It's All Geek to Me

We have, by contemporary standards, a mixed marriage, for I am a nerd, while my wife is a geek. A good thing no kids are involved; we’d argue about how to raise them.

July 16, 2008

We have, by contemporary standards, a mixed marriage, for I am a nerd, while my wife is a geek. A good thing no kids are involved; we’d argue about how to raise them.

As a nerd, my bias is towards paper-and-ink books, and while I do indeed use information technology, asking a coherent question about how any of it works is evidently beyond me. A geek, by contrast, knows source code....has strong opinions about source code....can talk to other geeks about source code, and at some length. (One imagines them doing so via high-pitched clicking noises.) My wife understands network protocols. I think that Network Protocols would be a pretty good name for a retro-‘90s dance band.

This is more than a matter of temperament. It is a cultural difference that makes a difference. The nerd/geek divide manifested itself at the recent meeting of the Association of American University Presses, for example. Most people in scholarly publishing are nerds. But they feel like people now want them to become geeks, and this is not an expectation likely to yield happiness.

Christopher M. Kelty’s Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, just published in dead-tree format by Duke University Press, might help foster understanding between the tribes. The book itself is available for free online. (The author also contributes to the popular academic group-blog Savage Minds.)

Kelty, an assistant professor of anthropology at Rice University, has done years of fieldwork among geeks, but Two Bits is not really a work of ethnography. Instead of describing geek life at the level of everyday experience or identity-shaping rituals, Kelty digs into the history and broader implications of one core element of geek identity and activity: the question of “open source” or “free” software. Those terms are loaded, and not quite equivalent, even if the nuance tends to be lost on outsiders. At issue, in either case, is not just the availability to users of particular programs, but full access to their inner workings – so that geeks can tinker, experiment, and invent new uses.

The expression “Free Software,” as Kelty capitalizes it, has overtones of a social movement, for which openness and transparency are values that can be embedded in technology itself, and then spread throughout institutions that use it. By contrast, the slightly older usage “open source” tends to be used when the element of openness is seen as a “development methodology” that is pragmatically useful without necessarily having major consequences. Both terms have been around since 1998. The fact that they are identical in reference yet point to a substantial difference of perspective is important. “It was in 1998-99,” writes Kelty, “that geeks came to recognize that they were all doing the same thing and, almost immediately, to argue about it.”

Much of Two Bits is devoted to accounts of how such arguments unfolded amidst the development of particular digital projects, with the author as a participant observer in one of them, Connexions (an online resource for the collaborative production of textbooks and curricular materials, previously discussed here). A merely nerdish reader may find some of this tough going. But the upshot of Two Bits is that geekery has constituted itself – through freeware, or whatever you want to call it – as what Kelty calls a “recursive” public sphere, with important implications for cultural life outside its borders.

Any strong notion of a public sphere is going to see the public as, in Kelty’s words, “a collective that asserts itself as a check on other constituted forms of power – like states, the church, and corporations – but which remains independent of those domains of power.”

The hard question, most of the time, is whether or not such a public actually exists. The journalist and social thinker Walter Lippmann considered the health of the public in three books he wrote during the 1920s, each volume gloomier than the last. And when Jurgen Habermas revisited the concept in the early 1960s, he concluded that the public sphere as a space of debate and rational deliberation had been at its most robust in the 18th century. More recently, Americans have made a hit out of a game show called “Are Your Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” in which adult contestants routinely prove that they are not, in fact, smarter than a fifth grader. All things considered, the idea of the public as a force that “asserts itself as a check on other constituted forms of power .... but which remains independent of those domains of power” does not seem to have much traction.

But geekdom (in Kelty’s analysis anyway) fosters a much more engaged ethos than that associated with earlier forms of mass media. This is not simply a matter of the well-known penchant for libertarianism in the tech world, about which there is probably not much new worth saying. (If consenting adults want to talk about Ayn Rand, that’s OK as long as I don’t have to listen.) Rather, the whole process of creating and distributing free software is itself, to borrow a programming term, recursive.

Per the OED, recursivity involves “a repeated procedure such that the required result at each step except the last is given in terms of the result(s) of the next step, until ... a terminus is reached with an outright evaluation of the result.”

Something like that dynamic – the combination of forward motion, regressive processing, and cumulative feedback – is found in geekdom’s approach to collaboration and evaluation. The discussions involved are not purely technical, but involve arguments over questions of transparency and ethical implication of software.

“A recursive public,” writes Kelty, “is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.” (Those alternatives take the form of technology that the rest of us use, whether we understand it or not.)

Two Bits is an effort to analyze the source code, so to speak, of geekdom itself. How the larger culture interacts with it, and is shaped by it, is a subject for another study. Or for quite a few of them, rather, in due course. For now, I think Kelty’s book deserves a wide readership -- especially among nerds trying to make sense of the past decade, let alone to prepare for the next one.


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