I went to Poland for pizza the other night with a friend. Most of the restaurants in Słubice, the city across the river, will have a German translation of the menu, so avoiding meat isn’t usually difficult. But every once in a while I still encounter a German word I don’t know. This time it was Miesmuschel. Normally I’d be able to look it up in my dictionary, but as I reached for my phone the waitress appeared and asked us to order. In Słubice, most of the people I’ve encountered in the service industry also speak German (a feature that is tellingly not the case with Germans speaking Polish in Frankfurt). I pointed to the word on the menu and asked in German, “Is this meat?” She said no. Still slightly skeptical, I pressed again,”So this pizza is vegetarian?” She gave me a funny look and pointed to the pizza titled Pizza Vegetariana. “Right. But this pizza is also vegetarian?” Yes, yes, yes. I like surprises, so I took a chance on the mystery ingredient. 20 minutes later I had my translation: mussels. My friend and I got a good laugh out of the encounter, and a lucky stray cat got my mussels on the walk home.
Many of my friends and family were surprised when I stopped eating meat while living in Germany in 2013. After all, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when imagining German cuisine? I bet it ends in -wurst. But Germany has a culture of environmental conscientiousness that is more mainstream than in the USA, and found myself thinking about vegetarianism more and more frequently. I find that a large number of my peers here are vegetarian as well. The decision was surprisingly easy once I learned about the system of meat production we experience both in the USA and in Germany. The data are telling.
I identify now that this change in habit came at a fairly significant point of time in my education, when I started to believe that I did not — and could not — separate my personal from my academic life. When I began to believe that eating meat was contributing to a system I found unethical, stopping wasn’t hard. It felt like less of a choice and more of an obligation. At this time in 2013 I also began to think very seriously about what kind of career I wanted. Up until that point, I had the sense that my (foggily conceived) future career would somehow be an independent realm, stopping short of my “real life”, which would be built from all the things I would do outside of work. I realized that giving the bulk of my time and energy to something that didn’t contribute to improving the world in a way that aligned with my core values was, for me, illogical.
I frame this conversation around being vegetarian mostly because this lifestyle choice compels me to think constantly about the impact I have on my environment and my community. There are so many layers of impact to consider, from the difference between buying something grown on the outskirts of town and the opposite side of the globe, to buying produce from a supermarket and a farmer’s market. Even the difference between interacting directly with farmers and an overworked cashier or self-scan machine makes for a more intimate community (although smiling at strangers is unfortunately often an unwelcome activity in this neck of the woods).
It’s a similar line of thinking that drove me to study security technologies, where I hope my skills and education contribute in a positive way to a different community, this time of activists, journalists, and citizens. But unlike with food, I didn’t quite feel like I had an understanding of all the layers of impact within the ecosystems of, for example, State censorship or surveillance. If I don’t really know the types of problems that people are struggling with, I can’t constructively contribute to solving them. Even knowing the nature of the problem is not enough, and it is not the difficult part of the equation; it’s also essential to understand the root cause and the peripheral effects of the proposed solution. The wrong solution can hurt more than help if it’s carelessly designed and thrown into an ecosystem. Human rights law was a way for me to conceive of these ostensible “technology problems” through another framework, one specifically designed to address them in an entirely different way.
I’ve certainly gained a valuable perspective on these topics, but the thing that’s been reaffirmed most thoroughly is just how far away both the fields of international law and tech research feel from the people they affect. This is another reason that I’m glad I no longer feel like my personal life is isolated from my academic life. My experience with these problems and solutions will also come from the connections and friendships I’m making to people from all over the world as I continue to expand my community and reflect on the systems we’re a part of.