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The Plumbers of the Internet

In which I analogize about my chosen profession.

(Posted 2016-02-26 16:15:00 -0400)

If memory serves, I participated in “Take Your Child To Work Day” (then known as “Take Your Son To Work Day”) exactly once. It went as well as might be expected, considering how new my profession still was, how little of it was comprehensible even to me, and how spectacularly unexciting it was when compared to, say, a day in the life of a fireman.

To ourselves–to others in what would only later be known as “I.T.”–it was a new and exciting world, filled with possibility. We sent arcane instructions to the machines on our desktops, and later on others’ desktops and in data centers whose exact locations were unknown and access to which was carefully guarded by Byzantine security, and those near and distant machines did our bidding. Occasionally, of course, they did what we told them instead of what we wanted, in a manner similar to that of the endlessly multiplying brooms hauling buckets of water in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” portion of the movie Fantasia. But the essence was that we spoke Commands and they acted.

That was how it looked within our heads. To those outside the cabal of I.T. (or to a bored son watching his father at work) it was just a bunch of oddly dressed, odd-looking people typing on keyboards and staring intently at green or amber letters on a tiny black television.

That’s the crux of the problem I’m trying to describe. Like many intellectual occupations–math professors, for example, I suppose, or writers–all the action happens inside our heads. But a math professor can fill blackboards with arcane equations; and writers write, producing short stories or novels or newspaper stories, possibly to be published or printed. In both cases, something tangible.

Software, on the other hand, is inherently intangible. Yes, you can print it out, or write it down, but when that is done it ceases to be functional. It’s dead. To do anything interesting, it must be turned into invisible, ungraspable symbols, stored in patterns of magnetic force or as tiny electric charges that a single errant spark from a woolen sweater would quickly wipe from existence.

Yes, you can see and touch a dektop computer. And later, you could and did (and do) touch smartphones, and tablets, and smart televisions and cars with built-in navigation systems. But these are all the products of engineering. I am not an engineer. I deal in software, and networks.

Networks rely on wires, and specialized computers to send signals along those wires, but what makes them “networks” is the invisible, intangible symbols transmitted and examined and routed on those wires by those boxes.

(My apologies–I’m listening to an audiobook of The Martian Chronicles as I type this, and I think Ray Bradbury’s wonderful, poetic, impossible prose is affecting mine.)

My point is, what I do is important–it keeps the world running–but it’s boring and mostly out of sight. Like maintenance workers, or janitors, or garbage collectors. All the people who do invisible jobs we never think about until no one is doing them.

I’m not a wizard. I’m a plumber.

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