When Nerds Collide

My intersectionality will have weirdoes or it will be bullshit.

“You only know a hacker respects you if he’s willing to waste his time shooting holes in your ideas.” — Pablos Holman

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Imagine that Japan eliminated work visas. People from all over the world could apply to Japanese companies, move to Japan, and live and work there with no bureaucratic obstacles at all. What would you expect to see happen?

There’d be a lot of applicants, to start with. Japan has a first-world economy, robust social services, not much inflation, and a “coolness factor” that practically guarantees there will be more applicants than jobs, even after circular-filing the resumes of people who don’t have the required skill sets but applied anyway because OMG JAPAN. Out of this pool, who gets hired?

I don’t want to turn this into a just-so story, but I strongly suspect that the accepted candidates would be rigorously polite, aware of hierarchies of position and their own place within them, and able to navigate the many levels of formality that the Japanese language itself encodes. In short, people who appear to have the qualities necessary to fit comfortably into the existing Japanese business culture.

This is great for people who already have those qualities, not so great for people who don’t but still really want to work in Japan. But is it unfair to them? Or is it unfair to expect Japanese managers to hire people whose culturally acquired qualities are likely to cause discord in a group whose established social norms are especially focused on harmony?

As an exercise for the reader, what principles do you think you could appeal to if you wanted to change a Japanese manager’s mind? Would more of those principles be ones that you hold, or his?

Of all the sound, fury, and quiet voices of reason in the storm of controversy about tech culture and what is to become of it, quiet voice of reason Zeynep Tufekci’s “No, Nate, brogrammers may not be macho, but that’s not all there is to it” moves the discussion farther forward than any other contribution I’ve seen to date. Sadly, though, it still falls short of truly bridging the conceptual gap between nerds and “weird nerds.” Speaking as a lifelong member of the weird-nerd contingent, it’s truly surreal that this distinction exists at all. I’m slightly older than Nate Silver and about a decade younger than Paul Graham, so it wouldn’t surprise me if either or both find it just as puzzling. There was no cultural concept of cool nerds, or even not-cool-but-not-that-weird nerds, when we were growing up, or even when we were entering the workforce.

That’s no longer true. My younger colleague @puellavulnerata observes that for a long time, there were only weird nerds, but when our traditional pursuits (programming, electrical engineering, computer games, &c) became a route to career stability, nerdiness and its surface-level signifiers got culturally co-opted by trend-chasers who jumped on the style but never picked up on the underlying substance that differentiates weird nerds from the culture that still shuns them. That doesn’t make them “fake geeks,” boy, girl, or otherwise — you can adopt geek interests without taking on the entire weird-nerd package — but it’s still an important distinction. Indeed, the notion of “cool nerds” serves to erase the very existence of weird nerds, to the extent that many people who aren’t weird nerds themselves only seem to remember we exist when we commit some faux pas by their standards.

Even so, science, technology, and mathematics continue to attract the same awkward, isolated, and lonely personalities they have always attracted. Weird nerds are made, not born, and our society turns them out at a young age. Tufekci argues that “life’s not just high school,” but the process of unlearning lessons ingrained from childhood takes a lot more than a cap and gown or even a $10 million VC check, especially when life continues to reinforce those lessons well into adulthood. When weird nerds watch the cool kids jockeying for social position on Twitter, we see no difference between these status games and the ones we opted out of in high school. No one’s offered evidence to the contrary, so what incentive do we have to play that game? Telling us to grow up, get over it, and play a game we’re certain to lose is a demand that we deny the evidence of our senses and an infantilising insult rolled into one.

