The title is not a rhetorical question, and not an answered question. I honestly question myself: why go into academia? Why chose this career path? Why chose this path for my life? This is of course in the vein of a classic existential question we are all more or less asking ourselves: what am I doing in this world?
I am glad that with the academic discipline I’ve chosen, at least I can be more or less certain that I’m not making the world a worse place. I’m not doing any kind of military research and my topic is not one that is laden with ethical dilemmas. Software engineering, at least the way I look at it and intend to practice it, is not about actually building specific things but rather about finding better ways to build things in general. Sure, if I ever make a world-changing (in any sense) discovery, it can be employed to bad ends. But at least nothing I actually do can be bad as of itself. I’m not studying e.g. knives that can prepare food but also kill, I’m studying better ways of building things, be them knives or forks. It’s up to other people to build the things and even other people that chose to use things either way.
So, at least I know that by doing what I’m doing, I’m not doing anything bad. But I’m not sure if I’m making things better in any truly meaningful way. Sure, my research can end up being a nice little small improvement in the way we build software. My research (at the moment at least) being about software for cars, I can also pat myself in the back, thinking that ultimately I am engaged in a project to make this otherwise obscene machine something less harmful for the planet. But that’s not a contribution to society that I would feel excited about. It’s not like saving people’s lives or improving society…
I feel as if being in academia is like being in a playground. We try to find fun problems, and we have fun solving them. And we do it for no other reason but for the pure joy of playing around with them. We are largely sheltered by the “real world”, its problems and misery. Sure, academia is as real a place as any other and (although I’ve been lucky not to have encountered it so far) it has its own share of pettiness, narrow-mindedness, anxieties, precarities, job insecurities and overall misery, just as any other workplace. But in many senses, in the end of the day, it is a privileged working environment. With relative security, you get to have fun working on interesting and fun problems, largely of your own chosing, and along the way, you get to travel around the world and meet all sorts of fascinating people.
But is that enough? Is “I had fun solving problems” the thing I want to be able to reflect on my life? Sure, daddy, you had fun, but what did you do for the world? Ok, on one level, I struggle for that through engagement in left-wing politics and political struggles. I have indeed found a balance, which is reflected in my little blurb: “full-time Software Engineering grad at UofT, part-time armchair marxist revolutionary”. Moreover, I have some abstract ideas about how possibly the study of software could be key to understanding some bigger social transformations that are happening in our crazy contemporary times. But this still does not feel enough.
I really don’t know. For the moment, things look settled. I have things I am working on and I am in the process of building a stable me on all fronts. But this still looks like a temporary compromise. In the long run? I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t.