What comes to mind upon hearing “hacker” or “geek?” In many cases, one will envision a male in his late teens who wears dark clothes, is antisocial, sits in front of a computer screen, and breaks into computer systems illegally. While such people do exist, they are more accurately called “script kiddies” or, depending on severity of infraction, “crackers.” Hackers, in the general sense, merely enjoy “the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations” (“Hacker”). Similarly, a geek is “a person who pursues skill and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance” (“Geek”). Hackers and geeks, together, form a creative force with which there is virtually (pun intended) no parallel.
Many of the world’s greatest inventors and scientists are geeks in this pure sense of the term. As mentioned in the definition, geeks, by their philosophy, whenever possible do not seek out money or similar worldly possessions. However, if either comes with the task, they does not disagree. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, explains:
People have sometimes asked me whether I am upset that I have not made a lot of money from the Web. In fact, I made some quite conscious decisions about which way to take my life. These I would not change—though I am making no comment on what I might do in the future. What does distress me, though, is how important a question it seems to be to some. This happens mostly in America, not Europe. What is maddening is the terrible notion that a person’s value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that that is measured in terms of money. That suggests disrespect for the researchers across the globe developing ideas for the next leaps in science and technology. Core in my upbringing was a value system that put monetary gain well in its place, behind things like doing what I really want to do. To use net worth as a criterion by which to judge people is to set our children’s sights on cash rather than on things that will actually make them happy. (107-108).
Geeks and hackers seek out, instead of money, the feeling of creating something that may have seemed impossible. This feeling has even been termed a “geekasm,” a portmanteau word combining “geek” and “orgasm.” By creating things that have been impossible for others, geeks fall in the realm described by Mark Kac as magician genius. He writes on page xxv of his autobiography, Enigmas of Chance: An Autobiography:
An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what has been done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians…the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark.
For whatever purpose, some of the greatest minds in history are the most socially unacceptable. Robert M. Pirsig is a notable example. He, the philosopher-narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was actually institutionalized for a time. Another notable mind of recent fame is that of John Nash, the subject of the book and movie A Beautiful Mind. Shakespeare conveys this idea in a conversation between Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern:
Guil. Prison, my lord?
Ham. Denmark’s a prison.
Ros. We think not so, my lord.
Ham. Why, then, ‘t is none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison. (Shakespeare 1878).
Great minds are in a state of great understanding, but one of two things occur: the thinker cannot communicate his or her ideas or sees problems with the world that others do not see and becomes depressed. It is perhaps like a calculator trying to interact with a supercomputer. The supercomputer can process and understand so much more than the calculator can, but the calculator is incapable of understanding information it receives from the supercomputer. Some information cannot be “dumbed down” since a supercomputer can work with “large words,” but the calculator can only work with “small words.”
Geeks and hackers of all kinds created numerous inventions taken for granted every day. From the new Segway Human Transporter invented by Dean Kamen to the World Wide Web of Tim Berners-Lee, geeks have very literally created a “World Wide Creativity” phenomenon. There is no parallel to this. Only time will tell what new problems that people with the hacker philosophy will solve.
- Berners-Lee, Tim and Mark Fischetti. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. New York: HarperBusiness-Harper, 2000.
- “Geek.” Jargon File 4.33. Ed. Eric Steven Raymond. 20 Sept. 2002. 28 April 2003 <http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/entry/geek.html>.
- “Hacker.” Def. 7. Jargon File 4.33. Ed. Eric Steven Raymond. 20 Sept. 2002. 28 April 2003 <http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/entry/hacker.html>.
- Kac, Mark. Enigmas of Chance: An Autobiography. Berkeley, U of California P, 1989.
- Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated. Ed. Howard Staunton. New York: Gramercy, 1979. Rpt. of The Plays of Shakespeare.