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Friday, September 19, 2014

Geek Rule Is Weak Gruel: Why It Matters That Luddites Are Geeks

I received an invitation Monday night to contribute a mini Op-Ed for the New York Times' "Room for Debate" forum, responding to the question, "What does it mean when geek culture becomes mainstream?" Seven contributions appeared last night, including mine. They all contain worthy insights, and my own piece isn't my favorite among them, though mine is the only one I agree with (given the passage of time, that isn't a given). The headline for the forum now reads When Geeks Rule. The introduction of the theme of "Rule" actually changes my sense of the question, but I will set that aside for a moment. I assume that all the resulting essaylets were shaped by the same forces impinging on mine -- three hundred words is a rapidly looming horizon, a no less rapidly looming deadline, and an editorial scalpel wielded by someone with a "readability" agenda, angels and ministers of grace defend us. Who knows the subtleties, qualifications, questions left on the cutting room floor for my fellow participants?

I must say that I bristled a bit at the premise of the question itself. In every version of my contribution to the debate I included this first sentence: "There has never been a monolithic geek culture and geeks have never exhibited a singular profile, and so one important part of what happens as geek-identification becomes more 'mainstream' is that its diversity becomes more visible." My piece went several rounds with my firm but friendly editor, and over and over that opening sentence was excised -- and over and over I kept replacing it. It did not appear in the final version, by which time I more or less gave up. I decided to take the retention of my Vulcan quotation and the derisive gesture at "techbros" as hard won personal victories and move on. Clearly, my editor thought this initial observation about the irreducibility of geekdom to any one fetishized symptom or signifier seemed redundant in an essay treating geek enthusiasms as a motor of diversification more generally (which is the emphasis of the essaylet as it stands, I'd say).

I still do wish that initial frame for the essaylet remained. For me, the essence of geekery is about enthusiasm, it is an appreciation of appreciation. Wil Wheaten famously captured the spirit of what I am talking about in a blog post and video that was deliriously circulated a few years back -- I assume its popularity signifies that it articulated unusually well something many geeks felt about themselves already -- saying of geek gatherings that in them one is "surrounded by people who love the same things you love, the way you love them. But... also... by people who love things you don’t even know about, but you love your respective things in the same way, so you get to love your thing enthusiastically, completely, unironically, without fear of judgement." Geekery, then, is a celebration of the pleasures and knowledges that uniquely derive from close, sustained attention to subjects. And geekery is indifferent to whether or not the subjects being attended to are conventionally appreciated or not, hence it becomes a site of diversity the "mainstreaming" or ramification of which might facilitate diversity more generally. That is my essaylet's wee conceit, such as it is.

One of the few contributions that seemed to me to be on that very geeky wavelength was Zeynep Tufekci's essay, which insisted that joy is at the heart of geekery, non-judgmental joy, creativity, expressivity, experimentation, and the rough-and-tumble of making stuff. I was less pleased with the way her piece seemed to be assimilating this making to what I regard as the mostly self-congratulatory self-promotional BS of an entrepreneurial tech-sector start-up culture, and the rather libertechbrotarian flavor-of-the-month "maker culture" and "Maker Faires" less about making than about being on the make, it seems to me, less about DIY than about privileged disavowals of interdependence, self-declared corporate-sponsored doers doing their dreary disrupting. A few years ago perhaps her go-to Maker vocabulary would have buzzed on about "Smart" blah-de-blah, a few years before that "Bright" this-n-that, a few years before that "Extreme," before that "Virtual," and so on (I'm sure I've missed a meme here or there, but to know one of them is really to know them all). I cannot say that I regard the for-profit tech-sector as a site of conspicuous creativity and ingenuity so much as a vast skim-scam operation repackaging stale useless crap to bamboozle rubes impressed by PowerPoint presentations and buzzy ad-copy, or appropriating the ideas and sweat of quiet coders collaborating amongst themselves without much fanfare and, usually, without much reward. Of course, those obscure coders are almost certainly geeks and they are indeed making stuff, but for me a teenage girl using a toothpick to paint a panel on the surface of a model of Kubrick's spacecraft Discovery or a fifty year old sowing the bodice of an Arwen Evenstar gown for his outfit the last night of a science fiction convention are more illustratively enthusiastic makers invigorating geekery with its and our abiding joy -- even though nobody on hand expects to cash out that creativity in some big score.

Zaheer Ali penned what is probably my favorite of all the contributions, precisely because he exposed the diversity and dynamism of geekdom always-already against the grain of what seemed to me otherwise to be a series of rather sadly reductive mis-identifications of geekery with white techbros dreaming their dumb deadly VC dreams in the SillyCon Valley. Not only did Ali remind the Times readership of the thriving afro-futural musical and literary lineages (no Samuel Delaney or Janelle Monae tho!) which are the site of so much of the aliveness of my own life-long geekery -- not least because for me the afro-futural has also been the indispensable site of so much vital subversive queergeekery -- but he also pointed to Melissa Harris Perry and her #nerdland. It isn't only because I'm such a nerdland fan that I was happy to see Ali insist on the example, but also because it again went against the reductive grain of so many of the contributions otherwise: Harris-Perry's excellent show is such a geek-fest because it is an academic space filled with earnest activism -- folks who have been shaped by what Foucault described as the "grey, meticulous and patiently documentary" work of research and who retain the fierce pleasure of discovery and relevance of lives devoted to these intense attentions. 

