netwars: Geeks, ladies, hackers and bitches

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 May 2002

It all started when I posted a note on CIX asking for "geek comments" for an article I was writing.

Wendy M Grossman

The article itself was nothing terribly profound: a piece on integrating "geeks" into the rest of a company for a recruitment site.

I got the usual number of remarkably thoughtful and helpful replies - CIX being that way. And then I got a message saying that the writer hoped I hadn't used the word in my "report" unless I also had included references to "nigger", "kike", and "towelhead."

As it happens the only time I used the word in the article was to advise managers not to call technical staff "geeks" even if they use the word among themselves. These are, I said, based on one of the comments I received, people who have learned that excellence at their job gets them called "sad", sometimes "jokingly" to their faces. And so I told the emailer. And then posted a note to the public conference - where I'd originally queried - to say that the word was not intended to be offensive along the lines of those other words.

Well! The original writer's cudgels were taken up by a second, who said, in essence, "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more." Enough is enough (he ranted). Geeks must resist the passage into common usage for technical staff of a word that originally identified circus freaks who bit the heads off chickens (he foamed).

I haven't had such a frosty personal email since "Ten Things I Hate About Flash." Which puts me in my place; REAL writers field massive amounts of aggrieved hate mail wishing them horrible diseases of the soul.

One of this writer's asides was, "I notice you don't call yourself a hack." Well, no. It's technically inaccurate. I'm not a staff journalist working on a tabloid. I write books. I translate technical articles from German and French into English. I write articles on things like electronic voting and Internet-related plagiarism for the Independent and reviews of gadgets for the Telegraph.

I am, however, much happier to be called a bitch, which was the first emailer's other suggestion for a word of comparable offense. Ladies are things we all desperately tried not to be when I was a teenager, and the habit persists. My friends tell me I'm a complaining crank. Bitch: check.

So: I queried geek friends. Geek to them means: a badge of honour, a sign of brilliance, hard work, and technological expertise of the highest order. If it means they're a shade on the obsessive side, swapping shaggy computer stories of getting five operating systems all running simultaneously in separate windows on a single machine and then doing it all over again to take a screenshot of it - well, how come it's pathetic to be obsessive about achieving technical feats no one else can on a computer but somehow honorable to be obsessive about perfecting the script for some awful sitcom that will be forgotten in a few months? Technology is also art.

One theory goes that the people who emailed probably reacted out of a sort of jealousy: wannabe geeks. Like "hacker", geek is in the eye of the beholder. You're not a geek because you call yourself a geek or because some ignorant manager who only notices technical staff when the network crashes calls you one "jokingly". You're a geek when other techies award you the title. Or, as one friend put it, because you live, breathe, and sleep technology, inhaling it as a life force.

In all this there are two things I find offensive. One is the notion that a word applied to a generally well-paid elite group, however "different", can be equated with the very real deprivation that has been the lot of those labeled "kikes" and "niggers". When geeks in their millions are branded and murdered, or systematically transported to a country many thousands of miles away to be enslaved and even after being freed live disproportionately in poverty and discrimination, then there would be some justice in comparing the terms. Of course, you could make the argument that the first step to such an outcome is name-calling and giving some legitimacy to the resentment of an elite. But let's face it: no geeks, no power, banking, food distribution, health care. We all depend on the technical expertise of strangers.

The second thing, however, is the attitude that expertise is pathetic, and that it indicates that you have finer things on your mind if you are ignorant about computers. One of the best examples of this was in the days after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when the media talked about the healthy grieving of people standing in line for days to sign condolence books no one may ever read. At the time, people conducting online relationships were considered "sad" and "pathetic". Frankly, I don't think we were the ones with the fantasy relationships.

Computers are the tools of today and tomorrow. Do you boast about your inability to read? It's absurd to be proud of lack of knowledge and incompetence. Admire geeks. Understand that their expertise was hard-won. If you earn the badge, wear it with pride. But I'll make a deal: I won't call you a geek if you won't call me a lady.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).