s Ask A Fuck Up: “Instead, point out how boring it is to think people should be punished if they don’t conform. How tedious it is to think that the contours of your own thought enclose all that is worth knowing. How embarrassing it is to be cruel.”

This is an excellent paragraph in theory, but it needs some mulling. For example, how would they know what they were calling out for — the witch-hunt of a literal human being just for being a migrant who spoke up about the harsh conditions of living in the country — as cruel? For them, it was the patriotic thing to do, driving out people who do not ‘belong’ in the country so that the virus, of which know no borders, could be contained. For them, it was the right thing to do, after his face was shown publicly on the international media, speaking up about his woes about the country who ‘accepted’ him, how could he. How could us, for instance, sit in the comfort of our own homes and debate other people’s basic humanity, not recognising that ideas do not operate in a vacuum and there are consequences — that might have involved someone else’s lives?

Courage to do what’s right

Hasan Minhaj’s father in his stand-up show, Homecoming King, said to him after his prom date did not turn up because of his skin colour, ”Your courage to do what’s right has to be greater than your fear of getting hurt.”

Not through me

Solzhenitsyn’s rule for the common citizen seeking to live with integrity in a repressive regime: “Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

A performance for those who grieve

In Suleika Jaouad’s The Isolation Journals, contributor Katherine Halsey wrote about Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s complete cello suites as a memorial for those we’ve lost during the pandemic. She mentioned that Ma says he returns to Suite No. 5 in C minor again and again in difficult times and that this performance is dedicated to any and all of us who grieve.

Reading in my tab:

  • Global capitalism, immigrant labour, and the struggle for justice.
  • ““Checking” your privilege then becomes a public exercise in self-flagellation, focusing on the repentantly privileged while neatly obscuring how intrinsic anti-black racism is to the world. Why seriously challenge unequal resource distribution when all you need to do is renounce the privilege that gives you access to the very resources hoarded at the expense of others?” Anti-racism requires so much more than ‘checking your privilege‘.
  • “The last thing a person under stress needs is to be shamed and told they are nuts. If you are want to quit or ‘disengage’ from your PhD and you’re finding people around you are not particularly supportive – read on. If you are hearing others talking about quitting and feeling uncomfortable, definitely read on. If you are supporting a PhD student, as a supervisor or partner, and feeling powerless to help you might want to read on too. We need to be able to talk about quitting without shame and judgement.”
  • It’s only been one week since China passed a controversial national security law that gives it vast new powers over Hong Kong, but the internet has already changed dramatically for people in the semi-autonomous city.
  • A group of 239 scientists say there’s growing evidence Covid-19 is airborne. Well, this is fine.
  • Get us these social distancing skirts then!
  • “…and when we speak we are afraid, our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent, we are still afraid.”

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Stop doomscrolling & hire me!

Image credit: Austin Kleon

I have been getting calls for job interviews (finally!) and with that, I have been getting the cold feet. I am one of those people who turn into a blubbering mess when I am nervous, and this is where in an attempt to answer a simple question, I tend to relate one fact after another it turned into a whole life story. It’s really interesting to think that your fate in your own livelihood could depend on an hour session of the interview, and a piece of paper. I also couldn’t stop thinking that there is also a definite power imbalance where a lot of times the decisions — to be hired, salary, employee benefits — largely fall on the companies and not on the workers. Also, because all of this while I have done a fair share of interviewing and hiring myself, I realised I needed to learn to take lead less in these interviews by not asking so many questions — although, I am not sure if that’s not such a bad idea?

I noticed, one question that turned me into a blubbering, albeit an energetic mess, was always along the lines of: “Why should we hire you when you have a PhD?” I have always forgotten that people often make the assumption that when you pursue a PhD, you would want to stay in academia by teaching, becoming a faculty member, pursuing for tenure, and so on so forth. But I am someone who is in limbo — someone with both an industry and academia experience — I have known from the start that while I might love teaching, academia is not for me. I have also heard numerous times that pursuing PhD for someone who wanted to transition into an industry position is a liability (admittedly it was soul-crushing because one such comment came from a good friend) because PhD — as written in one of its requirements — requires us to work independently and this is something off-putting to companies due to their nature of always working in teams, hence implies us PhDs do not work well in teams. This is untrue because a lot of PhD candidates are required to liaise with so many groups of people, organisations, and communities in order to proceed with their research. Some of them are required to do labwork, of whose work processes would involve dealing and working with a group of other people. Another assumption was that we PhDs do not fare well in a fast-paced environment like real life jobs (what is this ‘real life’ anyway) because we are used to slow and thoughtful ruminations in our research processes, and unlike the people in the industry, some of us are not burdened with deadlines, which again is untrue. 

I wanted to attempt to answer the question better here, so I do not turn into a blubbering mess again in the future when I am posed with the question: “Why should we hire you when you have a PhD?” I am framing this hypothetical job interview here as one for the position of a UX Researcher for a company who designs an e-wallet application.

That is a very interesting question because this is also something that I myself have been thinking a lot. There are a few things I learned while pursuing my PhD, while challenging, is definitely one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had the privilege to choose and embark on. I think the most important lesson I needed to unlearn is the fact that all these while my individual belief has always been in the idea that technology could solve everything. In my doctoral journey in the area of Sociology, I learned this to be predominantly untrue — that most of the times the community of whom we design digital products for would often have the best (sometimes low-tech) solution to their problems, hence we should always recenter these community of whom we are designing our technology for and include them in every process, that design and technology should not be the areas only for the privileged few, that we needed to always credit who we include into our design narrative, and always be aware of the consequences of the products we design. This is something I found out in my 3-year long doctoral research.

