Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

10 Dec 2009, 19:55 p.m.

A Mess of Geekiness Thoughts

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Liz Henry's thoughts on geekitude got me wanting to post my own half-formed thoughts on the topic.

Evidently I have the capacity to continuously raise the standard for what makes a real obsessed fan of, say, Star Trek or Cryptonomicon or whatever. I read the Memory Alpha wiki (Star Trek compendium), but I don't contribute to it; I only know a word or two of Klingon; I haven't *memorized* more than, say, ten lines of Cryptonomicon. So I can always say, "oh, I'm just a regular person who happens to like this thing, there are OTHER PEOPLE who are really obsessed." But that's just No True Scotsman in reverse. These goalposts must be made of new space-age alloys, they're so easy to move!

But when I come across an enthusiasm more ardent than mine, there is a kind of intellectual squick, a cooler and more abstract horror. And there's relief -- at least I'm not like that, at least there's someone below me on this imagined hierarchy. Which makes little sense; to whom am I proving this alleged cool?

Obsession is a derogatory synonym of mastery.

Mel's post on how she learns tickled my brain. When I learn, I like to hypothesize internally consistent systems of rules. And then I take pride in the architecture I've built, in my mastery of my personal social construction, and bond with new tribe members when we learn that we share intersubjectivities.

New skills are tools and catalogs of tools. If you learn what I know, then you'll realize certain tasks are far easier than you thought. I can be uneasy with that power; it's like the disorientation of suddenly driving an SUV, getting used to a bigger, stronger body.

But an expert also confidently says, "No. That's far harder than you realize." While the fairy tales usually scorn naysayers -- they're just obstacles in the hero's way -- in our real lives, over coffee and beer, we shake our heads and say, "I told him it wasn't gonna work."

I had a dinner with an out-of-towner once, and happened to mention that Roosevelt Island's tram is a major means of transit for RI's residents, and that when it gets taken down for construction/maintenance for several months (sometime soon, I believe) it'll be a big hardship for those residents. It would suck to commute by car (that teensy bridge would get backed up real fast), and the RI stop on the F subway line will get uncomfortably crowded. She started making suggestions. Run more F trains? Well, that would probably throw the rest of the system out of whack. Get a bigger bridge? Probably not worth it for a five-month workaround, and besides, building bigger roads means asking for more traffic. She finally said in bewilderment, "Well, they should just fix it!" And I said, eh, it is complicated, isn't it? And we moved on.

I felt very superior and sophisticated at this - scorn is shorthand for status. There's a whole other thread here about urban systems, interdependence, respect for homeostasis. But basically, I'm ashamed of that impulse to snobbishness. Had I time, love, security, and patience enough, I'd be about sharing, not shaming.

I like being enthusiastic. I like sharing myself. My opinions, my judgments, and my ideas sometimes feel like an extension of myself, as much as my adopted culture says I should take criticism of those opinions impersonally.

But sometimes I have a snobbish geekiness, so complacent & happy to bond with one person by slamming another. Either because I have more mastery than her (e.g., re: transit), or less (e.g., re: Star Wars).

So, the Twitter version: Parallax sucks, and I love mastering worlds because I can't master myself.


12 Dec 2009, 15:25 p.m.

I feel the need to link to the Brunching Shuttlecocks' Geek Hierarchy.