A reformed techie (me) considers the value of a fuzzy education

In 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace delivered a now-famous commencement address. It starts with the story of the fish in water, who spend their lives not even knowing what water is. They are naively unaware of the ocean that permits their existence, and the currents that carry them.

The most important education we can receive, Wallace goes on to explain, “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” He talks about finding appreciation for the richness of humanity and society. But it is the core concept of meta-cognition, of examining and editing what it is that we choose to contemplate, that has fixated me as someone who works in the tech industry.

As much as code and computation and data can feel as if they are mechanistically neutral, they are not. Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree. It’s arguable, for example, that online media’s reliance on clickbait journalism, and Facebook’s role in spreading “fake news” or otherwise sensationalized stories influenced the results of the 2016 US presidential election. This criticism is far from outward-facing; it comes from a place of self-reflection.

I studied engineering at Stanford University, and at the time I thought that was all I needed to study. I focused on problem-solving in the technical domain, and learned to see the world through the lens of equations, axioms, and lines of code. I found beauty and elegance in well-formulated optimization problems, tidy mathematical proofs, clever time- and space-efficient algorithms. Humanities classes, by contrast, I felt to be dreary, overwrought exercises in finding meaning where there was none. I dutifully completed my general education requirements in ethical reasoning and global community. But I was dismissive of the idea that there was any real value to be gleaned from the coursework.

Upon graduation, I went off to work as a software engineer at a small startup, Quora, then composed of only four people. Partly as a function of it being my first full-time job, and partly because the company and our product—a question and answer site—was so nascent, I found myself for the first time deeply considering what it was that I was working on, and to what end, and why.

As my teammates and I were building Quora, we were also simultaneously defining what it should be, whom it would serve, and what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users. I was no longer operating in a world circumscribed by lesson plans, problem sets and programming assignments, and intended course outcomes. I also wasn’t coding to specs, because there were no specs. As my teammates and I were building the product, we were also simultaneously defining what it should be, whom it would serve, what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users, what kind of community it would become, and what kind of value we hoped to create in the world.

I still loved immersing myself in code and falling into a state of flow—those hours-long intensive coding sessions where I could put everything else aside and focus solely on the engineering tasks at hand. But I also came to realize that such disengagement from reality and societal context could only be temporary.

The first feature I built when I worked at Quora was the block button. Even when the community numbered only in the thousands, there were already people who seemed to delight in being obnoxious and offensive. I was eager to work on the feature because I personally felt antagonized and abused on the site (gender isn’t an unlikely reason as to why). As such, I had an immediate desire to make use of a blocking function. But if I hadn’t had that personal perspective, it’s possible that the Quora team wouldn’t have prioritized building a block button so early in its existence.

Our thinking around anti-harassment design also intersected a great deal with our thinking on free speech and moderation. We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. If people were mostly good, then we would design the product around the idea that we could trust users, with controls for rolling back the actions of bad actors in the exceptional cases. If they were by default bad, it would be better to put all user contributions and edits through approvals queues for moderator review.

 We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. We debated the implications for open discourse: If we trusted users by default, and then we had an influx of “low quality” users (and how appropriate was it, even, to be labeling users in such a way?), what kind of deteriorative effect might that have on the community? But if we didn’t trust Quora members, and instead always gave preference to existing users that were known to be “high quality,” would we end up with an opinionated, ossified, old-guard, niche community that rejected newcomers and new thoughts?

In the end, we chose to bias ourselves toward an open and free platform, believing not only in people but also in positive community norms and our ability to shape those through engineering and design. Perhaps, and probably, that was the right call. But we’ve also seen how the same bias in the design of another, pithier public platform has empowered and elevated abusers, harassers, and trolls to levels of national and international concern.

At Quora, and later at Pinterest, I also worked on the algorithms powering their respective homefeeds: the streams of content presented to users upon initial login, the default views we pushed to users. It seems simple enough to want to show users “good” content when they open up an app. But what makes for good content? Is the goal to help users to discover new ideas and expand their intellectual and creative horizons? To show them exactly the sort of content that they know they already like? Or, most easily measurable, to show them the content they’re most likely to click on and share, and that will make them spend the most time on the service?

Ruefully—and with some embarrassment at my younger self’s condescending attitude toward the humanities—I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education. That I’d learned how to think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it. That I’d absorbed lessons about how to identify and interrogate privilege, power structures, structural inequality, and injustice. That I’d had opportunities to debate my peers and develop informed opinions on philosophy and morality. And even more than all of that, I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.

It worries me that so many of the builders of technology today are people like me, people who haven’t spent anywhere near enough time thinking about these larger questions of what it is that we are building, and what the implications are for the world.

But it is never too late to be curious. Each of us can choose to learn, to read, to talk to people, to travel, and to engage intellectually and ethically. I hope that we all do so—so that we can come to acknowledge the full complexity and wonder of the world we live in, and be thoughtful in designing the future of it.

This post originally appeared on Quartz

Outdoor running

One of the things I miss most about San Francisco is its perpetually perfect outdoor running weather: all year round, consistently just a tad bit grayer, windier, and colder than you’d like it to be if you weren’t ambulating in an expedited fashion, but precisely right if so. The downside of seasons in New York City is that some seasons are decidedly unfriendly to outdoor running. Now that it’s springtime it’s been fun to rediscover the joy of exploring different run paths. Bonus: recent travel has taken me to such fun new places to explore!

