Studying computer science at the end of the world

Published on 2023-09-15

An idea I've been coming back to quite a bit lately goes something like this:

It's hard to measure the value of a CS degree in a post-collapse society

It is! It's hard enough to measure the value of a CS degree in a pre-collapse society. I've been getting contradictory evidence on that my entire life. But post-collapse, what does it even matter? What does any of this matter?

I've gotten into "collapse computing" recently, which we might think of as a branch of permacomputing. To make it out as a branch of computing at this point feels a little silly. Often it feels like when we talk about things like "collapse computing," we're really talking about at most six people. But nonetheless, these six people have made some remarkable progress on things like CollapseOS and DuskOS, something to be admired.

I'm tempted to not talk about the immanent future as a "collapse." That feels fatalistic. But, I don't think "collapse" strictly needs to mean Mad Max. Something is going to collapse. I literally cannot imagine a near-term world where we're still going at it with as much consumption as there is today. It just doesn't seem reasonable. So, maybe collapse means degrowth. Maybe it means the downfall of a current system to be replaced with a new system.

Either way, it's hard to imagine a place for computer science outside of a mental exercise. Some people do. Some have invested a lot of time and energy in creating tools that will help us bring modern computing into a post-collapse society. And I do have at least some hope that whatever the near-future world will look like, there'll still be a place for them, because, well, I like computers a lot. I think they're pretty neat.

But right now, I'm spending a lot of time, money, and energy pursuing a degree in computer science, and I have to wonder how much it's worth it, when I could be working on building communities to help weather the storm

Right now, it seems like an immediate-future tool to get me a job, and to hopefully get me someplace in life where I'm financially stable. And, of course, it's something to do. I like computers, and I like studying them, even if university computer science feels more like a coding boot camp than, well, computer science. I guess you have to start somewhere, though.

I think my halfway pivot into environmental science will help me get through the existential dread. Environmental science is a little more obviously applicable. I'd love to study things like ecology, limnology, agroecology… all things that'd be directly useful in carving out a safe place in the world for myself and my community.

And you know what, maybe we'll all put our heads together and figure things out tomorrow. Maybe there never will be a collapse, because the powers that be find a way to get their shit together and the self-preservation instinct kicks in soon enough to prevent us up here in the global north from losing our treats.

On a level beyond practicality, I like the collapse computing people a lot because they emphasize frugality to an extent I see nowhere else in the field. That in and of itself is enough to keep me hooked. So, in the end, it's definitely worthwhile.

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