The guilty phrase is "lonely profession." I can think of half a dozen different ways to interpret that: the solo macho man scaling mountains and living off the land for months at a time; a researcher studying first-hand the effects of solitary confinement; being the only monkey in the world capable of speaking Swahili. Throw those words into Google, and you'll find teachers, sports coaches, writers, artists, and people from pretty much every walk of life bemoaning the solitude and isolation of their careers.
But I'm not a teacher, a coach, a writer, artist, or Swahili-speaking monkey (or Swahili-speaking anything, for that matter) - so I can't really comment much on what those people have to say. What I do know is that my own career can be very, very effectively described by the phrase "lonely profession."
It's nearly paradoxical, in many ways; thanks to massive leaps in technology in the past decade, I am a handful of milliseconds away from any suitably connected person in the world. While a generation ago I may have penned my navel-gazing rants of lunacy into a spiral-bound notebook, today I can slather it all over the Web and let thousands of strangers read it. Heck, on a daily basis I communicate instantaneously with people on a totally different continent.
Certainly, this technological extroversion and capacity for communication provides a very powerful illusion of community. In many ways, communities do exist - even thrive - on the Internet; I actively participate in two on a daily basis (our very own GDNet, natch, and the forums over at Egosoft). There is no question, though, that these media lack something that can only really be had from face-to-face, physical interaction. I'm not edumacationed in the lore of psychology, so I have no words to really pin down what that quality is - if indeed anyone has truly pinned it down.
But I do know that I miss it.
Consider Joe Random in his Boring Day Job. Joe punches the clock, hangs out and chit-chats at the water cooler, and plots to overthrow his evil twisted manager - he's a perfectly healthy, stereotypical member of the great American workforce. Now, suppose something happens in Joe's job - maybe it's really good, maybe it really sucks. But Joe definitely wants to talk about it.
Let's say that, for whatever reason, Joe has exhausted the talking potential among his cow-orkers, and now wants to continue talking in a larger social circle. Maybe he goes home, or goes to the pub, or whatever. He finds a group of willing listeners.
Pause the stream for a second and ponder: for some very large percentage of careers out there, Joe can probably discuss his Big Event just fine. People may not have direct experience with Whatever It Is Joe Does, but they can probably relate with similar experiences from their own lives. Joe's job is something that any other random person can appreciate - maybe not perfectly, but at least to a significant degree.
So Joe talks, gets his catharsis, tosses back a couple brews, and that's that. Joe is now happy; he's either shared his grand tale of success, or bitched about his dismal lot in life, depending on whatever happened in our little hypothetical slice of Joe's hypothetical life.
For contrast, let's look at a typical programmer. Bob the Wonder Hacker has a Big Event in his job, just like Joe. Maybe he was up all night solving some fiendish bug, or maybe he accomplished some huge feat of elegance and ingenuity. Maybe his manager was just being a luddite dick. Whatever.
So Bob goes to the pub, and by random luck, he meets Joe. He listens to Joe's tale, and understands. After nodding vigorously and buying Joe a celebratory (or sympathetic) round of drinks, Bob launches into his own tale.
It takes only seconds for things to go terribly, gut-wrenchingly wrong. Bob says those all-dreaded words ("distributed client infrastructure"), and Joe's eyes glaze over. Oblivious (thanks to the brews), Bob continues on; it isn't long before he makes his second faux pas ("concurrency issue") - Joe's jaw loosens a bit and he begins to drool.
Soon, Bob has talked about multithreading and his brilliant domain-specific functional mini-language that exploits referential transparency and atomic message passing to bypass the concurrency problem regardless of the locality of the client and server ends of his service connection. Poor Joe's eyes have gone from glazed to bugged, and then oozed clean out of his skull and plopped onto the floor. His jaw is long past slack and has unhinged, his tongue lolling out and making unsightly stains on Joe's tie. Dizzy and on the edge of unconsciousness, Joe slumps forwards onto the bar, cracking his forehead sharply on his beer. Amidst the spilled booze and trickle of blood, Joe casts Bob the Evil Eye, gives him a rude gesture, and stumbles off to nurse his wounds and try and figure out what the hell clown currency has to do with anything.
Lately, I've become painfully sympathetic to Bob's plight. It's a bit of a stereotype that programmers are supposed to be fairly asocial to begin with (although I'm not entirely sure about the causality between being a programmer and being asocial, but I'm getting ahead of myself there). To make things worse, there are very few people in the world who can really truly understand the kinds of ups and downs we experience as part of our everyday work.
