WRITING

Below are some pieces that I've written. 

Princeton Environmental Ideathon

June 6th, 2019

 

In April, I competed with three friends in the second annual Princeton Environmental Ideathon and wrote a short piece documenting the experience.

Against Convenience

In Collaboration with Eric Zhu

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post·box

February 25th, 2019

 

The promise of free two-day shipping is seductive. In a few minutes, we can have something we vaguely want delivered to our doorsteps just two mornings later — a gift for myself! It’s effortless and gratifying.

 

Tim Wu, professor of law at Columbia, raises a concern in a NY Times op-ed that convenience has beat out other virtues to become the true American value. As our addiction with Amazon makes clear, “convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I ‘prefer.’) Easy is better, easiest is best.”*

 

Wu’s problematic and our vague suspicion of the “tyranny of convenience” are the newest in a long thread of critical thought dating to Marx that questions the control over our freedom by abstract forces. In his Grundrisse, Marx writes that the nature and necessity of capital is to extend its market through “greater annihilation of space by time.”** Indeed the frictions of space have vanished with the possibility of instant fulfillment. The entire process — from the seamless 1-click interface to the surprise at your doorstep — is one that exists so consumers can expect extreme convenience.

 

I recently ordered a lamp. Months ago, that lamp started as crude oil that was extracted, refined, blended, and melted into plastic pellets. Those pellets were exported to a Chinese factory, remelted, molded, and assembled into a lamp, where it was then boxed, shipped across the ocean again, and stored. Last week, I spent a few minutes browsing in an app and ordered the lamp. It was then “processed” (by humans) at a “fulfillment center” and delivered via UPS to my doorstep in the iconic cardboard box.  

 

Amazon is a two-sided market, and we only see the side of convenience and price. The post is the last remnant of our physical relation to the complex processes of production and transnational distribution — the rest is invisible to us. This creates strong network effects and positive feedback loops: “The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon,” as Wu puts it. The more we consume, the more businesses like Amazon grow, and the more we correspondingly create material impacts on the world. We’ve made an implicit social contract with Amazon — convenience in exchange for what’s behind the curtain: the dignity of labor and the resilience of our planet.

 

The story doesn’t end with the delivery though. We like to think that if we could just recycle more, we could negate the material gluttony of the products we’re using. But the extraction and processing is still continuing, while most of what we “recycle” isn’t actually recycled; it’s usually too dirty or non-homogenous and is subsequently thrown away. Furthermore, what previously could be salvaged was often shipped to China, to be used for more manufacturing. In 2017 however, China implemented the National Sword Policy and has increasingly restricted the quality and quantity of acceptable recyclables. Suddenly, western industrialized countries are being confronted with the fact that they can no longer ship away their material waste. They have to learn how to actually deal with their own responsibilities.

 

Landfills are forgotten spaces until we start to feel the effects of contaminated water and food, once toxins seep into the soil and groundwater. Some people are feeling the effects already, but most of us are so buffered and removed from them that we don’t really understand the cost.


But the issue isn’t just about trash, or manufacturing, or even Amazon. It’s about a whole global system of expectations. What can we possibly change in a world built upon the paradigm of convenience? Within such complex systems, no clear solutions could ever exist, but we posit leverage points to identify and pursue the most effective vectors for change.*** One of the most insidious things about convenience is the abstraction we have from the effect of our actions — the length of time between the click and the contamination could be years or decades. How do we change that interaction to bring about an effective feedback loop that makes our consumer behavior more responsible to its consequences? The structure of the information flow is such that we are completely obscured from the efforts that goes into a product before it arrives. How do we humanize and understand the labor that goes behind every stitch in our clothing, and every assembled screw in our machines? Whether it’s at the level of complex material organizations, structures of information flows, or systems operating within the paradigm of convenience, there is much room for improvement for how we as a society understand and interact with these systems at large. We can choose to reduce our experience to a click, or we can take a look behind the curtain at the true costs.

* Tim Wu, "The Tyranny of Convenience", New York Times, February 16, 2018. 

** Karl Marx, "Chapter V - The Chapter on Capital," Grundrisse (1858). 

*** Donella Meadows, "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System". 

Is Our Future Autonomous? 

