Dispatch from the technology culture wars

It’s an election year, so you’re going to hear a lot about the “culture wars.” You know: The endless battle between conservative and progressive values.

I want to discuss the culture wars too — but not the political culture wars. I’m talking about the technology culture wars, the endless conflict between, for lack of a better term, “geeks” — technical people who like to tinker with tech — and “noobs” — nontechnical people who want gadgets to “just work.”

(These might be vaguely offensive terms to some. But I think they’re equally offensive to both groups. Gimme a break, there are no better labels than geeks and noobs.)

Anyway, I believe that if you scratch the surface of many recurring online debates and differences of opinion — the PC vs. Mac, Android vs. iPhone and Google+ vs. Facebook conflicts, as well as arguments over issues like privacy — you’ll find that it’s often really a culture-war argument between geeks and noobs.

Rise of the noobs

The conflict between geeks and noobs has intensified in recent years because of the inexorable rise of the noobs.

Computer technology used to be the exclusive province of geeks. You couldn’t get anywhere near a computer before 1977 unless you were a certifiable, card-carrying geek.

Things started to change in 1977 with the introduction of the Commodore PET, the first relatively mass-marketed personal computer. Later came the graphical user interface, the Mac, Windows and the Internet. With each new generation of technology, computers became more “user friendly” and in rushed the noobs.

After the turn of the millennium, the noobification of the technology scene accelerated. The rise of ” Web 2.0″ and the mobile revolution were all about simplification. Creating a website was replaced by blogging. Blogging was replaced by microblogging. The cloud eliminated the need to install and manage desktop applications. The post-PC revolution, as exemplified by the Apple iPad, embodies the noobification of technology to an unprecedented extreme.

With each advance, there’s an increase in the percentage of noobs who use technology.

Today, geeks are a beleaguered minority, almost strangers in their own house.

Revenge of the geeks

Although geeks have made a transition in the past three decades from overwhelming majority in the world of technology to tiny minority, they’re crying about it all the way to the bank.

The rise of consumer technology, and the IT-ification of business has served as a full-employment plan for geeks. Throughout the recession, for example, technical people generally had it a little better than the average person. The technology sector is, of course, geek-heavy.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is Facebook’s pending initial public offering. When Facebook goes public, super-geek Mark Zuckerberg will probably make a billion dollars in cash and his net worth will rise to more than $17 billion. The IPO will also probably make millionaires out of hundreds of geek investors overnight.

More to the point, the reason the Facebook IPO will enrich so many geeks is because Zuckerberg’s social network has attracted so many noobs. And noobs are where the money is.

More relevant for geeks is a newfound social status, which is ironic because geekdom has always been associated with a lack of social status. The old cliche is that the jocks and cheerleaders are the popular people in high school, whereas the science and computer nerds are at the top of the dean’s list but at the bottom of the social hierarchy. That’s changing.

Geek culture has gone mainstream, with TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and movies featuring comic book superheroes, vampires and sci-fi themes. Geeks have a lot more cred than they once did.

Why the technology culture wars matter

The reason it’s important to understand the geek-noob conflict is that it informs a huge number of topics and issues covered in publications like the one you’re reading now. Few appreciate that fact, even though it’s absolutely necessary in order to truly understand these issues.

For example, the old war between the PC and the Mac is waged primarily across geek-noob lines. The PC’s selling point is usually argued from a geek perspective. It’s better because it’s more powerful and flexible. You can do more with it. You can install Linux or Windows. It’s more open. You can control everything, and you can customize it much more easily without being controlled by a bunch of fascist Cupertino hipsters. Those are geek arguments.

Meanwhile, the Mac is better because it’s easier to use. It doesn’t have to be “optimized” or “managed” so much. It’s integrated and works better out of the box. It looks better. Those are noob arguments.

Yes, there are noobs who use PCs and geeks who use Macs. But for the most part, the PC vs. Mac debate is a conflict between the core values and perspectives of geeks and noobs.

The same goes for the disagreements over Android devices vs. the iPhone, Google+ vs. Facebook and more. People launch into massive flame wars online and bicker endlessly about which platform is better. Yet hardly anyone stops to appreciate that geeks and noobs are talking past each other with geek arguments and noob arguments, geek values and noob values.

This phenomenon also applies to predictions and market analysis. Far too many of my colleagues in publications and on blogs all over the world make the same mistake over and over. A new product comes out, and they evaluate it according to geek values. Yet the larger consumer market will judge it primarily on noob values, because noobs are the overwhelming majority now.

Tech pundits praise and predict success for products that are tailored for geeks, but then those products fail in the mass market because geeks are a relative minority. For example, this is why the Palm Pre failed. The “experts” predicted incredible success because they, personally, loved it. But there’s no way a geek product like the Pre can compete against a noob product like the iPhone. There just aren’t enough geeks.

And what’s true of platforms is also true of issues such as privacy.

For example, I recently argued in this space that Google did nothing wrong when its Street View cars “harvested” personal data from Wi-Fi networks.

I looked at the whole thing from a geek’s perspective. And a lot of geeks online responded with “Hmm. Good point.” But the noobs let me have it. How are everyday people supposed to understand what’s happening with their unencrypted Wi-Fi equipment?

The geeks vs. noobs culture war is even what you’ll find at the root of the endless conflict between IT and “users” inside any large or midsize company.

The thing is, both geeks and noobs are what they are because they each have a perfectly valid cultural perspective.

Yet the knee-jerk attitude is often that the other side is wrong, clueless, misguided and naive (just like in the political culture wars).

Instead of taking an us-vs.-them attitude and constantly bashing the other side, we should all strive to understand that both viewpoints are equally valid, and that people are just approaching technology from a different set of perspectives and values.

We should be united in demanding that new technologies, platforms and products satisfy both camps — providing power and flexibility for the geeks, and simplicity and elegance for the noobs.

That’s something I think we all can agree on.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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