Aithne is a data storyteller who vivaciously engages in all that she enjoys, whether that be gaming, music production, Icelandic history, or journalism. We spoke about the genesis of her interests in storytelling and programming, how student debt has informed her career choices, and the mindset of seeking uncomfortable environments in order to combat passivity.
What do you do?
I tell stories with data. Whether that is through data visualization, data engineering, or creating engaging narratives, I consider all of that as data storytelling. In my day job [as a software engineer] that means trying to do as much data engineering work as possible, gathering information for various business problems and using tools to clean and expose that information so that those problems can become addressable questions.
My work for my day job is systemic and machine-oriented but in my personal work, I prefer to interact closely with information—touch individual rows, do my own research, manually aggregate datasets, and pull data using scripts. While I like doing large-scale work, it's something I see as a means to earn money because the real joy in data storytelling comes from sitting in the sandbox of data and letting the information run through my fingers.
What are some personal projects that you've worked on?
I conducted research for an article on alien and anthropomorphic sex toys written by a friend. It involved looking at the search history, trends, and engagement of various Anthrocon related vendors. I tried to identify key terms to find what people look for when they are interested in finding tentacle dildos, for example.
I really enjoy categorizing, researching, and writing cultural histories of how events take place. I wrote my undergrad thesis on the Icelandic conversion to Christianity in the turn of the 11th century. From a storytelling standpoint that sort of cultural and intellectual history is where I draw inspiration. It's not "here is an individual and their data" but more so "here is a cultural collective or a representative set of parameters that can describe specific people's behavior within a culture", and tracing that over time.
It seems that storytelling through data is a pivot from your previous path studying history. I'm assuming you discovered that data is one of the most powerful tools for storytelling that we have. How did you come across data storytelling as something you'd want to pursue?
When I was thirteen years old I read Jurassic Park. When I saw the table diagrams in that book I thought, "Oh my god, this table is more terrifying to me than any of the other words Michael Crichton has written in this book." That was the impetus for me thinking that data can be really impactful in ways that prose cannot be.
That was another moment when I realized: people aren't afraid of information, they're afraid of poorly presented information. Just because I can form relationships with data in a more intuitive way doesn't mean other people can, and being able to hold people's hands through that is a really important skill. Varying degrees of complexity in data can either intimidate or uplift. Data can be a thread that ties human interactions together.
All of this gave me a humanitarian perspective on what it meant to work with data. I had been programming as a hobby, constantly working on computers, so using a tool that felt very familiar gave me an advantage in a domain where often the most authoritative sources are people who are thirty, forty years into their careers—older journalists or academics. With this tool that I casually honed over my childhood, I was able to easily engage people and that blew my mind.
Using a tool that felt very familiar gave me an advantage in a domain where often the most authoritative sources are people who are thirty, forty years into their careers.
I want to trace the two different strands of interests [storytelling and programming] that were growing before you married the two. You had mentioned that programming was a hobby for you. What was the genesis of that?
As an eight-year-old kid, I connected with my friends by playing video games. We lived in this apartment complex of student family housing at the college my dad was attending. All the kids would gather in the basement and play Nintendo 64. Playing games with friends became a big part of my life.
In my young adulthood, I liked working with media. When I was ten, I got a printer from Goodwill and decided to make my own zines and comics that I would distribute to my friends. From that point I knew I liked working with multimedia and publishing. This wasn't a conscious thought, by the way—
Right, it's just conscious now.
If I were to retcon my genesis this would be it. Then my grandmother took me to computer camp and that's when everything changed.
What happened at computer camp?
The camp was at a local museum where we built our own computers [for a week]. The $100 [enrollment fee] was paying for our hardware. After I built my own computer, I took it home and wondered, "What do I do with this?" My first thought was that I wanted to play games.
Now that I had this PC, I needed to figure out how to get games running. I don't remember how, but I got my hands on a copy of Half-Life when I was twelve. I didn't have a graphics card or any sort of ethernet connection, so I worked part-time jobs. I got a $30 ATI, a really low-end Radeon that was enough at the time, and a tiny wireless card. Now that I was able to play games, I discovered online gaming communities for modding and skinning. I would rip the skins out of the game files with my pirated copy of Photoshop and make custom guns for my friends, spray painted with weird textures.
I pursued graphic arts going into college. I enjoyed creating worlds, building things people could inhabit, and making people feel specific things through curated experiences. After countless thirteen hour days sketching in charcoal, I was fed up with art school. It wasn't creating experiences; it was rote repetition. I have multiple massive pieces that I spent weeks on that were crappy emulations of old stuff. I had underpaintings kept on my canvas because my work was supposed to look like that.
Iterations of what craft is supposed to be handed down.
Exactly. The only parts that did bring me joy from that experience were my design-oriented classes doing poster design. I had a project during freshman year that was a triptych based on the work of Damien Hirst. It was based on a combination of a few of his pieces—the Shark, Mother and Child (Divided), and Crucifixion. It was a meditation on consumer culture and the idea of making something that is derivative of artwork that is already derivative and self-cannibalizing. I got super into that because it was creative and technical. The poster design involved some sketches but mostly I was working with vectors and numbers as a means to create something.
The more manual painting and charcoal drawing became too much. My mental health was not great. I was pouring everything I had into [my work] and was still not feeling satisfied. I wanted to feel objectively satisfied with something and be able to walk away from it.
I ended up switching to study history and work in journalism. [Those fields] were short-form and objective. You could come up with any number of takes on things and as long as they followed certain rules, you hadn’t done "bad work."
Did either of your parents have any ideas of what they wanted you to be?
