Being “good” might be more important than saving the world?

Eric Zhang • June 15, 2023

I wrote School, Home a few months ago, and it’s one of the more popular things I’ve shared. Some people understand the message I intended to convey, but like all honest writing, it reveals more about the author than I understand myself.

People told me that they recognize me from it. Typically I’m noticed by strangers for my technical work, but this is different. I see that look in your eyes, that warmth and sympathy, and I feel like you’d be the kind of person I would take a walk with and smile at, on a chilly Sunday afternoon. Being transparent might have sparked some human connection. I only wish my technical work could tend to spark the same warmth in others, rather than feelings like jealousy or self-doubt.

Something an animator mentioned to me is that different creative media have built-in emotional tendencies. Sand animation appears fluid, magical, melancholic. Clay stop-motion feels more quirky and whimsical; pixilation is playfully surreal; and cut-outs are imaginative. What does technology instill in others?

The giants tell us that technology will save the world. Saving the world is sterile. It manifests in cash earnings, investments, systems and institutions and numbers. The technologist’s desire for mathematical perfection is rooted in believing that we’re creating the best tool for the most people. That does make me happy, and I’m really proud of the tech I’m able to create, as well as its breadth from systems to interaction design work. But increasingly I remind myself that behind every artifact is a group of humans. Humans matter, or something like that?

Anyway, I graduated a few weeks ago from Harvard. (In 3.5 years, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and highest honors.) My classmates have shared touching “awesome things I’ve done, what I’m up to next…” updates about their careers. I would do that too, except I haven’t taken a relevant computer science class at school for almost 2 years now, so graduating doesn’t really affect my work or career! But I’ve studied other fields and met people I trust, so here’s a short note.

You know, despite my track record, I barely wrote any code during this last term at school (4 months). This let me do some new things: studying photography, playing music for thousands of people in an electropop Broadway musical, meeting strangers on the street, capturing warmth in others, biking, learning about neuroaesthetics and linguistics, hanging out in MIT nanotech lab, teaching friends Galois theory, performing classical music, experiencing the most beautiful chamber music performance I’ve ever heard, and writing a hundred-page thesis. I’m happy, despite not having time to write code, and that’s really wonderful!

It’s those people who I run into and feel happy to see that give life color, rather than the smartest, funniest, most attractive, most charismatic or creative, most “likely to be important” individuals. So when people ask me what I look for in friends, I no longer tell them that I’m looking for any particular qualities. I just want to be around kind, ordinary humans, and that’s enough? People are good.

Being more centered on people also affects how I approach my work. When stuff like the recent Reddit protest happens, I’m reminded of how the world is small, fragile, and imperfectly human. Maybe I can hope do better someday.