Table Of Contents

What's my motivation?

Published on: 2022-08-20


I write from a position of privilege. This is an important premise to this piece to acknowledge, because it underpins the need to build my motivation. Reflecting on the topic herein has been important in addressing that not saying anything is far worse than the alternative: to have stood impassively at the watching, and feeding off of, technological development having without trying to influence it for the better.

And this is where I am. I've been lucky enough to find a comfortable home, a great job that allowed me to travel the world for a few years and I'm now passionate about who I work for. However, this niggling feeling that I'm taking more than I'm giving remains, and that's because I'm in a position of relative privilege and not doing my best to at least try and influence technology for the better. Part of this is disenfranchisement, it's easy to become that way when you look at the reality of what you can really influence. Mostly though, and this is what I've reflected on, it's just outright laziness.

A sense of responsibility

During my times in Antarctica and even during the pandemic when I was treading water, enveloped in what a wise person I know calls "life procrastination." I noticed that I could understand my civic responsibility in these scenarios and tried to work towards it. Once the freedom to move around returned, I figured that I could build an ideal base for exercising and developing this sense of responsibility.

What responsibility?

In Antarctic seasons, you have to offer your personal energy for the benefit of a relatively closed community. In the pandemic it was (and remains) hugely important to think of others in the wake of an extreme immunological event. For the former I offered as much energy as I had, and in the latter I became a vaccinator because I trust science to provide (in that case) solutions, which it did. Since I moved after the lockdowns finally lifted, I've known that I wanted to develop the role of a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Research Software Engineer (RSE) for the benefit of polar science, which I think I'm roughly getting there with. For some reason that hasn't been enough to satisfy my desire to make a positive difference.

Developing a motivation

I took a week off, as the need to develop a clear motivation towards what I do has been influenced by reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, which I'll refer to as T.A.O.S.C. I started it in February (I think) thinking it would be another "dump social media" type parable that tries to sell logic through fear. I finished it last night, having had every paragraph sink into my mind deeply, instilling a sense of awareness of my own oversight and ignorance in the face of our changing world. I believe this is one of the most important books anyone involved in data science can read, on a par with Rebel Code by Glyn Moody, which I think every software engineer should read, especially if they are born after the 80's.

How capitalism undermined (in particular) Gen Z

I've been involved with technology, from the programming sense, since my age was in single figures. Though this is common these days, at the time it was rare for people to start programming so young. Though considered a Millennial I hold clear memory of a time without the internet, mobile technology and email. My passion for computing was not limited to gaming as it was for many at the time, but more in trying to understand how computers worked, so programming became a natural practice for a young person with LOTS of time to spare. It turns out this was a really great time for people to build an interest in technology, communications and the internet, and it's these people who produced the dot-com boom and the big data revolution(s) that followed it.

For those that grew up after those who saw this transition, the utilisation of computers seems to have shifted to be geared towards interaction over investigation. I distinctly remember being fearful in the early 2000's that the young were going to be culturally and socially impacted in ways too complex to understand and, to be honest, did nothing but watch. T.A.O.S.C really drills into this point in it's later chapters (I'm going to be writing based on this book for a while.) Social media has distorted the very fabric of all generations that followed mine, just as aspirational media sort of did for my generation and the one before it. However, the net effect is far more pronounced for Gen Z and those after them and there is little to no ability for this to be unwoven from the makeup.

This all makes me realise how lazy I've been in looking at these issues, in spite of working full time in technology for a long while and having lived the transitions first-hand. I turned my attention away from profiteering through technology. I realise now that in doing so I turned my gaze away from a desperate situation that needs to be paid attention to by everyone who utilises technology. There's a very clear message that you can switch off and be free which is not misplaced (and I recommend the book linked to highly), but it's often not practical, and potentially even anxiety-inducing, for those who have never existed without this level of communication. Another approach is required that adjusts the system, even exploits it equally, rather than creating a bipolar opposition to it. I feel T.A.O.S.C offers a good insight to leveraging existing frameworks to right the wrongs caused by the extremes of early adoption.

Environmental Data Science and Ubiquitous Computing

A pervasive topic within T.A.O.S.C is the reliance on adjusting society for the benefits of surveillance capitalism, namely to maximise benefits via the increase in certainty of those populations influenced by "Big Other." The primary benefit of utilising ubiquitous computing towards the ends of environmental data science is to incorporate uncertainty quantification into the picture. There is no realistic (as far as I know, but I'm limited in understanding, so please get in touch if this needs revision) proposition for ensuring certainty within one or more environmental domains.

This offers us an interesting proposition for a shift through utilisation of technology (which is all but inevitable, but also rather sensible) to help us understand the environment and address climate issues, which could also feed back for the point of attenuating the need for certainty within the surveillance capitalist domain. One could argue that we should've been developing technology for this purpose initially, but that's not how it worked out, so hey! What I can ascertain is:

  1. We (particularly technologists) have a responsibility as we move towards developing environmental Digital Twins, from localised to broad that we don't act blindly or unethically, as surveillance capitalism has, in the desires of achieving certainty and increasing capabilities to render real-world behaviour virtually.
  2. That we use this opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants, and feed back what we learn for the betterment of humankind and the environment.


In writing that last part of this piece, the link between what I do day-to-day and my personal feelings has been established. It's obvious that I have a motivation but without saying anything about it, it's difficult to really get behind it, so writing this is the first step towards writing a personal manifesto of sorts! Being openly vocal about things like this shouldn't be something that I fear, but for some reason I do. Possibly I don't feel educated enough to talk about it, possibly I worry that by writing about this I have the potential to upset people. If there is a risk there, then it's worth taking, because by not voicing an opinion about an industry I've worked in for years, I've been implicitly exploiting my privileged position.

This is the first step towards building a motivation: doing something I believe in and ensuring it's not ignorant to the possibilities for harm. Tracking the progress in relation to industry development I was aware of and, to a very small degree, part of, is something of potential value to be contributed to the discussion. The above two points couple this agenda to technological and scientific areas I love working in. The areas I work in have the potential to help us gain much needed understanding about our world, what we're doing to it and how to manage our future. If this rambling piece does anything, even points someone at a book or paper worth reading, I'll be bloody glad I wrote something.


Please do leave a comment. I'm moderating them manually for the moment and the Isso project I'm finding slightly experimental, but AMAZING nonetheless. I won't reset the comments database now though, so feedback will be valued!


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