Perhaps the problem here isn’t that geeks have socialization difficulties. Perhaps it’s not that geeks are condescending and insulting. Perhaps the problem here is that most people are simply unwilling to learn new things. By necessity of constant and rapid technological change, to be a geek requires a willingness to learn. Google is a geek’s best friend. Error messages are puzzles to be solved. But while the technorati embrace learning, I have found that the vast majority of the non-elite believe they simply cannot. The very few times when I have slipped from my role as the helpful friendly geek into annoyed overbearing jackass have always – always – been the result of this.
I once showed a user multiple times how to Copy & Paste using only one method so as not to confuse him. From the start, I dramatically emphasized that this was the single most important and useful bit of knowledge he needed for using any computer, and explained why. I went so far as to insist that he absolutely must learn it, having him write down the method and practice for a while. Despite all that, he still would occasionally ask me, “How do I move text from my office document to an email?” After the fourth or fifth time I felt compelled to gruffly ask, “What part of, ‘You must learn this!’ don’t you get?” The response was, “Computers are beyond me, I can’t learn anything.” This angered me. He was basically saying he believed himself helpless, and so, “Please, won’t you just do it for me… every time I need it?” My experience has been that an annoyed geek is most often the result of the user’s insistence on their own inadequacy, of their refusal to learn and do for themselves.
I used to work for a large aerospace firm where there was an excessive IT department. Some there simply had zero knowledge of tech beyond the typical office apps, and even at that, very limited. A middle-aged woman once came to me with a request to set up a website for her. At the time, I was merely a programmer with practically no web authoring experience, and certainly none of what was involved with setting up the massive project she was envisioning (not to mention my boss would never let me undertake it). I told her as much, but someone had referred her to me telling her I was her guy, so she kept insisting on more from me. I wanted to help as much as I could so I told her what little I knew of what might be involved, which was basically names of technologies and applications. I said she’d have to go find people who knew these things, get their advice, learn what they suggested, and have at it. She refused to take my ignorance to heart, so after a great deal more pressure from her, I suggested one person I thought might be able to guide her, effectively punting her on to the next person just as the person before had punted her to me. She was very grateful and excited.
A week later she called me. She was no longer grateful or excited. First, she began by asking me to do some database stuff for her to which I responded I probably could, but the man-hours would be pretty excessive considering it was really off to the side of my DB knowledge, so there’d be a learning curve and she’d be better off finding someone who already knew how to do it. I said I could ask, but I seriously doubted my boss would approve that much time; and I asked her if she even had a budget for this thing. At that point she turned hostile exclaiming, “You sent me to someone that had no clue how to do this; I had to track people down myself! And none of what you told me to look into is involved! I have no clue what I’m doing, and all you’ve done is give me the run-around! You’re an asshole, and you never had any interest in this!”
She was right on all accounts, but her response is indicative of the real problem. She simply didn’t want to learn it herself because she simply didn’t believe she could in the first place. When the technorati she was asking for assistance were referring her to herself, she got angry at us. We didn’t know how to do what she wanted, but she wanted us to learn it and do it for her. In our minds, however, she could learn it just as easily as we, and she was the one who wanted it, so it was obviously up to her. After all, were we privy to some secret book of knowledge that she was not? She was ignoring what we were telling her, “Go learn it yourself.” But in her mind the thought was, “It’d be so much easier for you to learn it than me.” We were annoyed at her for insisting that we could do these things and she could not. And she became angry at our response because it was not what she wanted to hear; she didn’t believe it.
But rather than help herself I’m sure she chose to carry that anger, forever directing it at geeks everywhere. And when she watches reruns of “Nick Burns,” she’ll laugh and tell her kids, “I knew a guy exactly like that!” perhaps even adding, “He was an idiot.” And her children will absorb her and Jimmy’s fallacious lesson.
That is what infuriates me more than anything about the geek stereotype. I absolutely cringe to think that in our society there exists a pervasive subtext which teaches our children that intelligence is not to be respected… that wisdom is worthless… that expertise is offensive… that understanding is unnecessary….
That smart is stupid.
I do not remember her name, but I rest assured that her children, like so many others, will internalize the message. One day, they too, will come to believe that all learning is beyond their ability.
Inspired by the short poem by J. Reimers:
Mash! And Hurrr!
The clueless user was confuzzled.