Hacking The Body Politic

The intersection (or lack thereof) between geeks and politics

I’m going to start off by apologizing. I’m about to do something I hate to do, because I find it to be a cliché – I’m starting off a piece of writing with a definition. I only do it because I will be addressing several meanings of the word, and rather than stating it all mixed in with the text, I figured I’d tee it up here right at the top.

politics: noun (Etymology: Greek politika, from neuter plural of politikos political; Date: circa 1529)

1 a : the art or science of government; b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy; c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government
2
: political actions, practices, or policies;
3 a
: political affairs or business; especially : competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government); b : political life especially as a principal activity or profession c : political activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices;
4
: the political opinions or sympathies of a person;
5 a
: the total complex of relations between people living in society; b : relations or conduct in a particular area of experience especially as seen or dealt with from a political point of view <office politics> <ethnic politics>

Sorry! Okay, now on to defining “geek” . . . Just fooling! Really, that’s just a tar baby I’m not going to rassle with. Anyway, for a word that gets thrown around so much, those are a lot of definitions!

Of course, politics is a very topical word right now as we’re about to come up on another Election Day, and yet another occasion where I’ll probably look around afterward and say “Bu..but, we’re smarter than that, I swear!” (Note: I’m not saying all liberals are smart or that all smart people are liberal — far from it. More just that smart people on either side of the aisle seem to be a vanishing breed.)

Every Election Day highlights personally for me another aspect of my multi-faceted geekdom. In addition to the techie, movie, foodie, and other types of geek I seem to express, I’m also a huge political geek – both by having been involved on a more intimate-than-usual level and through my own personality and interests. What always has struck me as shocking is how few other types of geeks crossover into politics as well. I mean I am used to a certain level of ambivalence to politics from the general population (amazing what randomly knocking on people’s doors and asking them to vote for somebody will reveal), but generally geeks of all stripes seem to eschew politics more strongly than is usual.

Why is that?

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years — as much in an effort to reconcile different strains of my own personality as to explain any broader social trend. I don’t think I’ve got all the answers (*gasp!* Yes, you all now have that in writing), but I do think I have some outline of the issues. The following are some generalizations, and are to be taken as such. I’m describing what I’ve seen in my own experience, not the individual and unique snowflake that is you or anyone in particular. 🙂

  1. Geeks tend to be introverts
  2. Geeks tend to avoid conflict, except in certain controlled or vaguely ritualized circumstances
  3. Geeks tend to shy away from anything that is too fuzzy or ill-defined (entirely subjective of course)
  4. Geeks have few good “geek” role-models to look to in public office (More politicians are like the former actor Ronald Reagan than the former nuclear engineer Jimmy Carter).
  5. Geeks see politics as nothing but a beauty contest/popularity contest and we all know how geeks fare in those, right? 🙂
  6. Even if a geek is willing to be engaged and active in politics, the underlying political structures are messy, inefficient, and not prone to rigid analysis (we all love analysis in some form or another, right?)

Why is this a problem? Why do geeks need to be involved in politics? Because geeks have what the system needs to work! Think about it!

  1. Geeks are passionate (my pseudo-definition of “geek” = passionate about a topic beyond reason)
  2. Geeks tend to be smart  (not necessarily “educated” as I refuse to say the two equate) and interested in the world around them.
  3. Geeks are problem-solvers – we’re all about hacking something to get it to do what needs to be done (my pseudo-definition of “hacking” = an elegant solution to an inelegant problem)
  4. Geeks are creative. This can be debated, but I stand by it — hands down, all the geeks I know are far more creative (in a broad sense) than others
  5. Geeks are good at analysis. We like details. Hell, whether you’re talking about video games, movies, comic books, or food — every geek culture is built on the analysis and debate of minutiae that nobody else pays any attention to.

Geeks, by and large, have the tools to be a force in politics, just seemingly not the will. I’ve seen and heard it a hundred times, “I don’t talk politics,” or “Why bother? It’s just politics” or something similar. This from the same people who will have no problem debating Kirk vs. Picard for the 173rd time, or who will happily engage in holy war over how the latest film adaption got everything wrong from the comic book. It’s really one of the only times I feel disappointed in my fellow geeks.

The rules by which we govern ourselves as a society, and the process by which those rules are discussed and created, are arguably the most important subjects we can debate. No matter how big a fan we are, who is directing The Hobbit, where it’s being filmed, or who will be starring in it are not that important against that larger backdrop. More fun to discuss sometimes certainly, and by no means am I saying we should stop — I’m simply saying we need to carve a little time and mental cycles out of our day to focus on this other stuff too.

The media is currently at a fevered hum spinning out new political coverage, chewing it up and regurgitating it back-out – then saying they don’t like the look of the dog’s breakfast that it is, and starting it all over again. We have the Tea Party, about which much has been said and written, but about which not much is known — mostly because it simply exists to fill the vacuum that was left after the Democrat’s wins in 2006 and 2008, and it as much a media creation as an honest and reasoned ideological reaction to anything going on. To put it in the parlance of a particular geek subset – Obama winning was like Superman killing Luthor, Darkseid, and Braniac all at once, and the writers needed to create a new villain to keep the narrative going.

You know what’s missing from what I described above? Reasoned debate. Honest exchange of differing opinions. Rational compromises that move us closer to shared goals. In short, all stuff that geeks are better suited than most to contribute to.

Yes, politics is messy. Yes, it can be filled with the kind of internecine exchanges that demonstrate the worst of ourselves. And yes, there are a 1,001 reasons not to become involved.

But as geeks, I ask you this – when presented with an opportunity to make the world what it should be (United Federation of Planets, flying cars, cures for cancer, jet packs, lightsabers, the whole shebang), how can we refuse? Do you want to continue to live in a world where celebrity is a more valuable asset than knowledge? Do you want to live in a world where glib easy answers are accepted because no one stood up and said “That’s not right!”

Or do you want to live in a world where merit truly is rewarded, where the opportunity exists to invent our future not reinvent our past, and where those rules we govern ourselves by are arrived at through intelligent discourse and debate, and yes, sometimes compromise. How you think we should arrive at such a world will largely shape where you fall on the political spectrum, and honestly I don’t care if you land on the same place I do. I do care about whether you’re on that spectrum to begin with – because otherwise you’re letting other people decide your fate. All our geek heroes, in fine Joseph Campbell tradition, helped to shape their own fates – that’s why their stories captured our attention and interest. Sure, there was always stuff outside their control, but that’s what makes the story interesting.

So, what can you do? Well, I’ll make it easy for now — Go vote tomorrow. If you haven’t followed the candidates in your area up until now, spend some time researching on their websites and Google tonight and then go vote. Even if your candidate isn’t forecast to win. Just go vote. Really.

After tomorrow? Well, I will be writing more about this in upcoming articles. Essentially (and hopefully!) providing a series of geek-centric tutorials on how to be politically informed and involved. Think of it as cutting through the crappy GUI that gets put on politics, learning to get to the command line, and being given root on the political process.

Again, whether you’re liberal or conservative is immaterial – it’s about being informed and involved. And as I’ve discovered, geeks have a wonderful ability to be a transformative force on so many things, I’m hoping the same holds true here.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Gandhi  (Philosophizer, activist, and honestly, a bit of a geek himself)

Oh, and for those looking for a few chuckles, read my Election Day post from 2008:  A Portrait of a Poll Worker

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