This phenomenon explains much of the backlash from weird nerds against “brogrammers” and “geek feminists” alike. (If you thought the conflict was only between those two groups, or that someone who criticises one group must necessarily be a member of the other, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention.) Both groups are latecomers barging in on a cultural space that was once a respite for us, and we don’t appreciate either group bringing its cultural conflicts into our space in a way that demands we choose one side or the other. That’s a false dichotomy, and false dichotomies make us want to tear our hair out.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to bits that every day the power to translate pure thought into actions that ripple across the world merely by the virtue of being phrased correctly draws nearer and nearer to the hands of every person alive. I’m even more delighted that every day more and more people, some very similar to me and others very different, join the chorus of Those Who Speak With Machines. But I fear for my people, the “weird nerds,” and I think I have good reason to. Brain-computer interfaces are coming, and what will happen to the weird nerds when we can no longer disguise our weirdness with silence?

Scratch the surface of “Silicon Valley culture” and you’ll find dozens of subcultures beneath. One means of production unites many tribes, but that’s about all that unites them. At a company the size of Google or even GitHub, you can expect to find as many varieties of cliques as you would in an equivalently sized high school, along with a “corporate culture” that’s as loudly promoted and roughly as genuine as the “school spirit” on display at every pep rally you were ever forced to sit through. One of those groups will invariably be the weirdoes.

Humans are social animals, and part of what makes a social species social is that its members place a high priority on signaling their commitment to other members of their species. Weirdoes’ priorities are different; our primary commitment is to an idea or a project or a field of inquiry. Species-membership commitment doesn’t just take a back seat, it’s in the trunk with a bag over its head.

Fig. 1: weirdoes signaling to other weirdoes. Used with author’s permission. https://twitter.com/puellavulnerata/status/442252850664456192

Not only that, our primary commitments are so consuming that they leak over into everything we think, say, and do. This makes us stick out like the proverbial sore thumb: We’re unable to hide that our deepest loyalties aren’t necessarily to the people immediately around us, even if they’re around us every day. We have a name for people whose loyalties adhere to the field of technology — and to the society of our fellow weirdoes who we meet and befriend in technology-mediated spaces — rather than to the hairless apes nearby. I prefer this term to “weird nerds,” and so I’ll use it here: hackers.

You might not consider hackers to be a tribe apart, but I guarantee you that many — if not most — hackers themselves do. Eric S. Raymond’s “A Brief History of Hackerdom,” whose first draft dates to 1992, contains a litany of descriptions that speak to this:

They wore white socks and polyester shirts and ties and thick glasses and coded in machine language and assembler and FORTRAN and half a dozen ancient languages now forgotten .…
The mainstream of hackerdom, (dis)organized around the Internet and by now largely identified with the Unix technical culture, didn’t care about the commercial services. These hackers wanted better tools and more Internet ….
[I]nstead of remaining in isolated small groups each developing their own ephemeral local cultures, they discovered (or re-invented) themselves as a networked tribe.

Paul Graham has also written, with self-deprecating candor, about the childhood experiences, the indifference to arbitrary rules, and the unconventional priorities that lead hackers to band together, in person when possible and online if not — like on the WELL, which has served continuously since 1985 in one form or another as a virtual gathering space. Long before a marketer ever uttered the phrase “social media,” the media we built became our place-independent locus for socialising and socialisation.

More recently, Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe explores tribe-formation in a post-geographic, hyperconnected milieu increasingly reminiscent of the one we live in today: one where chosen affiliation means more than the affiliations imposed by accident of birth or location. It’s this last bit — the way we prioritise choice over circumstance — that’s hardest to communicate to people who don’t experience it themselves, like trying to explain “blue” to a cave fish. When we try to but fail, we’re castigated just for trying, and the wedge drives in ever deeper. Usually the reproof comes in the form of scolding us for our “privilege” of exercising choice at all, but this is perverse beyond belief. The world is made better by extending the franchise of choice to everyone, not by condemning people who couldn’t live with any of the choices on offer and therefore made their own.

Many programmers aren’t hackers, and there isn’t a single thing wrong with that. Literacy of any kind is a beautiful thing. In today’s market, demand for code-literate employees far exceeds the supply, so engineering teams contain both hackers and non-hackers. Increasingly, the latter outnumber the former. This is still a beautiful thing — until the latter realise there are enough of them to push the weirdoes out, and do it.

