What is to be done?

Sep 2016

I’m a technologist – someone who builds tools and systems. I’m also not someone who draws a sharp distinction between work and life. I view life as a series of projects I care about, the only distinction being that sometimes people want to pay me money to work on some of these projects.

I am motivated in my work by the premise that what I am doing is somehow helping to improve the world. In the past year, I experienced a crisis of faith, where I stopped believing this premise, and as a result my work (and so also my life) became meaningless to me.

This post is a somewhat-personal account of how this crisis came about, how I dealt with it, and what I concluded in the end. I wrote this for me, so I have a record of the journey. But if you, too, are a technologist who is finding herself depressed and uninspired, then maybe this could help. Or maybe you’re just trying to figure out where best to apply yourself? If so, skip to the end.

Catch-22

I am an environmentalist as well as a technologist. I really, really like this awesome planet we’re all riding around on; so beautiful, so full of neat things. My environmentalism came into direct conflict with my profession, as it became clear to me that we’re using technology to make a mess of things.

For instance, we create nuclear fuel which will last for 10,000 years and has to be stored in complicated facilities lest it poison us all. We release chemicals into the environment which are turning amphibians female. Our bees are dying, probably thanks to our pestides, but our pine beetles are thriving (and killing all the trees) because of global warming.

Technology is not just causing environmental degradation, but seems to be digging at the very fabric of society. We can build weapons which may destroy us all. At the same time, we have isolated ourselves in filter bubbles, wherein conflict and rhetoric can escalate until the use of those weapons doesn’t seem so bad. At a time when we’re faced with huge collective challenges, technology seems to have taken away even our ability to agree on ‘facts’.

So, here was the catch-22. How could technology be both the cause of and the solution to all of our problems? If I continued working on improving technology, wouldn’t I be hastening the very outcomes I decried? But if I refused to work on technology any further, than what was I to do instead? I could retreat into the woods and hide from the world, but that didn’t seem like the solution to any problem – not even my distinctly personal one.

Descent

This crisis of confidence was the cause of (or caused by, or just correlated with) some major sad times in my life. I felt paralysed with inaction. I felt as though I should be working to fix the problems I saw in the world, but there was no action to take that wouldn’t make things worse. During this period – roughtly, autumn 2015 to summer 2016 – I felt like an automaton going through the motions of life, while inside I felt nothing but dread. During this time, my relationship with my long-term parner disintegrated. The shared house community I had been living in fell apart as well, and I moved into an apartment by myself for the first time in 14 years. I burned out at work, and went on leave to attempt to recover my sanity.

Escape

Today, I am feeling much more optimistic about the world, and my role in it. A few things really helped me to overcome this malaise.

Spirituality and Inward Focus

There were two disjoint sets of problems. One set included the problems I discussed above – environmental degradation, political gridlock, the threat of catastrophe. But a totally different set of problems was internal – my own sad, depressed mental state.

I could do nothing about the former until I addressed the latter. That, itself, was a useful realization.

I had several tools to address my internal problems. One learning, which I picked up from the various books on communication I had been reading (especially Non-Violent Communication and Crucial Conversations), was that I chose my reactions. A person in an interaction with me could not “make” me upset – they did whatever, and then I made myself upset by reacting. Likewise, global warming didn’t “make” me depressed – I could react with either ennui or with determination when confronted with such a problem, and it was up to me to choose which.

Another tool, which I gained from my healing circle, was insight into the nature of control. It’s what the shaman I worked with would call the “control virus”. I was upset because I felt like all of these huge world problems were beyond my control. But – of course they were! Most things are beyond our control, even when we think they’re not. Just about the only thing we can control is how we react, which actions we ourselves take. It’s not up to me to solve all of the worlds problems, but it’s up to me to do the best I can, to be the best I can. This realization may sound trite. But, as with many important realizations, there’s a huge difference between hearing or reading or knowing it, and having it really sink into your bones.

I group realizations like this into an overall spiritual journey. Any work I do in the external world is secondary to work I do on the inside, on my own conciousness. It is the latter which enables the former. Whatever your focus – environmentalism, or poverty, or health and healthcare – it must start with inward healing,

Community

Another amazing source of healing while I dealt with my crisis was my community. My healing circle has provided me with many mental tools and insights. I meet regularly with a group called HeartTribe, the members of which support one another in making the positive changes they wish to see in their lives. Also, my general group of close friends is wonderful, and supported me during the dark times. What was most helpful was feeling like I was not alone in my spiritual journey, but that these wonderful people were there with me.

Also, many of the people I’m close to are also technologists who have struggled with some form of the same crisis. I was able to learn how my peers were able to create meaning in their lives. I could learn about the types of projects which were inspiring them, and become infected by their enthusiasm. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by so many generous people doing so many cool things.

Ok, But What’s To Be Done?

Ultimately, a powerful realization (which came from my friend Other Igor) was that there’s no way back. We cannot just shut off our technology – we’re too dependent on it, now.

Thus, we must move forward. We have to create technology which preserves the environment, respects human values, and enables us to be the best species we can be. If we simply accept this premise, then there’s no time for despondency, because there’s so much work to do.

The problem then becomes (as usual) how to pick the biggest thing to work on. Bret Victor already has an amazing list of priorities in climate change. I’ve also been thinking of projects in FinTech and in digital communication and privacy which could have a large impact. I plan on writing more about my ideas for improving communication, but currently I’m excited about sandstorm.

Finally, an important source of inspiration for me has been a careful re-reading of Meditations on Moloch. This is a brilliant piece of writing, which really gets at all of the underlying issues I am concerned about – really, all the same issue, Moloch (whose mind is pure machinery!).

If you are looking for inspiration, reading this essay should fill you with a thousand ideas. There is a ton of room for attacking the underlying coordination problems that the author discusses. But his final conclusion suggests that the most important project is AI. For a dispirited technologist, this is an incredibly energizing conclusion. You can join the ranks of thousands of other engineers and scientists who have worked on this problem, and there’s room for everyone no matter your specific skill set. Probably, even a crusty systems guy like me can contribute here.