My parents told me when things would be bad ideas, but never encouraged or discouraged me in a specific direction. I think the message I got from my dad was that if I didn't do something intellectual, then I was plebeian. It was more encouragement than mandate though, and I realized [early on that] there was no satisfaction or success in pursuing humanities to the extent that my dad did as a historian.
My mom was the bigger influence [in terms of] work ethic. She mostly did manual contractor work and I would pick up jobs wherever she was. I would do janitorial work, install security systems, and deliver flowers on Valentine's Day.From there I took the things that I liked doing, menial tasks like cleaning and working on minutiae, and used them to my advantage and got people to pay me for them. I was constantly working at least one gig on the side. That allowed me to see more clearly that there was a path beyond academia. My mom and I weren’t doing high-minded stuff but we were having a great time drinking coffee out in the quarry, driving fast, just girl things.
A realization I had in my early to mid teens was that if I was going to surround myself with influences, I wanted them to be active and not passive. I saw the passive tendencies in myself and how easy it was for me to slip into ennui. I knew that if I wanted to continue to grow, I would have to put myself in an uncomfortable environment where I would be encouraged to do things. By that I don't mean studying and becoming enlightened, I mean getting out there and making shit happen. Given the choice of those two mindsets, I consciously inhabited the hustle mindset—making things on the computer, making things in real life. I needed to be with people who were going to push me to constantly do shit.
I saw the passive tendencies in myself and how easy it was for me to slip into ennui. I knew that if I wanted to continue to grow, I would have to put myself in an uncomfortable environment where I would be encouraged to do things.
How much do you think the hustle mindset factors into moving into data or programming, which is more well paid than history?
A hundred percent. When I got through my first semester of undergrad, I saw I had $25,000 in debt despite the fact that I had a decent scholarship. I realized I wasn't going to be able to afford to live anywhere unless I did something lucrative. Despite that I continued to study humanities. I knew I didn't want to do academia but I thought, maybe I'll teach and get loan forgiveness somehow.
As I reached the end of college and now had six figures in debt, I knew I needed a lucrative job. While doing programming in media, I got an internship at Vox. They offered me a chance to continue telling stories on humanitarian topics while making decent money. I realized from that internship that I could have a job where I could [avoid] drowning completely under debt and still enjoy aspects of the work that I do. From that point on I was okay with that compromise.
If you ask me what I wish I were doing, it would be crowdfunded social justice product-based activism. But that doesn't pay.
Do you spend time on that outside of your work, or have you decided for now you don't have the time or headspace to devote to that?
Knowing that this type of work doesn't pay, the stage that I'm at right now is going to grad school, working at a company paying for me to go to grad school so I don't incur more debt, and staying sane in the process. I will consult on that kind of work, but as far as devotion of serious creative effort, most of that goes toward grad school at the moment. I very much look forward to getting back into the kind of work that makes me feel better about the world. It makes me feel like we can change and do good.
Do you see a future for yourself once you have more money where you would pivot to do that work?
Yes. I'd like to be somewhere in between telling stories and improving the lives of people in the present day—helping people understand their context and be more understanding of one another. What that looks like in my mind right now is service-oriented journalism, ideally crowdfunded, or justice-oriented product development, also crowdfunded or ethically VC backed.
How do you know when to take a break?
I'm still bad at that. I think I've gotten better at recognizing when "go go go" becomes mania and acknowledging that it will lead to a crash. I previously would just balance that by inducing mania whenever I needed to be productive and slipping into a more apathetic state otherwise.
What does downtime look for you? Is a hobby like music production downtime, or is that another form of productivity in your mind?
Music production is a downtime thing. You're alluding to the work that I do on my Soundcloud—my ambient projects or beats, depending on my emotional state. I try to make sure that I never work on music when I don't want to. It reinforces the idea that music is pleasure for me—listening to music, making music, all of it. Sometimes I may not have the effort to make music so I'll just listen to it, and that's okay.
Right now given that I'm in grad school, I have very limited time for stress relief. Lately [I destress by] skateboarding, walking in the park, and reading graphic novels. Making music is hard work, so for me to make something that feels good takes a lot of effort even if it is a creative process. It definitely falls in the tier of hobbies similar to certain types of gaming that teeters on the brink of becoming work instead of play. I tend to be careful about those hobbies.
How important do you think work is for you?
The concept of work is incredibly important to me. Having something that excites you and makes you feel like you're contributing in a bigger way, not necessarily for your own gain but for a group of people or for society, is incredibly important. One of the core facets of the human condition is that we feel alive when we are engaged in society. Doing work is one of the best ways to engage with society. There are very few forms of work that don't interact with other human beings on a small or large scale. Work to me is just that—validating connection with other human beings.
One of the core facets of the human condition is that we feel alive when we are engaged in society. Doing work is one of the best ways to engage with society. There are very few forms of work that don't interact with other human beings on a small or large scale. Work to me is just that—validating connection with other human beings.
If you had five lives, each one with a different job or purpose, how would you fill those up?
I would work in a bodega.
I would work on a farm.
I would devote myself entirely to living in and off the land, probably producing local products for a small community in Michigan.
I would be a war correspondent from the perspective of the oppressed. That's something that I wanted to do a lot when I was younger and would still do, if I were a braver soul.
I would be nomadic. Everything that I own on my back, not in a worldly context, but traveling from city to city, doing various contract jobs.
The [first four] are things I could legitimately attain in [this life], but that last one is something that I don't think the circumstances of my life will ever support. Part of that is because of debt, which I don't think I'll be free of until my mid to late 30s. By then I don't know if that life will be sustainable.