When I last posted on geeks and the virtues of tolerance (and indeed how it fit both geeks as people and culture), Tony of Manga Therapy said bigotry happened when people were in positions of power, and we had to ask how long it may last. I wanted to address issues of Geeks and Power separately in this column. Thanks Tony!
Geeks wield a lot of power in modern society.
We are the masters of technology. We code the software that runs things. We perfect the materials that make structures and vehicles. We even address the problems other technology has created (an irony to address another time, perhaps)
Our popular culture is now mainstream in books and movies, even if too often ideas familiar to us are draped over standard tropes and frameworks. Videogames are bigger than Hollywood. Studios hunt the next big thing and it’s often science fiction, or supernatural, or the like.
To be frank, I still think this comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who are geeks, and those of us who are part of geek culture. It just seems to have appeared – and though yes, we can trace it’s evolution, it’s still a bit surprising if only due to its rapidity. I can’t quite imagine telling my self twenty years ago about the things I see now and have it being believable.
But here we are. Able to code applications, run giant companies, design new products, and create new media sensations. As technical companies extend their lobbying power and gain influence we become more emeshed in politics; and as issues of technology infiltrate all parts of our lives, we become emeshed as well.
We’re going to need to learn to wield this power. That’s a Geek As Citizen issue that’s crucial since it’s come fast, furious, and there’s a lot at our fingertips. all of a sudden.
I confess I’m sad this is a surprise – “applied intellectuals” like geeks have their places in society as I’ve noted. I think we’ve often battled negative assumptions about us in American society, which could probably be a study for an entire book. For the sake of this column, to keep my opinions in summary I feel it was due to anti-intellectual cultural trends, a sense of alienation from science, and the fact intellectual activity can be seen as disruptive.
But when I examine other cultures, there are places for what I would call geeks; Literati, Scholars, record-keepers, and the like. Perhaps the pendulum has shifted in some way – and here we are, in charge of a lot.
So we’re going to need to learn how to wield the power we have.
We need to learn we have it
First for geeks is to realize that we actually have power in the first place. We are culturally relevant, we are working on huge world-changing products, we are masters and mistresses of technology. Most of us have, at our fingertips, amazing abilities to change things via social media, POD, coding, or just rallying people in our email lists.
I frankly don’t think geeks as an identifiable population entirely understand just what we have done, are doing, and are capable of. It’s like we need an inventory.
In fact, my recommendation for you as a “citizen geek” is to ask what power you have in this age and how you can change and influence things. It’s also important to ask what power you may acquire through your activities, even seemingly simple or innocent ones.
When we look at silly things we see online, from cat macros to bizarre self-published fiction in the news, remember as strange as that seems? It’s seized people’s attention. How much more are are we yet to see – and need to see.
We need to learn how to use it
Geeks need to understand the exercise of power and influence. Once we realize what we have – or could have – we then need to know how to actually get things done with it. Or get anything done, actually.
This is difficult, because often the exercise of power in all its forms – from political to the use of skills – has an unconscious, instinctive element. To get things done requires it be a part of yourself, a habit, something I know well from my work as a Project and Program Manager.
I think this is where many geek activities come in handy. We can look at conventions, websites, fan-gathering, protests against cancellations, maker groups, save-your-library efforts, and more. We can see how geeks get things done, and realize what the exercise of power is like and how it is done.
But ultimately we have to learn to exercise it ourselves. Any geek who thinks about the power they have, and their role as a citizen, is best served by picking something to do. Get a book out, start a charity, raise money, have a blog. Once you start making things happen in one way, you can make more happen.
Chances are, in fact, you’ve made more happen then your realize. But when you’re consciously aware of it, you can direct it and exercise it.
The exercise of power, in short, is a skill unto itself. We need to develop it – and considering how the world has changed, we may wish to hurry that up.
We need to learn to use power well.
To realize one has power can be a challenge – we can be blinded to what we do.
To exercise it, especially if one is not used to it, can take time and require overcoming ignorance and habits.
