Geek As Citizen: To Warn

As this series has gone on, frankly it’s been a bit surprising. I explored areas I didn’t expect, found a few areas (like experimentation) that needed more depth, and think this may be a permanent column on “geek citizenry.” But most of it has been just plain fun, as I think of the issue of geek as citizen.

I love being a geek, being both an enthusiast and a tinker. Of course that’s what I’m inclined to do through whatever forces shaped me. But I have a blast doing it.

However, there’s also less pleasant sides of geekery, that I think come to the fore in using our inclinations to be good citizens. I’m going to cover what I consider one of the core ones.

Namely, we’re the ones who need to raise the red flag when stuff goes wrong.

My basic theory, which I’ve gone on add nauseum, is most geeks fit the “applied” category here at Muse Hack; we have a body of knowledge we’re interested in that in turn we apply and experiment with in a personal way. We thus stand in the middle of both academic and activity, and we in turn often see a lot of information, even if it may be rather narrow due to our inclinations.

Thus, informed and active, passionate about information, connected, we’re also going to be the people to see when there are problems or that problems are on the way. We’re people who stand on the crossroads – in some cases we design the crossroads – so we just see a lot.

We’ve got to shoot our mouths off. Lives may even depend on it.

I’m sure you’re nodding your head here, or at least mentally nodding. You can think of the times that you’ve warned people about issues, and then promptly realized you were basically Cassandra, only with a more extensive STEAM library. My entire IT career has consisted of very smart, talented, geeks raising alarms and a little too often getting ignored – right now as a Program Manager I’m enjoying the fact I can help them get listened to.

I don’t think this is arrogance – people of geeky inclinations are just well-placed to notice when stuff breaks or will break.

So, in turn, this is something we can contribute to society – raising alarms.

That’s easier said than done, however. People may not listen to us because they don’t understand, or our social standing dissuades them, or it’s hard to communicate. OK, admittedly sometime we’re just wrong, but I’m going to assume for the sake of argument this is when we’re right.

Thus I think it’s important for we geeks to not only learn when to say the Emperor Has No Clothes and needs to Put On Some Damn Pants, but learn how to do it.

That is one of the biggest challenges – simply learning how to communicate problems to people. Yes we’re good at seeing them, but we need to alert other people to the fact in a way that gets them to act. It’s hard enough to get people to act sometimes anyway.

So focusing on that, here’s some tips I’ve found:

  • Speak to people about “what’s in it for them” – make your warnings personal and direct. It may limit your communication, but increases the impact.
  • Speak their language – and learn their language. It may be explaining the environment to a non-scientist, code to a non-programmer, and so on. Learn how to talk to people.
  • Have your evidence ready to go. People respond to evidence.
  • Give them an out. If you have to confront people with an unpleasant truth, already have a solution in place. Usually that’ll make it easier for them to solve a problem.
  • Band together. Working with others to solve and address problems is important as there is strength in numbers.
  • Have a sense of humor. It works wonders, trust me.

This could probably be its own book, but you get the idea; we’re good at seeing what’s wrong, so it’s our responsibility as citizens to tell people the system has problems, be it a society or an IT infrastructure.

It’s just the “how” is the hard part, but hey, citizenship isn’t always easy . . .

– Steven “Warning System” Savage