It’s easy to forget that only 20 years ago — around the time I graduated high school — the Internet was a ghost town compared to today. Okay, a ghost town with a thriving university and more communal watering holes than you could have shaken a stick at, but next to nothing in the way of business. Then we won the right to encrypt Net traffic with ciphers and keys incidentally strong enough to protect credit card numbers in transit, and suddenly e-commerce exploded. The smell of wealth attracts the power-hungry and the job-hungry like raw meat does flies, and two bubbles later, the pull is still as strong as ever. (It’s as if there’s some fundamental human drive to communicate or something.) Successive waves of subcultural immigration into the tech industry have brought with them a myriad of social signaling dialects. Without active effort, it’s easy to miss that between two techies, one signifier can easily have three or more meanings, depending entirely on how the people involved got to where they are.

What sets hackers apart is our values. Values are aspirations, ideals to live up to, like compassion for Buddhists and feeding the hungry for Christians. As with any cultural value system, we don’t always manage to achieve our values, but the drive to do so is what moves us forward. The following is not even remotely a comprehensive list — for that, look to Steven Levy or Pekka Himanen — but each value below is a potential source of conflict between people who adhere to it and people who adhere to a different value system.

  • You can’t argue with a root shell. Programming is an inherently constructivist discipline. A constructivist is like the archetypal Missourian: “Show me!” The very discipline of programming is founded on the Curry-Howard isomorphism, which establishes that programs are equivalent to proofs and vice versa. Many hacker arguments are settled only when someone writes a proof-of-concept that unambiguously demonstrates the correctness of their position; that’s why we call them proofs of concept. (The word “proof” shows up in a lot of our argot: zero-knowledge proof, proof-of-work, proof-carrying code, and so on. This isn’t an accident. While we appreciate and often celebrate ambiguity in wordplay and art, some matters are too important to leave mutual clarity to chance.) Some programmers can leave constructivism at the office, but hackers live and breathe it.
  • It’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission. Hackers have been putting their personal freedom on the line, not only out of curiosity but in the public interest, for decades. Please excuse us for being a little sensitive about what the stakes can sometimes be. We treat liberty like a muscle — it atrophies if not exercised regularly — and as such, we grant a lot of leeway to conduct that many find dubious at first glance. But context matters. In 2011, Telecomix junk-faxed the entire country of Egypt. Under normal circumstances, this would be incredibly rude at best, even a criminal offence in some jurisdictions. In the days after the Mubarak regime shut off access to the Internet, though, sending dial-up login information for free accounts donated by the hacker-founded Dutch ISP XS4ALL to every reachable machine was an act of re-empowerment, giving a megaphone to the voices the regime wanted to suppress.
Drawing hard lines around soft situations — like banning certain topics of discussion or kinds of humour — chafes hard against the hacker drive to discover boundaries through practical experience.

Over time, this drive has even changed norms in our own spaces. Forking someone else’s software project used to be considered incredibly rude. However, the decentralised nature of distributed revision control and the user experience that services like GitHub and Bitbucket provide are shifting the act of altering the direction of another person’s open work into not only something socially acceptable, but socially admirable. Why? Because it works. (Cf. “you can’t argue with a root shell.”)

