Geeks Are Losers

Whether it’s a book fantasizing about a world in which Google executives run the United States or another tome that suggests geeks are on the road to controlling the globe, there’s a hopeful strain among technology, business, and political writers that there’s something special about the technically astute, the so-called digerati. Barack Obama bathes in some of that reflected glory because he’s the first US president who knows how to use a Blackberry.

But, let’s face it, geeks are losers. Worse. They’re dangerous.

Robert McNamara was the quintessential geek. When he was Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War he argued to President Lyndon Johnson that the United States was on the road to victory because his statistics proved that the bomb tonnage and body counts relative to the tiny nation of (then) North Vietnam was surely overwhelming. Human courage and tenacity could not fit into his equations, so hundreds of thousands of people died and were maimed as the US marched relentlessly toward defeat.

Less awful, though equally wrong-headed, was Bill Gates’ tenure as CEO of Microsoft. He saw nothing in the least bit wrong about bullying his hardware partners into eschewing competitors’ products, whether it be browsers or operating systems, not because he gave a damn about his customers, he just wanted Microsoft to grow at all costs. What was right for Microsoft was simply right. And when he was on the witness stand during his company’s trial for monopolistic behavior, he acted petulant and condescending. He saw nothing wrong in his actions. He knew best, after all. The result, of course, was that Microsoft was convicted as a monopoly.

Both McNamara and Gates lost the epic battles of their lives because they were geeks. They could not imagine being wrong, so how could they possibly lose? Facts were facts and the facts, as they saw them, supported their views. Being in error did not compute to them. (It’s laudable that both men after their stinging defeats went on to do good in the world, McNamara as head of the World Bank and Gates with his Foundation.)

Doctors and lawyers often get accused of being arrogant sons-of-bitches. But geeks are worse. They think because they once wrote a C++ program that sold a few thousand copies or contributed a few lines of code to the Linux kernel that they are brilliant in all things -not just tech things, all things. Give a geek power beyond his keyboard and, as a rule, the world becomes a less pleasant place to be.

Naturally, not all geeks are dangerous losers. Linus Torvalds and Bill Joy come to mind. Both are brilliant and delightful individuals. They are also careful, non-ideological thinkers, willing to weigh other views.

But most techies think just because something can be done by them, it should be done. Consequences are for the rest of us. If it’s “elegant”, it’s worthy. As such, they come across more like Richard Stallman, who is brilliant but so self-righteous we can only be grateful he’ll never be able to rule the world.

Another frightening example comes from Rick Hodgin’s exceptional essay on this site last year on Intel’s vPro technology, a microprocessor system that potentially turns our personal computers into personal snitches. Big Brother in a chipset.

Yet, I’ll bet somewhere inside the bowels of Intel, a gang of geeks thinks their cool technology is just that, cool. They undoubtedly dismiss Hodgin’s accusation that vPro will be used for evil intent someday. How could it? After all, they built it and they are good, so vPro will only be used for good, right?

Sadly, they will be wrong. But worse, we will all be the losers by then.