Geek As Citizen: My Own Private IdaHell


Last week I discussed how trying to get to Heaven made us bad citizens.

Specifically, I discussed how there’s a desire to escape everything and reach some permanent paradise (that is never permanent nor really that great a paradise) that separates us from others. Relying on the unexpected tag-team of C.S. Lewis and the Buddha, I looked at how that desire to get to that special inner perfect area drove us onward yet disconnected us from others – and that getting to it was never permanent anyway.

Of course my intention was to look at how that was relevant to geeks.

My concern was that there is a distinct part of geek culture that focuses on the Great Escape, from the Singularity to the perfect job where you never work, that could disconnect us from our fellow humans and society. To try and get away and keep grasping the elusive ring, we missed what was important, and even in our success we became alienated from others. As we’re in an Age of Geek, it’s an important issue to address so we don’t become less human and worse citizens.

But there’s a flipside to this “Heaven Seeking” behavior that I’m sure we’re all equally familiar with. Some people are happy to have their own private Hell, and in some cases it’s easier and the rents are cheaper. Though we may not think of it as the same, it still creates social, emotional, and just plain human distance.

And we know hell all too well.

Hell On Wheel: Back To Buddhism

(With credit to Mark Epstein)

Last column I used the example of the Buddhist Wheel of Life, a philosophical/psychological model of the cosmos as the realms of existence sentient life could experience. Taking it as metaphysical or as metaphorical, the basic idea is that there are states of existence you can be in, from Heaven to Hell – and the balanced Human realm is where people can achieve enlightenment and peace in part because they have perspective and develop human connection.

Specifically I focused on Heaven, the paradise one could be born in to – but also a place of pleasure where you lost touch with others. I compared it to the desires people have to achieve some kind of Heaven on Earth, assuming they’ll escape pain, which they not only don’t achieve, but they escape being human. Eventually of course everything turns around and even gods suffer the fear of the grave, so Heaven is kind of overrated.

Opposite Heaven in this model is Hell. Which, disturbingly, has some similarities to Heaven.

Buddhism in its various incarnations has a lot of Hells, a kind of metaphysical urban sprawl of damnation. But in general hell is a place of burning rage and ager or cold freezing and inhumanity. You’re aflame with hatred or you’re distant, icy, and cold. It is a place without contact, without compassion, only pain, and the pain you kind of inflicted on yourself.

Damned or divine, the problem in the Wheel of Life is you loose perspective and connections to others.

Now if this hell realm sounds awful familiar, you’re seeing where I’m going. People create hells in their daily lives all the time, and we geeks have our own ways of doing it. Heaven or Hell, we find ways or are taught ways to cut our selves off.

Damnation Relations

We all know people living in “metaphorical hell.” We may be there now or spent some time there. We know what it’s like to be so burning with rage we’re on fire, or so distant everything in us is dead black ice. If we’re lucky we got out by ourselves, by help, or by treatment.

It’s a horrible thing to be so separate from life. When we’re in these states we can be barely human, and when we’re not functioning like people, we’re disconnected from others and from society. I’m sure you can easily look at the news to see some angry people so burning with anger, so distantly inhuman, that their biggest sources of rage and shunning are their own neighbors and countrypeople.

Among us Geeks, my concern is that we don’t quite recognize when we let our own personal hells capture us. We are almost used to them, really, because let’s face it, we’ve had times of shunning, being cut off, of facing anti-intellectualsim, and of simply not being cool enough. We also have our phases of being cut off, arrogant, and separate.

We’ve got our own hells as Geeks, and damned if we aren’t good at maintaining them. You’ve seen them before.

The Isolated: We’ve been cut off from others or cut ourselves off. Today we may be CEOs and programmers and scriptwriters, but the geek crowd has been more separate before. That’s not easy to give up, and there’s a bit of icy hell still there.

