7 August, 2013
I’m often asked what it is I do.
It turns out that a lot of people don’t really realise that most of the internet is “hand built” in some way: it’s just this thing that’s there. I suppose it must be similar for people that make films, since without thinking about it too much, most people seem to intuit that a director’s job is to point a camera at actors, who read through the script from start to finish in various locations. Start talking about the role of the editor, or cinematography, or mention the idea that a sequence could have been cut differently for narrative effect, and most people think that these must be some sort of super-advanced special cases, rather than simply how it works, day-to-day.
So it seems with “The Internet”. The idea that some people actually work on facebook, for example—making decisions about what to put where, about the size of images, the layouts, the way URLs are constructed, how to decide what to show you and so on—seems like magic to many people.
So if I’m feeling lyrical, I’ve found myself saying that “I build bits of the Internet”, when people ask what I do. It sometimes comes across as pretentious as hell, but to the right audience, it actually conveys far more about what it is I do than anything else I could come up with quickly.
All of which is to say that I have a vague understanding of the magic behind the Internet. I get the technologies involved, I have an intuitive grasp of what happens when I click buttons, follow links, search, type in URLs and so on. Much of the mechanical magic of the internet is gone for me.
And yet that doesn’t diminish my sense of wonder at what the Internet does. Feynman loved this example, and his analogy holds here. My understanding of “the trick” of the Internet only enhances my sense of wonder and fascination when something unexpected happens.
The wonder of the Internet, really, is that it has become a serendipity engine. Consider “surfing”: the act of following a link, reading, then following another link, reading some more, and within an hour or two finding yourself so far from the original subject as to be in unrecognised territory.
This freeform serendipity is what many people cherish as the golden egg of the Internet, and I suspect it’s why those same people are so concerned about walled gardens: the chances of serendipity become severely reduced when you limit the potential for interaction. The same panic and fear can be triggered by talk of copyright.
So there I am, surfing away on the open (as in road) internet, and who do I stumble upon but my Dad. Turns out that a rather talented local photographer, David McGurk had been out looking for some inspiration, and had himself stumbled upon a minor celebrity.
Yup, my Dad got his fifteen minutes.
And that’s what I guess I help build: moments like that, chance encounters with useful stuff.
All I ever wanted to do, I think, was to help people get more out of the richness of life. Maybe that’s a better description of “what I do”.
Though I have to admit, that sounds way more pretentious than “programmer”.