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Vol. 4 no. 1 — infra·structure

October 23, 2017

 

8:12 PM, April 14, 2017 — As I stood outside of Giant Eagle with a friend and a bag of groceries, my phone alerted me to the self-driving Uber on its way. For months I had seen the sleek branded SUVs roaming the streets with their distinctive spinning LiDARs. When Uber launched its first fleet in 2016, the city welcomed the new technology with open arms, championing Pittsburgh as the next innovation hub.

 

The experience in the car was well-curated; an iPad strategically placed for selfie-taking immediately prompted us to share our ride on various social media, then impressed us with digital displays of voxels whizzing by. The driver was accompanied by an engineer in the passenger seat, and the two traded off fun facts between answering our many questions. We oohed and aahed at all the right places, and when the guy holding the laptop told us that driverless cars would be operational on the road in ten years, we believed him.

 

Four months later, I was standing outside the same Giant Eagle with the same friend and an even heavier bag of groceries when another notification for a self-driving Uber—look out for Gerry!—popped up.

 

He asked if we had been in a self-driving car before, and we replied that it was our second time. He didn’t add any other information. Apparently there were no fun facts for second-time riders.

 

I asked, “Would it be alright if you could drop us off at two destinations?”

“Sorry, the software doesn’t allow that.”

Wait. What? “There’s no way to override, or change the destination or something?”

He shrugged. “Sorry, the software just doesn’t do that. Is your destination along the route?”

“Not really, but it’s only a few minutes away.”

“Then you can call another Uber when we drop you off.”

“So I have to get a second Uber just to get me to my actual destination?”

“Yeah, sorry, the software just doesn’t allow for changes.”

Meanwhile, Gerry was preoccupied with manually driving the car, because while we had been talking he had accidentally taken a wrong turn, and the self-driving route couldn’t recalculate that quickly. Our screen said “SELF-DRIVING MODE: OFF” the entire ride. This time, they didn’t ask us to take a selfie.

 

Once dropped off, I called another car and Andrea picked me up. I explained the ridiculousness of the situation to her, and she was surprised, but a little relieved.

 

“I guess we’ll be able to keep our jobs a little while longer,” she said.

 

I realized then; the same corporation that had dangled promises of easy, flexible money, and employed hundreds of thousands of drivers, was also creating the sword hanging over their heads. My second self-driving Uber experience had been the epitome of the anti-service, a disappointing transport that failed to take me to my requested destination, cost me money, wasn’t self-driving, and had two unsympathetic employees who were hardly more responsive than Bartleby. Maybe ten years was optimistic.

 

But self-driving cars are not just a concern for the techies or the Uber drivers. Autonomous vehicles have much larger implications on how our society moves from one place to another and the infrastructures that support that—both physical and digital. What does that mean for our economies, our urban (or exurban) development, and our fundamental relationships to work, home, and place? Our “need” for optimization, automation, and efficiency is being anticipated, presented back to us, and capitalized upon.

 

It is generally accepted by most transit and urban planning authorities that autonomous vehicles—whether that means cars, buses, trucks, trains, or something else entirely—will become the norm in the not-too-far-away future. This semester, our studio is addressing AVs through the lens of past transportation advancements and patterns of resource flows to grapple with what those possible implications could be. Horse distances determined the miles between county centers, railroads spread a lateral network of resources westward, and asphalt was paved over the existing dirt roads to the width of horse-drawn buggies. Interstates allowed eighteen-wheelers to deliver goods 600 miles in one day, but also enabled the new vision of the American dream of manicured suburbs and shopping malls. Planes made world travel a day’s work and the internet less than a second’s. When our transportation becomes autonomous, where will we go and how will we choose to go there?

 

We usually choose our mode of travel based on factors of time, money, access, and personal value. Pittsburgh will never get an automated subway system, and not everyone will own an autonomous Tesla that will drive to New York while you nap in the backseat. What might the future look like when our buses, our garbage trucks, and our mail deliveries are all automated? We will have to work through what that means for our bus drivers, our garbage collectors, and our mailmen. When we relinquish our user control for the sake of efficiency, are we just signing away our lives for convenience? It begs the question: is our future truly autonomous?

