So you call yourself a geek?

So you call yourself a geek?

Summary: The NSA surveillance scandal and the passing of hacker Barnaby Jack are both reminders that the label "geek" has been hijacked by vast dull herds of consumer wannabes.


When news of comprehensive and potentially unconstitutional surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) first broke some weeks back, by and large, the general public seemed to be hearing about its work for the first time. Many were shocked. And then came a distasteful backlash against that shock by a bunch of know-it-all geeks.

"Oh, you didn't know that? Of course the NSA does surveillance. They've done it for years," was the typical put-down.

Get over yourselves, guys. (It's a safe bet that almost everyone with this arrogant attitude is male.) That's not geek culture. That's just being an a-hole.

"A true geek would never be smug that THEY knew about NSA and mock those being shocked. A true geek would be glad people are learning stuff," I tweeted on 12 June. I stand by that comment today.

Some of these know-it-alls were simply being rude, seizing a random opportunity to preen their own ego at the expense of a stranger's self-esteem. Such losers have always been with us, and we must put up with them. But most were a more complex kind of wannabe, dressing up their public image with a sprinkling of obvious yet superficial symbols plucked from one sub-branch of geek culture.

Adding your own message of bravado to the Low Orbit Ion Cannon no more makes you a hacker than a colouring-in book makes you Rembrandt.

You know the people I mean. The ones who've extended a perfectly normal adolescent rebellion against authority well into adulthood, waging a puerile, ill-defined forever-rebellion against "The Man", which they now dress up as "hacktivism".

And dress up they do. They use tools such as Linux and Tor and Internet Relay Chat (IRC), not as part of a coherent operational security (OPSEC) strategy, but because they seem cool. They don a Guy Fawkes mask — the official Warner Bros version, of course, despite the breathtaking irony — not because they're part of a protest movement with a coherent political strategy, but because it gives them an excuse to break things and feel superior.

Now, of course there are politically coherent hacktivists wearing the Anonymous Guy Fawkes mask — at least, there used to be. Have they all been arrested now?

But dressing up as a hacktivist no more grants you "1337 H4x0r skillz" than sitting in a hen-house holding a feather grants you the ability to lay eggs. Adding your own message of bravado to the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) no more makes you a hacker than a colouring-in book makes you Rembrandt.

This superficiality is seen in every branch of geekdom, where the wannabes try to become part of their chosen tribe by parroting a few simplistic slogans. Wannabe infosec geeks squawk "Linux is more secure". Wannabe design geeks squawk "Comic Sans isn't a proper typeface".

Dressing up as a hacktivist no more grants you "1337 H4x0r skillz" than sitting in a hen-house holding a feather grants you the ability to lay eggs.

Most geeks may be introverted, and perhaps obsessive about their interests, but that doesn't make every obsessive introvert a geek. Sometimes they're just trainspotters. "Gleek" for people who've obsessed over the TV series Glee? Really? And don't get me started on "brogrammer"...

Two years ago, a podcast discussion concluded that geek culture is about something more than just enthusiasm for technological tools and toys. It's about passionate curiosity about technology, how it works, how you might build your own, and how it could be improved. About respecting people for their skills, rather than their bank balance. About sharing that passion with like-minded others.

But now, people who call themselves geeks line up outside certain technology shops to buy products they've never even held in their hands, simply because they've been announced. Geekhood is now little more than blind brand-loyalty tribalism. People who supposedly possess actual brain stems said they'd stop using Instagram when it became available for Android as well as their beloved iOS. What the actual fudge?

"The media stole hacker, now geek is gone, and I refuse to identify as a nerd," said my editor. Exactly.

Which brings me to Barnaby Jack, the man who could make ATMs spit out cash.

It seems odd writing what is, in effect, a eulogy for a man I'd never met, but when I learned that this superstar of hackers died last week, aged just 35, I shed a tear.

I'd seen Jack on stage in Las Vegas two years ago. He demonstrated how, within seconds, he could hack into a diabetic's insulin pump and deliver a fatal dose. He had a flair for theatrical presentation, but it wasn't about his ego. It was about drawing attention to the security vulnerabilities, and encouraging vendors to fix those potentially fatal flaws — literally!

The media stole hacker, now geek is gone, and I refuse to identify as a nerd.

Jack was due this Thursday to show how he could hack into someone's pacemaker and deliver a fatal shock. No one will fill his now-empty session. Expect a memorial.

Barnaby Jack was a true geek.

So is self-proclaimed "cyborg lawyer" Karen Sandler, who demands to see the software running on the pacemaker-defibrillator that keeps her alive, and lobbies against the lack of transparency in the medical technology industry.

OK, I'm blurring the boundaries of "geek" and "hacker" here, but the same selfless attitudes exists in both cultures — and, quite frankly, I reckon they're the same. But this attitude is being swamped by the consumer wannabes who can quote in detail the specs of the latest shiny thing to come off Foxconn's assembly lines, but who can create ... nothing.

