Nerd culture, the good and the bad

Yesterday, I discovered Pete Warden’s post “Why nerd culture must die“. I agree with much of it. From Google bus protests to the treatment of women in Silicon Valley, there have been many recent events in the tech world that have appalled me and made me worry about the culture and practices of our industry.

As tech has gone mainstream, it has touched our lives in many ways, some positive and some negative. The culture of tech – or nerd culture – has its roots in the the concept of the hacker ethic which celebrates sharing, openness, access to computers and information, and a general sense of quirkiness as its core values. The idea is that technology is fun and can improve lives and should therefore be spread everywhere and accessible to everyone. A good way to do that is to make it free and build it in a way that allows anyone to jump in and contribute. Projects like Wikipedia and Minecraft and the concept of open source software come to mind as great expressions of this idea. There are many more examples, and as a whole they’ve become so popular and pervasive that they have changed our culture, shifting people towards “nerd values” and promoting more sharing, openness and creativity in many areas of our lives. A good reflection of this shift is the changing meaning of the term nerd itself. A nerd has gone from being a socially inept weirdo to someone who is deeply interested in and passionate about a subject.

So far that all sounds very innocuous and positive. How did we get from that goodness to the people of San Francisco protesting tech workers in their Google buses, to woman after woman coming forward sharing horrible experiences at tech conferences and companies, and to startup founders being revealed as abusive, callous and misogynistic? I wish I had a good answer. Some of it seems to be rooted in a combination of privilege, tone deafness, and failure to mature. Tech is very successful, creates a lot of wealth, and passes that wealth on to people who are too young and inexperienced to handle it well – some become privileged snobs, driving up rents, evicting tenants, showing off with expensive cars, wines, and meals, complaining about homelessness, and so on. And when people point this behavior out, the reactions tend to be tone deaf, trying to ignore it as “not my problem” or explain it away with talk about all the good the tech industry does. We clearly need to do a better job understanding our impact and sharing our wealth. Like Pete says in his post, we – the nerds – are not the outsider rebels anymore who can be forgiven for being contrarian and odd, we’re the mainstream now and we need to grow up and act like it. But it doesn’t end there. We also need to become much more self aware about the ways in which we’ve excluded people from tech over time and hack our own culture to be far more inclusive, especially of women, and of people of all ages and races. The original hacker ethic was based on commendable, forward thinking values like sharing and openness. Inclusiveness needs to be added to that list.


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