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Friday, November 23, 2012

The changing nature of my identity

When I was in school, a large chunk of my self-identification
was as a geek and a hacker. The former was more accurately a
"computer geek", and the latter was something I was proud to be
called by talented computer people. As time has gone by,
those labels have been redefined in ways that I don't really
identify with. So I'm going to rant a little about how programmers
have had their identity appropriated.


Crackers

Hackers were originally people who modified things
("hacked" them) to make them useful in ways the creators hadn't
anticipated. Computers, being the ultimate malleable tool, were
also ultimately attractive to hackers. A computer could be hacked
by the simple act of writing a program for it. More interesting
hacks required adding or modifying the hardware, but that almost
always required software as well.

Eventually, the bare phrase hacker came to be synonymous with
computer hacker. A small subset of these people used their
skills for criminal - or, more usually, delinquent -
purposes. Unfortunately, breaking into a computer owned by a major
corporation or government - no matter how little value it or it's
contents had - is more newsworthy than anything that merely made
computers faster or more capable. So those are the people the news
media applied the term to.

This had two problems. First, most of the media-labeled
hackers don't really have any hacking skills. They are - or were -
juvenile delinquents, doing the equivalent of tagging
computers. Yes, a few are truly talented, just as a few graffiti
artists are also talented artists. Second, the media failed to
notice that the vast majority of hackers only used their skills
for good.

What the media did was sort of like using mechanic to mean
car thief. Yes, some car thieves are talented mechanics, but by
no means all of them. And most mechanics only use their talents to
fix cars for people, not steal them from people.

In any case, I continue referring to skilled friends as
hackers, and explaining to anyone who asks why I hang out with
criminals how the media misused the phrase.


Faux Geeks


Faux Geek Girls

Just to clarify, there's a meme current on the internet flaming
about women who put on sexy outfits and go to cons. My complaint
is not about such women.

Apparently, some people feel that they are just pretending to
be interested in things to attract the attention of men who can do
those things. There were women like that around when I was in
school. We called them either cheerleaders or groupies,
depending on what the men did. If geeks now have groupies, I'm
sad. Because it didn't happen when I was a lad! Any man who
objects to such behavior is an idiot, and should have his right to
reproduce revoked, no matter how unlikely it is that he would
exercise it.

Alternatively, these women somehow fail to meet some standard
that that person has for what it means to be geek. OK, that one
I agree with - I'll get to that soon - but I'm still not going to
complain about women who want to put on sexy costumes and attend
conventions! Complaining about that is still an idiotic idea.


Faux Geeks

A geek is, of course, someone who bites the heads off chickens
in a carnival sideshow. OK, they've also had their identity
stolen. When I was in school, it was used to denote anybody who
did things that most of the public considered about as repulsive
as biting the heads off chickens, especially if they obsessed
about it.

What that meant in practice was that people who enjoyed working
with complicated problems - to the point of obsessing about them -
were called geeks. Of course, you pretty much had to
obsess about these problems in order to get them right. If you
tried to let the details take care of themselves - well, not
getting the O-rings on your spaceship right could make it blow up
on launch. Likewise, you couldn't pay attention to pennies and
let the pounds take care of themselves
. If you built a networked
mail system that was fast and reliable but had no security structure,
your servers wind up spending most of their time delivering spam.

Unsurprisingly, we brought that same obsession to our
entertainments. While in some cases it led to pastimes that
required that kind of obsession and didn't attract others, in
other cases it led to past-times that were avoided by others
simply because they had the geek label.

Faux Geeks are into those pastimes - possibly even
obsessively - without applying that obsessiveness to anything
constructive. Knowing the plot to all 79 original Star Trek
episodes - or all 83 Lost in Space episodes - isn't constructive,
and probably not a critical skill for any job. The only skill
displayed is memorization - and not even a particularly impressive
feat of that. Professions not generally regarded as requiring
intelligence are liable to require more memorization skills than
that. Some football players, for instance, have to memorize over
200 offensive plays as well which each of them can be changed to
at the line of scrimmage - and that list is liable to change on a
weekly basis. And it's also clear which of those is worth more: I
don't know of any job that pays for knowing about old scifi
shows. Learning football plays can pay for your education, and
people get paid millions of dollars a year for jobs that include
doing that.

I'm ecstatic that there are now lots of people into these
pastimes. That means there are lots more people consuming those
products. So there's lots more money to be made. So more people
are making them, and more people can spend their full time doing
so. I do wish it had happened sooner, but hey, late is better than
never.

No, what I'm annoyed about is that - once again - part of my
self-identification is being diluted. If something is labeled as,
say "Geeking out", I can no longer expect to find intellectually
challenging technological tidbits in it. Instead, I find games,
and movie or book reviews, or other lightweight fair that just
isn't what I'd call geeky.

In this case, I no longer call myself a geek, because - well,
the term as currently used may apply, but it's not the identity I
want.