„He’s a geek – don’t expect him to learn social lessons!“

I just read the blog post Queersplain by willow bl00. It is related to the sexist comments at pycon and their shocking consequences for Adria Richards. I am digressing from this incident here because willow bl00 found excellent words for something somewhat different (but somewhat related) that has been floating around my thoughts for quite some time.

„The thing about this specific situation is that the same startup culture which claims Safe Space To Fail for tech doesn’t provide the same support and space for learning social lessons. Social lessons which are hard, but somehow the technical community has persuaded themselves and the rest of the world they are exempt from learning.“

I read this and thought „Exactly! Thanks!“ This paragraph reminded me of so many situations in which I heard tech people justify or even defend a behaviour that would not be accepted (let alone sanctified) in any other social context of mine. In my other political or private contexts it is very likely that derailing behaviour will be sanctioned in some way. It can be criticized, deconstructed, rejected more or less openly by individuals or the whole group. This doesn’t mean that bullshit doesn’t happen in those social contexts but there are more possibilities to deal with them and it is much more likely that the persons expressing criticism find understanding and allies.

In the very „techie“ parts of my surroundings though – even if there is an understanding for expressed criticism – I’ve often heard that there is no way to make people learn. „Yeah, you’re right that’s completely ignorant but he’a geek. That’s what geeks are like.“ Hm, great. So the person saying something like this to me actually wants me to shut up and deal with it. (For what it’s worth, the person also thinks to be in the position to explain to me what geeks are.) And: The person can refer to a whole discourse for support. In- and outside of tech contexts so many people take it for granted that geeks are not „social“ and never will be. The perfect carte blanche. I couldn’t find a better wording for this than willow bl00.

Basically, I have lots of open questions in my mind. I am wondering…

  • why people stand up to defend the bullshit others say (or do) at all. To keep their own social position in a network or group? Are they actually afraid of shitstorms directed against themselves?
  • why this cliché persists within and outside of tech communities. Drop it! It just helps those who behave in impossible ways and need a shield to go on. And it makes interventions from others much more difficult. I think it goes without saying that not all geeks are ignorant, sexist, racist and unable to reflect upon their own roles. So: What has to be changed to make possible allies actually take up a stance. The silent mass is part of the problem.
  • to what extent this is related to communication happening face-to-face versus computer-mediated only. So, a „techie“ context in the above sense, in my experience, can also consist of people communicating online, but not communicating about technology.
  • to what extent this is related to society at large depending on geeks to fix technical problems. Do people let bad things happen because the geek might run off and let them alone with a technical problem? Do they keep up acceptance for geeks not being able to learn social lessons because they need them that much?

End of braindump.