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Fear of Geeks

Why do movies persist in portraying technologists as anti-social?

This weekend saw the release of The Social Network, another Hollywood piece that presents geeks as socially awkward people. It is the latest piece in a long strand of media pieces about technology and all its wrongs.

For most of my life, I’ve seen movies that have presented computer geeks as remote people, capable of great feats but incapable of relating to common folks. This phenomenon is hardly new and generally captures the anguish of the masses when it comes to technology: Whether it is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or David Fincher’s The Social Network, media treatments of technological developments generally paint their creators as scary individuals manipulating dehumanizing forces.

But why is that?

Do those pieces represent the truth about technology? Or do they make things worse for technologists?

Having grown up through the 80s and 90s, I’ve seen a couple of cycles of computer folks being seen alternatively as geniuses and mad scientists. The 80s marked a time of wonder with people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates seen as the leaders of a new world. The 90s saw that optimism about technology magnified through the dot com era when the word internet was a virtual philosopher’s stone, turning everything that it touched to gold. That optimism turned into a long period of pessimism as the dot com bubble turned into a dot com crash.

But lately, the phoenix-like rise of the technology space in the public consciousness, which seems to have paralleled the crash in a lot of other economic sectors (finance and the car industry come to mind) seem to have given geeks a new street cred. And so, geeks are cool again but not so cool that they can be accepted by all.

I suspect that the fears people have of our industry have to do with the concerns they have with technology: they are both fascinated and repelled by technology.

On the one hand, people see the things we create as elements of good, as they get to use them and reconnect with friends, or save time by getting rid of tasks that used to be hard to do. They see a cornucopia of new entertainment devices and are excited by the potential of the new prod?ucts we create.

But on the other, they worry about the things they fail to understand. They see our technology as not only foreign but, by extension, they see us as foreign and get suspicious about our motives. They worry about what we know about them and about what the computer knows.

Our job is now to educate those people about what we do and how we do it. For the first time, we are entering an age where the software we create needs the willing participation of people in order to be successful: social media is social and thus needs people to work (and not in the Soylent Green sense). As a result, it presents us with a unique opportunity to re-introduce the technology world to people and show them that computers are just tools, not magic boxes, and that the magic is in what humans do with it, humans who are not just locked into their office but also people who are out there, socializing and having friends.

So join me in reaching out to all the non-geeks out there and showing them that the magic of what we do is not dark magic and maybe some of those people will join us in making the world a better place through technology.

This article was originally posted on TNL.Net and is re-printed with permission. 

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