Culture Starch: Thick and Thin Redux

The geek trades suffer from an extreme paucity of culture, and a great many of the issues we see are the direct result of that cultural thinness.

Culture is the air we breathe. Though we’re often quite unaware of it, it surrounds us, it shapes what we see & think & feel, and it is vital to our continued existence. It is multi-layer, multi-current, multi-flavor. It is at the center of and at the periphery of what is human.

It is, correspondingly, extremely difficult to talk about, point at, reason through. This muse will not succeed spectacularly at doing so, but we’re at a place in the trade where I genuinely believe we have little course but to have these vague and awkward conversations.

So I want to talk about this idea of thick and thin. All I can really do sketch a few gestures, but I figure it’s worth a try.

The doubling rate for professional geeks has been about five years for the last 30 or so. This is itself the result of extraordinary demand for the services we offer. I can’t overstate the impact this growth has had, and in particular I believe it’s a key factor in this thinness.

If you’re not comfortable with the meaning of the doubling rate: Half of all the developers in the world have less than five years in the trade. An old bastard like me, with forty years down in the silicon mines, represents half a percent of all geeks.

(Though the times change, the standard retirement age was once considered to be 65. There’s another doubling to come before I hit 65, when I’ll represent about a one 512th of all the geeks. That is a remarkable number.)

I see no way to approach this without using some binaries: "this" not "that". If you’re feeling warm to me or these ideas at all, try to relax as you see them. In a thicker culture, that would be easier, and I wouldn’t even have to say this: I am pointing towards horizons. I am speaking of direction, not absolutism. Even if you conceive of these as lying on a line, the trade as a whole has many parts at different places on it. Breathe.


The first attribute of thinness in culture that I’ll mention is atemporality, literally that’s the absence of time. An atemporal culture has little sense of past, present, and future. It lacks a self-aware sense of its history. In a sentence, "what it is now is what it always has been and what it always will be."

If there is no history, we lack models — thinking-models and role-models and discourse-models — to handle the world around us. Cultures constantly re-make & re-frame their forebears. Doing so requires some critical mass of people who even know who those forebears were.

If there’s no future, we lack the ability to change. We’re stuck in an endless aching now. Let me just ask you, are you happy with this now we’re in? I am not. I need a sense of time, stretching back, reaching forward. Thin culture lacks it.


The second attribute of thinness is what I call mono-topicality. It’s about the discourse, and it means that we spend the overwhelming majority of our time talking about just one thing.

(I’m finding this one very hard to get at.) Bluntly, then, all we ever talk about seriously is the made — the code. (There’s a lot of noise about the making these days, but it’s not substantive, it’s shallow, see the next attribute.)

Code is made by humans, and our trade is a human one. We don’t talk much about humans. To the extent that we do, we compartmentalize or box-up their humanness, compressing it specifically to their code.

All explanations are technological. All problems are technological. All solutions are technological. And since the central technology we use is code, that means they’re all either code or code-like.

To the extent we reach past the made, it is this endless stream of rules-for-making, which, I’m sorry, I don’t think is serious. That’s the entry to the next attribute.


Third, then, thin culture is inorganic. In the systems-theory sense, it is simple-minded: procedural, mechanistic, psuedo-objective. However intricate its obsessions, containing many small parts, it is still not alive.

All you need to get this one is to spend an hour or two reading "Agile" on these interwebs. It’s about rules, mechanisms, hierarchies, structures, procedures, all of which all combined will apparently turn any awful software org into a powerhouse of health and productivity.

I’ve said it elsewhere: the reason "Agile" is so focused on method is because the light is better under method. It’s easier to talk about, to give orders around, to package, brand, and sell. And don’t mistake me, our agility is and was an amazing thing. Even nasty "Agile" is the good part of the wider geek culture. Most of that’s far worse.


Fourth, thin culture is exclusionary. Thicker cultures have a certain mass. When "outsiders" try to come "inside", a thick culture can afford the time and space to shape and be shaped by the newcomers. Thin cultures can only reject.

When a culture is thin it protects itself with flimsy shibboleths — secret handshakes, codewords — empty signs that an incomer either knows already or learns very quickly. If the incomer doesn’t have these, the thin culture fears and punishes.

Surely, no serious person believes that only men of european descent can be productive geeks — highly creative, highly technical, highly vested in both. Surely not! But look around you.

It’s a paradox. You’d think that the high demand would open the doors to anyone who can pull it off. If the demand is high but not overwhelming, that’s how it goes, thus the wild west of the ’80s. But when the demand goes thermonuclear, the culture thins too quickly.

(This thread has gone on far too long already. It’s me, ya know, so I could go on for even longer, but let’s rest on these four attributes and tie this artery off.)

What is to be done?

I’ve offered some ideas related to an answer over the last ten years. "geek joy", more recently, "the made, the making, and the maker". coming soon my ideas about "the whole geek".

But they’re not a remedy, they’re abstractions that help me organize how I feel, and that I think can help others put it together.

I feel we need to start talking about remedies.

In coming weeks, mixed in with the pro-tips, the music playlists, the random jokes and one-off topics in the trade, I want to start proposing some concrete actions.

Thin culture is costing us, as producers, as creators, as geeks, as people. What can we do about it? Well. Start here: think and feel a little.

Come up with your own ideas for remedial action. Talk about them with me, and with your peers.

I’ll get back to this one, believe me.

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