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?