The Big Articulation

Isaac Hollander McCreery, 3 December 2014

For eight weeks, now, I’ve tasked myself with the following question: “What, then, must I do?” That’s a very egocentric question, really, and I’ve been ready to be done with it for a while now. It’s an exhausting and sickening—though strengthening, if it doesn’t kill you—sort of condition to be consciously thinking about yourself all the time.

Anyway, for most of the last year, and certainly this last chunk of self-centered ailment, I’ve imagined I might land myself in a position where I could fuse my intense technical interests with my political raison d’être. I thought I might find someone who’s doing some awesome project that combines programming linguistics and a sense of social justice in some way I hadn’t ever dreamed of.

But, I haven’t found that someone.

In the last five months, I have been blessed with some great experiences doing data science work for causes I believe in, first with the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, and then with the City of San Francisco. As I’ve talked with people about concrete next steps that line up with my imagined possibility, though, those concrete next steps have felt inarticulably contradictory.

Recently, though, things have started feeling more articulable. So, I’m going to try to lay out here the contradictions I’ve been considering, comment on them, and discuss where I imagine I’m headed now. You can find more information about where I’m headed here.

Contradictions

Contradiction 1: using a sledgehammer to pull a splinter

The most obvious contradiction that exists, and the one that needs the least explanation, is this: the study and construction of programming languages is pretty unrelated to social justice. Put another way, using programming linguistics to achieve political goals is like trying to use a sledgehammer to pull a splinter.

I think there’s real power and promise in trying to combine unrelated fields; in fact, many people over the years have said that this is exactly what drives innovation. Marx pulled together tools from divergent fields of philosophy to tackle economic questions; Jobs pulled unparalleled art and design principles into computation.

So, although I’m saying that programming linguistics, or other formal methods, are seemingly unrelated to social justice and political economics, in the same breath I want to acknowledge that there might be some dynamite discoveries to be made in mashing them together. But, for now, I haven’t found anyone doing that mashing, (i.e. research,) so it’s going to be even harder to find someone to pay me to do that mashing. And that brings me to the second contradiction.

Contradiction 2: I want to do research, but I don’t want to do research.

Any of my friends will tell you I love tinkering. As I wrote at the beginning of this adventure, “I know that the blessing of space and time to pursue what I want is hard to come by.” I’ve heard some professors say they have a hard time with the openness of research: they can just do whatever they want, as long as they get it funded. Me? I sometimes have a hard time when I can’t do whatever I want; being able to direct research to whatever I want, as long as I get it funded, sounds pretty great.

As a thought exercise presented to me, I recently made a short list of people whose work I admire most. Here’s that list:

All four are scholars, in anthropology & geography, political economics, feminism, and—yes—computer science, respectively. Here’s how I tried to describe my zany, imagined aspirations in a recent email:

I want to be producing work in the tradition of Harvey and hooks, using methods like Peyton Jones’, with applications as real as Alperovitz’s. Certainly that’s an impossible balance to strike, but I’m talking blue-sky right now.

Put another way, I want to do research, (i.e. “mashing,” see above).

And I have every intention of returning to school: I love the academic environment and the opportunity to learn, (and certainly the opportunity to tinker,) too much to put it in my past. In fact, I just wrote a bit about my research interests here. But, I’ve been served very well so far by informing my time in school with time outside of school. I’ve worked jobs in retail, with folks from very different backgrounds that me, and in software engineering, getting a sense of what real multi-year, team-managed projects are like. So in that vein, I’ve given myself an explicit few years, (probably no more than five, but no less than two,) to spend some time down away from the ivory tower.

Put another way, I don’t want to do research, (at least not right now).

As we say in mathematics, ⨳.

Contradiction 3: farm for your food; pray for your salvation.

The first two contradictions outlined above give me reason to put down my search for research that combines programming linguistics and social justice for now. But, this third contradiction give me reason to question whether or not I should ever even pick it up again. This realization, I think, is the most profound and important framework I’ve discovered in this whole process.

My politics don’t align very well with mainstream politics: I’m not a Democrat; I’m definitely not a Republican. I tend to be quite critical of widely-respected institutions, and I don’t intend to compromise on my political beliefs.

If I’m going to find a job that pays the bills, whatever I’m doing has to be put on the market, (even in nonprofit and government sectors, agendas are bound by what people will pay for). And, that means that if I’m doing political work to pay the bills, I’m putting my politics on the market. While there may be reasons for doing so, there are costs. I no longer have the deep freedom that may be required to do truly meaningful political work and create meaningful political change. I worry that getting paid to pursue my political raison d’être is a dangerous proposition, ever.

I have to put food on the table somehow. Up until now, I’ve been seeking a way to put food on the table by doing God’s work. Now, I’m becoming skeptical.

Maybe, it’s better to contribute material work to the world in exchange for money to buy food, and leave God’s work off of the market.

Maybe, I’ll farm for my food and pray for my salvation.

Where I’m headed

So after many talks with close friends, and lots with strangers, (which, by the way, I highly recommend—talking with strangers) I’m ready to consider the question, “What, then, must I do?” as answered-for-now. Having articulated the contradictions I think I’ve been up against, I’m prepared to resolve them, at least for a couple of years.

This, then, I must do: work in a highly technical job, doing as little harm as possible, and pursue my political passions extravocationally. Mark my words, though: this is for now, not forever.

I’m blessed to be in a position where I can put food on the table with one of my interests: programming linguistics and formal methods. The kind of work I do in an engineering position, where I’m writing code and solving hard technical problems during the day, will leave me intellectually satisfied in that kind of thinking, but will leave me with emotional energy to pursue my political interests outside of work. I’ll be able to become a better engineer and a better political theorist, separately. I can prepare myself for the possibility of doing research later. And, I’ll be free to engage with any political ideas I want, regardless of whether I can make money doing it or not.