Arvind Narayanan (arvindn) wrote,
Arvind Narayanan

Remember when being a geek meant something?

That's a picture of the early Microsoft employees back in 1978.

Much has changed in the 3 decades since then. Being a computer nerd isn't the kind of eccentric pursuit that it once was. It all seems inevitable in retrospect — the difference in perception has been driven by the dual factors of techies getting rich in increasing numbers and information technology making people's lives noticeably better.

Hand-in-hand with this change in perception, techies themselves have morphed: there's less of a correlation with social incompetence these days. Perhaps the reason is that computers and software have gotten much closer to humans, and so pure technical chops without social intelligence don't confer the kind of edge they used to.

This has led to developments that would have been incomprehensible a few decades ago. For example, here in Silicon Valley there's a whole celebrity scene, complete with gossip about personal lives. Zuckerberg is the subject of a Hollywood movie. Thankfully there aren't any paparazzi yet, as far as I know.

The other day I was at a founders' mixer and there was this dude who was using tricks right out of the PUA playbook to pitch his startup to me. It grossed me out, and made me stop to think, and I realized how much things have changed.

Don't get me wrong — on the whole, I'm thrilled about the overall direction. But I feel there's something that's been lost in the sexing up of hackerdom. For example, I find that many people I interact with who're in somewhat peripheral areas of tech, such as social media, don't have a friggin' clue about the deep skill and mastery of the machine that's involved in being a hacker, and assume it's all about mindlessly banging out code. It would seem that hackers can have either mainstream acceptance, or respect for their craft, but not both.

I'm not remotely suggesting that social awkwardness as a way of signaling how smart you are is a desirable thing. But just as one might lament losing the ability to touch and feel a paper book while welcoming the era of e-books, I'm mourning something that was nice about the days past while recognizing that things have changed for the better overall.

The recently concluded AOL Geek Awards in Los Angeles give me a perfect opportunity to illustrate my point. The event's tagline, "everybody's a geek about something," brilliantly reduces the word to complete meaninglessness. Indeed, only one of the categories, "Web geek," has anything at all to do with intellectual pursuits. And who do you suppose won it? Blake Ross of Firefox fame? John Resig, creator of JQuery perhaps? Nope, those guys are too geeky to qualify for the Geek Awards.

The award goes to... Ben Huh of Cheezburger Network.


I look forward to the day when black-rimmed fake glasses will become the newest fashion trend to sweep the nation.

Endnote. There's an interesting parallel with black-hat hackers (regrettably) going mainstream, in the sense that they have been subsumed into organized crime. Back in the day, hackers who committed break-ins — especially the younguns — would often find themselves in the news and be viewed by the general public with a mixture of awe, admiration and fear.

P.S. I can't get that tagline out of my head, so I made this:

Acting geek

Eating geek

Murder geek?
Tags: hacker, rant, silicon valley, society
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