Tell me if the following sounds familiar:
Oh, hi! It's been such a long time! They told me that you are a
researcher now, right? What are you working on?
Me? Oh, well, ...
- ... I am developing a new carbulator theory that can hiperstat a maximum-entrophy logarithmic equation.
- ... it's something complicated. Have you ever heard of carbulators? No? Don't worry, no one ever does.
- ... you don't really want to hear that. It's super boring.
I am guilty of giving all of those answers at some point in my life. And while I am used to people not caring about my work, I'm not happy about it. Of course, I'm a nerd, so "doing boring things that no one cares about" is what I do. And I'm not saying everyone should be pasionate about Dungeons and Dragons^1. But I do think that, when I give a completely useless answer like the ones above, I'm contributing more to the problem than to the solution.
It is a fact that a lot of what we programmers and researchers do is considered boring by lots of people. But think about it, do you think it's boring? If the answer is "no", then I bet you could explain to me what's exciting about your job, why does it matter and/or what are you expecting to achieve. So all we need to do now is to better transmit this excitement to those around us. And yes, by "around us" I mean people who doesn't know what a carbulator is, have never heard the term in their life, and are probably none the worse for it.
I think a good start is my research section, in which I've listed some articles where I give a simple explanation of what I do. Not because I'm expecting my relatives to check my personal homepage, but because writing the articles has made me think really hard about what might be hard to grasp to non-technical readers, and next time I'll have a good script to begin with.
I can't tell you why I feel so strongly about this. Perhaps it's because the last time I was asked this question all I had were links to published papers, and that's unacceptable. Or because the time before that I straight up lied about it. Or maybe because I'm thousands of kilometers away from my family, and yet they don't have a clue about why I think it's worth it. And I have yet to find any downside to making knowledge more accessible.
So, what did you say that you do?
^1 I still can't find a Dungeon Master near me, though. And if you don't know what that is, no, it's not a sex thing. It's an old game...