A geek anti-manifesto

The other day my colleague Scott Hanselman wrote a useful essay called 10 Guerilla Airline Travel Tips for the Geek-Minded Person. It’s a mixture of technical and social strategies. The tech strategies include marshaling data with the help of services like Tripit, FlightStats, and SMS alerts. The social strategies include being nice to service reps, and using the information you’ve marshaled in order to make precise requests that they’re most likely to be able to satisfy.

Scott writes:

I’m a geek, I like tools and I solve problems in my own niche way.

That statement, along with the essay’s tagline — …Tips for the Geek-Minded Person — has been bothering me ever since I read it. Why is it geeky to marshal the best available data? Why is it geeky to use that data to improve your interaction with people and processes?

My Wikipedia page includes this sentence:

Udell has said, “I’m often described as a leading-edge alpha geek, and that’s fair”. 1

I did say that, it’s true. But I’ve come to regret that I did. For a while I thought that was because geek was once defined primarily as a carnival freak. That’s changed, of course. Nowadays the primary senses of the word are obsessive technical enthusiasm and social awkwardness. Which is better than being somebody who bites the heads off chickens. But it’s still not how I want to identify myself. Much more importantly, it’s not how I want the world to identify the highest and best principles of geek identity and culture.

Fluency with digital tools and techniques shouldn’t be a badge of membership in a separate tribe. In conversations with Jeannette Wing and Joan Peckham I’ve explored the idea that what they and others call computational thinking is a form of literacy that needs to become a fourth ‘R’ along with Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.

The term computational thinking is itself, of course, a problem. In comments here, several folks suggested systems thinking which seems better.

Here’s a nice example of that kind of thinking, from Scott’s essay:

#3 Make their job easy

Speak their language and tell them what they can do to get you out of their hair. Refer to flights by number when calling reservations, it saves huge amounts of time. For example, today I called United and I said:

“Hi, I’m on delayed United 686 to LGA from Chicago. Can you get me on standby on United 680?”

Simple and sweet. I noted that UA680 was the FIRST of the 6 flights delayed and the next one to leave. I made a simple, clear request that was easy to grant. I told them where I was, what happened, and what I needed all in one breath. You want to ask questions where the easiest answer is “Sure!”

I see two related kinds of systems thinking at work here. One engages with an information system in order to marshal data. Another engages with a business process — and with the people who implement that process — in a way that leverages the data, reduces process friction, and also reduces interpersonal friction.

These are basic life skills that everyone should want to master. If we taught them broadly, and if everyone learned them, then this sort of mastery wouldn’t attract the geek label. But we don’t teach these skills broadly, most people don’t learn them, and the language we use isn’t our friend. If systems thinking is geeky then only geeks will be systems thinkers. We can’t afford for that to be true. We need everyone to be a systems thinker.


1 Actually I’d say that Scott Hanselman is a leading-edge alpha geek. I am, at best, a trailing-edge beta or gamma geek. But if someone were to remove the word entirely from my Wikipedia page, I’d be fine with that. I no longer want to be labeled as any kind of geek.

10 thoughts on “A geek anti-manifesto

  1. David F. Flanders

    Huh, wonder if this is a cultural thing (e.g. US English vs UK English vs Global English)? Here in London “Geek” is becoming more a postive label of having technical skills, rather than a negative one of being devoid of social skills. In fact, I would argue that geeks are very social especially when you get them in the room with other geeks. While I agree there is a language barrier between geeks who use a certain types of technical words and others who do not, I don’t think that difference is any greater than say ‘management spea’k and its terms or ‘lawyer speak’ and those terms <- is being labelled a 'manager' or 'lawyer' a negative thing (well perhaps a bit), but isn't that the point of labelling and stereotyping? I guess I would hope that 'geek' as a label continues to change, perhaps even to come into the vogue as movement like 'geek chic' and other adjectival uses of the term come into existence, e.g. "you are so geek cool!"? Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I am proud when someone says I am a geek? Though realise you have some further ideas here re the four R's <- do primary school kids think being a geek is not cool?

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  3. Cathy Levinson

    I use the term “intellectual” when trying to describe you, not Geek. A bit old-fashioned perhaps, but I think it is appropriate. I read your column when I want to learn something new, when I am bored with what my day to day tasks. I’ve learned a lot from your opinions, ideas.

    Reply
  4. Jon Udell Post author

    In many parts of the world, many people attain a basic level of literacy in reading, writing, and arithmetic. When you attain that level, nobody calls you a geek, or an intellectual, or indeed anything. You’re just normal.

    Part of what I’m getting at here is that we don’t yet have normative expectations for digital literacy.

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  9. Vince

    Damn it guys, shush… SHUSHHHH. I didn’t spend years doing a Computer Science degree to have you lot blow it all to hell. If everyone learnt to ‘talk systems’ us geeks would be out of a freakin job!!!

    …now quietly delete this post, sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done

    Reply

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