Vulnerable Infrastructures: An Analysis of Accountability Through the Flint Water Crisis

Global Studies Capstone (for the fulfillment of Social & Political History)

May 7th, 2018

 
Abstract

Each occurrence of infrastructural failure raises questions about dependencies upon resources that are distributed through increasingly complex networks. The widespread water contamination that occurred in Flint, Michigan, exemplifies a recent example of the failure of water infrastructure. The Flint water crisis was a prolonged series of events in which improper water treatment and delayed responses resulted in the lead poisoning of tens of thousands of Flint residents.

 

Looking at multiple series of relationships, such as the relationships between the social and technical nature of water infrastructure, or the power relationships between actors within the water management system, this paper discusses the role of water infrastructure management in creating the Flint water crisis. Using evidence in the form of information exchanges to analyze the system of organization behind water infrastructure management, I argue that the sociopolitical management of water infrastructure was a rigid, hierarchical, and seemingly public system that lacked a framework for the cross-exchange of knowledge. These limitations facilitated the manipulation, delay, and obstruction of information that enabled the widespread infrastructural failure.

 

Reflections on Hadi Tabatabai

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Vol. 4 no. 2 — Special Edition: Exhibitions

November 13, 2017

Miller Gallery // Back2Front // CFA Installation // Dinner // wats:ON? Lecture

 

 


 

When the elevator doors opened to the 3rd floor of the Miller Gallery, I almost stayed inside. I admit — it took me a second to realize that the room was, in fact, not empty. Only later did I realize perhaps it was a deliberate effect of his intention, which he described in his lecture as an attempt to create neutrality.

 

Leading up to the wats:ON? Festival, I spent a week and a half trying to understand the mind of Hadi Tabatabai. My journey began with reading articles about him and experiencing his work at the Miller Gallery. During Back2Front, the discussion pulled out some of the the varied reactions to him, and the following week I joined a small group in a four-hour conversation with Hadi over tapas. The voyage culminated in his lecture at the College of Fine Arts.

 

A week later, I’m still trying to post-process these events. How do you describe such a person in just seven hundred words?

 

Plenty of articles exist that debate his work, some using the inadequate but understandably-used word of “minimalist”, others arguing its politicization through its lack of politics, some even flattening him to a spiritually-driven ascetic. Regardless of how he or his pieces are perceived, there is no denying that his work is exquisite through its attention to craft. It operates as a kind of dual-meditation: a meditation for Hadi in its creation, and a meditation for the viewer who stands in front of it. Someone watching me in the Miller would have seen me with my face six inches away from the wall, slowly moving side to side or forwards and backwards, noticing the way the shadows moved or how the meticulously-placed overlaps would misalign and realign. Spike Wolff, the force behind bringing Tabatabai here, said that her favorite comment in response to the work at the Miller was when someone asked, “Was this made by a machine?” Spike’s response was simply, “Hadi is the machine.”

 

It’s true that Hadi is the machine of his art, but I was also intrigued by everything that made him more than a machine. The dinner was a peek into his brain beyond the simple label of “artist”. Whenever someone asked a question, he would begin by explaining his viewpoint and then throw in a one-liner like, “Human beings are usually not conscious,” and we would stop him, demand some extra explanation, and continue only to hit another sentence like, “I’m pretty sure I am dreaming more than 90% of the time,” and we would pivot again, and so on and on the words flowed in a chain of interlocking ideas until the sole waitress not-so-subtly placed the check on the table.

 

From that conversation, I could sense that Hadi felt his views and even his art were desperately trying to transcend the limits of what language allows for. Within each word is all of the baggage that comes with it, and to Hadi those connotations were just mental limitations. He understood that words were the tools of communication, just as his art was, but that a certain clarity or order or perfection — while always worth being in pursuit of — could never be attained. His exhibit was dubbed “Transitional Space” because it is about murky inbetweens or the expanse found in a gap, even within the extremities of precision. But even then if those terms were the best for describing his work, he also understood their restraints as a filter between him and the viewer. His pursuit of order brought about a profoundly heightened relationship with disorder, and he had come to peace with that.

Ultimately I can only give my own perspective glimpses of his reality. My reflection is based on what I’ve gleaned from interacting with him as a thinker and a creator over the span of ten days. At the end of the day, the quote I keep remembering from him is this:

It became clear that all image-making was basically mark-making, and perhaps the person making the marks wanted to say, “I existed”.

© 2019 by Kelly Li. All Rights Reserved.