Have you read these popular descriptions on the Internet that go: “You know you’re a geek when…”?
If you already identify yourself as being part of this group, you will have proceeded to skim through the bullets, checking off points in succession, feeling perhaps some sense of satisfaction, maybe even pride. Sometimes, you silently alter some aspect of your self-perception to fit with the list. You quietly disregard a statement on the list that is at odds with some strongly held opinion. It ends with a smug smile, and you’re not sure if you’re smiling at yourself or at the list.
I know this, because I used to do this often as a teenager. In other cases, it’s not a list at all, but prose of some kind, like a log of a discussion, an essay, or (ahem) a blog post. Perhaps it’s about something else entirely, like the benefits of eating the kind of food you already do. The reaction is the same.
When you read the word “teenager”, you probably dismissed this activity as something kids do, searching for a group of their own. Something that perhaps even you did, before you knew better. If you are a teenager, you’re trying to remember if you’ve done something like this lately. Part of you is wondering how the opening lines were intended–figuring out where you stand on this issue, or even whether you have a stand.
There are several problems with this kind of thinking, and several factors at work here. The first problem is that we lose information when we do this, collapsing our rather high dimensional personalities onto smaller ones, like projecting a vector onto another. Over time, we start seeing ourselves as the projection, and eliminating (or ignoring) any components that don’t align. The second problem is that you and I believe we no longer do this, even though we used to at some point. And there is a third problem, the thrust of this essay, mentioned towards the end.
One factor causing this is confirmation bias. Even a slightly held opinion is progressively magnified by reading and agreeing with something that echoes the opinion. Anything that opposes the opinion is quietly disregarded. You know of this; we do it all the time.
The second factor is the tribe. We love to congregate into tribes of like-minded individuals. This is what online communities are. Some of them are places you go to for information, but mostly they’re cliques, breathing life into Enrico Fermi’s quip:
Never underestimate the joy people derive from hearing something they already know.
Everyone wants to be told something they know, and one way to do this is to call yourself a geek and associate with others who do the same.
My thesis is more general, but let’s talk some more about the example here, that of being a geek.
One problem with the term geek is that it is something you are. It’s a descriptor: You’re not so much a geeky person anymore as you are a geek. Here’s a little context, from the brilliantly rambling In The Beginning Was The Command Line:
Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, except that it’s been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it’s the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we’ve evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.
Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that’s no problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.
When Stephenson writes about the distinction between the Morlocks and the Eloi–geeks and laymen, he is careful not to use the latter terms. It may just be authorial style, or it may be that there is more to this than meets the eye:
The boundary between these two classes is more porous than I’ve made it sound. I’m always running into regular dudes–construction workers, auto mechanics, taxi drivers, galoots in general–who were largely aliterate until something made it necessary for them to become readers and start actually thinking about things. Perhaps they had to come to grips with alcoholism, perhaps they got sent to jail, or came down with a disease, or suffered a crisis in religious faith, or simply got bored. Such people can get up to speed on particular subjects quite rapidly.
Geeks are not a tribe. The difference is like that between time and space averages: A large group doing mentally stimulating, creative and (or) highly logical tasks in some of their time produces output similar to a splinter of them doing it all the time. Even if the composition of this splinter is ever-changing.
The second aspect–not so much a problem–of the term is that it is entirely American. This works for a significant chunk of the Internet, but not for the rest. The term embodies a set of assumptions that I don’t agree with, or even understand. For instance, people often apologize for being geeky, which always strikes me as disingenuous. I think the true reason for this, if one exists, is mired in the last few decades of American history. Maybe it is sociological; maybe they do not know why they do it, except that many others do.
You’re buying into these cultural assumptions when you adopt the term; even more so when you apply it to yourself.
The opening example could have been a variety of things, like “How to tell if you’re a programmer”, or a Banker, or an Australian, or something more esoteric, like RTS gamer. I chose “geek” because someone asked me recently why I rarely use that word, and I thought the answer is best told in a larger context. (On the other hand, the opening example was a serious explanation of a facetious turn of phrase, and maybe I’m just overthinking it.)
You might think I’m making a case for individuality here. But that’s not it, not exactly. Anyone who is geeky in the sense of the word discussed here is also likely to be strongly individualistic. I’m talking of an orthogonal problem, where we assert our individuality by assigning labels to ourselves.
Labels are dangerous things. The more closely you associate yourself with something, the more muddled your thinking becomes in that subject. An easy way to see this is to think of something you call yourself that ends in an -ian, an -er or an -ist. A school, a town, a religion, a country. How do you react when you sense an attack on any of these labels? How long does it take before debate goes out the window and you’re responding to the attack in kind?
That’s not to say that you can’t feel strongly about something. Ideas and institutions are well worth preserving, but the deeper they live in your psyche, the more atavistic and irrational your response when they are threatened. In his hilarious talk at TED (which you’ve no doubt seen), Sir Ken Robinson quotes a fine example:
I have an interest in education–actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education. Don’t you? I find this very interesting. If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education–actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education. You’re not asked. And you’re never asked back, curiously. That’s strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, “What do you do?” and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, “Oh my God,” you know, “Why me? My one night out all week.” But if you ask about their education, they pin you to the wall. Because it’s one of those things that goes deep with people, am I right? Like religion, and money and other things.
This, then, is the third problem with the kind of thinking in the opening sentences, and with the label of “geek”, although–of course–this is also a problem with most labels you assign in constructing your identity.