I noticed this pattern quite some time ago, and it's bothered me in a sort of subtle, subconscious way ever since: I'll be talking to some friend of mine and ask how their week went. They'll probably throw out a couple of anecdotes about what happened at the office/warehouse/nuclear power plant, we'll share the appropriate emotional responses, and then they ask me.
I learned a long time ago not to give honest answers. Instead, I'll take a quick mental average of the time span in question (day, week, life, whatever) and respond either "good" or "bad." That's it. My work experience - to everyone else - is entirely boolean.
It occurs to me (just now, of all times) that I really don't know what kind of impression that makes. Maybe people think I'm boring, or inarticulate (unlikely, considering how verbose I tend to be), or maybe bipolar or something. I really don't have any idea. But I also have no idea how I can fix that situation, because as soon as I try to explain how my week really was, people end up losing their eyeballs and waking up with weird bruises on their foreheads. It isn't exactly endearing, you know?
Of course, the Internet can't be ignored here. Via the miracle of technology, I have contact with a pretty large number of people who can appreciate the subtleties and interesting experiences of my job. Unfortunately, it just doesn't seem to provide the same kind of depth. Physical interaction adds such a huge layer of potential to a conversation that it simply cannot be rivaled by digital media. I can talk shop about programming via the Internet, but I can't punch anyone in the arm for making corny jokes, or pass them another drink, or make funny faces at them in the middle of important meetings. It simply is not - and cannot be - the same.
Sure, there's more than just work to talk about over in meatspace. There are all kinds of other mutual interests that can be discussed; there's Real Life stuff to talk about (and do) that doesn't have to stray into the realm of work. The job isn't everything. The problem is, the job is a very hefty chunk of things; we all spend a huge slice of our time working, and the simple mathematics of the situation dictate that a correspondingly large chunk of our life experience will be filtered through our jobs.
And when you can't talk about your job, that means you can't talk about a significantly large chunk of your life. That's a peculiarly nasty curse to live with.
I work a lot, primarily because I have a pretty powerful love for what I do. I find few activities as fulfilling and stimulating as crafting software. It's a rich and beautiful experience. And, being the touchy-feely kind of guy that I am, it kills me that I can't share that with more people.
I can't count the number of times I've been sitting here, usually in the dark, halfway through a can of concentrated sugar and stimulants, when I've been struck by something. Sometimes it's frustration or anger at a nasty bug. Sometimes it's inspiration. Sometimes it's an odd feeling of sheer joy at the fact that I'm doing what I'm doing. Sometimes it's a random insect that has snuck into the apartment by some crafty subterfuge.
When those moments occur, my first impulse is to share it - find someone, talk about it. Vent, or revel, or whatever; just do it together. Experience is enriched when it is shared.
It's always a painful shock to realize there's nobody to share with.
Maybe things would be better if I had a physical shared space with my colleagues. I'm sure it would help at least marginally. But that really doesn't do me too much good in the here-and-now. The people I know who can sympathize with the technical realities of my life are, unfortunately, largely just random acquaintences - not the kind of people you can call breathlessly at 4 AM and spazz out about stuff.
The people I can call at 4 AM to spazz out wouldn't have a damn clue what I'm talking about, which sort of cheapens things a bit.
I really don't have a point here. This isn't going anywhere - most likely because, if I knew where to go, I wouldn't have a problem to talk about in the first place.
It's a weird thing, the way technology has affected things. This is the kind of stuff you put in a journal or diary. Even as recently as five years ago, a journal was something you kept private. It's a sort of healthy all-American half-joke that you beat up your siblings for peeking into your private thoughts. When one wished to ponder these sorts of issues, the first choice was often the most concealed available medium. I know a few people who trusted more of their deep inner secrets to ink and paper than they did to other human beings.
Yet here we are, in the ripe old year of 2006, and it is no longer unthinkable to spill one's mind about such personal issues in front of potentially millions of viewers. It's the ultimate contrast from what the journal of days-gone-by stood for; there is no control at all over who may stumble across the scrawl of our subconscious.
I'm not sure what to make of the fact that it seems sensible to say stuff like this in a public forum. I think part of me is busy questioning the other part's sanity for being so comfortable with the notion.
Maybe it's because this is the best place I've got to find other people to discuss it with. That would almost seem pathetic if it didn't make so much damn sense.
Maybe it just sucks to be doing something incredibly cool - something I've dreamed of doing for years - and really have nobody to share with.
Maybe that's why I'm here.