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O geeks, what has become of us?

Dangerous monoculture

Opinion Tom Steinberg is a founder of

Guest Editorial Meet a man with a pony-tail, a pasty complexion, and a faded black t-shirt emblazoned with a logo involving the word *NIX, and you will normally be able to guess his techno-politics pretty easily. For a start, he's going to resent attempts to record his emails, hate attempts to stop him swapping MP3s, and despise Microsoft's attempts to do anything at all. He's going to kick up a fuss if his ISP blocks any ports, and is likely to advocate software written under Open Source licences. Why should it be so easy to guess his mind? Well, because he's a geek, and these are things geeks believe.

But why so? In the 1980s geeks and hackers were tied together by a love of machine and code, with fierce and regular rifts developing between those who believed in the PC or the minicomputer, the keyboard or the mouse, Intel or Motorola. This frequent infighting didn't change the most important thing. We were geeks, in it together until the monitors burned scanlines into our retinas.

Of late internal dissent as a way of life seems to be slowing. The geek world seems to line up in universal opposition to the RIAA, to the RIP Act, to Echelon, and, of course, to Microsoft. We support Sklyarov and DeCSS, and damn Valenti and the DMCA, mainly through the medium of our wickedly subversive t-shirts. Geeks may argue about which Linux distro is best, but they all know that a Good OS Has to Be Free. NTK and the Register, like the Daily Mail or the Guardian, have become strangely predictable in their world view - can anyone guess what they're going to say about a new attempt to defend existing copyright arrangements? You bet.


The truth is that over the last decade geekdom has gained a baggage of beliefs about the world which are much narrower than that which used to unify us. It has become a culture which has amazingly strict boundaries on what you we can believe whilst still counting as a 'real geek'. Stranger still is the lack of consistency amongst these beliefs. Many values, such as the love of privacy and free speech come from a broadly libertarian tradition evolving from the philosophy of Mill and Locke. Others, such as the hatred of Microsoft and the loathing of Spam come from a quite reverse philosophy - a principled distain of the side-effects of capitalism, betraying socialist ancestry. Still others come from a strong defence of certain rights (notably fair use of copyrighted materials) which seem to be primarily based on rational self-interest, rather than any particular ideology. All in all, the 'standard-issue beliefs' of the modern geek are curious, anchored in a number of different kernels of political philosophy, spread across the history of liberalism. Worryingly, the universality of these doctrines is almost always the first victim, most Geek beliefs turning a defiantly blind eye to the worries or qualms of 'ordinary users'.

If none of this is making sense to you, try the following mental exercise. Could you sit in a pub with a group of geeks, defend the RIP Act, and convince them that you were still one of them? Could you argue, as a 'real ale' geek, that the ability to catch lazy and stupid criminals using Hotmail accounts actually outweighs the benefits of compromised personal privacy?

The answer, I think, is no. A pro-RIP position can only be held by an 'Ordinary User', an 'Ignorant Politician' or even worse... a Consultant.If you want proof of this, try searching the web for techno-literate defences of the RIP Act. Nobody would even dare. Why worry about this state of affairs? Primarily, my fear is that the voice of geekdom is getting weaker, at a time when its expertise is needed more and more. If geekdom becomes tied to a Little Red Book of permitted beliefs, it is likely to go the same way as so many other fixed belief systems, into decline. Another way of putting this is to ask this question: If DRM comes crashing down on our heads, and we can't do anything about it, do we all have to spend the rest of eternity fighting the last war? And if we're fighting that war, who's going to be taking care of the next one?

Hang Valenti

All of the above is set out without arguing for the rightness or wrongness of any of the major techy issues of the day. I agree fully with some of the campaigns I have mentioned above, but whether I do or don't isn't why I set fingers to keyboard. This article is a warning about a dangerous monoculture of beliefs I see starting to form in the world of geeks, and a plea for more variety.

I hope that at this point most of the readers of this article are thinking "That's not fair! I don't believe all those things, but I'm a geek!" Obviously, there is no real 'exile' in the geek world, everyone is free to believe what they want. Rather it is the process of social signalling that does the damage here. How can you confirm to people you don't know that you're a clued-up kinda geek? Easy - stick 'Hang Valenti' into your sig. How can you get yourself ignored or flamed? Argue for sensible DRM. The practical consequence of this phenomenon is most clearly manifested in the complete non-existence of grass-roots counterpoint campaigns across a remarkably wide range of technology issues.

In his European Internet article (Damn the Constitution: Europe must take back the Web), Bill Thompson saw the fun to be had from daring to construct a geek future in which TCPA has become widespread. TCPA may never happen, but if it does, Bill will be more-or-less on his own in having set out a vision of the new Internet which is shaped in the interests of real users. Why should this be? Can't anyone set out a principled, techno-literate argument against more of the sacred cows, such as P2P, absolute online privacy, and so forth? If we can't manage this, then when we lose one of these fights, we'll lose big. If we can manage to keep arguing about these issues, and responding to changing circumstances, then a shifting tide needn't wash away everything we care about. ®

The geeks are in fine fettle, Tom - get with the program - Counter opinion from John Lettice

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