i want to write
february 13th, 2022
Long time no write (for reasons that I hope will become apparent as you read this piece.) I’m looking forward to seeing you again, more regularly. Welcome to a new season of life.
once upon a time
I’m not sure if anybody else used this platform or if it has gone out of business since 2012, but when I was in the fifth grade, I self-published a 120 page novel about my seemingly interesting life using Blurb. For weeks, I would get home, sit down at our kitchen table, and pull out my Acer laptop to type away at the chronicle of my life while my mom made me an after-school quesadilla. I think I’m experiencing what TikTok calls “unlocking a memory” as I write this, because I can close my eyes and vividly picture the Blurb UI in front of me, feel the thrill of seeing a page count creep upwards as I unloaded thoughts about my friends and my life and the things that I cared about. For a couple years, all I wanted to do was write.
(Just checked, and Blurb still exists today, although it seems that like most content today, they’ve shifted their target user to families making photo books instead of aspiring 12-year old authors. Where will today’s generation self-publish? Instagram, I guess.)
In high school, we read The Edible Woman, and I learned about the dichotomy between consumption and production, about a woman trapped into apathy by a society who told her she was, like everything around her, something to be consumed. I thought a lot about how I didn’t want to be somebody who consumed for a living; it seemed mundane, and that was my least favourite word. I wondered how Marian could have believed so clearly that she was an object for consumption in this ‘man’s world’ she lived in. I navigated Atwood’s motivations for writing The Edible Woman. How did society at the time lead her to believe this novel needed to exist in the world? Would I ever write something that meaningful?
a love letter to liberal arts
Yesterday, I read an essay called “love letter to liberal arts,” by Molly Mielke, a technologist who explores the connections between computers and humans. She wrote that “[t]his essay was written for young technologists: my friends, myself, and many other youthful souls. I wrote this piece because I want us to be happy and know that we are far more than just our brains.”
I have cried more from reading beautiful words in the last year than I ever have from school, and I think it’s because I know, deeply, that I need to be doing something that satisfies my soul. My brain grows every day that I’m at this university, but I feel like I’ve lost the plot. I have learned how to optimize every algorithm to maximize parameter x, but I have not questioned why we chose parameter x to begin with. Do we really need any more productivity apps in this world? Why be a technologist building great hammers, if I don’t understand what nails I will hit with my exceptional hammer? What is the point, if I don’t know how to question whether we should be hitting some nails to begin with?
I wonder what it would feel like to write and think and write about this topic, without guilt. When was the last time that I questioned the society that led me to believe only engineers can exist in this world?
creation is an art
I recently wrote an article about my time at Formlabs, and it felt like I was writing a love letter to engineering. This is part of why it has been so difficult for me to choose to transfer from Software Engineering into Computer Science at the University of Waterloo: after two years, I finally saw myself as an engineer. How could I “give up” now?
I should point out that most universities don’t offer a Bachelor of Software Engineering. Thus, most of the smartest engineers I know are in fact computer scientists by education, as I will be after graduating with a Bachelor’s of Computer Science with a specialization in Human-Computer Interaction (and possibly more?) Wow. That’s the first time I’ve typed this out, that I’ve affirmed the reality that I’m leaving the software engineering program (when did that become such a strong part of my identity to begin with?) To be fair, I will end up as a software engineer once more, when I graduate and enter the workforce.
I think that when I fell in love with engineering, I was actually falling in love with creation. With building, the process of forming theories about how things work, and architecting a system one piece (plus several hours of debugging) at a time. As I wrote in my article about Formlabs, coding is an art. In this way, the liberal arts and engineering are highly aligned — which is why I believe I should have a balanced education in both realms. You cannot build an algorithm without understanding the human decision making process you are replacing. And yet, I’ve felt that my engineering courses exist in a silo, considering optimizations on runtime or space instead of whether I should be optimizing for this variable to begin with. I want to build the algorithms that make this world more fair, but first, I need to be able to define fairness. For this, I will need to be a computer scientist with a conscience.
It has become too hard for me to digest that I would be graduating from a five-year degree, tasked with building software that could be used by politicians and journalists to influence democracy, without a clear understanding of how to define democracy to begin with. Twitter’s head of Machine Learning Ethics and Transparency (META) Rumman Chowdhury wrote an article in WIRED about the need for college students to learn about “science and technology studies (STS), communication, sociology, anthropology, political science, human-computer interaction, and digital humanities.” These courses exist, are right there in Quest for me to select, but I have never had time to take them. When else will I have the chance to learn the way I do in university? My lack of choice in engineering has felt predetermined for so long that I forgot that I’m meant to learn what I care about. I think I just want to learn about the world.
In two years, I’ll graduate and enter the workforce of engineers hoping to build “tech for good.” I want to know what that means. I want to write again, both in the form of code and comments on tech optimism. What theories drive humanity? How will I leverage the liberal arts to decide what code to write (and what not to write, ever?)
Most of all, I want to feel excited about walking into my apartment, making myself a rotisserie chicken quesadilla (ah, adulthood), and sitting down at my desk to write, for hours on end.
Is this what homecoming feels like?