On Sunday 15 November 2020, the Department of English organised a virtual graduation ceremony for MALCS students from the Class of 2019 and the Class of 2020. Here’s Dr Magdalen Ki’s speech. Dr Ki is the current Director of the MALCS programme.
In a time like this, commencement ceremonies are usually held online, but good advice still flows in from all directions. Oprah Winfrey tells people to pay attention to inequality—poor people suffer more because of their lack of resources. Bill Gates says the environment and global health are pressing issues. Barack Obama says activism is important. His fellow Nobel peace laureate, Malala Yousafzai, is worried about school shutdowns and girls who are unable to go back to the classroom. CEO of Apple Tim Cook invites people to think about the dead and value their loved ones, the time and blessings we have. Basketball star LeBron James talks about “staying close to home,” and loving your family even though you have to pursue your dreams and ambitions. Steven Spielberg emphasises that at a time like this, it is essential to hang on to our dreams.
These are all words of wisdom. And they are all true. But before we can change the class system, become activists, or dream big, we have to acknowledge that the world is not in our hands. Our lives are not in our hands. Wherever we go now there are machines that monitor our body temperature. The extensive Covid-19 tests give us biodata of an entire city. There are also apps that monitor places of risk. Tracking is good for safety, but it can also be very alarming. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, once said that “the world is going to be data”. In every way, Covid-19 accelerated the era of Big Data. In the past, it was difficult for the university to know how many visitors to the HKBU campus there were on a single day. These days we have a card entry system and the number of visitors is just a click away. It also used to be difficult to track student performance in one place,; now Moodle and Zoom tell you how long you spend in a class, what your chat messages are, when you submit your essays, and your grades. In a world of online shopping, your preferences, your lifestyle, your whereabouts are easily known. Jack Ma’s concern is that Big Data means AI will soon do away with a lot of jobs. Those who are good at technology will be rich, those who are not will lose out and face the hunger games of joblessness.
But just as the virus affects the rich and the poor, Big Data also has a levelling effect. It is good for management, projection and control. Rich and poor alike can be slaves of data. We do not know who gets our data, who will use it, whether the data we receive is reliable, or is falsified. In turn, we may make wrong predictions, get the whole picture wrong. Covid-19 highlights social distancing. As we become more and more alienated from others, we are more tethered to our electronic devices. It gives us a sense of “society” that we are still connected to others, but it is not the real thing. And we do not know the reality beyond the given data. In the advent of this data revolution, my word is to find ways to STAY SAFE. Sharing is good, but oversharing information on social media is not good. Staying safe is now a life-long mission to take control of your own life. Stay safe, protect your life, protect your data. Take control.
Magdalen Ki is Associate Professor at the Department of English. [Click here to read all entries by Magdalen.]