Last week, the chilling visage of David Shing was thrust upon the world. Equally horrific was his job title—“Digital Prophet.” That’s something you can be for a living? Yes, and there are plenty of other make-believe jobs out there, too.
I basically have one of these jobs, albeit not realllly in “tech”, though I’ve pushed back against suggested wacky titles and ended up with the relatively sensible “Content Director” (translation: “He writes stuff”). The Valleywag article is a bit of snarky fun, and I goggled at David Shing’s video too, but there’s a genuine hostility behind reaction to these roles which is interesting to unpack a bit.
Some of these people will be bullshit artists, some won’t: most jobs are similar in this regard. David Shing is quite possibly a bullshit artist, though the “bash the freak!” reception he’s been getting makes me - a shabbily dressed square who’s never had a tenth his sartorial confidence (however misguided) - warm to him a little and feel guilty at my initial boggling. Nathan Jurgenson isn’t a bullshit artist, though, or nothing I’ve read by him suggests that he is.
In my experience - certainly my experience in actually doing this kind of thing - a lot of these people do Minister Without Portfolio jobs, hired because they have good, flexible, connective brains rather than to fit a particular role. Once you’re in that kind of job - which I’ve done badly and (hopefully) well - a lot of the skill in it is getting yourself into useful places. Sitting at your desk running off digital prophecies isn’t going to win you any friends or give you much of a sense of worth in the long run. Getting stuck in on projects, responding promptly to calls for help, working out how interdisciplinary stuff connects, knowing stuff other people have been - through no fault of their own - too busy to know, and applying it humbly and helpfully… that’s the kind of thing free-floating workers try and do, dumb job title or not.
There’s a strain in tech which doesn’t like the idea of these soft jobs. It’s a strain that’s been quite prominent lately, with much hue and cry about making, prototyping, etc. The same strain also doesn’t really approve of qualitative research work, ethnography, or the application of theory in general. It’s related to a general, long-standing antipathy to social sciences from the business class - largely reciprocated, to be fair - and since tech culture is the Scrappy Doo to business culture’s Scooby, there’s no surprise in seeing it mirrored. Combine that with the post-80s trend to ever-smaller, more rigidly defined workforces doing longer hours and it’s no surprise there are howls of indignation at anyone whose role is opaque.
In a tech start-up, though, this strain isn’t completely unhealthy - companies do indeed need to do and make stuff. It should probably influence tech thinking, but not totally dominate it. If Snapchat employed twenty sociologists, I might raise an eyebrow at their priorities. I think, though, that they’re extremely sensible and far-sighted for employing one.
Some of it is, perhaps, a defensive fear. In a world with 19 messaging apps, the coders of the 20th need to have someone to look down on to reassure themselves they aren’t *total* parasites. There ARE significant problems with “bullshit jobs” in tech but they’re the same problems you see played out in every tech job - a myopic lack of diversity, for starters (which I have, obviously, personally benefited from), which is doubly bad when the unspoken common role beneath all of these jobs is to widen an organisation’s perspective. But the existence of the jobs themselves doesn’t strike me as a problem. Though of course, it wouldn’t.