Life with geeks

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None less than Dave White (available now for the 2011-12 conference keynote season) started talking about geeks on twitter the other night.

This is what I have learnt about geeks in the last 10 years – I’ve worked with them and hung out with them, and although I feel like I understand them I wouldn’t claim to be one.. On twitter I was in full-scale Adam Curtis mode (or maybe just trying to get a slide all to my self in a Dave White talk) and came up with the following soundbites:

“The geeks are 2%. They’ve always been 2%. They always will be 2%. They’ll always own the cutting edge.”

“Geeks are The Culture. They share everything, they don’t need profit, they trust each other, they have super-advanced tech, they are naive.”

“Geeks have their own currency – reputation. In that respect they’ve a lot in common with what academics used to be.”

So, to unpack that a bit I’m fundamentally seeing geeks as being defined as those who are living now the life we will all be living in 3-5 years time. But they are doing so with a very different set of assumptions, values and interest.

Geeks are not technodeterminists.

It’s a cliche to paint a geek as having an interest in technology – Technology for geeks is like bricks to a builder. It’s a staple. You can do all kinds of cool stuff with it, but in itself it’s barely worth thinking about. Show a geek and a non-geek technodeterminist a new gadget. The technodeterminist gibbers about UI and gigabits and pixels per square inch. The geek asks “what can I do with it?” –  a question that is more concerned with openness and interoperability than specification.

Geeks are interested (almost unhealthily in some cases) in human interactions and ways in which they can be improved and better understood. Most of what is interesting in geek culture is based on their understanding of (or, attempts to better understand) human interaction, and is expressed in the medium of technology. Most geeks do not have a formal background in humanities, so insights are drawn from technical analogies and amplified/reinforced by popular philosophy/literature and *especially* the more interesting class of games.

Amongst themselves, they have perfected interactions to a terrifying level. Respect and reputation are key, but the unlocking capability is the ability to ask intelligent questions. If you can do this – even if you can’t understand the answers – you are accepted into the community. However, a poorly expressed question can often be treated with derision and rudeness.

Geeks design systems of interaction based on mutual respect and trust, precise and concise communication of key ideas, and the assumption that everything will be shared.  When these systems migrate into wiser usage, these underlying assumptions can cause major problems. Facebook, for instance, assumes that you want to share pretty much everything with pretty much everyone – a default that becomes more and more problematic as the service becomes more mainstream.

Commerce, or even profit, is frowned upon. Those who manage to profit whilst maintaining geek credibility are tolerated, those who do not retain standing in the community are reviled. Geeks are more likely to work on something they think is cool (often with superhuman levels of effort and time commitment) than on something that simply pays their wages.

They are using technologies on a daily basis that you will be using, as I say, in 3-5 years time. But by the time you get there they will be gone, to a technology that is more efficient and/or (usually both) more open. Ideas and tools that excite them now are almost certainly not accessible for the rest of us, indeed we’ll have very little chance of understanding them in their current state.  UI comes later, the possibilities and efficiencies are what is initially important.

As I said above, I’m not a geek – just someone who knows some geeks and is dumb enough to think he understands them. I think there are some historical and cultural parallels, as Carl Vincent pointed out:

“[T]hey are equivalent to academics from 300yrs ago and engineers from 150yrs ago.”

but I’ll leave them for others to draw out.



3 thoughts on “Life with geeks

  1. Sad that I missed this discussion unfolding on twitter; tried to reconstruct it but twitter does not make that particularly easy.”Geeks are not technodeterminists.” Aye, but perhaps the issue is more that they are “technodeterminers,” eh? I think the notion that the time span (3-5 years in the future) is collapsing is suspect; “Half a league half a league,Half a league onward.” Also the notion that the set of norms that geeks themselves conform to is itself static seems wrong; just like with academics & engineers, these are self-affirming/reinforcing, & the longer yet get away from the formations of those norms, the more the reasons for their origins fade and they become ends in themselves. So what starts off as simply “improving” ends up being “engineering out.” </randomcomments>

  2. So would this allow the more general summary: geekdom is a relative status reserved to the top 2% of any given talent pool.

  3. I think the world "top" is misleading. It's only "top" in the sense of more geeky. I'm not trying to make a talent value judgement. For example you could point at people with "geeky" attributes that are not especially technically skilled (though I'd agree that this is rare.) Love responding to an "Ockhams Shotgun" comment – it's like old times :-)

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