Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Rise and Fall of the Geek Empire

The unmasking of Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi, a Computer Science graduate from the University of Westminster, has revived the question of why so many Islamic terrorists are engineers of one sort or another. The key academic study is a 2007 paper, by the sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, entitled Engineers of Jihad. This found that "a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of 'monism' – 'why argue when there is one best solution' – and of 'simplism' – 'if only people were rational, remedies would be simple'". When combined with religious belief, this also leads to 'preservatism', a desire "to restore a lost, often mythical order of privileges and authority, ... [that] emerges as a backlash against displacement or status deprivation in a period of sharp social change".

The study also finds some evidence for "field socialisation". As engineering jobs tend to be more closely associated with business (i.e. private rather than public sector), the normative values of engineering professions tend to be conservative: you get on in your career by echoing the orthodoxy. There is also evidence that the over-production of engineering graduates in the Middle East in the 1970s and after (driven by the oil boom and state investment in infrastructure) may have produced increased graduate disaffection after the oil price drop in the 1980s led to curtailed investment and a dearth of jobs. This was exacerbated by corruption, whereby jobs were secured through connections rather than ability, which offended the meritocratic sensibilities of engineers. The over-supply of graduates also reflected the attraction of engineering as an apolitical discipline in societies where challenging authority was not encouraged.

Though the paper's focus was on Jihadis, and the particular intersection of a conservative worldview with the moral certainties of Islamic fundamentalism, its findings in respect of engineers were much broader. Studies of American academics in the late 1960s found that engineers "were disproportionately Republicans and voted disproportionately for Nixon, the only academics to do so more than the average population. They were also the strongest supporters of both the Vietnam war and of classified weapons research on campus". Significantly, this bias was also found among students (i.e. it isn't just the result of institutionalisation): "engineering students are more conservative than students in any other subject. This obtains for both ‘un-socialised’ students in the first four semesters as it does for those in subsequent semesters". Over and above field socialisation and structural or socio-economic factors, this suggests that engineering attracts students already primed for a conservative worldview.

In the case of a minority, this mindset can develop into Manichean extremism: the belief that any means are justified in an all-out war between good and evil. Many politicians have referred to ISIS as "nihilistic", and some commentators have even revived the phrase "propaganda of the deed" in respect of the group's atrocity videos. Islamic jihadis are the polar opposite of nihilists. To put it in binary terms, monists believe in 1, nihilists believe in 0 (and pluralists believe in n). As Walter says in the Big Lebowski: "Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos". ISIS clearly have an ethos. Similarly, the propaganda of the deed (as originally conceived) was a tactic to reveal the artificiality of power. Regicide proved that kingship was merely a human convention, not divinely-appointed. Dynamiting a police station was meant to show that the power of the state was resistible and vulnerable. Decapitating a helpless prisoner proves nothing. One reason why ISIS invest so much effort into the quality of their media output is because their deeds have no persuasive power in themselves.

Gambetta and Hertog make an interesting observation: "Friedrich von Hayek, in 1952, made a strong case for the peculiarity of the engineering mentality, which in his view is the result of an education which does not train them to understand individuals and their world as the outcome of a social process in which spontaneous behaviours and interactions play a significant part. ... this would make them on the one hand less adept at dealing with the confusing causality of the social and political realms and the compromise and circumspection that these entail, and on the other hand inclined to think that societies should operate orderly akin to well-functioning machines". The irony is that Hayek was criticising the delusions of central planning. His fear was that the engineering mindset advanced socialism. A further irony is that Hayek-influenced libertarians who have used the Internet to abjure government have usually ended up creating authoritarian fiefdoms to address problems of social trust.

The sociology of Silicon Valley has long focused on the apparently paradoxical hybrid of market economics and social liberalism. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, in an influential 1995 essay, explained that "the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies". This view is based on the assumption that the new technology industries arose when "West Coast radicals became involved in developing new information technologies for the alternative press, community radio stations, home-brew computer clubs and video collectives". In fact, the roots of the new economy were to be found in the early interpenetration of academia, business and government (notably defence), which had a historic locus in California that long-predated Haight-Ashbury. The subsequent cultural focus on libertarianism and "crazy individualists" distracts from this conformist and compromised reality (Inherent Vice is a better guide than Atlas Shrugged).

