Do Systems Enslave or Empower Us?

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The stock market crash and the subsequent collapse of banks across America heavily contributed to the Great Depression, causing thousands of families to be driven out of their homes. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck shows us that although individuals may not be ill-intentioned, the systems we create—including the bank—have the potential to do much harm. The metaphor of the bank as a monster that we no longer have control over applies to so many areas of our modern day society—corruption in Wall Street, dependency on fossil fuels, the destabilization of politics around the world, and dominating technology companies—just to name a few.

People, at their core, are not evil. We love and we dream, and we feel strongly toward injustices. Yet, mankind has done terrible, unspeakable things. We have raped, pillaged, and killed millions of people. We have led witch trials and genocides—pointed fingers at the innocent and exalted the criminals.

We do these terrible things—not because we’re evil, but because we allow our greed and conformity to control us. Our ignorance and our inability to break out of the systems that we create is ultimately what leads us to our downfall.

Systems can be great. They help us achieve much more than what a single person can do—and when engineered correctly, can allow us to lead more empowering and fulfilling lives. But systems can also be monsters that creep up on us—and by the time we realize the destruction they’re causing, it’s too late.

Now that I’m at a large technology corporation, I have been thinking deeply about what it means to do “the right thing,” and whether I have any control over this. I’ve met many great people who work at large tech companies, and I’m convinced that they try to do “the right thing”—but I always wonder if the systems that we create cause us to care more about money and recognition than societal benefit. (Or, if our prioritization of money and recognition causes us to create these systems.)

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling.

What I remember from The Grapes of Wrath, though, was ultimately a message of hope. Humanity will fight on, despite the wretchedness of the systems we create. There will always be people who fight hard for justice, just like there will be people who fight to retain the current system. My only hope is that we don’t create a system that we are unable to defeat. As technology progresses and we create systems that are more powerful than us, who will survive—us, or the system?

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On the Pursuit of Excellence

Almost a decade ago, I memorized the following paragraph for the written portion of my black belt test:

“Mastery in one’s career and consciousness growth simply requires that we constantly produce results beyond and out of the ordinary. Mastery is a product of consistently going beyond our limits. For most people, it starts with technical excellence in a chosen field and a commitment to that excellence. If you are willing to commit yourself to excellence, to surround yourself with things that represent this and miracles (when we speak of miracles, we speak of events or experiences in the real world which are beyond the ordinary), your life will change.”

At the time, I didn’t truly understand what mastery was. Recently, I watched “Whiplash,” and I think I have finally grown to understand what I memorized so long ago.

“Whiplash” struck a chord in me. It was so much more than a guy finding success in drumming—it was about the pursuit of excellence at the cost of all else. When Andrew stumbled—head and hands bleeding—out of a car he just crashed to attend a concert he couldn’t afford to miss, I felt a mixture of disgust and admiration for his dedication. When he told Vanessa that he couldn’t be with her because he believed they were too different, I was both blown away by how insensitive he was and how focused he was in achieving his dreams. (Granted, I took a lot of issue about how females were portrayed in this film, but that’s another story.)

I won’t praise or condone Andrew for his dogmatic pursuit of excellence, but the movie made me think a lot about what I want out of my life and the lengths I am willing to go to make that happen.

“I’d rather die at 34, drunk and broke, and be talked about at a dining room table than 90, sober and rich, forgotten.” — Andrew from “Whiplash”

What I’ve realized through watching this film is that one of my core missions in life is to achieve mastery—not necessarily for fame or riches, but for myself. Through the pursuit of excellence and reaching a “flow” state in a chosen field, we can become fulfilled. And to me, happiness is derived from fulfillment. Therefore, the root of happiness is in the pursuit of excellence.

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives—choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” — Aristotle

On Priorities

This semester, it became more apparent to me that I cannot have everything I want. I have always had an idealistic view of my life—I would have an amazing career, take photographs of amazing places and get my work in prominent art shows, read and write and travel and expand my mind, have friends who I deeply care about and who care about me, marry an incredible guy, raise compassionate and intelligent children (and a dog), live in a two-story house with my own observatory, run marathons and be a health nut, etc. I thought I would be able to juggle it all, but especially now in college, I’m realizing the tradeoffs and sacrifices that must be made. Perhaps I can’t be rich if I pursue my real passion. Perhaps I won’t have time to take photos if I want to exceed in my field. Perhaps I won’t get to pursue a career at my fullest potential if I spend time raising children.