  • Treat censorship as damage and route around it. That’s censorship in the colloquial usage, so leave the “but we’re not the government” rhetoric at the door, please. National governments are one threat model; workplace governance is a different threat model; hackers are interested in self-government. Hackers’ gut response to any kind of speech policing — amplify the speech, as loudly and in as many places as possible — is, in its best-known form, what gives rise to the Streisand Effect, and is also why we react so stridently when ordered to constrain our speech habits Or Else. This sort of amplification is attractive to power-seekers, and the amplification of opposing ideas is anathema to them. Fortunately for power-seekers, the Internet offers up a pool of potential pitchfork mob participants just as readily as it delivers the gullible to 419 scammers. This alarms us, and if you’ve ever had to keep your own controversial beliefs quiet for fear of being dogpiled, you should understand why.
  • Cattle die, kindred die; all are mortal, but the good name never dies of one who has done well. Or the bad name of those who have done evil, but if their code was good, we keep using it until something better comes along. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who condones Hans Reiser’s murder of his wife, but a hell of a lot of people still use his filesystem. Even more of us felt the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up when the prosecution argued that Reiser didn’t “act like” a grieving widower should, whether we’d read The Stranger or not. If you’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption, you have a hint of an idea of why this worries us.
Meanwhile, we’re all just hoping that circumstance never puts us in Andy Dufresne’s shoes.

The idea of anathematising all of a person’s good works because of something else they said or did is just as alien and repellent to us as our reaction is to someone who wishes Hacker News would die because Paul Graham is kind of a dick sometimes. My Russian coauthor Sergey Bratus points out that keeping works by “ideologically impure” persons out of public view was instrumental to Soviet systems of social control. And as @puellavulnerata acutely observes, a culture that encourages judging people unilaterally, rather than judging their actions in context, is one that allows socially-adept hierarchy climbers to decontextualise their own self-serving cruelties as “necessary for the cause” and stage witchcraft trials against the weirdoes on the margin.

  • Code is no respecter of persons. Your code makes you great, not the other way around. We don’t always live up to this value as well as we should; as evidence, consider the sheer number of women who’ve pointed out that they feel more accepted when presenting themselves and their work under a gender-neutral or masculine pseudonym. In our ideal world, though, your identity and personal history are orthogonal to your commit history. Moreover, we want our decision procedures to consider identity when contextually appropriate — what is a progressive stack if not a p-queue prioritised on identity? — but not when the distinctions it introduces only muddy the waters, or worse, refocus problem-solving effort away from the roots of those problems.
To a person whose value system gives primacy to identity in all situations, or who believes it’s acceptable to tell others what identities they must choose or how to prioritise their identities, this is unthinkable. The gulf that arises from this little gap is vast indeed.

It’s worth noting that these values cut across the left-right spectrum of how people tend to think about politics, rather than bisecting it. There are progressive, libertarian, anarchist, moderate, communist, conservative, liberal, and reactionary hackers, just the same as can be said for women, bisexuals, Texans, or engineers who aren’t hackers. (The only political identity I’ve never seen represented natively in hackerdom is authoritarianism, and even then we invite them to our conferences.) This also means that we can’t always rely on the attitudes that people wear on their sleeves. We have to watch closely, mining the interactions we observe for actionable data the way a person on a blind date pays attention to how their date treats the waiter.

That guy in the group who stares at you without saying anything? He could be undressing you with his eyes, but I’d lay better odds that he’s paying attention, watching your actions and reactions to build a mental model of how it’s safe to interact with you. Safe for him, that is, not you: bitten enough times, forever shy. You can take weirdoes out of a culture that rejects them, but taking the rejection out of a weirdo can never be a labour of anything other than love.

The effects of gentrification on minority and outsider communities are well-studied and understood. High-status groups attract would-be members by definition; if they were low-status, far fewer people would want to belong to them. The question then becomes: what responsibilities does an outsider community newly imbued with money, status, and power have toward would-be members, and what responsibilities do would-be members have toward the community they want to join?

The assertion that we should “not be so defensive” is problematic because it denies that hackers have anything to feel defensive toward. People get defensive when they feel like something important to them is in jeopardy, and our community is important to us because it’s where we find people who share our values. These range from the epistemic to the aesthetic — we are especially protective of the beauty of many the things we care about, often referred to as “elegance.” For those of us who experienced operative ostracism and public shaming, the protectiveness that runs through the entire stack has nigh-infinite fuel to draw from, and at times it doesn’t take much poking to turn a resource that many of us have transmuted into a source of productivity fuel into a tactical nuclear egghead.

