Wannabe wrap-up post – FOSS Outreachy

The only not yet checked point on my check list to evaluate the completion of the program is the »Wrap-up blogpost«. I guess the title is intimidating me. On the other hand check lists are calming me down. The most if they are all checked. Done. The best moment to open up a brand new check list (to-do list). It is a banal platitude that every end is an beginning at the same time. In the case of Outreachy (former OPW now officially opened up to all kind of underrepresented groups in FOSS) this however feels more fitting to me then in many other cases. But even in the middle (or at the beginning) of somewhere, there is always a good point in taking a break, sit and write down. Try to clarify some of the gut feelings and endless monologue inside your head and put parts of it into words down on paper or screen. And for me this is not to explain the world to anybody, but rather as Joan Bolker puts it: »You will learn how to write in order to think, to encourage thought, to tease thought out of chaos or out of fright.«

Transparency and complexity
This is not going to be about financial markets.

Transparency

»There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”« (David Foster Wallace)

A great little story from Wallaces’s speech »This is Water« to picture our most obvious day to day realities which we fail so miserably to even notice. Or as Wallace puts it: »hardest to see and talk about.« The conditions and limits of our environments (with both physical and social implications) fade into the background. And even if we are able to identify undesirable outcomes, like creating a professional monoculture, it is still tough to prove human bias, due to a wide variety of potential factors and influences. We cannot see our blind spots. Assuring otherwise, is the mere human arrogance of everyone of us, denying her or his own bias. And: don’t fool yourself! Even if we don’t like our own bias (because we are tolerant, well educated and open minded) we cannot get rid of it. And even if we are convinced, we don’t have it – we still do. There is plenty of studies and data around, which has proven this. (read one of many) The only and very necessary thing, we can do about it is to acknowledge our biases, examine and name them. A very outstanding human capacity, the reflective ability to step back from the immediate problem and to examine the thinking or decision making process itself.

The technology sector is widely known as among the worst cases concerning diversity. But maybe, where things go utterly wrong, there is the highest probability that people start doing something about it. I was part of a program that directly challenges these inequalities by trying to make a difference. And I guess it’s because of this and the people affiliated with these ideas, but I found the awareness for creating a welcoming culture of learning far above-average and above everything I experienced in other settings so far. This was the most valuable experience.

»It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.« (David Foster Wallace)

Complexity
It’s been about two and a half years since I apparently out of the blue decided to take an online course in »Machine Learning«. I hold a university degree in arts/ photography and artists, illustrators, designers and musicians are the folks I’m mostly surrounded by. Back in high school I did my intensive course in math and I did very well then. But since then I didn’t do any math at all. Same applies to coding, the closest I came to it in the last 17 years was in adjusting some html or css for websites I designed. So why »Machine Learning« all of a sudden? There was this ubiquitous presence of the word »algorithm« in the media, linking to our phones, computers, search engines and promising either heaven and earth, or heralding the end of humanity. This sounded frightening and tempting to me. Finally I decided to get at least a basic grasp of how an algorithm looks like and how it actually works. It seemed like a obvious part of a contemporary general education to me. (I was quite sure the excitement about algorithms won’t be outdated by the end of the year) I failed. Not in getting an idea or learning something new, but in accomplishing the course. The course was not self-paced, it included dead lines for the programming assignments and as no one was paying me any money for learning new stuff, I had to squeeze it in between jobs and family. It was very tough for me. I haven’t done such abstract thinking for a long time. But I enjoyed it a lot. It was only very shortly before I got accepted for OPW, that I successfully accomplished the course (Grade Achieved: 98.9%). But I think one led to the other. And I don’t mean that I wouldn’t have been accepted without it (I was applying for a design project basically), but that I would not have applied without the previous experience that I can make it. I would have been intimidated by the anticipated complexity of the matter. And I know (because I’m still surrounded by the same people) most of the non-techies are. Even the most brilliant and well educated people feel scared of technical details and wouldn’t dare to claim any other role except the mere consumer or recipient. Most of them – and I understand this very well – consider their devices as tools and they basically don’t want them in their way. But our digital devices are very likely to transform our lives more thoroughly then any drilling or washing machine, so I’d rather suggest to consider technology as culture and therefore I’d appreciate very much if this culture is formed by as many and as diverse people as possible. I don’t mean we need every person on the planet to become a programmer. But I’m convinced, that we need to enhance the average digital literacy to a level, where a person is not merely able to operate an electronic device or use software for various purposes, but also is able to judge different technologies and make responsible and critical decisions correspondent to their personal values.

Although I ended up resuming my experiences within a very very wide scope, I surely don’t want to miss the rest of it and to emphasize the endless assistance and encouragement both my mentors (Sage and Andrew) provided me with. And, what I’m most grateful for: you never kept me from trying anything too big for me, you never even gave me the feeling there was anything like this …

Thank you for the chance to take a more aware look at the water around me and for the chance to demystify some of the frightening complexity in the digital parts of my life!

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