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Revenge of the Nerds

I started my morning by reading this blog post by Brad Feld, which focused on another article, The Internet Apologizes, written by Tristin Harris for New York Magazine.

Interesting as they were, Feld’s points weren’t what caught my eye or prompted me to write this post. No, I was more interested in a comment that a reader had left on Feld’s post:

“I really resent this framing that the ‘internet’ is apologizing and only outsiders have been trying to warn us before. The open source world embraced decentralizing and federation. It was large corporations that dismantled that through embrace/extend/extinguish. And it was publishers who gravitated to the latter instead of the former.
 
The tech community has been warning about the dangers of all this, pushing for encryption, privacy and self-ownership. The larger cultural spheres did not care a bit, and dismissed us as smelly nerds and trolls to their sophisticated and popular cathedral.
 
Now the chickens have come home to roost. Instead of asking themselves who exactly it was that plastered the web full of clickbait, like buttons and twitter embeds, they’ve gone back to blaming the computer experts for it. We’ve been trying to tell them for years, but they were too busy with high school drama and partisan apologetics to notice.”

There’s a lot to unpack in this comment. For one, the commenter is correct; the open-source movement was built upon the idea of decentralization and a democratized approach to software (and hardware) development. He — and I’m willing to bet my last dollar that this reader is a guy — goes on to correctly state that corporate interests successfully pushed their walled-garden approach to tech over open, collaborative systems, and that profit-driven publishing models did indeed gravitate toward these proprietary systems. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. Open systems discourage ownership by design, which is antithetical to profit.

However, that’s not the interesting part. No, it’s this reader’s assertion that “the tech community” has been sounding the alarm about corporate control of user data for years, and that the normies didn’t want to hear it, that interests me — and shows just how dangerous notions of ownership can be.

Although this clearly disgruntled reader doesn’t say so explicitly, their definition of the “tech community” is tellingly narrow. He says that the “larger cultural spheres didn’t care one bit,” before going on to say that those mean normies “dismissed us as smelly nerds and trolls.” The entire comment sounds like the juvenile, told-you-so tantrum of a teenager.

Except that’s not the most interesting part, either. (By now, we should be thoroughly familiar with privileged man-children telling us that they’ve been right the whole time.)

No, the most interesting part of this comment is the assumption that developers, engineers, and other “smelly nerds” are right purely by virtue of their perceived sense of ownership over technology itself.

The commenter’s word choice — the references to larger cultural spheres, the wounded pride of being called a smelly nerd, the allusions to petty high-school drama — reveals the exact kind of arrogance that led us to the situation the commenter is complaining about. Corporations may be responsible for knowingly and repeatedly compromising the privacy of its users’ data in the pursuit of profit, but this isn’t the true outrage; the dismissal of techies’ superior intellect by an ignorant public is the real injustice. The commenter seems more incensed that those filthy normies would dare dismiss the wisdom of men like him than the fact that the technology companies built by men like him are making obscene amounts of money from the firehoses of personal data they control.

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It’s the same toxic, misogynistic notion of ownership that resulted in GamerGate. It’s the same notion of ownership that emboldens young, white men to serve as gatekeepers to the subcultures and hobbies that they believe belong to them and them alone, often at the expense and exclusion of already marginalized groups. Only boys can be real gamers. Only boys can be real developers. Only techies can weigh in on what technology companies should or shouldn’t do. We were right, you were wrong, we told you so. These boys got beaten up for their interest in computer programming and rejected by girls for playing role-playing games — they deserve their place in the geek pantheon, just as the normies that dared ignore and mock them deserve to have their data stolen and exploited.

That’s not to say that we should be dismissive or ignorant of the warnings of tech experts, or that every techie harbors abhorrent, misogynistic views. We need strong guidance, wisdom, and leadership in the tech sector now more than ever before. But we shouldn’t automatically defer to insecure white men — and it’s always white men — just because they feel a perverse, distorted sense of ownership over the technologies that now shape every aspect of our lives, either.

Mark Zuckerberg clearly feels he knows what’s best for his users. Should the unwashed masses defer to his expertise without question, too?

 

This post was originally published on Medium.