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.

The OER spin doctor on the wheels of steel.

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.

As @josswinn frequently reminds me, OER is political, in terms in how it stands both within and against the prevailing ethos of marketised education, and in the way it is (at heart) a personal choice with wider political ramifications, taking in debates about work and labour, intellectual property and ownership, and the nature and purpose of the institution of academia. 

As an essentially transformative political idea, it needs help to gain ground in areas where diametrically opposed opinions have long held sway. I’ve been wondering if we couldn’t be doing a better job of getting our key messages across using a well chosen metaphor in the grand political spin-doctor style.

Our Coalition overlords provide an awesome example of what I am looking for – how many times have you heard, in the context of the national debt, the UK compared to a poorly managed household budget, where belts have to be tightened? Hundreds, thousands? It works because it connects something theoretical and abstract with something real and concrete which many of us will have experienced.

It models a response in a new situation from a response to an old one.

However metaphors work both ways. You could argue that this choice of metaphor tells us more about the background of Gideon Osborne and colleagues, multi-millionaires who have never had a mortgage, much less a personal cash-flow problem. And you’d maybe suggest that a family having difficulty paying a debt may look to earn more money, or restructure their loan, rather than going without food and clothes.

There’s a whole other blog post to be written about how wrongheaded and dangerous this concept is as applied to this situation. But despite this, a cursory glance at any set of comments on a Guardian editorial, or at Gideon’s dire opening to his CSR statement suggest that it has had and continues to have a huge effect in shaping public opinion, and public responses.

The situation around the (re)use of OER in formal is slightly more obscure. What common experience do we have which models a useful response to OER by a teacher or lecturer?

Breaking it down, do we need to demonstrate that:

* reuse is preferable to the creation of new content?, or
* reuse is a part of the creation of new content?
* reuse is valuable because of the nature of the content, not the cultural frame of references?
* reuse saves time and/or money?
* reuse adds value to existing practice?

The CSAP OER team compared sharing and using OER to sharing and using recipes in cooking in a recent blog post, other responses to a request I made on twitter last week have included:

The Roman Catholic Church(?), ebay ; freecycle; comedy (parody / mimicry), music/theatre/dance, the use of the reference break in hip hop (the funky drummer), environment/energy areas, cooking, museums/ libraries (providing access to limited/rare things); (unhelpfully) teaching, mash ups (both in the hip-hop and web app senses), coding, books, crosswords,  videogames (in jokes / references), boardgame design….
(hat-tips to the PatLockely/xpert_project mindmeld, deburca, BasCordewener and especially KavuBob)

There’s some great (and very off-the-wall!) suggestions in there, but – to me – nothing that really captures what we hope OER reuse could be. Coding, the idea of code reuse being better than starting from scratch and the existence of stuff like Google Code, perhaps came closest – but is hardly mainstream to most academic staff. Music is another interesting idea, especially the use of famous sounds and loops (gratuitous link to what may well be my favourite website ever, mid-nineties HTML tables and all) – but how much of this is the musician remembering how a particular sound or style makes them feel in another context. 

So much of cultural reuse is about the associations and resonances that a particular artefact has within popular imagination. I remember being in equal parts distressed and cynically impressed when I first came across DJ Yoda, cutting and pasting enough of any given genre or meme to allow an audience to recognise and respond to it, but without ever being anything other than a stream of references without a meaning. But OER isn’t about the greatest hits of teachers, I see it more as an educational pandora, where (unexpectedly) you find just the right thing

The idea of “teacher as DJ” has been popular for a while, using images of bringing in materials from various sources to keep a thematic flow going. It’s perhaps the closest we have come, but it may take a few more years in western culture before the DJ and the musician are seen as equally creative (though I’d argue the case for people like DJ Shadow as being worth several thousand limp-wristed indie kids in the creativity stakes).  And are DJs not more concerned with entertaining their audience than in getting them to “understand” what they are playing?

“Teacher as DJ” says a lot about us too – the DJ is (very much) the “sage on the stage”, setting the mood, introducing themes, calling for responses. The audience have little control over the experience, except to walk out in disgust. And the DJ (in popular imagination) has that insouciant air of unstudied cool that commands attention and respect without attempting to earn it. Is this how we see ourselves?

But somewhere out there is *the* killer OER metaphor, which would allow us to explain to people that “it’s just like x”, where x is a situation that prompts desirable outcome “y”: which is a close analog to our desirable OER outcome reaction. Thoughts?