God’s Work

Isaac Hollander McCreery, 3 September 2014

On Monday night at KDD, the Data Science for Social Good Fellowship, along with every other person who had research in KDD, ended up in a massive ballroom with a poster, standing by our work and answering questions of passersby.

Most of the posters had titles like Fast Flux Discriminant for Large-Scale Sparse Nonlinear Classification and Reducing the Sampling Complexity of Topic Models. Ours read, Understanding and Evaluating Pathways to Stable Housing.

With over 200 posters in the room, it was a pretty overwhelming place, and not so many people came to our particular corner of the maze. Many of those who did, too, seemed uninterested, if not just confused. What was research about homelessness doing at a computer science conference?

It ended up that we had a few longer conversations, and almost no short ones. If someone was interested, they were very interested.

One young student came over and asked us about our work, though, in the too-dark lighting of the ballroom with no windows. We got to talking. He said he was interested in the Fellowship, but said that he was more interested in working in industry. He clarified that he meant advertising optimization, but at KDD, “industry” and “advertising” are pretty much synonymous. He seemed certain enough, but he also seemed uncomfortable and embarrassed, as I imagine were some other people who didn’t even stop to ask us what we were doing, about where he was headed and what he wanted to do with his life and his skills. So, what’s someone who’s spent the last 12 weeks pouring his heart into the homelessness system in Chicago to say to someone who wants to optimize ad clicks for the forseeable future?

Some part of me wanted to encourage him. I didn’t know anything about him, his background, who he was, or what he wanted in life. I could write a sappy article here in that vein, about how it’s okay; about how we’re all contributing to the world in our own unique ways. In some ways, it’s true: we certainly wouldn’t have our level of technology or understanding of data science if it weren’t for the big dogs like Google, Twitter, and Facebook.

But I didn’t encourage him; I just talked about the rewards of the work I’ve been doing, and about my own motivation. I won’t write that sappy article about how it’s okay; about how we’re all contributing to the world in our own unique ways. We’re not, and the story that we are just keeps us working as cogs in a system that does bad things to all of us, worse things the further down the economic ladder you get. I felt like saying, My work is God’s work, and yours is not. We wouldn’t have the level of technical understanding if it weren’t for the big dogs, but we also wouldn’t have the level of income inequality and homelessness if it weren’t for the same big dogs, now and in the past. I wouldn’t have walked past dozens of homeless Chicagoans every day to work, just wanting to explain to them, I’m doing the best I can for you, if only you knew, if the robber barons and the capitalists weren’t so damn greedy and racist.

I’m reading a sociology thesis right now by the formerly-homeless security guard who worked in my building this summer. He writes,

Homelessness is socially constructed by the core of society … Poverty is one of the dysfunctions that helps the rest of society function well. (1)

If you want to work to get another 0.5% bump in ad clicks for a big company to earn the world’s richest even more money, go for it. There are plenty of reasons why you might want to: you have a family to support, (though, let’s be clear, buying a Porsche for yourself or your 18-year-old son is not supporting your family); you have student loans to pay off, (but maybe you should also consider doing some advocacy or activism in education reform so our kids don’t get pummelled with loans the way our generation is); or you’re just bored doing anything else, (in this case, you probably just haven’t looked hard enough).

We’re all just people making our way in a confusing and terrifying world, and I’m ready to acknowledge that. But we need more stories in this world about right and wrong, so let’s start here. My work is God’s work. Yours is not. Don’t pretend that it is.

(1) Orr, Charles Henry. Homelessness: A Challenge to African American Males. Mustang: Tate, 2005. Page 19.