When, to the contrary, Judith Donath defines geekdom in her piece through its "affinity to math and science" I wonder if all the science fiction geek shippers who don't know much science beyond what they learned from their Cosmos blu-rays and all the literary historian geeks smelling of a day in the archives but who flunked math are utterly invisible to her in all their geek glory?  Donath writes that "Geeky fascination with what is undiscovered drives scientific curiosity and invention, but unmoored from the desire to learn and create, it's simply consumerism." I actually do not agree that all cultural reception and appropriation is "simply consumerism." But even so, her larger point that "obsessive video game playing" will not help solve "climate change, emerging diseases, vast inequality" is certainly true. But why exactly would one expect otherwise? I am not sure that playing video games is enough to make one a geek, any more than watching movies does, and I would like to hear much more about the work that is getting done in Donath's attribution of "obsessiveness" to such gamers, but neither can I accept Donath's identification of geekery with the rational, scientific thought that is indispensable (together with free and accountable democratic governance in the service of general welfare) to the solution of such problems. I think rationality and science are both much bigger and much older than geekery, and that geek enthusiasms are quite valuable in human lives even when they do not contribute to the also indispensably valuable problem-solving work of science, engineering, public investment and harm-reduction policy-making. So, too, reactionary unsustainable consumerism is obviously a bigger problem than is its capacity to colonize the geek imagination -- it isn't the fault of geeks that under capitalism all that is solid melts into air. As I tried to insinuate at least in my piece geekery could use a bit more criticism along with its enthusiasm as an intellectual mode, but too strict an identification of geekdom with progressive science and policy or with reactionary consumerism seems to me to lose track of what geekdom actually is.

Just to be clear, it's not that I think geekery lacks the "affinity to math and science" Donath mentions and which so many geeks so conspicuously exhibit, any more than I deny the connection of geekery to "coding" that Kimberley Bryant and William Powers emphasize in their respective pieces. I simply want to refuse any reduction of geekdom to math nerds or software coders or what have you, whether the reduction is made in a spirit of sympathy or hostility to those geeks who happen to be math nerds or software coders. Again, as I said in my excised opening framing, "There has never been a monolithic geek culture and geeks have never exhibited a singular profile," and this really matters to me. To say that geeks are becoming mainstream because so many people use the term "app" in everyday conversation seems to me as obfuscatory as imagining that geeks became mainstream when folks started to talk about going to "the talkies." I happen to think the present ubiquity of handhelds no more indicates a rise in "tech savvyness" than did the ubiquity of office typewriters in the seventies. Am I really supposed to think people stumbling around in the street staring at images of plates of food their friends have eaten immerses me in a more geeky world in some way? Why is that a world more geeky than one in which people are adjusting the dials of their radios or adjusting the rabbit ears on their tee vees or dipping their quills into inkwells? To put the point more urgently still, why on earth would the New York Times treat the ratings of the relentlessly predicable, unwatchably execrable "Big Bang Theory" as relevant to the subject at hand in any deep sense? Network execs assimilating social change into nonthreatening nonrepresentative cheez whiz isn't exactly anything new or interesting -- in fact it would take a whole hell of a lot of culture studies geeks in an academic conference to convince me there was anything more interesting to say about the "Big Bang Theory" than about "Full House" and "Two And A Half Men" (the proper generic assignment for that bleak business).

When I submitted my contribution for its first editorial bloodletting, I received the rather exasperated suggestion that perhaps I might want to jettison the piece and write instead about why I am a Luddite, refusing to live on the terms of this emerging geek mainstream. I had the sinking suspicion at that point that I had been invited to participate in this forum because of my contrarian anti-futurological critiques. While it is true that the techno-transcendental futurist discourses and formations I write about are indeed geek subcultures, they are far from representative of geekdom in my experience of it, and certainly the farthest thing from definitive to it. I critique futurological pseudo-science as a champion of consensus science, I critique futurological corporate-militarism as a champion of accountable evidentiary harm-reduction policy, I critique parochial plutocratic market futures as a champion of free futures, I critique futurist consumer fandoms as a fan myself of literary sf: inother words, my critiques are those of a lifelong queergeek defending a capacious geekdom on which I have depended for my flourishing, and sometimes for my sanity, all my life.

