With this blog, I attempt to answer the question: How dangerous can an idea get?

How Do You Tell People That You Work in Technology?

Date/Time Permalink: 03/30/09 03:04:46 pm
Category: Humor

Since you're reading this, I'll assume that at least you can understand something of what I mean. So, for the record, my income is derived about 50% from writing, 30% graphic design, 10% coding, and the rest is dribbling into website ad revenue and the odd consulting gig. It's all done from home. Literally, I sit at home and type on a keyboard, and checks mysteriously arrive in the mail.

Now, you try explaining that to people.

My wife and I, in our day-to-day transactions with The Outside World, have developed a reflexive cringe whenever the subject comes up. "So, what does your husband do?" is the kind of thing that these days gets her to just hang up on people, if the call wasn't all that important. Or change the subject, if in person, even if that requires her to knock something over and break it.

For myself, I'm just contemplating changing my answer to: "I'm a witch doctor. I dance around a pentagram drawn in goat's blood while biting the heads off chickens and shaking some maracas." If people don't understand that answer, it at least confronts them with the idea that they should just drop it.

But no! Doggedly and determinedly, I try to keep up the hope that I will eventually chance upon somebody living in the same century as I. And the one thing people won't believe is the bald truth. So my spouse and I are reduced to frantically calling out random professions that are sort of related to what I do, like two contestants on the 'Beat the Clock' game on The Price is Right, both hoping that we will find whatever the magic phrase is that will just, please, for the love of God, END this conversation.

Attempt one: "I'm a web designer." A bald lie, but everything I produce ends up on somebody's website, so close. If I'm lucky enough to be talking to someone aged 25 or younger, they kind of get it. Though even then, the concept that I don't have to drive downtown to one of the skyscrapers to do this is a point of confusion.

Attempt two: "I'm a writer." This is 50% of the truth, but then I get "You mean like $FAMOUS_AUTHOR?" (the only one they read). No, I write for the Internet. The Internet? How can you do that? Well, have you seen writing on the Internet? Somebody got paid to write all that. Yes, but I didn't know computers could read.

Every now and then, I can say "I'm a blogger." and sometimes I get lucky and find someone whose kid bandied the word "blog" around at the dinner table, once in a million times. At least "blog" is sometimes related to what I do.

Attempt three: "I freelance online. I do writing, graphics design, and programming." No, no, no! You've used four and maybe even five words that the average American does not know the definition of.

You can get away with that in Silicon Valley. But you're sitting across the desk from the guy filling out your credit-background check, so he can find out that you're guaranteed to pay for the stupid little car he wants to sell. He has no little box on the form that corresponds to you. The #2 pencil drops. The brain shuts down. The eyes go dim. This unit has stopped, and it will not be available for service again until it has been rebooted.

Attempt four: "I'm a webmaster." Not how I derive main income, but some folks buy that. Except that "the webmaster" is a somewhat dated term, and sounds like somebody Batman should be fighting.

Attempt five: "I work in computers." Ah, yes, the great catch-all. If you're dealing with anyone over the age of 35, this is your only recourse. It's inevitable in the case of a landlord. Surely, by this time, they've learned that this answer actually means "Just drop it." You know, computers? Those big box things with reels of tape and blinky lights and cards with little square holes in them?

Seriously, this is the year 2009, I'm in Iowa (the state with the 3rd-highest graduation rate, and continually ranks in the top 3 for ACT and SAT scores), and half the bloody people I talk to have never SEEN a bloody computer! Not even on TV! I have no idea how these people live. In a cave, roasting venison on a spit, I gather. I could at least allow for it, if I was talking to a hog farmer in overalls. But no, this guy owns the damn property I'm trying to rent from him. He wears a suit, drives a car, and has a wallet with plastic cards in it. Com-pu-ters? News to him!

Of course, the party I'm addressing concludes at this point that there has to be something shady going on. After all, the TV news said that the Internet is full of hackers and pedophiles. And you have to say "Internet" to explain why you don't get into a car and drive to your computer job every weekday morning.

Meanwhile, my neighbors peek suspiciously over the fence in my direction, growing more convinced by the day that I must have some kind of dark secret. Is he selling drugs? No, there's no cars pulling in and out of his driveway all night. In the mafia? No, nobody that important-looking ever comes to see him. Win the lottery or a lump-sum inheritance? No, he's obviously not rich. Well, look at him! He's always in shorts and a T-shirt with three days' growth on his face, and he only comes outside about once a week! What, is he blackmailing somebody?

I hear my IT-career peers bemoan this dilemma all the time. I hear IT-workers relate the conversation that transpires when they tell people what they do. I want to cry when I hear them complain that everybody asks them to fix their computer. You don't know how lucky you have it! You talk to people who own computers!

Whoops, I have to go. The goat's blood is drying out and the black candles have burned down, and I haven't summoned my succubi yet.

a guy with a sign

Update: While we're on the subject of people with a technology blind spot, I loved this story about Amanda Palmer and her dealings with a mindless record label exec, for the quote:

"i had to EXPLAIN to the so-called 'head of digital media' of roadrunner australia WHAT TWITTER WAS. and his brush-off that "it hasn’t caught on here yet" was ABSURD because the next day i twittered that i was doing an impromptu gathering in a public park and 12 hours later, 150 underage fans - who couldn't attend the show - showed up to get their records signed."

For shame, Roadrunner! Even I knew to show a media director using Twitter.

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