Good geeks and nasty geeks

Again and again I’ve noticed that there seem to be two main kinds of geeks.  Obviously, there are many ways that one could classify members of a group of people: in the case of geeks, it could be software geeks and hardware geeks; or those with more or less experience or expertise; those who use IDEs and those who don’t; or even those who use Emacs and those who don’t 😉

But the division I notice is none of those simple, morally non-significant ones; to put it bluntly, it’s between nice geeks and nasty geeks (and I don’t mean `white hat’ and `black hat’ hackers here; it could be related to that, although I suspect not very directly).

Those who I simplistically refer to above as `nice geeks’ are, as people, basically decent.  Not necessarily selfless paragons of altruism; they’ll be there because they want to get something from it, but they’re also happy to contribute.  They may sometimes show off, not in the arrogant sense but in the joy of having done something cool and wanting to share it; they’re not highly bothered about status, or at least they’re not bothered about high status, although they may be pissed off if people treat them as being at the bottom of the pile. When they know the piece of information that someone’s looking for, they pass it on helpfully.  They want beginners, and other geeks less experienced than themselves, to make good progress and move up to their own level — and don’t resent the newcomers who overtake them. When someone else’s work has made their work possible, they acknowledge it.

`Nasty geeks’, however, are necessarily not (that’s “necessarily not” as distinct from “not necessarily”) selfless paragons of altruism: a lot of what they do is connected with manoeuvring for higher status, just as though they were in fact not geeks at all, but just unpleasant people, with some technical ability, taking advantage of a society of nicer people.  If they have a piece of information someone else needs, they’ll deliver it condescendingly, in effect trading it for status.  Beginners and other learners are seen as an inferior life form.  On seeing someone else’s good idea, they may pinch it and claim it as their own.  In short, they’re bullies, subconsciously on the lookout for people who’re too nice to answer back when put down.

The life of the nasty geek doesn’t sound like a very happy one to me; it sounds like one driven by a lack, by a deeply-set insecurity.  The decent geeks, in contrast, although they may not consciously feel secure, are driven by a fullness, a true creativity bubbling up within them.  In fact, I’m not sure that the nasty geeks are proper geeks at all; they’re certainly not what I originally found geeks to be; sometimes they even seem a bit like politicians.

And where does it bubble up from?  That’s where something like spirituality comes into it (or if you’re a secular person, whatever its nearest secular equivalent is).  A desire to do things the right way, to grow to fulfil your potential as the right person for you to be, to become more aligned with the mathematical beauty of the universe.  In fact, these good geeks have the primary virtue of a good scientist: dedication to the truth.  And that’s a very different thing from needing to prove that you’re right!

So, if you’re a nice geek, and have been successfully made to feel bad by a nasty geek, what can one do?

The ideal must be to act compassionately towards them, making the world a better place.  But if combining those is too difficult (which it probably is for most people) at least doing one of those is good.

One possibility is to make a sharp remark back, to make them feel uncomfortable, so they are less likely to do it again (as they probably only picked on you because they thought you weren’t the kind of person to counter-attack.)  This isn’t sinking right down to their level (as it’s reactive unpleasantness, whereas theirs was unprovoked) but it’s sinking below your own level.  One particularly pointed way to do this is to use fake sympathy: “You poor thing, needing to put other people down to feel good yourself.  That can’t be much of a life.”  It’s not actually nice (on the local scale), but it might make the world a better place on the larger scale, if it changes their behaviour for the better and stop treating people badly.  If it works!

Or you could point out, without nastiness, the inappropriateness of their behaviour.

Or you could use sarcasm.  I started this post partly in response to hearing of people being dismissive of someone using an Arduino as an introduction to electronics; a possible reply would have been “Why are you building that with off-the-shelf ICs?  Come on, an expert like you should be able to do that with transistors, or at least making up an ASIC!  And you’re programming it in assembler?  What’s wrong with microcode?”

Of course, when I criticize someone else, I must examine my own behaviour too.  Are there people I’m dismissive of in the technical world?  Yes, definitely: the ones who don’t bother to learn, and those for whom status is more important than truth.  And do I pinch other people’s ideas without crediting them?  I don’t think so; I’m pretty meticulous about this one.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 2010/06/24 at 8:44 PM | Permalink

    If you’re just beginning to learn something, you’re unlikely to have enough knowledge to be able to technically outwit the nasty geeks with sarcasm, unfortunately 😦

    I’m not sure if there’s a way to call people out on this in a constructive way, without having them become instantly defensive and closed to dialogue. It’s still worthwhile to do it though, maybe they’ll think about it later when their reputation isn’t directly at stake in front of people, or at least think twice next time they want to say something like that. (Who knows!)


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