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Geeks: The shepherds of society

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by Sebastian Anthony, 27 Dec 2012Blog
Geeks: The shepherds of society

Modern society is massively complex. We like to pretend that our mastery of tools and technology has made life easier or better, but in actuality it has never been harder to simply live life.

Above all else, tools and technology give us choices, and more choice means more complexity. 10,000 years ago, life basically consisted of hunting, eating, and procreating. Stone arrowheads were the state of the art, tool-wise. Over time, new materials were mastered and new tools devised (iron, paper, plastics, computer chips) – and society grew increasingly complex (trade, diplomacy, religion, global media).

Tools are force multipliers – and our tools and technologies are now so advanced that the tiniest of human machinations can have worldwide repercussions. In the past, your actions very rarely affected anything or anyone beyond your immediate vicinity – today, a single photo shot by a smartphone and uploaded to Facebook can change the world.

In the past, tools had very specific purposes – today, thanks to monstrously powerful general purpose hardware and operating systems, our computerised tools can perform an almost infinite number of tasks, often at the same time, and usually without us even being aware that they’re being performed.

For each will have to bear his own load

It’s clichéd, but with great power comes great responsibility – but to put it bluntly, most mere mortals simply have no idea how to handle the overwhelming power of modern devices. Do you know someone who has sent an embarrassing email or picture message to the wrong person, or misunderstood the privacy settings on their Facebook or Twitter feeds? How many of your friends know what really happens when you push the power button on your PC, or press play on Spotify?

It wasn’t so long ago that most people completely understood every aspect of their tools – and this was reflected in their proficiency with these tools. Today, there probably isn’t a single person alive who could tell you exactly how to make an LCD monitor, let alone a whole computer – and likewise, there are very few people who know how to properly use a computer. A modern personal computer outputs more data and has more functionality than a 1970s supercomputer which would be operated by a dozen engineers – and yet in today’s always-connected, ubiquitously digital world, we expect a single, relatively uneducated person to somehow use these devices effectively.

And yet somehow… miraculously… it actually works. Yes, people still screw up and crash their car while texting, or get malware on their computer, but for the most part we make incredibly good use of our tools. Despite the occasional faux pas, we do seem to make surprisingly good use of our technologies.

Partly, this is down to the near-infinite adaptability of mankind – but it’s also down to the geeks. Human civilisation has always had elders who guide their spiritual children safely through life’s perils. In the olden days, these wise men and women would educate their communities in the ways of the world – how to grow crops, how to nurture children. In today’s hyper-advanced society, geeks are our sages, our shaman, our technocratic teachers.

The geek shall inherit the Earth

Now more than ever before, the only way that we will successfully navigate technological pitfalls and make it out in one piece is if we listen carefully and follow in the footsteps of the geeks, the shepherds of society. This is quite a burden for geeks, who obviously have a better grasp of the underlying science and wizardry, but they’re still being buffeted by the same startling rate of advancement and myriad ethical and moral repercussions that hyper-advanced technology is thrusting upon the rest of us.

As our shepherds, geeks must assimilate our technological advances, and then quickly provide guidance for the rest of us. You can probably remember a time when you asked a geek for advice on your next PC, whereupon he gladly imparted upon you the latest hardware, software, and peripheral wisdom. Or maybe you’re the geek that people come to, seeking council.

Today, with the exponential effect of Moore’s law and the emergence of pervasive, ubiquitous computing, it’s a little more complicated. It’s no longer a matter of the fastest computer or largest hard drive; we’re now talking about ecology (power usage, recycling), privacy (social sharing, behavioural targeting), and other philosophical quandaries that most geeks really aren’t ready for. Five years ago, almost every geek would agree on which CPU was the fastest (the Core 2 Duo) – but today, ask three geeks about which mobile OS is the best, or what your Facebook privacy settings should be, and you’ll get three very different answers.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As our interactions with hyper-advanced technology shift from the hard sciences underpinning hardware (chemistry, physics) to the soft sciences that govern software (sociology, psychology, law), it’s understandable that absolute answers are harder to come by. It isn’t vital that geeks always give the right answer, anyway: The main thing is that they know enough that they can give advice.

Ultimately, for those of us who are non-geeks, the real takeaway here is that we’re beholden to the wish and whimsy of our geeky compatriots. This has been the case throughout history, though, with the masses following in the footsteps of just a handful of wise men. Geeks have taken over the mantle now, and for better or worse there isn’t much we can do about it. It would seem that geeks are doing a pretty good job so far, though.

If you’re a geek, however, remember that you are society’s ace in the hole; a shepherd who will gently guide us through the uncertain, ever-shifting mists of bleeding-edge tech, but also a captain who will ride out any storms that we suddenly find ourselves in. This is a lot of responsibility to bear, but like the priests, village elders, and witches that came before you, you will do the job, and you will hopefully do it to the best of your capability. Pay heed: Your actions will directly affect the adoption (or not) of technology, thus shaping the future of human civilisation.

No pressure, geeks. No pressure.

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