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We Have the Technology to Change

by Michelle Levesque
09/27/2007

Michelle Levesque is a software engineer at Google where she writes and directs internal educational videos, coordinates the massive postering of Google restroom stalls with weekly flyers that promote testing, and interviews potential chefs and masseuses.

It was when I was in high school and I saw someone magically vanish into thin air that I considered getting into programming.

We were gathered at a virtual cafe, sitting at a virtual table, drinking virtual coffee. The topic of conversation varied from movies and TV shows to complaints about the day's classes, with a healthy dose of gossip about our friends. But we'd never before encountered someone who said that they could perform real magic; that's what made this day unique. He claimed that he had created a magic teleportation device that could move someone against her will to any point of his choosing in this world.

We were gathered on a world called a MOO, an online social environment that predated today's MMORPGs and programs such as Second Life. You could build your own houses and furniture, dress your avatar in clothing, create your own televisions, dungeons, spaceships, and dragons. But you couldn't circumvent the constraints of that world any more than you could break the laws of physics in real life. You couldn't just magically teleport other people. It was impossible. But when he demonstrated his device, it did exactly what he had claimed it could do: he had the power to rip people from where they stood and move them to anywhere he chose. I was fascinated.

It turned out that he'd found a security hole in the programming of the world's constraints and had written code that exploited this vulnerability to create the device. I immediately decided that I wanted to learn this craft, and set out to learn how to program. Because there were no books on the MOO programming language, I used to print out pages and pages of others' code and would annotate it with a pencil and draw little diagrams on the side to try to figure out what it did. It took me a year before I'd learned how to program well enough to find my first major security vulnerability in the world's code, and it took several more years before I'd finally understood all of the subtleties of the language.

No one explained to me that my new hobby was much more common among men than women, but I probably wouldn't have cared if they had. Growing up, I had always spent a lot more time with the boys in my class than with other girls, preferring the adventure games that the boys played to the girls' games of house and dolls. And although the lack of diversity in technology eventually became something that bothered me greatly, it was because I felt that the lack of women in the field was a symptom of other problems. If the "boys club" atmosphere was keeping out women, it was probably keeping out a lot of other important personalities, ideas, and philosophies. It was an indication that something was wrong and unhealthy and needed to be fixed in the field. But it was never something that stopped me personally—if nothing else, because I loved rising to meet a challenge.

When I finally reached university, I had to select a major to apply for and I was met with a difficult decision. I'd always loved and done well in the humanities, but finally there was the opportunity to pursue my passion for programming in an academic setting. I decided to enroll in Computer Science, but picked up as many non-Computer Science classes as my department would allow. I found that there was an amazing overlap between them, and that the material I learned in my political science and philosophy classes were just as applicable to a software engineering career as the programming classes were.

It was through this overlap that I discovered an amazing career opportunity and began work at the Citizen Lab. The Citizen Lab was a research institution at my university that hired both political science and computer science students to study the unexplored areas where the two fields intersected. One of our core projects was the study of internet censorship around the world, and that soon became the focus of my job there.

At the time, internet censorship was a largely unstudied field, and most of the evidence that it even existed was based on anecdotes and legends sprinkled with mythic exaggerations. Over the next few years, we performed many extensive case studies on countries such as Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia, but we also explored similar practices that take place in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. We tried to discover what topics they were blocking, how sophisticated their censorship was, what mechanisms they were using, and how transparent they were about their practices.

We wrote tools to give to volunteers who traveled to (or who lived in) these countries, and we partnered with the Berkmen Center at Harvard who were able to wrap our technical findings in the legal and political climate of the area at that time. Not only did our research help shed light onto this increasingly prevalent practice, but in a few cases we actually helped to get content unblocked and restore access to parts of the Web. They were small steps, but important ones.

One summer, a few of us at the Citizen Lab were given the opportunity to travel to Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico to learn how technology was being used there to fight for human rights, to teach them what we could, and to bring back our experiences to share with others. The entire trip was filmed and produced into a documentary called Hacktivista. The experience was nothing short of life changing.

We visited a worker at an exhumation site where they dug up the bodies in mass graves from the Guatemalan massacres, and they tried to identify and collect facts about them. The man who worked there told us about his fears that his computer data might be stolen from him by people and organizations who didn't want the truth to be revealed. We met with a group of elderly men who had all lost their families to the massacres and they explained to us how valuable this information was to them and how important it was that it be made public so that those responsible could be held accountable.

We also visited one of the poorest neighborhoods in Guatemala City, where computers had been donated to set up a lab for children to use. I watched a young boy, growing up in a world so unlike the one I knew, playing videogames as I had. We had kids tell us about their friends they had met online in other countries and how they shared stories about their lives and got to hear about life elsewhere. It was one of the most genuinely beautiful uses of technology that I had ever seen. And no one seemed worried that the computers would be stolen from the lab and sold for money, because it was such a precious part of their community.

Through this work, I obtained a new outlook on the relationship between software developers and their users. Software can do so much more than just provide entertainment or make a manual task easier; it can fundamentally change people's lives for better, or for worse, in very real and significant ways. It can be the greatest champion for freedom of speech and expression, or the very thing that stifles it. I realized then that I have the potential in my career to make a long-lasting impact on the world, and this is the sort of realization that makes the long, slow nights of debugging completely worthwhile. Though technology isn't the solution to every problem, it's an area wherein I feel that I can make a difference. The fact that I have so much fun doing it is just a welcome bonus.


Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Reading about how blogging has changed the lives of these Cambodian women: http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2007/09/bloghers-gender.html and using your skills to better the world: http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.whatvol.it.


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