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Geek Speak

Judging by the rather self-conscious Geek Pride Day celebration in Boston this weekend, here are things that geeks do:

Play vintage 80s video games
Try out linux tools
Drink double-caffeine coffee
Play Quake
Shoot Nerf guns
Adjust their pony tails (men only)
Stick it to The Man

What they don't do is bite the heads off of chickens as the original geeks did a 100 years ago. Or get pushed around by school bullies as techno-geeks did 10 years ago.

In fact, geeks are so In that at the Geek Pride event, Eric Raymond, the leading apostle of the Open Source Movement, was asked: Now that we geeks are in charge, who's going to topple *us*? He replied that Geeks won't be toppled because they're the only ones who know who to run the joint.

Now, I kneel at the alter of Open Source and hold Raymond in the highest regard. In fact, Chris Locke and I (two of the Cluetrain authors) were on stageimmediately after he spoke, and I was looking forward to drinking from the same water bottle without wiping it first, but he took it with him.

Nevertheless, I have to disagree with him on this point.

Yes, companies can't survive without the geeks' technical knowledge. But businesses aren't about their technical infrastructure. "Geeks Rule" not in the sense that they are critical to the company (for that's always been the case) but because the geek attitude is on the ascendant.

So, what is this attitude, and do we want it to rule our companies?

Big chunks of it, absolutely! (Note: Get ready for some generalizations.) Geeks are craftspeople, absorbed in their work. They are passionate about their slice of the world. They have developed a culture of sharing embodied by the Open Source movement. They tend to react strongly against anyone who tries to "manage" away their independence. And they are disdainful of hypocrisy.

Of course, geeks like everyone are self-contradictory. While geeks may share their work in the great collective of Open Source, they are fiercely independent in their work habits: they (stereotypically) work by themselves into the wee hours, slugging Jolt Cola. And while they hate weasel words, they sometimes can't tell the difference between speaking frankly and insulting someone.

Geeks bring to the corporation a passion, openness and frankness that is a breath of fresh air — and not the type you get when you open awindow but the type that's forced into your lungs as you're being rescued from drowning in your own BS. All hail the geeks!

Yet, geeks often have an insistence that there's only one way to carry on a conversation, as if communication is simply the transfer of information from one person to another and total frankness, devoid of adjectives or comforting words, is the only truth. And that devalues the richness of conversation.

Here's an example of sorts. About ten years ago, I was at a StrategicCustomers meeting, a day of "open and frank" conversation with our top 10 customers about future product directions. One particularly disgruntled customer asked whether our new product would support a particular printer. "Well," replied our head geek (and pardon me if I make up the details here), "it won't support the model 2200 if you've got the PostScript RIP installed, and if you hook up the typesetter output module, it's pretty flaky."

Afterwards, the CEO assembled all the participating employees and reamed the geek for giving the "engineering answer" which always begins with the negatives. "I thought you'd told me that the new product will support that printer," said the CEO.

"Well, yeah, it'll support it. But not all its features."

"But you didn't tell the customer that. You misled him. You told him it wouldn't support it."

"No, I told him that it wouldn't support PostScript or typesetteroutput."

"The answer to the question is: Yes, it supports the printer. Then put in all the qualifiers you want. But the truth is Yes."

The geek was being honest, accurate and frank. But the CEO was right: the geek's answer wasn't truthful.

There are lots of ways of talking. The brutal frankness of geekdom issometimes exactly what's required and is, in all cases, useful because it nudges us towards more directness. But geeky frankness isn't alwaystruthful. And geeky talk isn't the only type of truthful talk. Life's way more complex than that. Thank G-d.

David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.

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