Modern society is massively complex. We like to pretend that our mastery of tools and technology has made life easier or better, but in actuality it has never been harder to simply live life.
Above all else, tools and technology give us choices, and more choice means more complexity. Ten thousand years ago, life basically consisted of hunting, eating, and procreating, and stone arrowheads were the state-of-the-art, must-have devices. Over time we mastered new materials and devised new tools (iron, paper, plastics, computer chips), and society grew increasingly complex (trade, diplomacy, religion, global media).
Tools are force multipliers, and our tools and technologies are now so advanced that the tiniest of human machinations can have worldwide repercussions. Whereas once your actions very rarely affected anything or anyone beyond your immediate vicinity, today a single photo shot with a smartphone and uploaded to Facebook can change the world. Tools also used to have very specific purposes; but thanks to monstrously powerful general-purpose hardware and operating systems, our present-day computerized tools can perform an almost infinite number of diverse tasks, often simultaneously, in many cases without our even being aware that they’re being performed.
To put it bluntly, most mere mortals simply have no idea how to handle the overwhelming power of modern devices. Do you know someone who has sent an embarrassing email or picture message to the wrong person, or misunderstood the privacy settings on their Facebook or Twitter feeds? How many of your friends know what really happens when you push the power button on your PC, or press play on Spotify?
Most mere mortals have no idea how to handle the overwhelming power of modern devices.
It wasn’t so long ago that most people completely understood every aspect of their tools, and this reflected in their proficiency with them. Today, there probably isn’t a single person alive who can tell you exactly how to make an LCD monitor, let alone a whole computer—and likewise, there are very few people who know how to properly use a computer. A modern PC outputs more data and has more functionality than a 1970s supercomputer that was operated by a dozen engineers. And yet in today’s always-connected, ubiquitously digital world, we expect a single, relatively uneducated person to somehow use these devices effectively.
Miraculously, the system actually works. Yes, people still screw up and crash their cars while texting, or get malware on their computer, but for the most part we make incredibly good use of the tools and technologies available to us.
Partly, this is due to the near-infinite adaptability of mankind—but it’s also due to geeks. Human civilization has always had elders who guide their spiritual children safely through life’s perils. In the olden days, these wise men and women would educate their communities in the ways of the world: how to nurture children, how to grow crops. In modern society, geeks are our sages, our shamans, our technocratic teachers.
Now more than ever before, the only way that we will successfully navigate technological pitfalls and make it out in one piece is if we listen carefully and follow in the footsteps of the geeks, the shepherds of society. This is quite a burden for geeks, who obviously have a better grasp of the underlying science and wizardry, but they’re still being buffeted by the same startling rate of advancement and myriad ethical and moral repercussions that technology is thrusting upon the rest of us.
Geeks must assimilate our technological advances, and then provide guidance for the rest of us.
As our shepherds, geeks must assimilate our technological advances, and then quickly provide guidance for the rest of us. You can probably remember a time when you asked a geek for advice on your next PC, whereupon he gladly imparted upon you the latest hardware, software, and peripheral wisdom. Or maybe you’re the geek to whom people come seeking council.
Today, with the exponential effect of Moore’s law and the emergence of pervasive, ubiquitous computing, it’s a little more complicated. It’s no longer a matter of the fastest computer or largest hard drive; we’re now talking about ecology (power usage, recycling), privacy (social sharing, behavioral targeting), and other philosophical quandaries that most geeks really aren’t ready for. Five years ago, almost all geeks agreed on which CPU was the fastest (the Core 2 Duo). Ask three today which mobile OS is the best, or what your Facebook privacy settings should be, and you’ll get three very different answers.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As our interactions with hyper-advanced technology shifts from the hard sciences underpinning hardware (chemistry, physics) to the soft sciences that govern software (sociology, psychology, law), it’s understandable that absolute answers are becoming harder to come by. It isn’t vital that geeks always give the right answer, anyway: The main thing is that they know enough that they can give advice.
It isn’t vital that geeks always give the right answer, but that they know enough that they can give advice.
Ultimately, the real takeaway here is that we’re all beholden to the wishes and whimsies of our geeky compatriots. They have now taken over the mantle of the wise men the masses have always followed, and for better or worse there isn’t much we can do about it. At least geeks have been doing a pretty good job so far.
If you’re one of them, however, remember that you are not only a guide who must gently lead society through the uncertain, ever-shifting mists of bleeding-edge tech, but also a captain who must ride out any storms we suddenly find ourselves in. This is a lot of responsibility to bear, but like the priests, village elders, and witches that came before you, you will do the job, and you will hopefully do it to the best of your capability. Pay heed: Your actions will directly affect the adoption (or not) of technology, thus shaping the future of human civilization.
No pressure, geeks. No pressure.
Sebastian Anthony | PC Mag January 2013 Edition