Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Work?  §

Nobody understands what I do for a living. Since the beginning of my adult work life, nobody ever has. Look at the things I’ve done in the past:

  • eBay Investigator
  • Technical Editor
  • Media Analyst
  • Media Development Consultant

And then there are the things that I am doing now:

  • Media Sociologist
  • Online Guide
  • Freelance Digital Stock Photographer

All of this is e-work. People in “affiliated” industries have no idea just what it entails. What, exactly, is an investigator at an online auction site? What exactly is technical about editorial work that isn’t done by, say, layout or production people? Everyone knows what a guide is in the context of the Sahara desert or the Amazon or even, more modestly, the Colorado river. But online?

People that think “photographer” think about film and helicopters and exotic locations and news stories, not databases and keywords and files and gigabytes. The same goes for the sociologists; I’m getting a Ph.D. in sociology and have scored honors everything on every exam and have a 4.0 GPA and none of the sociologists has any clue what I do and I have no clue what they do and our knowledge, in fact, overlaps almost not at all, despite our using the same body of theory and the same list of classical analytical and philosophical tools.

All I’ve ever done in the “multiple careers” I’ve supposedly had is sit in front of a computer and link inputs to outputs in ways that I believe are likely to produce meaningful results for people other than myself.

— § —

Everyone things I’m just a geek. I like computing. I hug databases. I kiss data. I don’t want to throw away my email because I’m quaint.

They imagine that the fact that I have 8TB (eight terabytes, that’s right) of RAID-1 storage online in a networked capacity is about me being just a little bit mentally ill, but in a harmless way, and the fact that I can manage to fill this space with stuff that isn’t (a) movies, (b) video games, (c) porn, or (d) any other form of entertainment makes me a special kind of mentally-ill-but-in-a-harmless-way.

My whole life is data. Data, data, data. To do what I do requires data. That is how I make my money. I am, at the core of things, a data analyst, which requires (these days) massive IT skills, the basics of CS skills, super logical thinking capacity, and the ability to abstract, systematize, and problem-solve.

I analyze and/or grapple with and/or organize data, using that data as a resource from which to produce stuff that people find interesting and are willing to pay for / read. And yet, I am not a “quant,” I don’t use the data to produce charts and graphs and other things that are ideologically blinkered and oversimple and yet highly sellable. If I did, then I could just tell people, “I make statistics about the data and turn it into nice charts and graphs.” That people can understand.

As everyone knows, there is nearly an infinite amount of data out there, flying around almost all of the time, most of it absolutely worthless to most people most of the time. What I do is try to make some of it meaningful to some people some of the time, beyond numbers and charts and graphs, which (a) I don’t think are always transcendentally informative in the way that they claim to be, and (b) I don’t have the requisite skills to produce at a professional level anyway.

— § —

Is this a legitimate career?

I don’t know. It doesn’t have a title. Nobody imagines that it exists. It gets folded into all of these other fields still organized around traditional forms of economic practice—publishing, mass media, policy research, social science, marketing and sales, and so on, never mind, that the old-school publishers are hanging around the archives and the presses and the old-school policy people are hanging around the bureaucratic offices and the old school social scientists are out doing fieldwork and the old school marketing and sales people are busy with inventories and billboards, and for all of these hats I use one single computer system and in fact these days one single database (DevonThink) to work in all of these industries doing something that looks nothing like what my “colleagues” in the industry do. Nevermind.

I don’t know if it’s legitimate. I don’t know if it’s producing real value.

I do know it’s the one set of skills I’ve been leveraging my entire adult working life.

I also know that I wish people would believe that it’s real work.

— § —

For the most part, people see me sitting in front of my computer reading articles, typing stuff, clicking around in a database, whatever, and they somehow imagine that because I’m not doing it under the nostril breath of a boss of some kind and because I’m not in a cubicle and because I don’t have any recognizable job description like “accountant” or “paralegal,” I must be playing on my computer at just that moment, or doing some sort of hobby-oriented, personal-growth-sustaining something-or-other that is good for my soul, and that I do my real work, my productive and paying work some other time and place that they don’t get to see.

And if I sit there with my computer too long and/or spend a great deal more money on software, gadgets, data storage, or accounts than they would in their personal life, they are quick to say that I am being a bit wasteful, aren’t I, and shouldn’t I just make do, after all, what normal person needs all these hard drives and gadgets and accounts and clever programs, they’ve gotten by for years without.

It seems impossible to explain to anyone that this is my job, I don’t have a boss, these things are the necessary, tax-deductible tools to staying successful in this job, and I am working, not hanging out chillin’ and looking for something to do.

— § —

I so wish I had a lab coat or a greasy uniform or something else that would denote


because then I would get more respect from passers-by about being a hard worker and I would also know where I fit within the economy, e.g. there would be some I.R.S. occupation code that actually applies to me when doing tax returns and the paperwork or webformwork of banks and other similar institutions wouldn’t have me lying through my teeth and claiming to be an “educator” or a “scientist” or an “information technology” worker or something like this simply because there’s no category yet that anyone not doing this job can imaging for “person that analyzes massive flows of data, fields of user interfaces, populations of active users, and the norms and trajectories surrounding all of these draws connections, synthesizes, distills, then republishes or relectures it in this form.”

— § —

What should you do, exactly, when nobody thinks you have a “real job” or a “real specialization” in your academic field, even when you are doing what you do very well?

— § —

The world is moving too quickly for everyone. Hell, if it’s moving too quickly for me (and it is) then it’s no wonder nobody has any idea what the f*** I do.