Diluting that pool is frightening because it takes us back to the diasporan times in our lives when we upheld those values alone or at most in tiny, isolated handfuls. Many geeks can tell you stories of how they and a few like-minded companions formed a small community that achieved something great, only to have it taken over by popular loudmouths who considered that greatness theirs by right of social station and kicked the geeks out by enforcing weirdo-hostile social norms. (Consider how many hackerspaces retain their original founders.) Having a community they built wrested away from them at the first signs of success is by now a signaling characteristic of weirdohood. We wouldn’t keep mentioning it if it didn’t keep happening.

I’m not claiming that’s entirely rational, because fear isn’t rational, but it sure does explain the response to being told that our culture is broken and must be adapted to accommodate the very people who rallied it into being by shunning us from theirs.

We’ll start to feel less defensive when we get some indication — any indication — that our critics understand what parts of our culture we don’t want to lose and why we don’t want to lose them.

Asking questions rather than giving orders would be a good start, but what I ultimately want is psychological visibility: to know that you see what I value and appreciate why I value it, even if your own values are different. I’ll have that when I hear that understanding echoed in non-hackers’ words, rather than them echoing mine — though even that would be a start. I have yet to see an inducement toward social change that doesn’t trip hackers’ primal fears of ostracism. Playing on people’s fears can be an incredibly effective form of social engineering, but when the fears you play on make people afraid of you, you are engineering a system that creates outsiders and then silences them.

“We’re outsiders, therefore we couldn’t possibly be exclusionary” is actually not what we’re saying. Some hackers even argue for greater exclusivity, and curiously enough, many of those who do are also members of minority-by-birth groups. (I’d link to examples, but being caught between a minority-by-choice group and a minority-by-birth group means being extra careful about expressing unpopular opinions where anyone unsympathetic can hear you.) We’re outsiders, even if we’re outsiders with power, and we’re hyper-aware of the qualities that cause us to be treated as outsiders in the first place.

If you can show us those qualities in yourself, whether by mindblowing works of programming genius or merely by living the values we embrace, you’re in if you want to be.

Even if you can’t, we’re not going to kick you out, but like any other marginalised group, we prioritise our time toward each other and our allies, so yeah, you’re going to feel like the outsider for a change. Sucks, doesn’t it.

The criticism of Nate Silver seems to assume that he’s trying to produce something for people who don’t necessarily share his values, but I’m not convinced. He started out analysing baseball statistics, turned the same tools to political statistics, and his audience found him because elections are the final-boss evolution of popularity contests. FiveThirtyEight may be a mass-market publication, but that doesn’t imply that Nate’s personal values have changed any, nor should it. He still wants to work with people who understand him, just like anybody else does. Isn’t that what both brogrammers and geek feminists are after as well — a culture where they feel comfortable? Why is the onus on the outsiders who built our own spaces to understand the insider-newcomers, and not the other way around, particularly when the insiders are the ones colonising us?

Trying to convince hacker culture to change its norms by appealing to progressive values alone won’t work. You’re going to have to appeal to hacker values, and nobody’s done that yet.

Consider what you’re up against: an established power structure that offers “weird nerds” not only a place to fit in — cramped and awkward as that space might be — but a comfortable salary for doing so. Unlike Sinclair’s illustrative salaryman, you can convince a hacker that a proposition her job depends on her not understanding is true, but keep in mind what you’re offering to replace the status quo.

The mainstream tech industry offers us money, status, and a stable (if weak) position in its idealised social hierarchy. The voices clamouring for change offer us no money, a social role reversal back to “disempowered outsider,” and a status demotion to “likely sexual predator.” (The polite euphemism for this is “creepy,” a pejorative applied indiscriminately both to those who actively transgress other people’s boundaries and to those with the unmitigated gall to be attracted to someone else while being funny-looking.) Given a choice between these two, which would you side with? It’s true that the one is confining, essentialist, and a far cry from the best of all possible worlds, but the other is all these things and a step backward for people who finally got to take a step forward for once when the internet took off.