To use power well is a lifetime effort to do things right, and we will often have moments of failure.
This is an area that I think is ill-addressed in geek culture, despite many good works like charities, conventions, citizen science, and more. How do we use power in the right direction? How,in short, do we use our influence and abilities ethically, as functional citizens?
Here I’d like to have an answer, but an answer would be a volume of books into itself. So instead I’ll honestly say I think we geeks, especially those of us concerned with proper influence on society, need to take time to develop as citizens. We need to develop ethically.
We need to stay aware. Following news, trends, and so on will help us understand the impact of actions and the issues of the world. Frankly I think any good citizen has to maintain awareness of their community, nation, and world. To put it more simply, follow reliable sources of news and information.
We should make the efforts to develop ethnically – and it should be a fascinating challenge we can embrace. There’s much written out there to make us think, and we can always turn to the history geeks and such for advice. We may even be surprised at what we find, as I was when my interest in philosophy led me to amusing discoveries, like Confucian geek-reelvant debates over the value of games that all too well echoes questions of the value of video games.
Finally, we need to write and speak and talk on this – like I and others do. Let us explore the implications of what we’re doing, of technology and geek culture and the like. Somewhere out there is the next Geek Philosopher. It may even be one of us – but we have to explore it first.
If I may suggest, the ethics of geek power would be a great event for conventions.
We need to wield power without baggage
This is the subject that originally birthed this essay; the misuse of power.
In my previous writings on the value of tolerance in geekdom, I didn’t address the fact that bigotry is part of an exercise and/or loss of power. This is actually quite critical because the change of state for geeks has come upon us fast, and we face not just cultural changes, but catching up psychologically.
Some of we older geeks remember being on the outs, being weird, being strange, being ostracized. As we wield power now, we should struggle not to let any past traumas affect us. The person who feels victimized can become the victimizer, and many cases of raging bigotry are due to people looking for someone to hate and take their issues out on. This is all the more terrifying when a person who is becoming the victimizer is also granted power.
Or in short, we need to ensure that any traumatic elements left in geek culture don’t affect how we wield power.
There is however, another issue. When one gains power it can, as we have heard said many ways, be corrupting. One can believe themselves invulnerable or always right as few challenge them – right to the point when the world conspires to bring us low, perhaps in a spectacular way, perhaps at our own hands.
We geeks need to learn not to be corrupted – and not to take ourselves so seriously. As we are people who are big on knowledge and big on actively applying that knowledge, I think we can run the risk of taking ourselves too seriously because we know and do a lot. This is where I think the sheer sense of humor that permeates a lot of our culture is a help; it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when tomorrow you’ll be in a silly costume or doing a hilarious webcomic.
Because power has shifted towards geeks, we’ve got a lot of adapting and a lot of learning to do very quickly. Come to think of it, that sense of humor may help there as well.
As we geeks now are wielding power and being more prominent, we’ll need to learn what we can do, how to do it, and how not to misuse it. We should probably start as soon as possible since the world has changed very quickly as of this writing; I can imagine how much more change is to come.
I am positive on geeks in power, actually. As people who stand “in the middle” I think we can (and should) wield it well and can provide a lot of benefit to society. I’d even argue that perhaps some of what we see today addresses a kind of social-cultural imbalance that we’ll be better off without.
We do need to learn how to do it though. That may be quite an effort.
As a takeaway, I’d recommend doing the following:
- Take inventory of what power you do have.
- Examine how you can use your power and have used it to learn how to, essentially, make things happen.
- Ask yourself ethical questions about what you’re doing, can do, and ethical questions in general about society and it’s directions.
- Examine your own biases and issues. Find what causes you to misuse the power you do have – and may have. What times to do you see power misused by someone who hasn’t addressed those issues.
- Promote the idea of geek ethical discussions and geek-issue ethical discussions at conventions and events. These don’t have to be stodgy, they can be fun if done right!
Thanks again to Tony for the inspiration!
– Steven Savage, Citizen Geek