It was also found that the design and technology industry — our industry — are rife with the counter practices of the ones I stated above. I am of the belief that if you are designing a digital product, you have to fully understand the communities and the extension of the audience you are designing more — not just individually, but also on a more societal approach. This is because our products would touch lives more so than just for the consumers with the purchasing power, but also those in the peripheral view of them e.g. warehouse workers, the elderly grocery store owners trying to apply to use the app in their stores, if your designers are compensated fairly while building the product, etc. I am not saying that you do not have all of these considerations in mind, I am just saying that sometimes in the process of building digital products, we got caught up in technicalities and indeliberately inflicted harm upon each other. My role, should I am accepted, is to be able to ask all of these important, critical questions and construct an achievable and measurable framework so we can lessen the harm. If you currently do not have someone with an industry background in UX, writing, research, and a social sciences academic perspective to have a better view of how to build not only a profitable, functional, and aesthetically pleasant digital product, but also an ethical and an inclusive one, I can be your person.

Reading in my tab:

  • “I say that abolition is a political vision with a goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. That it’s not just about getting rid of building cages, it’s about actually undoing the society that continues to feed on and maintain the oppression of masses of people through punishment, violence, and control.” How would prison abolition actually work? Also, highly recommended reading: Are Prisons Obsolete?
  • What does abolition mean for the companies and industries that empower police violence and profit from it?
  • Detroit police admitted facial recognition tech gets it wrong 96% of the time. That’s, uhm, a LOT.
  • We’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate.
  • “In this sense, then, the value of the Obama image isn’t that it exposes a single flaw in a single algorithm; it’s that it communicates, at an intuitive level, the pervasive nature of AI bias. What it hides, however, is that the problem of bias goes far deeper than any dataset or algorithm. It’s a pervasive issue that requires much more than technical fixes.” What a machine learning tool that turns Obama white can (and can’t) tell us about AI bias.
  • Facebook has become THE vehicle “for climate misinformation, and thus should be held partially responsible for a lack of action on climate change.”
  • “The harm is that telling people to “assume good intent” is a sign that if they come to you with a concern, you will minimise their feelings, police their reactions, and question their perceptions. It tells marginalised people that you don’t see codes of conduct as tools to address systemic discrimination, but as tools to manage personal conflicts without taking power differences into account. Telling people to “assume good intent” sends a message about whose feelings you plan to center when an issue arises in your community.”
  • Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women.
  • “And so instead of maybe doing a little research, understanding the history and the different semantic valences of a particular term to decide for yourself, or to understand the appropriateness of a use in a particular context, people generally go, ‘Tell me the word, and I will use the word.’ They’re not interested in learning things about the history of the term, or the context in which it’s appropriate.” Why the term ‘BIPOC’ is so complicated, explained by linguists.
  • Stop doomscrolling.
  • Who said it was simple?”

STATUS BOARD

Gaming the system

Today’s WITI had confirmed my long-time suspicion on the relations of numbers, expectations, and behaviour, to be true. It talks about Goodhart’s Law, named after a British economist, which posits that, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In other words, according to WITI, as soon as you set some metrics into its sole goal, its usefulness will soon decrease. One way in which this can occur is individuals trying to anticipate the effect of a policy, and then taking actions that alter its outcome.

It reminded me of the time when I was venting out my frustrations to my friend A about sending multiple bespoke, customised cover letters and CVs almost every day in the midst of my job hunting, only to no avail. She mentioned she once read an article about companies using AI, instead of employing real human beings, to go through CVs so they could filter the most eligible candidates by recognising a series of keywords placed in the CVs. As someone who had been keeping myself informed in the areas of technology, this did not shock me, but for some reasons I refused to pander to the idea and idealistically, or somewhat naively, believed that every single cover letter and CV I sent would be vetted through by an actual human being who would find that my skills and qualifications would befit their organisations.

It was until I engaged a professional CV consultant for guidance (yes I have gone to that extent) that I was again reminded how prevalent this practice is — which is called ATS (stands for applicant tracking system). It works exactly like A mentioned — the system scans CVs for specific keywords to determine if the job application should be passed along to the recruiter. In doing so, it weeds out the unqualified candidates (ones who don’t have all the right keywords in the system) instead of identifying ones who are the best fit for the job. Interestingly, she did not have much comments for my existing CV — no comments about structure, grammatical errors, etc. — but more towards changing the keywords e.g. I wrote ‘orchestrated’ for one of my project management points, but she made me change it to… ‘managed’ because this was apparently the word that would get picked up by the ATS. In our session, she mentioned that sometimes, to defeat and pass through this system, applications would insert these keywords into the empty spaces (e.g the footnotes) of their CVs, put the text colour in white so they were invisible to the naked eyes but still would get picked up by the system. This was the Goodhart’s Law, and I think this is the same when it comes to our exam-oriented education system as well. When the goal is attached to a preconditioned measurement, you can bet some people will bend the rules and even cheat to game the system.

I thought about this a lot too when I was working on some social media strategy work for some brands before. What I found was they were so initially preoccupied with the numbers and SEO optimisation — which is good — but to the point that by placing SEO-friendly keywords randomly across their content, they lost and forgot to own their own tone and voice and organically grow their presence through the values that had supposedly defined them from day one. In the end, their initiatives drowned in the midst of thousands of other brands who, relying on the same SEO-friendly keywords out there, sounded and had the same brand demeanour as they are. Only then they were advised to grow organically by hiring professional content writers with more, for the lack of a better word, soul — and in many cases, it was a slower and more thoughtful process — did they begin to reclaim their brand voice and tone again.

Reading in my tabs:

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