you were a geek, it was hard to miss. Laid out with
all the pomp and circumstance of a major cultural
pronouncment, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani's
lambasting of geek society sprawled across the front
page of the Arts & Leisure section. In the
the Geeks Get Snide," Kakutani tried to paint
the geek culture as a cold, unfeeling place populated
by geeks who, whatever their technical
accomplishments, remain failures as human beings.
What's even worse, she attempted to prove her point by
quoting liberally from my own work as an editor and
The article stumbles on its factual errors; "sheeple"
is not geek slang, for example, nor is "content
provider" -- the former was coined 80 years ago
by H. L. Mencken (whose intuitive grasp of today's
language and pop culture would probably far surpass
Kakutani's if he were still alive) and the latter is
marketroid-speak used mainly by suits. Not only have I
never heard any of my friends or New Hacker's
Dictionary correspondents refer to sex as
"client-server action," I can't even imagine
them being so crass.
To some extent these problems are down to bad
sources; Gareth Branwyn's "Jargon Watch"
Wired column is insubstantial entertainment, not
lexicography, and Paulina
Borsook in "Cyberselfish"
was seriously blinkered by her political agenda. But
the real problem is that Kakutani (like Borsook before
her) has distorted the geek culture into a mirror of
her own fears and prejudices.
The last hacker event I attended, two days ago in
Dearborn, Mich., wrapped up with a movie outing and an
ice-cream social. The three hundred or so geeks there
would have laughed pretty hard at Kakutani's portrait
of a "chilly, utilitarian world" as they
stood around chatting and enjoying the fudge sauce,
kids running around underfoot.
And as for the "I've got mine, you don't
matter" attitude Kakutani and Borsook describe,
I'm finding it particularly hard to reconcile with the
new Macintosh iBook
sitting on my desk -- the one those hackers in
Dearborn gifted me with three days ago, throwing over
$1,000 in the hat to do it simply because they liked
me and wanted me to be part of their gang.
When Kakutani quotes Borsook in describing the
digital community as a world that mirrors our
allegedly "winner-take-all, casino society,"
it's a case of the blind leading the blind. Whether or
not one thinks they are describing mainstream society
correctly, neither of them has managed to integrate
the fact that the most important movement in the geek
culture today is open-source software development.
Open source is a form of worldwide cooperation
premised on the voluntary renunciation of
intellectual-property rights. It's radical sharing,
justified by sound market economics but not really
founded on an economic impulse. Nor is this a novel
phenomenon -- the standards that made the Internet
work have been developed in the same way for over 30
years. The fact that this phenomenon has been labeled
"the Internet gift economy" is not an
Kakutani and Borsook's failure to notice the native
generosity and sustained cooperation typical of
hackers and geeks makes the predictable slam at libertarianism
and Ayn Rand that follows unintentionally humorous.
Borsook and Kakutani are correct in describing the
"cyberculture" (not a term hackers would
use) as implicitly libertarian. Where they go wrong is
in their presumption that this means my peers desire
to kill and eat the weak. The truth is, we don't build
our networks to abolish ordinary people -- we do it to
Theirs is a fundamentally political prejudice all
too typical of the old-media elite, and seems to be
unshakable by any amount of evidentiary report.
Ultimately, it appears to me that what Borsook and
Kakutani and their punditocracy ilk truly fear about
hacker culture is in fact its libertarianism and
what's behind that, the liberating power of technology
and free markets. Beneath that, I think they fear
freedom itself -- and especially the dissolution of
their comfortable role as cultural arbiters of what is
right and good.
This isn't the first time a commentator has
misconstrued my world through projecting his or her
insecurities on it, and is unlikely to be the last. It
probably won't even be the last time my own work is
selectively quoted to argue that case. Kakutani quotes
me as having written "hackers have relatively
little ability to identify emotionally with other
people." But she leaves out the next sentence,
which reads: "This may be because hackers
generally aren't much like other people."
We are wired differently; but the fact that we have
to work at empathizing with others actually
means we put a special value on it and on face-to-face
contact, as anyone who has ever sampled the intensity
of our tribal gatherings can testify. Our slang --
informal, playful, celebrating creativity and humor,
poking fun at power and pretension -- conveys the same
message of fundamental humanity.
Ms. Kakutani's rhetorical style and politicizing
invite the presumption that "celebrating
diversity" is important to her. If she had chosen
to do that, rather than casting us as a menace, I
doubt she'd have been as free with the negative
generalizations. Indeed, if we were a sexual minority
or the ethnic-victim-group-of-the-week, I'm sure she
would have struggled gamely to praise our
wonderfulness in spite of social isolation and
possible neurological handicaps.
That, of course, would have been just as much a
distortion as the attempted hatchet job we got (if a
subtler one). The truth is that my friends exhibit, in
their geeky and introverted and smarter-than-average
ways, all the virtues and vices of other kinds of
human beings. OK, so many of us look forward into
uploading ourselves into nanotechnological computers
with more aplomb than most other people would. But
until the day it's actually possible, we're all in
meatspace together, and (despite Kakutani's rather
febrile imaginings) even geeks never forget that.