Spirits, I wish you were here

The reason I am in data science is to understand the tools and get just a little bit of the power inherent in the field so that I can maybe put it to some good use. I don’t know how any of this will work in my life or what I will be able to do, I don’t have a plan–but plans aren’t much good when everything’s in freefall anyway.

I’m here because Data science is the machinery of power right now. Most women are shut out of this area. We are actively shut out in myriad ways, but also we often self-select out. I know many, many women who could be good at this work, but they avoid it, shuddering.

I understand. I understand so, so well. But I wish you were here, women and
other spirits, because fuck, it’s lonely and I don’t vibe with any of it any more than you do.

A lot of the work I do is ugly. If anyone can find beauty in it, wonderful for them. To me, it’s is dry, reductionist, tedious, deadening. To sit for hours at a screen peering at symbols and trying to think in straight lines is very, very hard and goes against my nature. Can’t speak for anyone else; some people seem to love the process for its own sake. Not me. I actively hate sitting at a screen. I’m not a maths person, I’m not even an intellectual in more broad terms. I don’t have a super big IQ or a huge appetite for knowledge. I’m an artist and I keep at least half of my mind overgrown and wild; that’s a conscious choice driven by a deeper awareness that comes from something bigger than I am, something in which I’m just a little embedded nugget and I’d like not to forget that.

As a half-wild person I hate the necessary obsessive tidiness and attention to detail that comes part and parcel with anything science-related. Confining my thinking to discrete boxes makes me a smaller and more uptight person. It’s uncomfortable, but I do it because I must.

I struggle over the industrial-sized and industrial-shaped disconnect between data science’s analytical trains of reasoning and their possible real-world impacts. I know that data science has the power to make the world better—it’s just that often, in commerce and its corruption, the opposite is happening. Looking at job listings is enough to drive me to despair.

Sometimes I feign enthusiasm but in truth I sit down to work every single time with the sense of shovelling shit. Because whether I like it or not, this is what needs to be done.

And I can’t afford to get distracted by bullshit. (How is this even possible in 2020? In 2021? In 2022? We are on an ascending bullshit curve aiming for asymptotic bullshit.)

I can hear it in my head like a movie trailer voiceover:

‘In a world ruled by bullshit, one scruffy woman battles not to be distracted by bullshit’

Last week some apparently-minor stuff happened that rang all my sexism bells. It’s just a stupid thing that has taken a lot of my energy in twisty and convoluted ways—the latest in a string of little things that happen that are invisible to the (male) technical community around me but glaringly obvious to me. When you can see things that other people can’t see it can be very tiring to hold fast to your own perceptions. Sometimes I feel like people are looking at me like I’m a TV ghosthunter making up hauntings out of thin air. Even now I feel the impulse to apologise and walk back because my response seems so overblown. But I won’t. That’s because it would be wrong to walk through this PhD experience like a boxer absorbing every low blow that comes in without trying to change the rules of engagement. Because for every minority person in a situation like this, when we make a path through we are also implicitly helping to clear a path for others coming after. Simply by existing.

That is the thing that is keeping me going right now. In the past, faced with the level of discouragement I’m feeling right now, I would have just walked away. I’d have found a different path, something less abrasive and more in line with my personal values—except that none of those paths have gotten me anywhere other than disenfranchised, and I’m tired of being a spectator at the shitshow. Now, every time I feel tempted to just walk away from tech I think about how my ancestors (biological and otherwise) sacrificed so I could have a better life. If I throw this opportunity away because I’m tired and because I feel alienated and because my ego hurts, it’s an insult to them. They had to go forward for me, so I have to go forward, so the next person coming along has a bit of a path.

Here’s what I’m going to say, though. I’m done with trying to assimilate into this computer science culture. I’m done with trying to contort myself to fit into the assigned shape. I’m not blending. People are going to see me coming with my shit-covered shovel and my emotional mess, and if they don’t like it they can get out of the way because I’m not stopping now.