Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Farewell to Geeks

Before we get to our last column on "Geek Week", I thought one point worth observing, particularly since Daily Rev has been prominently carrying the Progress Center's banner on the McCain anti-torture legislation. Now I know that many progressives are celebrating today because the Bush administration has appeared to concede the point on the McCain bill; and I would love to be able to join in the celebration.

But experience has taught me that things are often the least completed when they appear to be finished. In this culture, we seem to have a predilection for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Perhaps it will help you to know that at least we are not unique in that respect: some two and a half millennia past, Lao Tzu wrote of people who "seem to collapse in failure / At the very threshold of success." Thus, he urged equal caution and effort "at the end as at the beginning." We would do well to remember his warning.

How many times have we all heard the Bushies proclaim, "we believe in x" and then go on to act along the course of not-x (or anti-x)? Is there a single major arena of domestic or foreign policy, political and judicial appointment, or international relations where Bush and his handlers have not indulged in this compulsion of falsehood? All right, then, let's put down the party streamers and set the corks back in the champagne bottles. We must now follow the process through very closely, making sure that Congress is abiding by the original terms of the McCain legislation; that the Bushies are following up on their consent; and that there are appropriate measures and controls built into this amendment to ensure that its underlying principles are understood, followed, and where necessary, enforced. Once that is done, I'll be ready to party.


Geek Week has been a sort of a private celebration in its own way for me: I've had a longstanding love affair with technology, even though (like many lovers) it has frequently disappointed or even crushed me. I recall thinking when email became popular: "wow, this is revolutionary—it's going to revive the lost art of letter writing; people will learn to write clearly, to love the written word once more, and it will open a fresh vein of communication among the human race."

Boy, was I wrong about that: today, we live in a world of smiley-cons and asinine acronymic expressions TNCFFO (that nobody can fucking figure out). In corporate America, I can report from the trenches of lived experience that email is used as a weapon, as CYA material, and as the replacement for real human contact or a truly professional spirit of negotiation and interaction.

I had the same hope for other developments in technology over the years—for everything from word processing to grammar-checking software to the Gutenberg Project to the world wide web itself, and finally, of course, to the blogosphere. The promise of these inventions has been largely diluted by hacks and opportunists who saw in them profit or fame, but not the potential for human development.

But that potential cannot be throughly repressed, and it will never be destroyed. People and organizations like have made email into a community experience that helps further progress; the blogosphere has fostered creative spirits and given them a forum for free expression; and the Open Source software model contains the promise of rejuvenating, through technology, the spirit of democracy. What if we all had the chance to truly contribute to the formation of new legislation or the selection of political candidates, in the same way that we can help build a knowledge base in Wikipedia or a template library in OpenOffice? What if law were as accessible and as free as Linux and Firefox?

The fact is that it is not. As a friend of mine said to someone who asked him what he had learned in law school, "the law is closed to all but insiders—it is a club—exclusive, insular, and secret." To that I would add, "expensive": the law is for the rich; only they can afford its surest protection, its nearest access, its best advantages. To any who doubt this, I would recommend taking a walk along any death row in any American prison. Come back and tell me who you find there, and who you do not.

My personal romance with tech derives in part from the profession that I have fallen into, which is in the IT arena. I am not a geek, but rather a sort of assistant to geeks: I help to plan the course of their projects, check their code, and point out the errors that need correcting as the successive phases of development run their course. I also try to support and encourage them: developing application code and implementing it into a functional product that end-users can work with (and sometimes even enjoy) is far from an effortless or stress-free process. It is also, in this country, rarely a secure profession: geeks are the nomads of corporate America. Most of them are consultants, and many do not last a year in any single assignment, with any particular employer.

Still more of them are those political hot potatoes of our national debate: the agents of outsourcing. I work with the people of India every day; I have met many of them through an exchange program of sorts that my employer has, through which our Indian colleagues spend three or six month rotations "onshore" with us. I have the greatest respect and affection for virtually all of those whom I have met and collaborated with professionally. They are tireless workers, devoted students of their profession, good-humored companions, intelligent and skillful geeks, and loyal friends. They do not adhere to the culture of conflict, opportunism, and inner violence that characterizes the backstabbing, ladder-climbing, competitive corporate culture of America. Yet they quietly endure it all, and modestly laugh at our mud-slinging, position-taking, credit-grabbing behavior. And I laugh with them, because, as we know, the only alternative is to scream.

On this point, I admit to a certain ambivalence: I wish, work, and vote for the improvement of working opportunities and conditions for all Americans, and I mourn the fact that we as a culture have sacrificed our unique national genius for invention and progress to other cultures for whom our economic model does not truly work. And still, I admire the land of Ganesh and Gandhi (though I have never been there); and I love its gentle and intelligent people.

Technology has taught me that it is not our invention or our machines that have caused us to separate from our natural humanity; it is rather our institutions that throw us backward into a regressive medievalism. The individual is the true gateway to the universal; but somewhere along the way, people began to imagine that it was the other way around—that an individual can only find meaning amid the absorption of a collective. This is one thing I feel we have to correct in our culture.

Technology is more about relationships than you might suspect; in fact, it is primarily about relationships. As I sometimes remind the geeks I work with, this goes way beyond what I call the binary treadmill: anyone who tells a geek that their work is all about zeroes and ones and nothing besides must be thrown out the window of the psyche. The voice that says that technology is all about the manipulation of machines must be firmly silenced.

For what is the purpose of zero without one (and what else may lie beyond their boundaries, still unperceived by consciousness and science)? What is the point of hardware without software? Can your heart beat with only one ventricle? Can you breathe deeply and fully with only one lung? Is the left side of your brain more important than the right?

Thus, these things are not opposites, but complements. Opposition is a delusion—the fable of psychotic old men in musty covered books with sawdust pages. Opposition is a lie; and too often, technology is used as the unwilling mouthpiece to that lie. Therefore, we will close Geek Week with a parable on this very topic, which was passed to me at the office today by one of my geek pals.

Once upon a time there was a shepherd looking after his sheep on the side of a deserted road. Suddenly a brand new Porsche screeches to a halt.

The driver, a man dressed in an Armani suit, Ray-Ban sunglasses, TAG-Heuer wrist-watch, and a Pierre Cardin tie, gets out and asks the Shepherd: "If I can tell you how many sheep you have, will you give me one of them?"

The shepherd looks at the young man, and then looks at the large flock of grazing sheep and replies: "Okay."

The young man parks the car, connects his laptop to the mobile-fax, scans the ground using his GPS, opens a database and 20 Excel tables filled with logarithms and pivot tables, then prints out a 50 page report on his high-tech mini-printer. He turns to the shepherd and says, "You have exactly 1,586 sheep here."

The shepherd cheers," That's correct, you can have your sheep."

The young man makes his pick and puts it in the back of his Porsche.

The shepherd looks at him and asks: "If I guess your profession, will you return my animal to me?"

The young man answers, "Yes, why not". The shepherd says, "You are an IT consultant ".

"How did you know?" asks the young man.

"Very simple," answers the shepherd. "First, you came here without being called. Second, you charged me a fee to tell me something which I already knew, and third, you don't understand anything about my business... Now can I have my dog back?"

No comments: