Finding Purpose

  • Jul 19, 2012
  • 1 Comment

This week, I spent some time on traditional, mathematical computing work, like investigating the “Add Tag” function so I have a better idea of how it works. I added an Add Tag function to challenges and now anyone can add a tag to anyone else’s world or challenge. I have yet to determine if this should be a permanent aspect of this function, because as Caitlin mentioned, someone could add a tag like “This world stinks!” and use it for bullying.

I remembered Mary is working on a sorting system for popular worlds, so I talked with her today about how she went about that. Patient and helpful as ever, she helped me see her logic as she determined the ways tags relate to their worlds, and how to keep track of how many times a particular world has been tagged with a particular word. Thanks to her advice, I am able to see what I need to do to sort my tags by popularity. Hopefully, if more than a certain number of people have to give a world a tag for it to be popular (and therefore show up underneath that world) it will weed out potential bullying and mean tags.

But what really struck me about my experience of learning from my peer was the startling realization that a diverse group of people is sorely needed in the field of computer science. Mary is and has been an excellent teacher to me, even though we are the same age. She makes sure I know exactly where I’m headed with my task before she goes back to her work. And she always makes a genuine effort to help me if I’m stuck, even if she has her own massive project to attend to.

Working with someone so refreshingly sensitive to my needs made me wonder how different the world of computing would be if it were more inclusive of sensitive people. Sometimes it seems like in computing and technology, the atmosphere is built for people who are traditionally good at far left brain thinking--people who are highly skilled at math but maybe aren’t the best at communication and interpersonal relationships. I realize that can be an old stereotype, but then I look at my own experiences, and I question whether or not there may be some truth to it. I have seen such an unfortunate impatience for those who aren’t quite up to speed with others who have more experience in the field.

I see evidence of this impatience in dense research papers full of jargon that is almost unreadable except to those at or above the level of the authors. I see it in some of my old teachers’ inability to answer questions in terms other than the ones they are accustomed to using with other faculty members. And I see it in my classmates at school, who seem unable or unwilling to discuss topics other than those with which they are intimately familiar. In fact, a perfect example can be found in the Personal Tech portion of the Business Section of today’s New York Times.

The author describes his frustration at helping his mother complete a task that is clearly very unfamiliar to her. It is a story I have heard time and again from people my age who are typically better with technology than our elders. Have we grown so intolerant that we can’t even deal with someone who doesn’t know as much as we do about such a specific topic? Maybe his mother laughed at him when he couldn’t spell “impetuous” in kindergarten, joked with her friends when he couldn’t yet pour his own juice. I’m thinking, probably not.

The world of computing could be vastly improved by a more inclusive community, one that not only encompassed the traditional ideal of a computer scientist, but also allowed for artists, musicians, teachers, history buffs, sociologists, our younger siblings, our parents. Creative thinking is crucial for progress! How can we have any opportunity for fresh thought when the standard typically allows for only a very specific type of thought process?

I’m going to take this opportunity to challenge the traditional model of computing. I realize that a firm grasp of mathematics and logic is necessary for programming, and I am grateful for my math ability when completing programs. But I also very often catch myself thinking of a particular philosopher’s line of thought when considering a new logical approach to my algorithms. And it doesn’t just take a background in philosophy to think this way, it takes a personal capacity to connect a completely unrelated school of thought and see the bridges that carry it over to exactly what I’m doing in the Looking Glass lab.

But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t have that capacity if I didn’t have a passionate background in that area. I wouldn’t even know to make those connections because I wouldn’t have that alternative knowledge in the first place. But it is exactly that alternative thinking that made me feel for a long time that I would never be accepted in computing and technology. What a terrible catch-22! But it doesn’t have to be. No academic or professional area should ever be an exclusive club, barring members based on sex, gender, race, class, or any of the other multitude of ways we have arbitrarily kept people out over time.

I’m tired of exclusivity. Anyone can do this work, just as anyone can do any work. I think this mini-epiphany today helped me come to see my project and Looking Glass itself in a whole new light. I think I’m starting to see what this whole thing is really about. And I am deeply inspired by it. I can’t wait to go to the Grace Hopper Convention this October and tell everyone who will listen that I was part of the Looking Glass lab, part of a new force that is fundamentally changing the face of computing for the better.


  • caitlin

    caitlin said:

    <p>Certainly the long term hope for Looking Glass is to attract and support a much more diverse set of people to computing. I've personally thought more about the greater range of the technologies that come out with a more diverse community, but the greater of range of approaches to problems within given projects will certainly add strength to the field as well.</p>

    Posted on Jul 20, 2012

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