Life with geeks

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.
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.

Followers of the Apocalypse Radio vol. 3

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license. Material linked to contains rights owned by various sources, available under various licenses.



Here’s the gen on the latest Followers of the Apocalypse radio show on #ds106radio

If anyone is wondering what kind of music this is, the straight answer is “I dunno”. I say “drums & bass” but that is a fragmented genre that is pretty much meaningless. I’m no expert, but I think what I’m playing in this set is a mixture of old school D&B, darkcore, darkstep, EBM and industrial.

If you want to hear this kind of music done properly, check out DJ Lee Chaos at chaos approved. He’s an astonishingly good west-of-the-uk based DJ playing pretty much this kind of music. I love his stuff.
Full tracklist and on-demand listening for the Followers of the Apocalypse mix #3 on Mixcloud

Helen Beetham speaking on “Digital Literacy and the role of the University” at Greenwich University, November 2010

In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 – “The Medieval University“, with Melvyn Bragg, Miri Rubin, Ian Wei and Peter Denley, March 2011

Jim Groom speaking at the City University of New York, “Going Loony at CUNY“, February 2011. 

In-game audio from the Fallout series of games.

Sample from “Terminator: Salvation