Saturday, April 2, 2011

A look back at why I entered grad school (written 11/1995)

The following diary entry from November 30, 1995, on the eve of my formally initiating the process to enter Pitt's Master of Information Science and Technology program, still provides a useful summary of where I intend my life to be going today.

At the time, while home PCs were common, the Internet was only beginning to be put to commercial use. Search engines like Google existed, but there wasn't all that much to search. Personally, I was only about five months into a new job, and though happy to be working and liked the work, I did not feel that it fulfilled my idea of what my life's work was to be.

I've edited out several paragraphs of historical perspective, picking up just as I'm defining to myself what I think my life's work really is.


[...] The 1980s flew by without my being involved in [the development of search engines, research databases and computing technology in general], and only vaguely aware of developments. The first half of the 1990s flew by with me being painfully aware of how little I knew and how little I could know. Even a technologist like Roger [co-worker at my previous job] spent all of his time just keeping up with trends. I can't do that; at least I can't see myself doing that. What's the point? I want to use technology, put it to use to help them live their lives better.

[In other words, I did not see it as necessary to spend time understanding each new whiz-bang development.]

Yeah, that's the ticket. If my view of life is valid, then we're here to do useful things with the time we are given. We can acquire lots of material goods (or bads, depending on viewpoint) prior to taking up space under a slab of marble, but it's what we do with our lives that's important. I can't see myself merely helping other people buy stuff [a vague reference to what my employer's purpose was]. That's crap. The only way I'll be remembered on this earth -- the only way any of us will be remembered -- is to make the living of life better.

Just last week were the obits of two inventors who made life better -- one developed the pocket calculator, the other the process for rolling aluminum foil. They were each mostly remembered for that one thing, but in each case, their whole lives were devoted to making life easier or better. Teaching. Nurturing. Mentoring. They didn't just invent one cool widget then sit back and collect the royalty checks. I aspire to do what they did, in my own way. [Nor is it necessary that their names be remembered; it is sufficient to know that the invention had a positive influence.]

As I enter my later 30s, I find myself, as ever, very aware of my "ecological footprint" -- the sum of all the impacts upon this planet that my existence causes. I am, in essence, renting space here from Mother Nature, as we all are, whether we care to admit (or even realize) it or not. And, as any landlady will point out, the place had better be in as good a shape when I leave it as it was when I got here. Taking that one further, one Boy Scout rule is to leave the camp in better shape than how I found it.

This does have application to career plans. I see it as my role in life to instruct others in this point of view: "Yes, people, live your lives, live them happily and comfortably, but remember that you don't own a damn thing, you just rent it, you just get to keep it for a while, then somebody else gets it -- and eventually the ultimate somebody gets it back."

I want to apply my knowledge to help humanity live within its means. I want to be in a situation where I can carry out this vision. I want to have the capacity to devise something that would reduce everyone's ecological footprint, the equal of aluminum foil or the pocket calculator.

Mankind now thrives on information. Actually, what mankind thrives on is two things: information, and raping Mother Nature by consuming all manner of irreplaceable resources to make toys we'll trash today, maybe tomorrow. The specifics vary, and I can't really change the latter, but I can do something about the former. With better information, our lives would be as fulfilling as they are today, without so much need to RMN.

Thus, a personal goal: Get my mind such that it can tackle great information problems. If I can do this, the rest -- position, offers, pay, prestige, ability to influence -- will follow.

Could I or anyone profit from my vision? Hard to say. I do have this scheme for helping people identify transit as a viable option for meeting everyday transportation needs. It's a writable program. If I can envision it, it can be done. Port Authority of Allegheny County needs it. Every metropolitan transit system in the world needs it. But here in Western Pennsylvania, the need is especially important, so much RMN occurs, because of an ingrained lack of the sort of information such a program would provide.

I cannot hope to put an end to suburban sprawl by writing a computer program that would make bus riding easier. However, if I was in the right place, and if the right things were said to the right people at the right time in the right way, there might be a lesser need for sprawl.

Similarly, I cannot hope to put an end to strip-mining Appalachian coal. But I wonder how much less RMN would be necessary if there was a 40-fold increase in recycling of steel and aluminum cans, glass and paper? Less mining, less smelting, less pollution, less landfill space, etc.

1 comment:

bus15237 said...

15 years! This diary entry from November 30, 1995, on the eve of my formally initiating the process to enter Pitt's Master of Information Science and Technology program, still in 2011 provides a useful summary of where I intend my life to be going today.