Keeping our stack of labels small and consciously avoiding confirmation biases all the time is a tall order, and of course I haven’t a clue as to how it’s done. But I think it’s one of those ideas worth preserving.
The blockbuster of today is bourgeois. Rehashed chaff with a smattering of CGI thrown in. It’s the ultimate product of playing safe. It’s where clichés are born, and a it’s a factory for bottled cynicism that I’ve consumed in saturating doses.
None of that seemed to matter today.
The visual splendor of Avatar far exceeds anything I have ever seen. An hour into the movie, most of that fades away.1 But the sense of wonder doesn’t!
It remains true to the tried-and-tested mould, rarely straying from the predictable. But it makes you want to fight the instinct to predict.
And the stereotypes- oh, the stereotypes. They’re everywhere.
But really, none of that matters. Like the hero’s journey, everyone enjoys a good yarn, even if it’s drawn from the same skein as every other length of yarn you’ve enjoyed before.
Keep your cynicism in check, your eyes wide open, and keep your cup empty.
1. The old argument about whether the graphics make a video game rears its head here. (Slyly!) I don’t have a definitive answer. I was awed by Crysis even ten hours into the game, but Deus Ex had me hooked all the way. Pixelated chunks just don’t matter when you have an accurate mental map of an interesting gameworld.
me: I finally found my comfort zone in this hierarchy of levels of complexity in which you can use a computer.
Mine’s just below the “application level”, at the level of the tools used to create applications.
Sameer: kya? :-}
me: Basically, there are a whole lot of “levels” at which you can use a PC.
Some of them complex enough to sound nightmarish to anyone- these are the “lowest” levels, sending system calls yourself, etc.
Sameer: well isn’t it relative
me: Most casual users use the highest level,
(GUIs with nice text boxes, etc.)
Sameer: for eg. I can send sys calls and interact with the kernel but on the other hand I can’t sometimes understand how basic applications work :P
me: Well, yes, knowledge of one level does not imply knowledge of all of them.
(I mean, knowledge of all the higher levels)
Sameer: hadd header!
me: Yeah, my friend (and co-blogger at RightShift) is a GIMP freak.
Anyway, my point is that different users prefer to work at different levels.
Some want control and precision,
some just want things to work.
(These sets of people are not mutually exclusive, ob)
Sameer: yup, point taken :)
me: Anyway, getting to the remark I made-
I’ve finally found my comfort zone.
(It’s a zone I didn’t know existed when I was using only Windows)
This zone is the level that provides basic tools for application development; several steps above system calls to kernel networking modules (in the case of Jabber), and two steps below this integrated messaging system in Gmail.
Sameer: hadd hadd
me: That is, the zone where I can create Jabber connections using Python/Perl modules and exert considerable control over how I send messages.
Combined with Bash awesomeness (sed, grep, perl, tr and other text processing tools),
Sameer: yes and the geekiest level will be that of physical layer
me: I can engage in all kinds of crazy-awesomeness.
Sameer: u just flip bits to get your work done
me: It would; but I don’t want that kind of control or headache.
I haven’t clicked the link,
and I can already guess that this is the XKCD comic with M-x butterfly.
Sameer: hehe, yes… :D
me: M-x butterfly is a classic.
I think someone wrote a mock version of it into Emacs 23.
god, I keep getting distracted.
yes, the best comic strip ever
me: I’m now comfortable in this zone,
and liking the control/automation tradeoff.
But then this Jabber thing comes along… and refuses to work!
me: It’s like being kicked out of a plush leather sofa.
Due to an overabundance of tinkering time,
Sameer: shit, I can relate to that
me: I’ve gotten to the point where I consider most web browsers (save elinks) over-designed,
Sameer: (being kicked from sofa)
me: and most chat clients needlessly bloated.
Basically, I view “software” with a critical eye now that I can (in principle) build my own with a high level language.
And then this Jabber thingy pains me for seven hours and I’m forced to use Firefox.
This is like the ultimate cosmic insult.
And that’s what I wanted to say all along.
Sameer: hadd :P
me: I should make this a blog post.
Sameer: damn, think of how much fun we could have had, if only you had chosen Berkeley :P
me: Fun in our spare time- but would we have had any spare time to begin with?
Sameer: yeah definitely :P
me: You know what, I’m just going to upload this conversation from where I started the levels-of-PC-use rant to the blog.
And I will use… a CLI based blog client to publish the post!
Sameer: hadd :)
me: Can I leave in your name?
Sameer: with my hadd’s :D
Sameer: sure, make me famous :P
me: You’re kidding me.
My blog gets two visitors an year.
Sameer: ah, then allow me to put it as status message :)
me: OK, but think- how many people will have a clue of what’s going on?
The problem with me blogging is that I choose awfully esoteric topics.
And not on purpose!
Sameer: ya…that is the problem with technical writing :(
you have only a given set of audiences
me: We had the exact same problem in the Astronomy club.
Sameer: and only 5-6 people on my gtalk list who will actually read them
me: Hah! I have only 5-6 people on my gtalk list, period.
Sameer: I knew it was coming
me: Ooh, more fun.
I pasted in the chat log with the timestamps.
me: This means I now get to use… regular expressions!
u need help!
okay, now I need some sleep
A chat log, because this kind of special rubbish requires a better resting place than an obscure email account. (The collocutor, Sameer, is like an online punching bag for this kind of outburst.)