My examples have been related to security because that's one of my interests, but the field is wide open. Key patents on 3D printing expire next year, so the floodgates of possibility will open there. There's high-altitude ballooning and micro-spacecraft. There's DIY genetic engineering. And more.

What I'm asking for here, gentle geeks, is a lot less mindless consumption, and a little more true-geek curiosity and making things.

Are you up for it?

Topics: Security, Consumerization


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • I Use A Linux Command Line

    Any advance on that?
    • Re: I Use A Linux Command Line

      Already flagged by the first envious GUI point-and-drooler with feelings of inadequacy. No doubt more to come...
      • ADB

        how about dosshell and then ADB into a command line on linux to flash firmware data for a touchscreen controller for Asus Transformer TF300 because you cannot buy the same series replacement digitizers anymore.
    • Depends on what you're doing with it

      Made any clever scripts to speed things up, for example?
      • Re: Made any clever scripts to speed things up, for example?

        Of course. Like fetching from the source-code repos of a number of projects that I follow. And setting up all the CMake options for my custom build of Blender.
      • CALL -151

        beagle bro's peek and poke chart on the wall
    • That's awesome -- what do you do with it?

      Geek / hacker culture is more about results than methods. Do you script? What tools do you use? What do you do with them? For example, if you said, "I organize my recipes using a simple database written in shell scripts" THAT would be very impressive!
      • Re: That's awesome -- what do you do with it?

        Another thing I do is a lot of custom scripting in builds of my own software projects. For example, see the util/make_selector script in my version of this Android app -- it automatically generates every combination of resource selector for a descriptive string, to demonstrate the Android system's selection of the right one for your device configuration.
      • rename *.apk *.dat

        before send/fetch app files over bluetooth or other protocols where the profile restricts file types you can transfer based on filename extension.
        Then you have to batch rename it back to apk before using it.
        rename *.dat *.apk
        Still no GUI solution to batch rename file extensions.
        • "Still no GUI solution to batch rename file extensions."

          Maybe. But you can rename UNIX file extensions with a drag-and-drop GUI with Automator (the much simplified version of AppleScript, which has bash extensions.)
  • Yep sure am up for it

    Problem is I never think of myself as a geek and defiantly not a hacker, so where does that leave me in your labelism endeavour.
    My discourse may not be to your liking but I am working on it. It is hard to learn when many journalists continue to preen themselves with their egos by telling us of their experiences that align to nothing in the real world past themselves. Adding insult to injury is when they seem to be salesmen first and journalists last.

    I come to this site (among many others) to get a different perspective on each topic that is passing by at the time and each one has there pros on cons. This acquisition of knowledge maybe a bit long winded but still cheaper than books that date quickly in our world of ICT.
  • Guilty as charged

    And as such I regard it as my duty to:
    - take back privacy from all the prying Government and global corporations
    - eliminate intrusive advertising from all the unethical global corporations
    - resist the insidious creeping of APPL and MSFT to lock me in an IT prison, sorry 'reimagined ecosystem'
    - reclaim the PERSONAL in PC

    I'm continuing with my attack on ZDNET, most of whose bloggers behave like sheep to their respective 'masters'.
    • Geek? You're a college boy with a chip on your shoulder!

      "And as such I regard it as my duty to:"
      - Geeks wouldn't understand the concept
      "take back privacy from all the prying Government and global corporations"
      - why would a geek care, exactly?
      "eliminate intrusive advertising from all the unethical global corporations"
      - a geek wouldn't even notice them
      "resist the insidious creeping of APPL and MSFT to lock me in an IT prison, sorry 'reimagined ecosystem'"
      - that doesn't even make sense to me, let alone a geek
      "reclaim the PERSONAL in PC"
      -There never was a personal in PC
      • Not so focused when constantly distracted and derailed

        Disagree on every point. Corporate intrusion gets in the way of personal creativity and you can bet your donkey we notice. Some aspects may be avoided say by using Linux but if you work in the field it will slap you in the face enough to at least go armchair activist if not full on hactivist.

        Also thanks to the selfless work of those like Torvalds, PC's have the ability to be very personal, a fact that online advertisers rely on.
    • Thanks...

      ...for injecting some Spunk, some Reasonable Achievable Idealism, with just a tad of tongue in cheek humour, into the mix.
      • My Post Was...

        Somehow again it ended up disconnected from other Replies that are staggered off the original Comment.
  • sorta like

    superficiality is .. HAS pervaded humanity?
  • Hacked

    do we think Barnaby Jack's body was hacked?
  • Missing Something

    "The media stole hacker, now geek is gone, and I refuse to identify as a nerd," said my editor. Exactly.

    I'm missing something...what is wrong with 'nerd'?
  • Might dial it down a bit...

    Did Barnaby Jack ever refer to himself as a "geek?" If this is just another case of language evolution diluting someone's cherished idea of himself, that seems a little petty.

    I think a little more focus on Jack's passing would be more valuable than worrying about the "misuse" of a cherished term. Note: way before the advent of computer technology, a "geek" was the guy at the carnival who would bite the heads off chickens. I imagine he's pretty upset about you poseurs using his title... :)