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Tim Hwang, Fixer

A few years ago, I read an article about Tim Hwang and I reached out to him immediately. This was the hook:

“Tim Hwang founded faux-law firm Robot Robot & Hwang in 2010 as ‘a legal startup’ having a single human partner. While the site is a joke, Hwang’s declared mission—opening new opportunities for experimentation in the practice of law—is sincere. Hwang, not an actual lawyer, is a former research associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the founder of ROFLCon, a real-world gathering celebrating Internet memes and the creators of viral content, and the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, a (real) organization whose local chapters bundle small donations to award $1,000 grants to quirky, community-focused projects. Here, Hwang discusses the state of flux in the legal profession and his own young career.” – Featured in Fast Company

Tim Hwang lives in San Francisco, California. Currently, he is a Fellow at Data and Society.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was a kid (and really, all the way up to college), I had my heart set on being a physicist or a scientist of some kind. But — I think mostly due to the good fortune of running into some amazingly talented teachers while in school, I ended up getting more interested in people and how they do what they do.

What do you love?
Lately, I’ve really really really been loving the recordings of Bessie Smith. She’s got a beautiful voice that is pretty much the best thing ever, and I’ve been fascinated listening to all of the interviews that exist with her about her life and the era she lived in.

What do you do?
I’m currently a fellow at Data and Society, a New York “think/do-tank” where I’m focused on researching the rise of intelligent systems and how we should design them better.

If you learned one thing in college, it would be…
Always have a side hustle going, no matter what your main hustle is. My senior year in college was focused on two things: writing a thesis, and ROFLCon — a weird idea I had with some friends to do a conference bringing together scholars and people who were famous in web culture to talk about community online. At the time, the thesis seemed like the way bigger deal (and, later — thankfully in retrospect — got totally trashed on by this professor), but ROFLCon ended up being the way bigger life-changer in terms of meeting people and opening doors to more things.

Three of your favorite books:
There are so many! But, I guess if you had to put a gun to my head:
1. The Power Broker, Robert Caro
2. Joy in the Morning, PG Wodehouse
3. Sam and Max Surfin’ The Highway, Steve Purcell

What are you afraid of?
Ghosts. No, really. They aren’t real — but they’re still spooky.

What’s something you had to learn the hard way?
The rarest quality in people is the ability to commit to doing something, and then actually doing it. I think it’s actually rarer than the other traits that society traditionally values: intelligence, good looks, or what have you. Realizing that, and getting a good sense of who possesses this, is something I think you only can learn the hard way.

What is one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you?
Recently, I’ve become a huge enthusiast for professional wrestling. Currently, that involves a project to watch all of the WWF “Wrestlemania” specials in historical sequence with some friends. Pro-wrestling is usually considered a kind of niche trash culture nowadays, but I think people forget how big of a deal it was in the US during the 1980s and how much it was a mirror of culture during that time. Absolutely worth checking out, in my humble opinion.

How do you define success?
I think most people will answer this with something along the lines of “finding your community.” I want to take that one step further — success is “finding your co-conspirators.” I think success isn’t just about finding people that you identify with or are happy hanging out with. The bigger success is finding people who you can collaborate with over a lifetime to make changes in the wider world.

Best advice you’ve ever been given?
My grandfather passed down a few simple words to my mother, who is always fond of reminding me and my brother about it all the time, which is (in Chinese): “Think for yourself.” That is pretty simple advice that we hear all the time, but like most pieces of good advice, it’s just a constant reminder of something that I think everyone forgets to do all the time, which is to reach their own conclusion on things, regardless of what others say.

When I say the word “Robots,” what comes to mind?
When you say “robots,” most people think about human-looking machines along the C3PO variety or self-driving car variety, that sort of thing. In other words, the kind of robot you can see. I’m more interested in the robots you can’t see: that includes bots on social media that look like people but aren’t, high frequency trading systems that move huge amounts of stocks in the marketplace, and the automated systems that drive international shipping. These robots are less sci-fi, but they’re the ones having the biggest impact in the world today.

How do you think we can make the world a better place?
We’re always living in a complicated time! There are two parts to that. I think making the world a better place involves (a) recognizing things are complicated and thorny and typically don’t have a clear cut, quick, silver-bullet solution, and (b) that sometimes what we think is new is either the result of a long history of things, or is something that people have faced before. I think if we thought with those two things in mind, we’d be better off dealing with the challenges we face, and the solutions that we propose.

More about Tim Hwang:
Previously he has worked with: The Barbarian Group, The Berkman Center,Creative Commons, Davis Polk & Wardwell, Electronic Frontier Foundation,GoogleHighlands ForumImgur, Institute for the Future, Knight Foundation,Mozilla Foundation, National Defense University, Percolate, Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, and Tumblr.

Twitter: @timhwang
Site: timhwang.org