 

Amsterdam
Amsterdam
Cannes
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New York City

 

Hamilton

I saw the musical last week and it was delightful. Lin-Manuel Miranda is truly a genius and a master of his craft; I’m so impressed by the music and the lyrics and the narrative and how he turned the story of an otherwise somewhat forgotten founding father into our newest national treasure.

But I’m actually here to recommend the Chernow biography, the one that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the musical. I’m not normally a history buff and I can’t remember the last biography I read (if any genre is a particular culprit for my tsundoku, it’s biographies of historical figures), but I loved this book.

It tends to the hagiographic, but Alexander Hamilton was indeed an extraordinarily impressive man. If Washington can be said to be the founding father of America, Hamilton was the founding father of American government. Both his prescience and his prolificity are astounding: As one example, he was the driving force behind the Federalist Papers, which helped ensure the ratification of the Constitution and are still referenced in contemporary Supreme Court decisions. In what was originally meant to be an equal, three-way collaboration, he wrote 51 of the 85 papers in a span of 6 months, while full-time engaged in his law practice and serving as one of New York’s most influential and highest profile lawyers. He also created the national bank and national currency and rescued the war-torn American economy whilst binding the union together via the federal government’s assumption of state debt. Amongst so, so many other things. Chernow is a skillful biographer; I found the juiciest bits of the book to be the study of Hamilton’s character, the political conflicts and compromises, the design of American democratic experiment, and not at all the human interest story lines that made for some of the most emotional and evocative songs in the musical (e.g. Burn, It’s Quiet Uptown).

If you’re going to watch the musical, I highly recommend reading the biography first. (But maybe hold off on listening to the soundtrack ahead of time, since the music and lyricism is really dazzling and I think there’s something really special about experiencing it for the first time live!)

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Snow globe

It’s my first proper winter!

I got caught in a minor snow flurry yesterday, with stinging cold wind and snowflake clumps whipping horizontally into my face. It was like being in a snow globe! But not quite as yuletide picturesque as those kitschy toys usually are… The forecast says more flurries and heavy snowfall tonight, courtesy polar vortex and a storm following through.

Happily, the long down jacket I panic-purchased on Amazon Prime during the first autumnal chilliness is holding up surprisingly well, so long as I layer a couple sweaters or a thick hoodie underneath. It’s no fashion statement—rather, not a statement I want to be making—but function wins over aesthetic here and I am resigned to looking like a hobo for the next few months.

The Arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Teddy Roosevelt, 1910

I spent the past weekend in Nashville being newly re-inspired for American democracy: convening with 400 bright, passionate, and patriotic souls, making their way from 30 different states on three weeks’ notice to a summit assembled in due November 9th urgency, to learn, engage, and commit to political candidacy and as well as other forms of civic participation.

There are more than 500,000 elected offices in the United States. We need talented, authentic individuals putting themselves into the political arena, and to develop the systems of strategy and support to make them successful. Most media attention fixates on federal government, particularly the executive office, but that belies all the hard work of governance and progress that is so critical at the state and local levels too. And ultimately, it is about making that progress. It’s not about left or right; it’s about forward.

We heard from speakers like Florida Congresswoman-elect Stephanie Murphy, who rose from humble beginnings as a boat refugee from Vietnam to step up to her first run for elected office only this summer; unseated a 12-term incumbent; and will be the first Vietnamese woman in Congress. She was first prompted to public service by the 9/11 attacks, and then to a congressional run after seeing her representative take a check from the gun lobby just two days after the horror of the Pulse nightclub shootings, right in their own neighborhood. And Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who is just coming off an impressively strong race for Missouri Senator (though as a Democratic candidate, he did ultimately lose the very red state); he spoke humorously but pointedly about the value of authenticity, a theme that was echoed in the remarks of many subsequent speakers. Including those of Stockton, CA Mayor-elect Michael Tubbs, who will be the city’s first black mayor and the youngest to the hold the office, at 26; in an age of social media and wide dissemination of salacious stories, Tubbs’s indiscretion on display was a DUI just two years prior, while serving as a city councilman. But he owned up to it and could be very real with the community about the fact that everyone makes mistakes—and more importantly than that, people are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.

It was also good to hear about the ways in which others can support, those for whom political office isn’t in the cards. Congresswoman-elect Murphy broke down the process of a successful candidacy in three parts: message, money, machine. There’s the work that goes into designing a platform that’s compelling, that speaks to the concerns of constituents, that elevates important conversations. There’s the long, tedious, cruel necessity of fundraising, a task even more so difficult for upstart, first-time candidates. There’s the field and canvassing machine that has to be on the ground, getting out the message and getting out the vote. And of course that’s not even to speak of all the work after election; officials need staffers to help them research, design, and implement policy. These are all opportunities for us to take part and to serve, and there are so many more…

I haven’t yet had enough time to process everything I took away from the summit, and really there was so, so much more, but at the very least I’ve deepened my November 9th resolve to genuinely take on my American civic duties, and I have a new network of people with which to follow through on that commitment.