TT: Tekno Geeks

JANE: So, what are the stereotypes about those who work with computers?

Loving the Tech

ALAN: The typical computer nerd is popularly supposed to have no social skills and a very narrow range of interests. They are totally absorbed by the technology and they tend to rather despise people who lack their own levels of expertise. It’s such a widely recognised and accepted stereotype that TV shows such as The IT Crowd and Silicon Valley and perhaps even The Big Bang Theory which poke the finger of fun at the stereotype are hugely popular.

JANE: Uh, did you mean to say “the technology”?  Is that a  Britishism?

ALAN: Yes, to both questions!

JANE: I think it’s interesting that you yourself used the term “computer nerd,” rather than “programmer” or “technician” or something.  That sounds as if you’ve bought into the stereotype.

ALAN: While I have certainly met people who are living embodiments of the stereotype, I think they are the exceptions rather than the rule. For example, my friend Laurie is a truly exceptional computer programmer, but he is much more obsessed with music than he is with computers – he sings with the Wellington Orpheus Choir, a very prestigious choir indeed, and he has practised for, and passed, music exams to a very high level. He’s a bit of a gourmet and a wine bluff (yes, I did say bluff) with a very wide range of friends and acquaintances from all walks of life. Someone less like the stereotype would be hard to find…

Nevertheless, when we get together we do tend to try and out-geek each other because it amuses us.

JANE: Uh…  I must tangent off.  Why “wine bluff,” not “wine buff”?

ALAN: Again it’s a joke about stereotypes. A wine buff is full of esoteric oenological facts and will discuss them at inordinate length whenever the opportunity presents itself. A wine bluff, on the other hand, just gives the impression of knowledge.

But having said that, I strongly suspect that Laurie leans far more towards the buff than he does towards the bluff. Whenever he visits me he always makes a point of going to the local vineyards where he holds long esoteric conversations with the vintners and generally ends up buying a case or three of something special.

JANE: Got it!  My brother is a definite wine buff who takes a real pleasure is sharing a new discovery.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I know a couple of wine bluffs as well.  This is a trait that seems to appear when people start making lots of money (or associating with those who do) and who then mistake price for quality.

I think it’s funny that being knowledgeable about wines is stereotypically considered to be a mark of sophistication, outranking detailed knowledge of any other type of food or drink except possibly tea, although coffee fanciers are definitely trying to join the ranks of social snobbery.

ALAN: The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu has a climate ideally suited for growing coffee beans and, being an ex-French colony, takes its coffee very seriously indeed. And it’s the best coffee I’ve ever drunk… Can I claim the prize for esoteric coffee sophistication?

JANE: You may, since I’ve never even heard of that coffee.  On the other hand, my high school best friend once hand-carried me a gift of pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  I so treasured it that I kept the beans in my locker and ate them.  This long pre-dated both an awareness by most people of exotic coffee and the trend for eating coffee beans.  Admittedly, those are usually robed in chocolate.  I didn’t bother.

Hopefully, that at least gives me runner up status!

ALAN: I’ll grant you that.

JANE: Going back to you and your computer programmer friend…  What do you mean by “out-geek” each other?  Do you chew with your mouths open or wear mismatching outfits?  Or is having poor social skills part of being a nerd, and have nothing to do with being a geek?

ALAN: No, no. We tell each other computer jokes that nobody else in the room understands. (Often they roll their eyes and give us one of those looks – we enjoy that). We boast about the clever things we’ve done with our own computers, and once we had a competition to see which of us could write the smallest possible program that would implement the Sieve of Eratosthenes (a mechanism for generating prime numbers).

JANE: Who won the competition?

ALAN: Both of us, of course.

JANE: You came up with identical programs?

ALAN: No – even though programming is highly technical, it is much more of an art than it is a science so the chances of us coming up with identical programs are very small.

JANE: I’ve watched Jim write programs, so I understand.  It’s like writing poetry.

ALAN: Yes it is.  Writing a sonnet is just an application of rigidly defined rules and so is writing a program. But by applying those rules rigorously people can write good sonnets, and bad sonnets and, just occasionally (if the writer’s name happens to be William Shakespeare) sonnets of genius. Think of programming as being rather like writing sonnets for computers. There’s plenty of room for artistic inspiration within the rules.

JANE: And because not all programmers are William Shakespeare, you end up with glitch-filled programs.  So, basically, Laurie is a better “poet” than you.

ALAN: In a certain sense, yes, though sometimes it’s a close run thing. Strictly speaking Laurie won our little competition, but by stretching a technical detail almost to breaking point, I think I can at least claim a draw. To be fair, I think Laurie deserved to win. He’s a very clever, and elegant, programmer.

JANE: So, what you’re saying is that the stereotype that people who work intensely with computers are automatically nerds isn’t true.   They aren’t always nerds (poorly socialized, obsessed, etc.) but they are geeks.

Or has the term nerd come to mean something else?

ALAN: I think that’s a fair comment. You can argue by analogy with SF fans (there’s a huge overlap between the two worlds) and you know from your own experience that while the stereotypical SF fan is a real phenomenon, the mere fact that you are an SF fan does not mean that you automatically conform to the stereotype.

JANE: Oh, I have a story about SF fan stereotypes, but maybe we should save it for next time!

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6 Responses to “TT: Tekno Geeks”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Net fame! It’s good to be a geek.

  2. CBI Says:

    Interesting discussion.

    To me, “absorbed by the technology” and “absorbed by technology” are both colloquial, but have different meanings. The latter refers to technology in general, while the former refers the the area of technology under consideration. A computer geek absorbed by the technology would be one who is absorbed in computer-related technology, but may not care a trifle for gene splicing or marine engineering.

    I suspect that everyone is somewhat a nerd, just in differing areas. For example, my wife bought one of our sons-in-law a coffee mug with a short python script on it. She showed it to me, saying that it made no sense to her. I cracked up: the script was a humorous morning-coffee algorithm. On the other hand, she and the kids will often refer to some TV program or to something from popular culture, and I am clueless.

  3. James M. Six Says:

    I know “Bimbos of the Death Sun” has been mentioned here in the past but, if you’re going to be discussing SF fan stereotypes next time, just a reminder that it exists. And that its sequel, “Zombies of the Gene Pool” provides stereotypes of SF *writers*.

  4. Louis Robinson Says:

    Next time, demand that the challenge be written in APL. That way you’re pretty much guaranteed a tie 😉

  5. lauriefleming Says:

    I can, or could write in APL; I don’t believe Alan can… There are many flavours of geekiness, as Alan and Jane discussed. There are many things that Alan is superb at which I couldn’t start to approach.

    It’s been a long time, and I had to look it up, but I can still (mostly) read this (how’s WordPress for Unicode?)

    (2=+⌿0=(⍳X)∘.|⍳X)/⍳X ← 100

  6. abdaley Says:

    I love this. I thought a lot of programmer-types were into wine. At least, most people I talk to about it enjoy programming with a glass (or bottle) of wine. I also very much appreciate the parallel between programming and poetry. I like to write infinite loops as love poems for my husband. 🙂

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