I know it’s too early to worry about, but I’m already starting to feel the pressure of priorities. And I also suppose there is a time and a place for priorities—maybe now I may be consumed by my studies, but later I will focus on my art.

At the beginning of this semester, I applied to and was selected to be in a freshman seminar (a pass/fail class with only ~10 other students) on photography in the national parks. The topic was exactly what I’m interested in, and the professor was someone I extensively researched about online—I was familiar with her art and watched the videos she had online. I was so excited to learn from a famous photographer who had her work in the MOMA and other places—I had a dream that I would learn so much from her and that somehow I’d turn into an amazing photographer and get my work in museums or something.

But as I sat in class the first day, I realized that all of the time I put into this course would be less time sleeping and doing other work. I also realized that instead of taking a course on photographing national parks, it might be a better use of my time to later just go to national parks myself and take photographs. And as my STEM courses started, I realized that I would never put my photography above my career. I dropped the seminar, and while I won’t say I regret doing so, I will say that it has raised questions about what I value and why I dogmatically “pursue my dreams” rather than broadening my intellectual interests.

I know college is not a pre-professional activity—it’s so much more than that. But at the same time, I realize that I will never feel truly happy if I don’t love my work. And for now, that translates into working hard to get where I want to be in my career. I’m also not sure if this view was inflicted on me by society—after all, “work” is a societal construct. But I do believe that if I spend upwards 60 hours a week on something that I get paid for, I will have to love it.

Some people work to live—I’d say that I live to work. Maybe that’s my view now as a college student, but I have always felt like I needed to fulfill a higher purpose—and for me, that higher purpose comes from how I contribute to society through my career.

What Would I Do If I Weren’t Afraid?

Ever since I was a child, I have always been cautious. I was never the type to rush into things—instead, I would observe, test, think, and slowly inch out of my comfort zone.

Here’s what I would do if I weren’t afraid:

  • I would travel (to New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland, etc.) by myself, meet new people, and get immersed in different cultures
  • I would unabashedly photograph (and occasionally talk to) strangers
  • I would go backpacking in the wilderness and become a wildlife/nature photographer
  • I would learn to drive
  • I would drive to mountains and take photographs of the stars
  • I would ask more questions—lead with curiosity and the desire for knowledge
  • I would say how I really feel (be vulnerable) and show my true self (be authentic)
  • I would scuba dive
  • I would design and build a house
  • I would run a marathon
  • I would write and publish more op-eds
  • I would dedicate myself to a single pursuit and devote my whole life to it

Fear has been a large part of my life, for better or for worse. Yet it hasn’t really stopped me from following my dreams—because, for me, the fear of not pursuing my passions and being mediocre is stronger than the fear of failing.

As I made this list, I realized that most of the things I’m pursuing right now genuinely make me happy. Even though I’m not a professional photographer or traveling to the places of my dreams, I am in college to expand my mind and pursue a dream that I have had since childhood: space exploration. I’d say I’m on a pretty good path right now because most of the things on my list can be pursued on my current trajectory. And who knows–maybe some will be done this very year!

First Semester of College Reflections

My first semester has already gone by! College has been intense, stressful, stimulating, and incredibly fun—and for the most part, I love it.

Over the past few month, I’ve been constantly thinking about what I want out of my life and the kind of person I want to become. Here are some questions I’m asking:

  • Why am I at school? What is unique about a university setting? Why did I choose a liberal arts education over a technical institute?
  • What is the benefit of taking one more engineering class vs one class on anthropology, education, or religion, that will expand or even change the way I see the world? Should I go for depth or breadth as an undergraduate student?
  • Why must I study one subject in depth? What is the purpose of having a major?
  • What is the purpose of college? Is it to get a job, to meet people, or for the pursuit of knowledge?
  • What have I done with my life, and what am I doing? What do I want out of my life?
  • Why am I studying computer science when I can learn about humanity through other classes?
  • How do I develop deep knowledge? How can I apply what I learn in school to my everyday life?

Through mulling over these questions, here are some lessons I’ve learned and some conclusions I’ve drawn:

1. The purpose of college
To me, college is not just a preprofessional activity. I didn’t go to college to get a job, or even to become prepared for one. I went to college to see what was possible, and to learn about myself and the world around me.

I remember thinking that I could be anything if I went to college—I could go into law, or become a politician, or a writer. I remember thinking this would be the place where I could pick up a random hobby and keep it with me for the rest of my life—like glassblowing or pottery or something cool like that.

