A personal statement

« Back to all posts :: June 2, 2017 :: Categories: inequality, my-life

A personal statement

Presented without comment other than to say that yes, I am a little bit embarrassed by how melodramatic and facile it is, but I got in, so whatever. Hopefully this will help someone in the process of writing their own personal statement, or maybe even nudge someone into making the same sort of choice that I made.

One of the most striking illustrations of inequality today is found in Silicon Valley. Towering above San Francisco are gleaming skyscrapers, emblems of the newfound wealth of the technology industry and its lofty promises to make the world a better place. Below these shining towers, at ground level, the city’s homeless population endures, ignored by the technology employees on their way to work. For whom, one might ask, has the world been made a better place?

This contrast is only one of the more visible signs of inequality. Other more subtle and insidious forms of inequality abound, both within the technology industry and in its effects on the world at large. Increasingly, the technology industry has become associated with a stultifying monoculture in which historically marginalised workers hold little power. Combined with a hypercapitalist mindset in which inequality, if considered at all, is seen as an opportunity for profit, the result is an oversaturation of frivolous products chasing easy money while more pressing problems are disregarded. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent creation of a gentrifying class of tech workers, who have their houses cleaned, their meals delivered, and their laundry done by an underclass who are being priced out of their own homes.

For me personally, the various forms of inequality that persist within and around the technology industry are especially distressing. I had always thought that technology would be different.

I fell in love with technology at an early age. When I was twelve, I made my first website; by the age of fifteen, I was contributing to open source software projects. As a result of early exposure to the open source ethos, I saw technology as a force for good, one that could democratise information and thus make the world more equal. It was an auspicious time for the technology industry: Google’s IPO, the ascent of Wikipedia, the invention of the iPhone. I believed in the potential of technology to shape the future, and I wanted to play a part in shaping it for the better.

Consequently, I dove headfirst into technology, spending my academic and professional careers honing my software development skills. During my undergraduate years, I worked in two different research labs at McGill University, co-authoring papers on music technology with Professor Ichiro Fujinaga and social networking research with Professor Derek Ruths; I built software for a variety of extracurricular projects, ranging from a collaborative note-taking application to a local political publication; I spent a summer as a software engineering intern at Google. After university, I co-founded a technology company based on my undergraduate social networking research, with Professor Ruths acting as an advisor.

Yet the more time I spent in the technology industry, the more doubts I developed. Technology could make the world a better place, but in many respects it was doing the opposite. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that the industry, in its hiring and capital allocation practices, was itself a bastion of inequality—a way of distributing power and wealth among a privileged minority under a carefully-maintained pretense of meritocracy. What is more, the changes it was introducing into the world were not always for the better. The evidence was everywhere: ostensibly neutral algorithms that discriminate based on race; software that renders workers obsolete without providing them a safety net; “sharing economy” platforms that result in massive accumulation of wealth for the few while devaluing the labour of the many. Technology that had the potential to equalise was instead merely reinforcing existing structural inequalities.

In my disillusionment, I sought refuge in books. My interest in a deeper understanding of inequality was sparked by Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, which itself spurred a foray into books about financialisation like Rana Foroohar’s Makers and Takers and Mervyn King’s The End of Alchemy. Soon after, I had moved on to critiques of capitalism like Immanuel Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism and David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, which brought me to books specific to inequality like The Economics of Inequality by Thomas Piketty and The Great Divide by Joseph E. Stiglitz. The more I read, the more I realised that addressing inequality was more important to me than software development would ever be.

It is clear to me that the technology industry will change the world. It is uncertain whether it will change it for the better. The exact nature of the relationship between the technology industry and inequality is not a problem that can be addressed without truly understanding inequality: its historical and political context, its intersectional nature, its mechanisms of reproduction within the greater structure of capitalism. There is a startling dearth of attention being paid to these issues within the technology industry right now, and my ultimate goal, after obtaining my degree, is to change that, either from within the technology industry or without.

The M.Sc. programme in Inequalities and Social Science will equip me with the necessary tools needed to address the technology industry’s inherent complicity in perpetuating inequality, and I believe I would offer a unique perspective as a result of my technology background, which I suspect might be unusual among applicants for this programme. Additionally, through working in academic labs as an undergraduate, I gained valuable experience performing quantitative research, publishing papers and giving talks. Furthermore, my experience as a co-founder and CTO of a technology startup helped inculcate a critical understanding of the technology industry, and was instrumental to the development of my perseverance and capacity for self-motivation. Moreover, as I did not take any university-level social science courses, I plan to narrow any gaps in my knowledge by familiarising myself with the seminal works in the fields of sociology and economics. As a result, I believe I will be prepared for the rigours of this M.Sc. programme, and that I will be well-placed to develop a thesis on the study of inequality as it relates to the technology industry.

To me, the technology industry still has the potential to change the world for the better, but having seen the harm it can do, I can no longer accept my place in the industry uncritically. Instead, I choose to focus my efforts on combating inequality, drawing on my privileged background as a software engineer and using that experience to make the industry a better place, both for the people within it and for those affected by it. Studying technology and working in the industry gave me the opportunity to witness inequality, but before I can redirect my efforts I need a thorough understanding of the social, economic and policy aspects of inequality. The International Inequalities Institute, with its interdisciplinary approach and high calibre of research, is, I believe, the best place for me to develop this foundation.

I cannot think of a cause more wholly suited to my interests and my skillset. I know that the battle against inequality will not be easy, but I also refuse to accept that I am powerless in the face of the status quo. Thus I am resolved to fighting for a better world, so that one day the towering buildings in San Francisco’s skyline will be symbols of change, with a more equal world reflected in their coruscating glass panes.

Thanks to Gersande La Flèche and Matt Dannenberg for editing.

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