Thursday, May 27, 2010

Why I Became a Web Geek

Amber asked for web dev origin stories. Here’s mine.

In the late 1940s, in the parts of the world that mattered, the end of WWII and the atomic bomb had brought the philosophical shift we now label post-modernism into the cultural mainstream. But in rural Tennessee, just down the road from the house I grew up in, my grandmother was being loaded onto a wagon to make the 5-mile trip “in to town.” My dad was a breech birth. Home birth had taken a turn for the worse and they needed to get a doctor involved. 40 years later my dad bought about 42 acres of farm land he occasionally plows with a team of mules just for the fun of it. This is just a hobby. He earned his living by dismantling nuclear weapons in the same facility that enriched the uranium for Fat Man and Little Boy.

This is the culture that produced me. About 5 years after I was born, satellite dishes cropped up like kudzu and started piping in the culture of the greater global village. It was amazing to watch the communication/information explosion transform this area.

For example, I found the CBC fascinating. I didn’t understand all the politics involved, but I knew they had a station that broadcast in French because that was the primary language in Quebec and that they had a station out of the North West Territories that featured a lot of content relevant to the First Peoples population there. I didn’t really see that same kind of diversity in American media. We had a lot of forced tolerance, but as we tried to blur lines based on gender and race we drew a greater distinction along class lines. The prevailing message was small towns and small people didn’t matter.

That could be do in part to the overall wealth worship fetish America had in the 80s. Compare Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable to Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids from the decade before. I could (and still do) identify with the Cosby Kids despite geographic and racial boundaries. The Huxtable kids lived in a different world and that had very little to do with race. The Cosby Kids were a rare example of the not-rich and not-famous among pop culture characters; and closer to my day to day reality than Larry, Darryl and Darryl.

Getting rural areas and poor areas connected to the mass media grid gave these marginalized populations a window to the world. Getting connected to the internet would give us a voice. I wanted to be part of that.

Also, growing up on a “farm” affected my work ethic. I don’t miss manual labor under the blazing Tennessee sun. It was 80 degrees at 8 am today, and it’s not even truly summer yet. I feel most fulfilled if I can point to something at the end of the day and tell myself “I made that. That didn’t exist this morning and now it does.” Luckily I discovered that digital artifacts scratch that psychological itch just as effectively as a freshly planted row of crops. And with significantly less sun burn. If only typing code burned calories as effectively.

On top of that, I’ve been extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time both educationally and professionally. Everything fell into place and I feel like I’ve found the perfect fit to do what I am.

My dad’s birth story sounds like a scene from a John Ford movie and I earn a living building communication systems out of ASCII characters. That’s a huge jump in just 2 generations. I have 2 kids of my own. I can’t imagine what their adult lives will be like.

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