An Introduction to Geek Ethics; or Who Really Rules the Web

In our anxiety over building online business models, monetizing user traffic, rescuing newspapers, and otherwise maintaining (monetary) control on the web, the thing we’ve forgotten is that the web isn’t the empire of our towering media moguls. In fact, the web is ruled by geeks. Geeks created it, geeks popularized it, and – however much businesspeople and politicians intrude – geeks will direct the future of the web. It’s their playground, their rules.

Our problem is that we think like businesspeople, not geeks. When non-geeks get a new toy (a bread machine or a camera or something), we try to learn, as quickly as possible, what it can do for us. When geeks get a new toy, they’ll play with it for hours just to learn what it can do. For geeks, the web is simply the biggest, most exciting new toy around.

Our problem is that, presented with an unprecedented new platform for sharing information, we see it as a problem. We don’t know how to play with the web; instead, we try to warp it into some perverse imitation of what we knew before and use all our old-world strategies for succeeding in a new one. Right now, geeks have an advantage in understanding the web because the philosophy behind it came from within their own ranks. To know where the web going, we need to think like geeks.

With that in mind, here’s my crude and oversimplified Primer on Geek Ethics:

1. Sharing information is Good. This is absolutely fundamental, it’s built into the Scientific Method. (Scientists are geeks. Scientists follow the Scientific Method. Therefore, geeks follow the Scientific Method.) Scientists know that the only way to advance human knowledge is to share their methods and results freely so that anyone can improve upon and extend them. The evil scientist is the one who hides his data from the rest of the scientific community, maintaining ownership at the expense of humanity and his work’s full potential. This is why the geek who invented the web (Tim B-L) made sure that the web technology was put in the public domain, ensuring free universal access forever after, and this is at the root of the web’s tradition of open source software. People concerned with profit don’t get it; they’d just as soon develop their technology in secret and sue anybody who tries to use it. In science or academia, you simply do not hide your information from someone who needs it, much less charge her for it. It would be, as Tim put it, “an act of treason.”

2. Coolness is Good. The biggest misunderstanding between geeks and non-geeks, I believe, has to do with cool stuff. The stuff geeks love and frequently build doesn’t have to be profitable or even useful, it just has to be cool (my dad is a geek; hence, our house is overflowing with 12-setting espresso machines and “Universal” remote controls that turn off the lights when you’re trying to change the channel). On the web, this means that there are a lot of cool applications and services that don’t have any apparent way of making money or leading to ways to make money. This scares and confuses people, because our Hobbesian-materialist understanding of the world doesn’t account for people who are driven by coolness, not profit. We’re terrified of powerful products that weren’t built for any apparent reason (think Twitter) but if we could accept that 1) geeks love building cool stuff, 2) they’re going to keep doing it whether or not it turns a profit, and 3) some of this stuff will become very successful while a lot of it will sink quietly into the backwaters of the Net, then suddenly the erratic pattern of viral web fads doesn’t seem so mystifying anymore.

3. Simplicity is Good. Any mathematician/scientist/computer programmer will tell you that the most beautiful equation/theory/code is the one that’s simplest. For geeks, this is axiomatic; simplicity is good, is beautiful, is the ideal. But applied to the real market of the web, it’s an axiom that’s proved advantageous: The applications that are simplest to use and have the simplest rules (Digg, Craigslist) are the ones that thrive. If you’re building a new app or service or website (a geek wouldn’t need to be told this), make it as simple as possible.

4. Corollary: Unnecessary Complexity is Evil. Since simplicity is intrinsically good, anyone who makes something more complicated than it needs to be (especially out of selfish money-making motives like trapping users or pushing their other products) is evil. Apple makes it a lot of work to use anything but iTunes with your iPod – that’s evil. It used to be next to impossible to permanently delete your account from Facebook – that was evil. As much as Google has inserted itself into every aspect of our online lives, at least it’s created the Data Liberation Front – a team working to make it as simple as possible to pull your data out of its apps, even though that makes it easier for you to switch to a Google competitor.

5. Monopolies are Evil. Monopolies are evil because monopolies are the antithesis to innovation. When a company kills its competition, it tends to get lazy and stop funding research for innovation. Evidence: Back in 1997, after Microsoft beat Netscape in the browser wars, Internet Explorer was the only browser on the market. Microsoft stopped innovating. Netscape opened up its code to allow users to help it create Mozilla Firefox. Today, Firefox rules and Explorer sucks.

…And finally (this doesn’t fit into the good versus evil ethics framework, but I think it’s a really important point)…

Technology is the expression of a worldview. A lot of geeks are idealistic. The ones who start things like Wikipedia or Craigslist are visionaries. They reveal the way they see the world and what they want it to become in the websites/services/applications/companies that they build. The web was created by a scientist who dreamed of “unveiling entirely new ways to see our world” by establishing a global, non-centralized web of information made up of a potentially infinite number of links and connections. “In an extreme view,” he wrote, “the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else.” Likewise, many of the most successful websites today are manifestations of the philosophies of their creators. Why does Craig Newmark refuse to add features like tagging or usernames or even minimal layers of security to Craigslist? Because “people are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day,” he says.

I don’t really want to list a lot of quotes or examples, but just to emphasize the humanness that’s such a big part of technology and that people don’t seem to remember. “Phenomenons” like the web or even Twitter don’t just happen spontaneously. They’re built deliberately and scrupulously by people who believe in what they’re doing. True, not all of these people are geeks and not all of them are idealistic. But idealism is still woven deep into the binding threads of the web – and it wasn’t put there by the media critics.


One thought on “An Introduction to Geek Ethics; or Who Really Rules the Web

  1. billroberts says:

    Ah, I think I may have to admit I’m a geek, based on your uncannily accurate description of my attitudes to life and technology!

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