Elitism in Geek Culture

Earlier today I saw this video, made by a company whose web application I deeply love.

The company is NewRelic, and the tools they make are wonderful in helping me to make my web applications better in many ways. I was bothered by the video, and I said so on Twitter.

Later, the man who made the video contacted me and invited me to email him my thoughts on why the video bothered me so much. This is what I sent to him. In the hope that it might be helpful to others, or least enlightening as to my motivations, I’ll post it here too.

Patrick,

We spoke on Twitter earlier today. The meat of this message might not be fully “baked” and ready for deep analysis, but I think if I try to consider it more deeply and make a better argument, I’ll never actually send this email, so please forgive the holes and incompleteness of some of these ideas in the interest of having a conversation.

First off, I want to say that NewRelic is seriously my favorite web app from a professional perspective, and has brought me so much peace of mind and so much help that it is mind-blowing. So, well done. I recommend it to every serious web app developer without reservation as often as I can.

Your “Developers” video bugged me for a few hard-to-explain reasons. I’ll give it my best shot.

I’m one of those developers who has an immense respect for Steve Jobs and Apple. I moved across the country to work for the Mac OS X team in 2002 and worked there for about six years before moving back to the midwest. I never would have gotten into technology without Steve Jobs or the things he helped to make. I’m completely certain of that. So when someone appears to be teasing something that I know meant so much to him, and so much to me, and they’re doing it only a couple of months after his untimely death, I bristle more than a little.

But more important than my personal emotional ties, I often feel like developers and geeks (among whose number I proudly count myself!) don’t really understand how important visionaries like Steve Jobs are. Technology isn’t just about computer scientists solving geeky problems in clever ways. In fact, I would say it’s largely not about that at all. To be clear, I agree that we absolutely need geeks to solve geeky problems. That’s a crucial ingredient to what we’re trying to do. We don’t get anywhere without that.

We also don’t get anywhere without guys like Steve solving less-geeky problems. Steve doggedly pursued simplicity, down to the very core of his products, and protected the interests of common users who didn’t want to become geeks. He let them get away with not needing to learn much about technology in order to wield its power. In a sense, he delivered great power to the otherwise powerless, and demonstrated that innovation isn’t just the first time something is done, but also the first moment it becomes truly easy to do it.

I remember the first time it became easy to see how my app was performing on my live server. It was with your product.

Sometimes my own people, my geeks, act like lowered barriers to entry are a downside. We’re a pretty elitist, snobby bunch sometimes. I think we tend to forget who we’re making all this stuff for, and we make it obtuse and difficult almost as a point of pride, as though only the “worthy” can use our creations. The attitude is that if you can’t learn our horrible jargon and our convoluted, geeky way of thinking, you don’t deserve to have the power that comes with it. I think that’s a disgusting way to see technology.

So, having said all that, when you turn Steve’s concept into a new video which ends with the line “Because the ones who can create magic with code are the ones who will one day rule the world”, it doesn’t feel genuine to me because it conflicts with and thumbs its nose at the original message so strongly. It’s difficult to believe that it “meant zero disrespect” to the original concepts it is mimicking. “Rule the world” is a very exclusive goal. It shouldn’t be ours. The original line from the poem you’re mimicking says “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” That’s what we’re about. Changing the world. Not ruling it.

I hope that we as developers can pull together, amidst our developer pride and geek pride, and not widen the trenches between ourselves and the users. I hope we can help each other to fight pride and arrogance instead of making it culturally acceptable to build it up. The only way we can ever do that is by pulling the focus off ourselves and putting it onto the problems we’re working to solve together.

Josh