A semester later, although my starry-eyed optimism has faded and I am largely pursuing my original interests, I want to remember my purpose as I continue college. I don’t want to surround myself with only a homogeneous group of people, and I don’t want to do only a select number of activities. Instead, I want to grow and explore, to seek to understand and to be understood. I want to challenge and change my worldview.

There is a gate at Harvard with an inscription that reads, “Enter to grow in wisdom.” As you leave, it says, “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” I want college to be a place where I grow not only intellectually, but as a person. I suppose that growth could happen anywhere, but I thought this was the best place for me to stretch myself and expose myself to such diverse people and ways of thinking.

I think at many points in the semester, I lost sight of my initial purpose—rather than exposing myself to the unknown, I stayed with what was comfortable because I was stressed and wanted to do well in my classes. I’m still trying to figure out the best tradeoff between pursuing what I’m already good at and taking the time to explore what I’ve never been exposed to.

2. Learning to let go of prejudices
One of the earliest things I learned—even before entering college—was how incredibly interesting people are and that I should never assume anything about anyone. For my preorientation program, I attended the Freshman Outdoors Program (FOP) in which I embarked on a week-long backpacking and canoeing trip in Maine with 12 other incoming freshman and two upperclassmen. I realized that the best way to truly know someone is to live with them in the wilderness for a few days.

During the next-to-last night during the trip, we all sat around a campfire and shared stories. We talked about things that we never talked about with most of our friends, sharing stories filled with our deepest secrets. I learned new things about the people I spent every hour with for the last five days.

One of my favorite things about college is the sheer diversity of people I have met. It’s amazing how many people I’ve encountered from all over the world—Syria, New Zealand, Kenya, Singapore, the Himalayas, and more. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we come from such different backgrounds and that my view of people sometimes reflects not only the people themselves but also of my preconceived ideas of where they come from and the type of people they are.

3. Evolving my mindset around technology
Coming from Silicon Valley, it was definitely different to see so many people opposing technology (or at least not being staunch supporters). I’ve had a few great conversations about the role of technology in our lives that have expanded my view of what high-tech has done and will continue to do.

Especially after leading tech and robotics clubs, I have always been a solid promotor of girls in technology. I guess I rarely thought about the implications of technology.

Being in a liberal arts environment forced me to see technology not as a bubble or in a vacuum, but with real-world implications. I now hope to use technology as a way to increase equality rather than decrease it.

4. Computer science (and how I love it)
CS was hard for me. I took a class called Machine Programming and Systems Organization. I guess it wasn’t too hard of a class on its own, but combined with three other heavy classes, I definitely felt stretched.

My first midterm was rough. I studied so much, but I walked out of the test thinking that I failed. Though I did better than I thought (because, as my grader wrote, “Partial credit is magic!”), I realized that even if I failed the class, even if I sucked at CS, I would still study it. Not because I had nothing else to study or no fall-back plan, but because I truly love it. I love the problem-solving, the dedication, the grind. I love that I can make things that didn’t exist before.

More than ever, I still believe in the power of technology to change the world, and I’m happy that even though I struggled, I’m still as committed as ever to studying computer science.

I’m also pretty sure I want to study Electrical Engineering along with computer science, and I think it’s a cool combination because of my interests in robotics and building things in the real world.

5. Change
So, have I changed? How am I a different person from who I was a few months ago, back when Harvard was just a distant place?

Well, for one, my knowledge of C has increased a lot, along with mathematical proofs and electrical engineering. I read many science fiction stories as well—but have they changed me fundamentally as a person? Have my values changed?

I would say no, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. If anything, my values have been reinforced.

And I think that’s okay, too. I don’t have to be transformed, but I do have to take in other opinions and values and think about how they relate to me.

My goals for next semester are:

  • Spend more time with friends and foster closer relationships
    • Even though I got to know a lot of people and am good friends with many, I don’t feel particularly close to anyone. (To be fair, I define “close” as knowing my soul, and I theirs.) I’m confident that these friendships will form; I believe close friendships only come with time and many shared experiences.
  • Get to know my professors better and speak up in class
    • I didn’t really make an effort to get to know my professors well, which is kind of a shame. I frequented office hours run by TFs, but was too shy to go to professor’s office hours. My CS professor seems super chill, but I definitely felt intimidated (especially in such a large classroom setting).
  • Do research!
    • Back when I was choosing which college I would attend, I stumbled upon a Youtube video with a professor that seemed super cool. I looked her up and thought she would be an amazing mentor. I met with her recently and I will be doing research with her next semester!
  • Join the running club
    • Before coming to college, I ran with the Gunn cross country team a bit over the summer. I was one of the slowest, but I didn’t care—I just wanted to run. For some reason, I didn’t do the same at Harvard—I think it was mostly self-consciousness, but also a bit of laziness. They are fast by my standards (around 7:30 min/mile for 5+ miles), but I hope to run with them sometime when I can reach their level.
  • Do a photography seminar or class. Fulfill my artistic side and channel my stress in a creative way
    • There were many points in the semester when I felt so much but didn’t have a way to express myself. In high school, I started writing poetry and doing photography. I had less time in college than I expected to unwind, but I hope to prioritize my mental well-being next semester.
  • Blog and journal more
    • Even though I did a lot of self-reflection, I didn’t record a lot of my thoughts.

Herland: Imagining a Female-Only Society

It’s fascinating how science fiction can show us how different our world can be. I think that’s also why I love history—I want to see and compare the different possibilities of how we can structure a society.

I’m currently taking a science fiction class taught by Prof. Steph Burt, and it’s been really amazing. There’s a lot more reading than I expected (and quite frankly, more than I can keep up with), but the diversity in books we read—with topics ranging from spaceships and Mars colonization to feminism and artificial intelligence—has been incredibly stimulating. This course has expanded my understanding of what science fiction is, and has made me see how science fiction can shed a light on current political and social issues.

One of the most intriguing works I’ve read so far during Thanksgiving Recess has been a novella called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman*. Herland, which was published in 1909, is a thought-provoking tale about three men who venture into a society filled with only women. These three men have wildly different temperaments that reflect the different attitudes of men—one hoping to conquer the women, one idolizing them, and one with an air of scientific curiosity—and their reactions tell us much about our modern world.

For two thousand years, these females have been isolated from the outside world after a volcano erupted and created a seal around their society. They reproduce asexually and value motherhood above all. This single-gender society is depicted as a utopia—a world without poverty, war, or strife. The streets are immaculate, every female is equally well-educated, and the division of labor is clear and purposeful.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • On veganism: “It took some time to make clear to those three sweet-faced women the process which robs the cow of her calf, and the calf of its true food; and the talk led us into a further discussion of the meat business. They heard it out, looking very white, and presently begged to be excused” (41).
  • On femininity: “These women, whose essential distinction of motherhood was the dominant note of their whole culture, were strikingly deficient in what we call “femininity.” This led me very promptly to the conviction that those “feminine charms” we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process” (50).
  • On cooperation: “You see, they had no wars. They had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together—not by competition, but by united action” (51).
  • On Motherhood: “The children in this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them—on the race. You see, we are Mothers” (57).
  • On education: “The Herland child was born not only into a world carefully prepared, full of the most fascinating materials and opportunities to learn, but into the society of plentiful numbers of teachers, teachers born and trained, whose business it was to accompany the children along that, to us, impossible thing—the royal road to learning” (92).

 

While I don’t think having a society consisting of only females will solve all of our issues, this book forced me to recognize that many flaws of humankind—including violence, competition, and jealousy—can be traced primarily to the existence of men. Though this sounds sexist and extreme, I think we must confront the reality that for much of human history, wars have been started by men, and even our capitalistic society—which is derived from the masculine ideals of survival of the fittest—creates systemic poverty and lack of cooperation for protecting the environment.

I’m not arguing for the extinction of men, of course, and I don’t think that’s what Gilman is trying to show us. Instead, I think the takeaway of the novelette is that there has to be a healthy balance between this utopia and the world we live in. This story shows us that there is much to be learned from females, and that for much of the history of humankind, females have been underserved. It also shows us that gender is as much a social construct as it is biological. This work made me think about why we need more women in technology and in government.

I suppose the questions that follow are: what is equality if females and males are biologically different? And what even is gender, for that matter? I have many questions still to answer, but I’m glad that this book—using the elements of science fiction—helped me imagine a completely different world as well as expose the issues of today’s society.

* I also read Houston, Houston, Do You Read during Thanksgiving Recess. This story is very much like Herland—except set in the future and involves a time warp and spaceships. It was written by a woman named Alice Sheldon who published under the pseudonym of James Tiptree. Sheldon’s short stories are haunting, vibrant, and masterful, and she is now one of my favorite authors—if you get the chance, read her other short stories from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.