Contra Fredrik deBoer I believe both that geek enthusiasms are still happening at the margins, and that geek enthusiasms are still marginalizing folks. I don't agree that venture capitalists and sexist gamers are representative of geekery (although I am far from denying and I am full of decrying their terrible geek ways). Certainly I would never pretend that geekdom is somehow insulated from the white racist patriarchal extractive industrial corporate-militarist American society which incubates and marinates geekdom -- my piece concludes with observations and warnings very much to the contrary. But, again, I think that if one wants to get to the heart of geekdom, the better to understand the changes it might enable as it ramifies through digital networked media formations, it is important to get at actually representative and symptomatic figures. I don't deny that Bill Gates exhibits geek traits, but I do deny that there is anything characteristically geeky about the traits in Gates that make him rich, powerful, and famous in America.

Titanic "Geeks Rule" archetypes like Gates, Jobs, Wozniak attended or hung out in geek communities connected to great public universities. Many of their marketable notions were cribbed from the knowledge and efforts of geek researchers and geek enthusiasts who have vanished from history. The reframing of these figures as randroidal sooper-genius fountainheads of entrepreneurial innovation and beneficience disavowing their utter dependence on climates of intellectual discovery (and usually scads of military investment) is a plutocratic commonplace. These hushed up circumstances attending the birth of our ruling tech enterprises (at least Berners-Lee doesn't disavow the gestation of the Web itself in CERN) in such skim-scam operations is re-enacted endlessly in the life of such enterprises, as the ideas and wage-labor of cohorts of coders under contract or scooped up from the bubbling crap cauldron of the start-up lottery, arrive in their full flower in the ritual spectacles of hyper-individualized celebrity CEOs bringing out new (usually just repackaged) gewgaws gobbled up by technoscientifically illiterate pop-tech journalists who confuse gossip and informercial pieties for substance. All along this terrorizing trajectory from creative geek collaboration to eventual plutocratic profitability there are endless occasions for folks with ever more tenuous connections to actual efforts and ideas either to take credit or otherwise sell out their fellows in the hope of some piece of pie down the road. If I may say so, there is nothing particularly geeky about this all too conventionally American ugliness. I am the first to critique the deceptions of plutocratic entreprenurial capitalism and the devastations of soulless unsustainable consumerism -- but I simply think it is a mistake to reduce geekdom to either of these phenomena or to treat geekdom as a particularly illuminating window on their deadly play in the world.

I'll conclude with a word on the Luddites. I do not know what is worse from my perspective, that I was expected by the Times to be a Luddite and not a geek, or that the Times would seem to accept the facile characterization of the Luddites as "anti-technology" in a sense opposed to a no less facile characterization of "pro-technology" geeks. As I never tire of saying, there is no such thing as technology-in-general about which it makes any kind of sense to be either loosely "pro" or "con." The constellation of tools and techniques contains too many differences that make a difference for one to assume a sympathetic or antipathetic vantage on the whole, and it will be the assumptions and aspirations in the service of which these tools and techniques will be put that yield our sensible judgments of right and wrong in any case. To speak, as too many of the contributors to the forum did I am afraid, of "technology" becoming more prevalent, guiding, approved of in society in some general way in connection to the mainstreaming of geekery seems to me to be an utterly confused and confusing way of thinking about the technoscientific vicissitudes at hand. All tools and all techniques are texts: and the literary imagination has quite as much to say about their play as does the engineering imagination. All culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture: and hence all individuals and all cultures are exactly as "prostheticized" as every other. To press the point, the Luddites were champions of certain tools just as they were critics of others, the Luddites were masters of certain techniques just as they were suspicious of others. Like those skeptics and contrarians who tend to get called "Luddites" today because they hesitate to be steamrolled into panglossian celebrations of anti-democratic technocratic and algorithmic governance or of hucksters peddling techno-utopian memes and kremes, it is important to grasp that Ray Kurzweil is no more cyborgic in Haraway's sense than is John Zerzan. Given their enthusiasm about their treasured tools and techniques it seems to me frankly far more in point to say that Luddites ARE Geeks, that luddic resistance and play is another facet of geek multiculture rather than its comic-book antagonist. 

I think Geeks are less inclined to rule at all than to drool over their personal perfections. I know that I am. As I said in the conclusion of my piece, the crucial final point of which was another editorial casualty, I'm sorry to say: "Perhaps such a mainstream embrace of marginal enthusiasms can help America overcome the defensive anti-intellectual bearings of its ruling masculine culture. But clashes over sexist representations in science fiction, exposures of sexist assumptions and practices in science education and tech-sector hiring, as well as the sexist antics of the 'techbros' of venture capitalism demand that we treat such promises of change in a much more critical way than with the usual geek enthusiasm." That is to say, geekery remains for me an intellectualism fueled by diverse and dynamic enthusiasms for enthusiasms, but the democratizing promise of such geekery would require a criticality that I would not yet identify with geekery as much as I would like to. Discussions such as the forum itself might go some distance to introduce this indispensable dimension of criticism -- but I worry that too many of these critics reduced geekery to certain of its superficial symptoms or mis-identified it with larger social struggles draining geekery of its specificity. As I said before, it's not an easy thing to say much of substance in three hundred words on short notice with editorial shears clipping away, so I doubt any of this reflects badly on my fellow participants, most of whom said more interesting things I managed to do in the time and space on offer when it comes to it.

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