Data is Eternal

a search for meaning in technology

My life for almost a decade had a certain pattern to it. Read about the latest technology on the internet — usually via a combination of subreddits. Study tech while working at a company that used existing tech. Get proficient to find job at company with new tech. Start cycle again. Coming fresh out of college, I knew no other world.

I noticed something peculiar begin to happen though as my forays into technology lead me into the web world; an ever-increasing and sometimes parallel exploration into technology. I was no longer studying 2 libraries from slow churning corporations, but now keeping track of a handful of projects across NPM, furiously studying blogs on the latest concoctions by the intelligencia of javascript to interact with the browser.

I believed that I was learning technology. I was receiving praises and raises from bosses, and was able to nod along with people at my programming meetups. It brought me to some amazing companies, and let me work with some brilliant people (some of you may be reading this). After a decade however, I reached point ...

A definite moment in my life, after mastering React, server side rendering, several libraries attempting to bring functional ideas to an unfunctional javascript, and various css rendering transformations in trancompiling tools. At this moment I felt an utter sense of waste of my life.

I was utterly tired of learning conventions and abstractions of other people with very little technical relevance to the real mechanics of a machine. Some thoughts with a close friend of mine have really clarified this emotion that lingered in the background of my life for some years. The feeling that "I have wasted my life on the meaningless". Not just an ordinary kind of meaningless in the nihilistic way, but the kind of meaningless that makes you feel like you have truly evaded understanding reality in what ways are possible by a human.

I didn't want to look back on my life like this when I am old.

Simultaneously I was experiencing a totally different existential crisis in life. One of my great passions in life, virtual reality, was fading. To give some context on why that's such a big deal for me, I grew up on computers trying to imagine ways to create interactive self descriptive environments, rendering triangles from scratch in java, teaching myself 3D modeling in Blender, exploring the diversity of virtual experiences in Second Life for 9 years (where I met my wife), mastering the ever growing functionality of browsers to find a technology for shared interactive experiences of the future, and inevitably joining one of the most cutting edge companies in augmented reality. For me to wake up one day and say "maybe virtual reality isn't what I want to do with my life" was pretty significant.

Over the last year, I've deeply grown of the opinion that virtual reality will not bring me anything of deep value. When I sit and imagine a moment of calmness, such as staring at a tranquil forest or a serene beach - experiencing a moment of true presence - I simply cannot imagine how such a feeling will be possible in VR. That is a depressing realization for me because it was an illusion had for many years would be possible "if I just had the right technology!".

Last year, my life had a small change that would ripple through my life after I had signed myself up for some work in assisting a good friend of mine who was doing some analytics. I knew his team would be in need of a person with front end skills, and I was such a person with these skills. Writing the graphics code for charts and visualizations is something I enjoy. It's a very practical opportunity to apply some graphics programming in work most non-game developers are likely to do. The opportunity to apply some of that know how again intrigued me in addition to the thought of helping out my friend.

I don't think I expected how deeply I would fall into the work . In addition to front end knowledge, there was a strong need for a lot of backend work as well which I knew. I had the opportunity to work with a brilliant data scientist and data engineer who slowly exposed me to some very fundamental ideas of applied data science.

I felt invigorated by the idea that I could be applying a bevy of web knowledge in combination with data generation to really help give people some insight into a small aspect of the world. It was a great opportunity to really give a lot of thought into a small domain that required a lot of calculation to get right. Working with that group of talented people really gave me a sense of camaraderie in a way I hadn't experienced in other teams. Data science as I discovered really is a combination of a huge amount of skills, and I loved the feeling of working with a band of diverse talented people — like a seven samurai of analytics.

After working on this project, I think it really dawned on me that there was a whole area of programming that really appealed to me: data engineering. For those who don't know what this term is, it's all the engineering required to make data science effectively executed on machines. Moving around huge amounts of numbers is no easy task!

Along the way I had discovered the vast variety of visualization ideas that were being created on the web: specialized business intelligence platforms, vast 2d visualizations libraries, and even some fascinating forays into 3d visualization. I was very pleased to discover that the web technology I had explored for several years was really being pushed to its limits in webgl and canvas.

My knowledge of machines gave me an interesting perspective on data calculations in the fascinating world of distributed computing. I learned about spark and a new programming language called Julia. After learning Rust for over a year, I had not expected I would find another language that would tempt my eyes. Julia is a really fascinating trade off of speed, interactivity, and functional programming I highly recommend people check out. The language has some of the most amazing cluster data calculation capabilities I've ever seen out of box.

Perhaps my most intriguing discovery was of the many authors who are reflecting and writing on data visualization and how our society is discussing data. There is a whole world of people who are exploring symbols (semiotics), the physiological reasons why we notice certain visuals, and the efficiency of reasoned communication about data. These topics impacted me deeply, leaving me with this feeling that there are noble challenges to be solved in the world.

On a trip I took recently, reflecting on all that has happened over that last year, I realized I discovered a new life purpose. After a week of delicious Japanese food, 7-11 snacks, and trying to really suss out what I had found, one sentence stuck:

"The moral pursuit of understanding objective reality augmented with technology."

What does this mean to me?

First, "moral pursuit" means to me that I'm not just doing this pursuit for entertainment but to actually cause some good in society and for my peers. Data science is often about helping a business make better decisions, which is ultimately about how to bring value to society and sustainability for the business. I am trying to maximize information for this good.

Second, "understanding objective reality". I am a strong believer in paying attention to nature. Nature cannot be fooled and it will smack you in the face if you have illusions about it. Understanding what exists I think is fundamental not only to my personal life but also to businesses. This is a deep philosophical aspect of my personality as those who have discussions with me know.

Thirdly, "augmented by technology" reflects that I am trying to apply not only the human ways in which we can take in the objectively, but to enhance those ways with technology. As many come to understand, models cannot tell a complete story, and that interplay of human experience, philosophy, and quantitative analysis is a skill I believe is worth cultivation.

I believe this moment in Tokyo was pivotal in my life. I see this new purpose as an alignment of many veins of thought that have been going in my life both professionally and personally. Philosophy, programming, aesthetics, morality. Perhaps most exciting to me is the feeling universality of this pursuit. What future people would not be concerned with the nature of what exists? I see a huge landscape of a big questions and better ways we can be exploring it together. I can see myself applying my knowledge of the nature of machines to improve processing, reflecting on human philosophy and values in the meaning of data, and striving to communicate it the best possible way for the rest of my life. After years of pursuit of the meaningless, I now stand at the beginning of another decade of my life with this realization deep in my soul:


Read more by Richard Anaya