Where Barbrook and Cameron were more insightful was in seeing the reactionary delusions that lay behind "technological emancipation". The vision of transhumance and the singularity, like the dream of robot butlers and virtual reality, is a narcissistic desire to escape the reality of class relations: the dependence on the coerced labour of inferior others that has been the achilles heel of libertarian thought since Thomas Jefferson's slave apartments. "If only some people have access to the new information technologies, Jeffersonian democracy can become a hi-tech version of the plantation economy of the Old South. Reflecting its deep ambiguity, the Californian Ideology's technological determinism is not simply optimistic and emancipatory. It is simultaneously a deeply pessimistic and repressive vision of the future."

What Hayek was characterising was a personality type that combines social autism with a reverence for machine-like order. This is what we would subsequently call a "nerd", a word which appears to have been coined at about the same time that Hayek was writing. Initially, nerd had connotations of the conventional as well as the awkward, a synonym for "square". Its association with scientifically-minded earnestness reflected the priorities of the time: the father of the nerd was the absent-minded professor. Despite recent efforts to lionise the privately-educated misfit (Zuckerberg, Turing, Hawking et al), the popularisation of the concept - embodied in the spectacle-wearing kid who was good at maths and got thumped for his pains - reflected the expansion of universal secondary education and optometry after 1945. The era of the nerd was the Atomic Age, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1990s (the de facto end of nuclear testing). As a historical phenomenon, the nerd reflected the postwar compromise of social-democracy and conservativism: "the white-heat of technology" meets Dungeons & Dragons.

From the mid-90s the word nerd starts to be gradually supplanted by "geek", though they are not strictly synonymous. The distinction between the geek and the nerd is essentially one of capital and labour: "Geeks are fans, and fans collect stuff. Nerds are practitioners, and practitioners play with ideas". In other words, accumulating versus making. If the nerd was a product of secondary education, the geek appears to have been the result of the growth in tertiary education, particularly in the practical sciences such as engineering and IT. In a sense, geekiness was an ironic recuperation of nerdiness through commodities by 20-year olds looking back at their 15-year old selves. The ascent of the geek was driven by the spread of the Web, a product of the tertiary education sector with a strong "cataloguing" paradigm, while the wider diffusion and dilution of the term after 2000, to the point where it has come to mean little more than "enthusiast" (i.e. consumer), was the result of social media and competitive sharing. The shifting balance between the terms reflects the pivotal commercialisation of the Internet in the mid-90s.

Since then, the terms geek and nerd have become largely interchangeable in the world of work and consumption, though there is still a sense of geek/enthusiast and nerd/expert being overlapping rather than coterminus. Culturally, the prevalence of both terms is part of the wider "kidult" phenomenon by which youth culture is recommodified for adults, but it also reflects the increasing age of the self-appointed (male) guardians of the Internet, the "Dads of Tech". One reason for the wider popularity of geekdom as a positive style may be the appeal of its inherent prescriptiveness: best-of lists, the certainty of collectibles, the "right way" of doing things (from software to baking). It may offer a sense of security and identity persistence in the face of churning modernity and increasingly precarious employment.

The geek collectible is an extreme form of the idea that we achieve actualisation through commodities. Where once the hobbyist created value through their own labour (a tendency that still lives on among "makers"), or subversively invested trivial commodities with significance (stamp-collecting, train-spotting), now we see the exemplar geek as an "entrepreneur of himself" who judiciously invests money as well as time: buying and trading comics, buying and watching box-sets, buying and recording experiences. Part of the traditional fan trope was the contrast between the day job and the leisure interest: the compartmentalisation between the accountant and the Civil War re-enactor. As the formal boundary between work and play has eroded, so the identification offered by cultural capital has become more important to workplace self-esteem. In parallel, cultural capital has been democratised by the incursion of fandom (recall the emblematic crossover of Nessun dorma and football in 1990), which has in turn fed conservative fears about dilution and dumbing-down.

A consequence of this tension has been the increasing status anxiety of expertise. Before anyone is "entitled" to an opinion, they have to prove their credentials. Maintaining a geek identity is exhausting: collecting a complete set, watching an entire series, attending every convention etc. The paranoia this engenders is not just the result of the profusion of commodities (the fear of missing out), but the fear of being deemed inferior because of a lack of commitment. This leads to the tendency to express fandom as grievance ("we no longer know how to enjoy art without enjoying it against others") and the monstering of those thought to be "phonies". The latter has been spectacularly misogynistic, for example Gamergate and the fake-geek-girl meme (a male geek is a male - a female geek is a category error).

