Geek culture:

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This article is not about mobots. Instead, I?d like to look at the ideological foundations that underlie geek culture. It?s worth pointing out that this is an attempt to better understand what I see to be a problem on campus and not an attempt to disparage any particular organization. In short, if you send me an e-mail saying ?j00 sux0rs, KGB r0x0rs!!111!!? you probably missed the point. And if you find the idea funny, you?re probably a geek.
In fact, such an article could easily lend itself to a Jeff Foxworthy?style ?You might be a geek if....? Yet focusing on cultural elements is exactly what I would like to avoid. There are a million online quizzes about how geeky you are; let?s talk about what that means.
I see five fundamental principles that define the boundaries of geek thought. The first is an aversion to uncertainty; the second a predilection for impudent cleverness; the third a preference for memorization over mastery; the fourth a reliance on preconceived group judgments; and the final a refusal to take anything seriously.
Aversion to uncertainty frequently leads to a black-and-white world view. Everything must be knowable and preferably findable on Google within a few minutes. Many geeks believe that all problems have a correct solution or else can be proved not to have one.
A predilection for impudent cleverness often manifests itself in the form of pranks. There exist enough representations of this for me not to belabor the point. There is a genuine disregard for standing operating procedure (an attitude that I deeply respect) and the belief that better solutions exist if people exercise a little ingenuity. At the same time, there?s a utility-maximization that?s a little worrisome. This attitude was what led students to get six bottles of water for a meal block and then order a pizza every night.
The preference of memorization over mastery is something that I think is part of a global geek culture, but is not as overly present at CMU. To summarize, geeks will prefer quoting from canonical texts (such as Star Trek episodes) rather than constructing their own argument. CMU students have an academic curiosity that?s rather stunning and usually overcomes this problem. There is some tendency, however, for arguments in which people run to Google and throw ?facts? at each other.
Reliance on preconceived group judgments is probably the most striking and the most likely to generate dissent. I fundamentally believe that geeks self-identify with a larger definition of ?people like me? ? a concept which too often dictates behavior.
Lastly, geek culture doesn?t take anything seriously. This is one of the most endearing elements of geek culture, but at the same time, it can be problematic. Everything is fair game for mockery and there?s a fairly wonderful degree of effrontery here that can be very positive. Yet I?d point to the ?Slave Auction? fiasco last year as an example showing that when everything is a source of potential humor, trouble can arise.
It?s worth noting that not all geeks share these five principles to the same degree of intensity. Geek culture is far from homogeneous, and there are issues of degree. It?s also worth noting that there seem to be geek reformers who, while fully immersed, seem to argue against some of these principles. It should be obvious by now that Carnegie Mellon is full of geeks, and not just in the CS lounge.
Yet having peeled back layers of culture and laid out this framework, I would argue that a second group on campus shares exactly these five principles: Greeks. While the cultural expressions are vastly different, the underlying ideology is the same. All the caveats transfer as well: Greek culture is not homogeneous, there is the spectrum of intensity on each of these five points, and there are reformers.
Instead of enumerating each element again, let?s just look at a few examples. Delta Upsilon?s anti-anti-war protest looked straight out of KGB?s playbook. Their assault on Lobster Boy is an even more obvious example. The fraternity was uncomfortable with the indeterminate nature of an art project: They thought they were being clever by confronting it, they refused to take it seriously, and they acted using group thought. Don?t ever believe otherwise: DU is just a funhouse mirror version of KGB. They may look and act differently, but deep down they?re the same.
This is the first part of a two-part article. Having described these underlying principles, the next piece will talk about how these groups homogenize and normalize their members, and finally, about ways for Carnegie Mellon to overcome the limitations of our g(r)eek culture.