Geek As Citizen: Omnicompetence And It’s Discontents

Heroic Rider

(Note, an earlier draft of this essay was published inappropriately.  This is the edited version.  Enjoy the irony of an essay on competence having mistakes in it 😉 )

I first heard the term “Omnicompetence” in reference to Elon Musk of Tesla and his proposal for the Hyperloop, back when it made a splash in the news. The term was applied to how some people viewed Mr. Musk; being successful, smart, and moving electric cars forward, there were those that imbued him with an aura of Omnicompetence – that his successes in one area meant he would be successful in other areas or indeed all areas. This of course is not to single out Mr. Musk because I’m sure we’ve all seen similar breathless assumptions, and I rather like what he’s done with Tesla.

I love the term “Omnicompetence” because it defines something I see way too often; the idea that a person good at one thing must be good in other things or many things. We often see it, where people who are famous are asked their opinions on medicine, politicians opine on theology, and writers of fiction are asked about technology. In a way we’re quite used to it.

Yet, when we look at the idea of Omnicopmetence logically, it falls apart. Few people are truly good at a broad swatch of things, many are good at only a few things, and some just aren’t that hot anything but got lucky. We also know that some people’s “success” is really irrelevant to who they are; rich due to inheritance, famous due to a sex tape, and so forth.

However, there’s something at least in our culture if not human nature that engages in this kind of hero worship; I am guilty of this and I am sure you, dear reader, have been as well. It’s irrational of course, but it happens. I rather like to think of it as being as logical as assuming Conan The Barbarian should be consulted on tax issues as a serious proposal – as opposed to an amusing sketch comedy sequence.

We can witnesses this to disgusting levels in American culture. As soon as someone gets famous they become an authority on everything no matter what, at times to dangerous levels. That may sound like an exaggeration, but merely examining the damage caused by the anti-vaccine movement gives one pause.

One of my concerns is that geek culture – both “in the small” and “in the large” is in danger of falling into regarding itself or its members as Omnicompetent – despite our at times smart and understandably cynical inclinations. In fact, I think the chance of this has grown lately, so this is my little effort to nip it in the bud.

My concern is that, essentially, it’s bad for us. Since we often function os middlepeople, as applied intellectuals, were a group that should be sensitive to, well, bulls**t. Also when we are susceptible to B.S., we’re able to cause a pretty good amount of damage – which admittedly is both a fear and a compliment to the expanding geek social portfolio.

The concern I have is that an inclination to grant Omnicompetence to people in geek culture and community is coming from three sources.

Technology, Money, and Omnicompetence

I live in Silicon Valley, I love it, I have no plans to leave. Also I went seven years without seeing snow and like to be ablt to get near-infinite variants of curry. I’m a fan.

But Silicon Valley luminaries seem to get an air of Omnicompetence – just watch what happens when some obscure TED talk goes viral and someone you never heard of making an app you never used to do something you don’t give a damn about is hailed as a visionary. Observe how some people are held up as paragons of, well, everything despite flaws (which seemed to partially happen to Steve Jobs, who whould probably admit he was flawed, he just didn’t care). When a few Silicon Valley types dip their toes into politics the result is usualy pretty bizzare.

Sometimes I think those of us in technology take ourselves the least seriously. We know us. Sure some of we tech geeks drink the kool-aid, but most of us stick to coffee.

This granting of a writ of Omnicompetence seems to come from business success. It is assumed that if you made a ot of money (even if it was a fortuitous stock release and sale) then you are not only good at, well, making money, butsomehow good at everything. Your bank account is the sole measure of how fantastic you are, and since you’re quite a few million dollars fantastic, you must be good at everything.

Once we deconstruct that it seems actually . . . odd. I mean we know people who are technicaly talented and business gifted and it doesn’t mean we’d let them run our anime club let alone a country, or we wouldn’t go to them for medical advice as we’ve seen what they eat and heard about their blood pressure. But that successful geek does get lauded and the air of Omnicompetence granted.

Really though this is being granted for money. And if you followed the financial scandals of the last few years, you know that doesn’t mean jack in your ability do something else. Come to think of it, having a lot of money may not mean you’re good at anything but self promotion, judging by reality television.

Our Triumph In Popular Culture

We are in the age of geek. Chris Hemsworth’s handsomeness hammers audiences from the screen, anime is nearly mainstream, everyone plays video games, and paranormal romance has mutated into being a big thing (via YA and vampires). As I’ve noted repeatedly, we’ve made it.

But . . . there’s that stench of Omnicompetence coming into our pop culture triumph.

We see certain people held up as paragons – Joss Whedon comes to mind, and to a lesser extent J.J. Abrams. This is again saying nothing against them men (in fact, I’m quite fond of Joss Whedon in that I just kind of like the guy), but we’ve seen how they and others who are successful are sort of brought into everything. Come to think of it I’m getting a bit concerned that Benedict Cumberbach is so omnipresent he’s going to be cast as me.

We see certain franchises and those associated with them held up as a kind of perfecton. Marvel seems to be able to do no wrng (but we know in the end there are always mistakes). Certain video game franchises are assumed to be able to go on forever. Companies and their franchises are assumed to be Omnicompetent and thus to be emulated – missing of course that everything being all alike has its flaws.

This is another “vector of infection” that makes me concerned geek culture could become as focused on omnicompetence as we see in regular American culture.

The Realization Of Power

Finally, though we may be in the Age of Geek culture-wise, we’ve been in the Age Of Geek economy-wise for much longer, and I think we’ve come to realize it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the people running the world on the making-things-work level (not sadly the political level) are us. Geeks are making sure your iPad works, your cloud computing is functioning, the emergency response system is OS-compliant, and so on. Computers, media, information systems, technology, and science made what we have now possible, and that means we made it possible and keep it running.

It’s a bit easy to let this go to your head, which I can firmly state has happened to me on a few ocasions. I would like to assume that you, my reader, have avoided this, but for the sake of caution I won’t.

We’re now at a time where our contributions and their impact are highly visible, widespread, and lauded. Indeed I think we geeks should be listened to more on many issues. But we can’t let it go to our heads or we’ll fall into Omnicompetence myths just when people need us to be realistic.

Closing: The Concern Of Infection

Again my concern is that we geeks – both as a social group and in “geek culture” – could get infected with the idea of seeking Omnicompetent indivduals to solve everything or worse think we are some We’ve already have our moments.

I think however our tendancies to be “middlepeople,” having experienced times when we were not on top, and ou love of tinkering and deconstructing things gives us a chance to resist this. Our perspective, experiences, and inclinations give us a powerful bulwark – but as we all know, few things are guaranteed.

So I’d keep Omnicopmetence in mind. Look for when others grant people that aura of perfection, look for when you do it, and run like hell when someone does it to you. We’ll be much happeir and as geeks, well, we’ll be good citizens. And less annoying ones.

Well, less annoying about the whole omnicopmetence thing. On the other hand if you want to listen to my deconstruction of the three different trends in anime, I can annoy you with that.

– Steven Savage