Dispatch from the technology culture wars

What geeks and noobs need to understand about each other

It's an election year, so you're going to hear a lot about the "culture wars." You know: The endless battle between conservative and progressive values.

I want to discuss the culture wars too -- but not the political culture wars. I'm talking about the technology culture wars, the endless conflict between, for lack of a better term, "geeks" -- technical people who like to tinker with tech -- and "noobs" -- nontechnical people who want gadgets to "just work."

(These might be vaguely offensive terms to some. But I think they're equally offensive to both groups. Gimme a break, there are no better labels than geeks and noobs.)

Anyway, I believe that if you scratch the surface of many recurring online debates and differences of opinion -- the PC vs. Mac, Android vs. iPhone and Google+ vs. Facebook conflicts, as well as arguments over issues like privacy -- you'll find that it's often really a culture-war argument between geeks and noobs.

Rise of the noobs

The conflict between geeks and noobs has intensified in recent years because of the inexorable rise of the noobs.

Computer technology used to be the exclusive province of geeks. You couldn't get anywhere near a computer before 1977 unless you were a certifiable, card-carrying geek.

Things started to change in 1977 with the introduction of the Commodore PET, the first relatively mass-marketed personal computer. Later came the graphical user interface, the Mac, Windows and the Internet. With each new generation of technology, computers became more "user friendly" and in rushed the noobs.

After the turn of the millennium, the noobification of the technology scene accelerated. The rise of "Web 2.0" and the mobile revolution were all about simplification. Creating a website was replaced by blogging. Blogging was replaced by microblogging. The cloud eliminated the need to install and manage desktop applications. The post-PC revolution, as exemplified by the Apple iPad, embodies the noobification of technology to an unprecedented extreme.

With each advance, there's an increase in the percentage of noobs who use technology.

Today, geeks are a beleaguered minority, almost strangers in their own house.

Revenge of the geeks

Although geeks have made a transition in the past three decades from overwhelming majority in the world of technology to tiny minority, they're crying about it all the way to the bank.

The rise of consumer technology, and the IT-ification of business has served as a full-employment plan for geeks. Throughout the recession, for example, technical people generally had it a little better than the average person. The technology sector is, of course, geek-heavy.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is Facebook's pending initial public offering. When Facebook goes public, super-geek Mark Zuckerberg will probably make a billion dollars in cash and his net worth will rise to more than $17 billion. The IPO will also probably make millionaires out of hundreds of geek investors overnight.

More to the point, the reason the Facebook IPO will enrich so many geeks is because Zuckerberg's social network has attracted so many noobs. And noobs are where the money is.

More relevant for geeks is a newfound social status, which is ironic because geekdom has always been associated with a lack of social status. The old cliche is that the jocks and cheerleaders are the popular people in high school, whereas the science and computer nerds are at the top of the dean's list but at the bottom of the social hierarchy. That's changing.

Geek culture has gone mainstream, with TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and movies featuring comic book superheroes, vampires and sci-fi themes. Geeks have a lot more cred than they once did.

Why the technology culture wars matter

The reason it's important to understand the geek-noob conflict is that it informs a huge number of topics and issues covered in publications like the one you're reading now. Few appreciate that fact, even though it's absolutely necessary in order to truly understand these issues.

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