The Beep-Boopers and the Anti-Beep-Boopers and how together we can make sense of Big Data

Art by the talented Fran Meneses (Frannerd) https://www.frannerd.cl/

The Beep-Boopers

I used to be a beep-booper. As I learned about Data Science I saw all the possibilities and wanted to change the world with data. I dreamed up apps and inventions and ideas that would use Big Data for good! I could use all my skills and methods to radically change the world for the better, all because of machine learning! And I really meant it. I had a fascination with data and science and I wanted to help others. My brain immediately hopped to different designs and apps because I was surrounded by that kind of culture. The beep-boop culture. Where we can beep-boop a computer and radically shift society with our beep-booping. Right?

And then I began to learn about the harm perpetuated by beep-booping. And the sheer disconnect from the people that the beep-booping was supposed to serve! Many beep-boopers have an inflated sense of responsibility and ego because we have been through computer science training that is often difficult and complex. We hear about the scarcity of programmers, the special skill we hold in our beep-booping fingertips. Sometimes we don’t even have that ego but it is thrust upon us. “You can beep-boop??? Oh my god can you beep-boop this for me?” Wanting to help, we go ahead and beep-boop, because the world seems to want our beep-booping and we can beep-boop good enough, I guess. And then we are the beep-boopers who hold the keys to the profit, the insights from data, the inventions to help the poor non-beep-boopers who rely on our beep-booping. So we learn to come up with lots of ideas for “change”, for solving problems (something beep-boopers love to do!). The faster we can beep-boop, the better. So we lose the time to truly listen.

Art by the talented Fran Meneses (Frannerd) https://www.frannerd.cl/

The Anti-Beep-Boopers

The anti-beep-boopers see this harm and call it out. I am so grateful for the anti-beep-boopers who helped shape my PhD path. Let me be clear, they are not entirely anti-technology or anti-data; I think we all recognize some benefits of technology (for me I see a lot of strides in accessibility technology, or the ways that we are able to connect within marginalized communities online). The anti-beep-boopers are against the capitalist beep-booping that values rapid beep-booping that perpetuates bias and harm, or that values beep-booping above other forms of social change or knowledge collection. The anti-beep-boopers see a culture of uplifting beep-booping like it’s the only form of progress; even when the beep-booping is often so disconnected from community, empowerment, and personal agency. The anti-beep-boopers want to see technology that is co-designed with those affected, and want to not design technology when the harm outweighs the potential benefits. The anti-beep-boopers often bring in ideas of how social contracts and social constructs (two different things!) have shaped what we value and what we create. Class structure, capitalism, racism, homophobia, the institution of marriage, prisons, norms… all of this shapes what we think to create. And the beep-boopers are often never given this kind of education while they learn to beep-boop! Meanwhile, the anti-beep-boopers are often deterred from learning to beep-boop, and leave unhappy and isolated; frustrated that our society will pay the beep-boopers to solve problems they may never fully understand.

Art by the talented Fran Meneses (Frannerd) https://www.frannerd.cl/

I aspire to be a Critical-Beep-Booper

Don’t get me wrong, I love to beep-boop. I’ve used Linux for several years now, mostly out of sheer determination and identity reasons at this point. I like to build interesting tutorials using JavaScript or R shiny. I like learning about how we can take massive amounts of data and extract insight from it using machine learning. I think there are nuggets of information often hiding in plain sight amidst the terabytes of data we have access to. I think there is great power in making sense of it all; finding patterns; making statistical insights that might help us not suffer so much. Beep-booping in ways that help us feel a little less lost.

But in unlearning my beep-boopism, I had to let go of a lot of things. I’m still letting go of a lot of things. With each new problem, I have to ask myself “should this take up my time?” Do we really need ways to make us 4.3 minutes more productive each day? Do we really need ways to target more users with ads for greenwashed products? Do we really need ways to use facial recognition to unlock our phones? My time is precious; it is one of my dearest commodities. I want to use it well. I will say no to beep-booping on problems I don’t want to work on. Even if I am a good beep-booper. Even if the beep-booping wouldn’t be that difficult. I choose to beep-boop on problems I think need my attention; and problems where those affected want my beep-booping in the first place.

I strive to be critical of the technology I create; to work with the anti-beep-boopers who teach me so much, and the beep-boopers who teach me so much also. There are important questions that we can work on together. Sometimes we need the whole spectrum of beep-booping to make sense of the world. Incredible things can be made from beep-booping. And great epiphanies can be gifted to the world from anti-beep-boopers. My personal journey lies in connecting the beep-boopers with the anti-beep-boopers, just like I once needed. And trying my best to beep-boop with care. Intentionally, compassionately, and open to changing my ideas. And always reaching out to those it might affect.

The world needs all of us together. To beep-boop or not, we will find our way. And together we will make sense of being human.

Attending PhD School. Radical optimist. Machine learning literacy for self-advocacy and algorithmic resistance

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