Things I learned in 2015

31 December 2015

Disclaimer: some of these are more confirmations of obvious-sounding things, and others, you might disagree with. I’m open to changing my mind on lots of these, but wanted to write them down at least for posterity.

I learned that…

…lots of people talk about things they don’t understand. This year, relatively frequently I heard people talk at public conferences who had fundamental misunderstandings about topics they were mentioning. Hot topics like algorithms, “big data”, “machine learning”, for example. This episode of Data Skeptics does a great job of debunking a lot of popular conceptions around big data, and I’m seeing more and more of a need for simple explanations of complex topics to prevent this from happening.

…many of my frustrations around technology and data stem from people’s lack of basic data and technology literacy. Even more frustratingly, it seems as though the divide between elite, technically literate people who can use technology appropriately and responsibly, and “the rest” is only growing. This worries me, and is something I want to work on addressing in 2016.

…that solving this needs to be addressed in a broader way than simply saying “everyone needs to learn to code.” I disagree. I think that everyone needs to understand some basic concepts to do with technology - but learning to code is simply one approach, and not necessarily the right one for everyone. Understanding how and why technology works can be done in many ways, and I believe that taking a multidisciplinary approach to increasing technical literacy of society at large gives us a better chance of succeeding. Not everyone possesses the skillset required to be a good coder - and that’s okay.

…we need to stop putting coders and developers on a pedestal; essentially, coding skills need to stop being proxies for legitimacy in discussions about technology. It’s not helpful, and it means we ignore the crucial role that many others play in this space. The magic of technology depends upon a lot of people, with a lot of different skillsets - and as Shawn Wen puts it, “the actual magic trick is making the worker disappear.” The foundations of that magic are, in essence, underpaid workers in poor countries, the majority of whom are women. For our technology to bring the most benefits to all of us, it needs to respect the experiences and roles of everyone. For more on this, see Maya’s post about “invisible digital labour” here, which quotes some great thinkers in this space.

…despite a growing focus on innovation and new ideas being useful, we still need to support organisations that protect our basic rights - rights which are the very foundations of all the other, “cooler” stuff. Groups like Open Rights Group, or those like Access Info Europe (my former employer) are too often relied upon, but taken for granted. Their work is laborious, and necessary, and it needs sustained support.

…the events I learned the most from were small, and topic-focused - though I had a lot of fun at the bigger ones! Maybe my favourite event this year was at a microconference within Future Everything, called Haunted Machines., where a lot of smart and cool people (mostly women) talked about magic and technology. With the caveat that I felt there was definitely room for a broader cultural understanding of ‘history’ there, it was a fantastic event. I was sad to miss APC’s ‘Imagine a feminist internet’ meeting, which I imagine would have been along these lines, and I hope to make it to a future edition.

…telling compelling stories is so important. You can have all the data in the world, or all the proof you like, but if you can’t engage people in why it’s important, nothing will change. I realised that this is the reason I’m interested in journalism, especially journalism that tries to change opinions, or brings new perspectives to well-worn topics, or tries out new formats of telling those stories. Podcasts aside, some compelling storytelling methods that I liked this year included this illustrated video by Molly Crabapple; this fantastic Visual Intro to Machine Learning; and the wonderful “Parable of the Polygons”; and this incredibly long and amazing read, “What is code”. I also took a look at ways that digital storytelling is being used to tell stories of the Syrian conflict.

…podcasting is harder than it sounds. This year, together with my friend Luiza, I started a podcast - Collusion - on the intersection of power and technology. I love doing it, but I’m not very good yet, I don’t think! There’s so much that goes into making a good podcast, and it’s an incredibly powerful method of telling a story, and one that I want to get better at in 2016. I look up to podcast-storyteller-extraordinaires like the team behind Digital Human and Invisibilia.

on me

..having people read and edit my writing is fantastic. Prior to this year, I’d never been part of a formal structure where an editor would read and go over my work - and this year, I joined the engine room, where my colleague Tom is a great editor. More recently, I started writing for Global Voices, where I benefit from multiple levels of editing. It’s making me seriously appreciate the largely-unseen work of editors.

…time is the most valuable thing we have. What we choose to spend our time on - or not spend our time on - are the most important decisions we’ll make. What we prioritise says a lot about what we value; and life is short. This year a good friend of mine passed away suddenly, and it was overwhelming to see how many people he’d spent time with, and how many amazing things he’d done during his too-short life. Clearly, he prioritised well…and I hope I do, too.

…to pick my fights. Not all fights are mine, and that’s fine. If someone’s being an idiot, then maybe I will choose to engage - and maybe I won’t. Learning to accept that and not feel guilty about not always engaging, was a big deal for me this year, and helped greatly by the fact that people around me are often great at taking on the fights I don’t want to.

…once you start, noticing prejudice is easy, but calling it out is really hard. Telling someone they’re being racist, as brilliantly explained upon by Alice Bell, “opens up space for the white person to get offended and cause further problems”. Recently I called out a panel of 6 men for its lack of gender representation - then got invited to be on the panel myself. Formulating a response email that expressed my thoughts on the situation in an honest but kind way, was hard. Willow wrote a great piece last year about ‘teachable moments’ which touches on a few of these issues, and is definitely worth a read.

…saying no is far better than overcommitting and not being able to deliver. But it’s hard! I’m going to try my very hardest to only say ‘yes’ to things I can realistically complete, rather than trying hard to do a little bit of lots of things.

(I wanted to finish this post with a list of people who inspire and challenge me (online and offline) - but the list got too long. So, to all you many, many people: thank you.


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