Burning WIth Rage: We’ve felt wronged, misunderstood, or just plain not appreciated. That’s part of geek history as well, and the anger can still be there. For some people they’re enraged and isolated, burning and froozen at once.

Better Than That: Ever encountered a fellow geek convinced they were better than “all them?” And down deep you also knew they were, well, insecure as hell? It’s weird to be part of a talent-driven culture that hasn’t always been supported, and you meet the people who are both too cool for school – and obviously way too neurotic to hope.

Target Seekers: Some people expel their rage outward, which you’ve seen if you’ve ever watched a ridiculous flame war. How many angry geeks seek someone to take it out on, and how many people get caught in the crossfire? The rage never settles though, the anger can’t be sated as it’s in your head.

We’ve all met people like this – if not been some of them. If you’ve been “in Hell” for any length of time, you know how it cuts you off. Sometimes you’re damned so long you’re one of the demons.

Either way, it keeps you from being human. And being human is what let’s us connect to others and be not just people, but citizens, and part of a greater whole.

So we need to figure our way out.

Escape From Hell

“Geek Hell” is a counterpart to the Rapture of the Nerds and the escapist parts of our culture. We’re not unique in this regard, all subcultures have their problems, their mental realms of suffering and separation. I’m just focusing on ours.

(And it is perhaps arrogant, but I think geek culture in general is a bit less likey to fall into these traps but I think that’s ego on my part.)

But we need out. Just as we need to face the “Heaven Seeking” part of our culture, we need to face our “Hell Making” as well so we can be part of society effectively. Well, more effectively.

Facing it is the first part, and rather ironically, I think Geek culture is pretty good at that. We acknowledge that our popularity/acceptance is a relatively recent phenomena, we know and even can joke about some of the pathology in our cultures. Even our “Heaven Seeking” is aspirational and involves, in theory, some hard work so we know that things take effort and aren’t perfect. Not a bad place to start – we assume that we need to apply effort to make things better and know geek culture has its problems.

But we then have to get out. And that means being human as geeks, being people, being part of society. This isn’t descending from an unstable Heaven, however, where you realize the transitory nature of pleasures. This is crawling your way up from Hell.

There is however an advantage to getting out, and that’s knowing what it’s like to be in the psychological shitter.

When you know how terrible you can feel, you realize others can feel that way. That builds common ground with them, that takes you out of yourself, dousing the fire and melting the ice. That is the key to getting out.

Coupled with our drive, which is something I’m proud we geeks have, we can say “I know how much this sucks, I want to fix it for others.” Then we can get involved.

Navigating the Map Of Hell

We start by trying to fix things and do something that matters.

This is one thing I’ve seen done well in geekery. Anti-bullying campaigns. Supportive events. Teaching others. Mailing games to troops stationed overseas in brutal conditons. There are causes, events, and charities that we can get involved in that help people in situations that are tough – and that we relate to.

Use that time in Hell to make sure others get out of their stint.

Even one-on-one matters. Help out friends, help out fellow geeks, console someone going throug hwhat you did before you made it big. Ive watched people in geek communities, just one on one or in small groups help each other through suffering.

It opens us up and gets us out of Hell. Kind of hard to burn with anger when you’re caring, and you can’t freeze yourself out when offering a helping hand.

Also frankly, I think attempts for us Geeks to fight off our “Hell Modes” need to be publicly confronting and dealing with the negatives that geek culture has dealt with. We need to be loud, proud (but not obnoxious) and moving forward. We need to get the angst out of our culture.

We’re people, treat ourselves as such.

Start with yourself.

What Is The Road Out Of Hell Paved With?

The flipside of the Heaven Seeking behavior in all culture – including ours – is the ways we lock ourselves into personal hells. Geeks have enough experience with this, as it seems at times we had people glad to help us get there.

But times have changed, and none of this helps us – or anyone else. Coming down from heaven or getting out of Hell, its up to us to be more human and humane. Driven people that we are, we may surprise everyone – including ourselves.

– Steven Savage