The Price of Transformation

· Read in 6 minutes · 1200 words ·

We are the people who transform the world. And Transformation is needed. We need a transformation—of our thinking, communities and institutions—in which we are all truly equal, and inherited injustices are eliminated. This is as important to our social well-being today as it has ever been. True Transformation's accomplishment is a new reality, political and social, that is fair and mutually supportive and that sees you and me, and all people, uniformly reach our full potential. The price of transformation is ours to pay. True transformation demands a high price. And we already owe much.

Transformation is one of the three pillars of my thinking and effort. It is as critical to my approach to research and thinking as are my pillars on Searching for the Principles of Intelligence, or addressing Global Challenges. Transformation cannot be separated from my other pillars, for they require transformation to succeed. A question that will be posed to me in November has prompted me to extract some of my thoughts.

Question: How do we support under-represented groups to put themselves forward?

Creating Discomfort

This question leaves me with a reflexive reaction, a squinching of the nose, a need to disagree with it somehow. It creates discomfort. Perhaps this is its intention. From where does this discomfort come?

This discomfort develops because it reveals several other uncomfortable questions: Who are the under-represented groups? What systems of power are at play and pre-supposed by this question? It asks how do 'we support' these groups and makes us wonder to what extent we might be complicit in reinforcing existing disparities? Why can't these groups put themselves forward already? What does forward mean: to what, to where, or before whom?

The problem with this original question is that is unquestioning in its outcome. It is the under-represented groups that must  eventually be put forward. It is they who must change. It is they who become equal to the groups that are already represented. It is problematic because the value-system of any of us that find ourselves currently represented, those of us with this privilege, remains intact and sustained. It releases the Represented from responsibility. When some of the under-represented do rise, this release becomes justified, using as proof that perseverance eventually wins; evidently race or gender, or other under-representations, are no obstacle to real achievement. The price of transformation cannot be paid in this way.

These questions must instead be re-centred: on ourselves. Each of us must assume a personal responsibility for transformation; we must ask questions that prevent us from seeking release from this responsibility.

We must all confront the question: What is the price of transformation? To do this, we will need to learn and accept our histories, and then learn how to use it to help pay the price. We must know upon whom the burden of payment has fallen, and know who has not paid the price, and know that our inaction only makes the price more dear.

We need to convince ourselves that the price of transformation is something we are willing to pay, and that we should pay.

Personal Responsibilities

Personal responsibility makes us mindful of our behaviour and power. This is the first part of the payment. I work as a scientist and engineer and there are responsibilities I believe anyone like me can assume. These are the questions that form part of my understanding of this personal responsibility, and of the price.

Our collaborators. Who are the authors of our last few papers? Who was part of our last project team?  When we look at this with the aim of transformation in mind, what does the answer to this question tell us. If the answer we find doesn't quite reflect the diverse need of our science and projects, then we are given a personal strategy for redress.

Speaking invitations. Do we need to accept every invitation we get? Look at the panels of speakers we have contributed to before. If what we see is something we think should be different, we gain the power to nominate someone else and affect change.

Role as organisers. What is our responsibility as organisers of events and meetings? I keep a log of every event I have organised to track my actions. This simple measurement reveals a lot about my actions, and importantly, gives me another personal strategy for change.

Expectations and trust. What is our default expectation of people? If we expect too little, why? Or do we expect a burden-of-proof that is unevenly applied: higher for some and lower for others. Taking risks on people is often a concern, but the strategy to reduce this risk is to do the opposite of our current instinct. Risk is removed by creating a truly supportive and diverse environment, one where our default expectations are risen.

Safeguard your responsibility. Learn to detect the 'de-value and dismiss' strategy. Conversations where you will be asked to entertain outrageous statements, which don't come from a place of genuine concern but instead with the aim to de-value and dismiss the work of transformation, are inescapable; they are often hidden and subtle, oblivious to their owners. We should never do this ourselves, and should never entertain them.

Challenge settled assumptions. Let us always make room to challenge our own settled assumptions. Is there room for awakening amongst the woke? I hope the answer will always be yes!

Ours to Pay

By always reaching higher in our personal responsibility for transformation we will, in effect, answer that initial question on supporting under-represented groups. Those who are under-represented today, through our joint effort, will come to be represented. As we seek to build and support each other, we put each other forward.

The price of transformation then becomes clear. We must realise that we who have the privilege of representation will have to give up our place. We will have to give up our recognition. We will have to at times not be recognised at all (and actively avoid it). We will need to divert power away from ourselves to others. This is the real price. Our human nature means that this price is amongst the highest we could ever be asked to pay. But it is ours to pay, now. And a debt to the future we can erase.

The price of transformation makes one final demand. And that is an instruction to remain positive. In times of change, where much is asked of us, personally and collectively, it is too easy to become disenchanted, disengaged, disaffected. But every action we take, no matter how small, does matter. With every action, we add a brick to the path towards transformative change. In building this path, we will find one of the purest sources of sustainable and lasting joy. For all we will pay, this is our return: to be joyful, together, and truly.

This was written while listening to Emeli Sandé, Breaking The Law. This essay is dedicated to those who have shown me what unceasing dedication to transformation can achieve. And for something different, you might be interested in reading a series of essays on Machine Learning Tricks.

—Shakir, passing through Cape Town

4 thoughts on “The Price of Transformation

  1. Thank you for sharing your reflections in writing and for living them out so passionately at the Deep Learning Indaba, Shakir. I particularly appreciated that you paid attention to and actively called out women to ask more questions. The effect of that was felt in sessions that came after yours.

    You've inspired me to write down thoughts that have been percolating in my mind for a long time. It was going to be a reply to your blog post, but got too long so I've turned it into a mini-article

    I loved your session on Generative Models. Thank you for breaking down complexity into fundamentals. It was really helpful.

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