Remember, you’re dealing with constructivists here — and not just any constructivists, but constructivists whose own lived experience yields proof after proof that they, and their outsider norms, will be first against the wall when the popular kids come. Over time, we internalise these lessons, so much so that at times we’re unaware that they’re in play. If someone offered us a convincing alternative, we’d take it in a heartbeat, but in its absence, we rely on the ways of being that have kept us farthest from harm. If we recognise a pattern of “put the outsider down,” we’re going to respond in the ways we’ve learned to protect ourselves from that: by closing ranks.

Because of this, leading with “there are more of us than there are of you, so you have to change to accommodate us” is, hands down, the best way to ensure that your carefully constructed appeal will fall on deaf ears.

Just as to many women, every man is Schroedinger’s Rapist, to most outsiders, every insider is Schroedinger’s Asshole Trying To Have Me Ostracised. If you want to overcome that cognitive bias from outside of it — and it is a bias, in exactly the same way that Schroedinger’s Rapist is a cognitive bias — you’re going to have to offer more acceptance, not less. Probably orders of magnitude more, if you want us to notice. And you’re probably going to have to prove it repeatedly, in the face of bitter skepticism, because not to put too fine a point on it, we’ve all been conned by the spectre of acceptance at least once and we’re none of us too keen on repeating that mistake. Hell, even venture capital is only the spectre of acceptance — watch how it vanishes into the ether when the ROI isn’t what the VCs expected — but it sure walks and quacks like the flesh-and-blood thing if you don’t pay more attention than you have to.

Offer hackers the real deal — a seat at this here table we built and you’re using, rather than an unpaid internship as your carpenter/busboy/court fool, would be a great start — and they’ll defect in throngs to your team, but “the real deal” means changing your tactics. If you tell me that your goal is systemic change toward radical acceptance, and I see that you treat those you perceive as lesser-than with the same kind of scorn and derision that pushed me toward this insular little subculture where I feel comfortable — and I do see this, every day, to the point where I’ve had to cull people I genuinely like from my social media feeds because it was that or get mentally knocked back every few minutes into the headspace I spent my K-12 years in and was only too happy to leave —then you’ve successfully convinced me that your acceptance is not radical and the change you want not systemic.

Inverting a power dynamic offers no consolation to people who end up on the bottom either way, and nothing of interest to people who would rather that power dynamic not exist in the first place.

Some of us are old enough, or have lived in the wrong places long enough, to be all too familiar with the reformist tendency to eat its own with deliberation and gusto. We’ll pass on that, thanks.

And that’s the bastardly crux of it all: two groups who nominally want the same thing — a culture of acceptance — separated by the values that lead them to that desire and the fear that ultimately nothing will really change. It doesn’t have to be this way. Groups that share goals but not values can still collaborate on those goals — to tremendous effect! — but doing so successfully requires a nuanced understanding of a value set not one’s own, and a willingness to focus on outcomes over ideological purity when push comes to shove. I offer you a proof by construction of this willingness in the hacker community: you need only observe the dazzling spectrum of political opinions to which hackers variously subscribe, and how little those opinions matter to us when our way of life is under attack.

All we’re asking for is constructive proof that you accept us for who we are, rather than the fact that we build your toys or that we tripped and fell into a pot of money. The dominant culture has had two decades to demonstrate to us in copious detail what it’s willing to offer — the good parts and the bad ones — and now it’s your turn. Please show your work.

Many thanks to @puellavulnerata, Jason Gulledge, Kaitlyn Kohlenberg, @exiledsurfer, @shokufeyesib, and Sergey Bratus for their thoughtful remarks on early drafts of this essay.