The geek is the ironic "new man" of the ironic new economy. He (and it's usually a he) is presented as economically triumphant, hence the emblematic importance of various tech entrepreneurs and their Ozymandias-like ambition, but the reality is that the new economy is creating fewer well-paid jobs due to the network effects of software. We over-estimate the size of the geek cohort (in the sense of employed engineers and techies) because of the overlap with funded hipsterdom, job title inflation (data analysis is often just poorly-paid clerical work), and the adoption of geek style along with the expansion of IT into existing distributive sectors of the economy (media, creative, marketing etc). At a time when the original nerds are retired, and The Big Bang Theory is a leading sitcom (i.e. the realm of nostalgia), the idea that Mary Berry is considered a geek hero surely indicates that we have well and truly passed "peak geek". The down-slope may not be pretty.

Just as economic stagnation in the Middle East in the 80s led to a surplus of engineering graduates, so we are now seeing a surplus of computer scientists in the West as the neoliberal fetishisation of tertiary education collides with secular stagnation. Predictably, it is graduates from less privileged backgrounds who are most likely to be unemployed and consequently disaffected. In that sense, Mohammed Emwazi is all too typical. But it would be wrong to imagine that this combination of an engineering mindset and conservatism is peculiar to Islam, or even that it is peculiar to graduates (see Anders Breivik). It goes all the way back to the source, so it should come as no surprise that in recent years, as the dream of the IPO has receded and technology companies have became ever more entwined with the state, disgruntled Silicon Valley libertarians have lurched towards the neoreactionary howlings of the Dark Enlightenment.

In the circumstances, politicians demanding the reinstatement of control orders to "combat terrorism", or the carte blanche extension of surveillance technology, are not just reinforcing the authoritarian tenor of the times, but are also "performing nerd": insisting that there is a ready solution, that technology can cure our ills, and that we can restore a lost order. But these are recycled prescriptions, less credible today than they were a decade ago. We are in a period of stagnation, not just in respect of the economy, but in terms of political and cultural ideas. We shore up the shattered edifices of banks, political parties and failed states. We recyle fashions, we substitute diet for ethics, we exhaust the superhero mine. As Edward Gibbon said in respect of the Roman Empire, "All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance". The geek is decadent.


  1. Herbie Kills Children4 March 2015 at 19:58

    "This found that "a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of 'monism' "

    This finding is almost certainly not true. I suspect the report was compromised by their focus on engineers and lack of focus on world events.

    1. I think you are right to be sceptical. Having spent 30 years working in IT, and almost half of that for an oil company, I've met a lot of engineers and they are as varied in their personalities as any other profession. There may well be a statistically-significant correlation between engineers and a preference for order and precision, but to abstract this as "monism" or "simplism" strikes me as stereotypical. You might as well suggest that graphic designers are more likely to be gay because they are "creative". I suspect the real correlation between engineers and "Jihad" is with graduate unemployment among alienated minorities.

      What interested me about the Gambetta and Hertog paper (which has been cited widely by the media in recent years) was the evidence that the academically-respectable "engineering mindset" is as much a social construct as the populist "nerd" or "geek", and that its evolution is historically determined, rather than being the product of individual psychology. In the immediate postwar period, engineers were lionised as builders of the New Jerusalem and central to public investment, hence the contrarian position of Hayek. The data from the late-60s that G&H quote looks to me like evidence that this investment had been successfully captured by the US private sector, notably in defence. Silicon Valley was a product of this process. In the UK, this sectoral capture required government intervention, hence Thatcher's privatisation policy.

      The ideology of Silicon Valley has adopted shallow libertarianism to cloak its conservative material base with the trappings of counter-cultural "disruption" and "individualism". This has required it to exhibit performative traits traditionally at odds with the "engineering mindset", hence the evolution of the social construct from nerd to geek. The emblematic (and unrealistic) modern engineer is the IT developer: slovenly, addicted to desk-clutter and childish in his enthusiasms. This is merely the peformance of freedom and independence in what is a highly hierarchical and antisocial industry.

      In evolutionary terms, the "geek" has nowhere left to go. As a construct, it has been superseded by the "hipster" - i.e. the trope of "cool" employment has been appropriated by people of independent means. The reality - for the many and varied real people who have engineering skills - is dwindling employment prospects, status dilution (there is nothing hip about IT when your mother starts talking about apps), and a pervasive cultural ennui (another Spiderman reboot, another iPhone, another election in which the opinions of "businessmen" and bankers will count more than those of engineers or healthworkers).