Thin Culture and Stories

Part [part not set] of 4 in the series Stories

I believe the thinness of geek culture is a major player in many of the ills of the trade. It is sociotechnical in impact, simultaneously affecting areas as seemingly distant & distinct as the "social" gender diversity and the "technical" iterative design.

Last night, I enjoyed Virginia doing a hilarious profane rant about an incoherent technical manual she’d used that day. We’re not talking about jargon or domain ignorance, but of flat-out incoherence: bad sentences, contradictory advice, poor case discrimination, nonsense.

I remarked to her that, in geek circles, writers are routinely regarded as, at best, second-class citizens. I spun a tale of the writers who made that crap, using what I’ve seen such folks work through over the years. She laughed to hear it, and likely doesn’t hate them anymore.

(If you write technical material for tractor-owners, you can rest easy tonight, she’s not coming for you. To be fair, it was a close thing for a little while.)

Where’s that come from? Why are writers in geekery second-class? There are a lot of roles in the trade who are second-class. Even people who have actual command roles, like PO’s and middle managers.

Three primary hallmarks of thin culture are 1) narrow badging, 2) the unexamined self, and 3) atemporality. They are both the partial product of and the partial cause of a deep abiding insecurity.

We badge in this trade around "do you roll code", and we do it narrowly and harshly. (We also do it unfairly, using it in a kind of "no true scotsman" to exclude people we’re afraid of who do, in fact, roll code.)

When I’m angry at the exclusionary behavior, it’s easy for me to see these men — they’re usually men — as spoiled anointed princes who want to close the gate as soon as they make it inside.

That’s me, of course, being mean. I want to fight the narrow badging by endorsing my own self-blindness in a take that is atemporal. 🙂

In 1980, the PC revolution exploded. Hundreds of thousands of lucrative and rewarding jobs came into being almost overnight. And who filled them? I did, and so did a whole bunch of other people who fit parts of my personality profile.

Many of us were, well, very much not princes when we were coming up. The most common word by far for referring to us is "nerd". (I use and prefer "geek", myself, because reasons.)

I’ll just give you three data points, just gestures, bridges, maybe, a chance to see these arrogant defensive exclusionary princes in another light.

  1. For many of these princes, the computer is their best friend. A computer is never too tired to play. It never makes fun of you. It doesn’t care what you do other than computing. It is infinitely patient and infinitely predictable.
  2. Those princes, like me, who grew up before computers, had other friends. I read the entire World Book Encyclopedia. I checked out "The Compleat Strategyst" from my library over a dozen times, and had notebooks full of minmax matrices.
  3. There are stories out there, a dime a dozen, of Depression-era folks, of wartime refugees, that tell of their inability to conceive of "plenty", their obsession with scarcity, decades and decades after the hard times are long gone.

Narrow badging, self-blindness, atemporality, these are insecurity. If I don’t badge I won’t know when I’m spozed to be passing or not. Examining myself requires a courage I don’t always have. Remembering what it’s like to be not a prince can be a deeply painful thing.

So. There’s a story there. It’s not a happy story, it’s not the story we want to wind up telling the world about our trade. It’s not the story of who I, we, want to be. But it’s a real story, and it did happen, and it does account for a great deal of what’s wrong around us.

How do we change it?

I believe we have to re-tell the story. We have to tell the story again, and again, changing it each time, until it becomes the story of bringing a large and diverse group of people together in a common culture of kind and creative community.

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