Monday, January 14, 2013

Alpha Geeks (and Pirates) Explained

LHC's ATLAS detector, with Alpha Geek
 Copyright Maximilien Brice, CERN
For some time, there has been a misunderstanding of how to deal with Pirates, or even just getting their viewpoint. They’re seen as arrogant, hard-headed, brash, and full of wacky ideas. More interestingly, they find it hard to work together smoothly, to find a common consensus. Why is that? Ladies and Gentlemen, the answer is simple, it is ‘Alpha Geek’.

So what is an Alpha Geek?

Throughout the natural world, the existence of the ‘Alpha Male’ is well documented. This is the biggest, the strongest, and therefore generally the leader of the group or community. The establishment is simple, the dominant male, and the challenger fight. The winner becomes the Alpha.

Sometimes, the Alpha stays the alpha for a long time, and will pass it on to his children, but generally the position is obtained through physical dominance. One of the best known visual representations of this is the “Dawn of Man” section from Kubrick’s film 2001. The alpha comprehensively establishes his dominance by shattering opposition.

Yet the simplistic way of the typical ‘Alpha Male’ no longer translates into human society. Instead there are societal positions that will give the dominance, such as Mayors, and Kings. The right of conquest was superseded by the right of law, which diminished the role of the Alpha male just as the dependence on purely physical power as a requirement for survival was diminished.

Meanwhile, the geek in the community carried on, being the one people went to. Often they’d become the doctor, the scientist, or some other ‘learned position’. It’s so well known that it’s one of the most recognisable tropes in fiction out there, from boy genius through smart guy, to absentminded professor.

Yet as a society becomes more technological, tools grow in both ubiquity and power; they can offset the physical presence that is often under-developed. Now good science and technological skills are more important and can effect a greater result than being ‘big and strong’.

Thus we’ve had the rise of the geek, especially in adult life. While the captains of the football or cheerleading teams were popular in school, as a general rule they won’t be a major shaker. They may become an insurance salesman, or car dealer. Meanwhile the geek will be earning significantly more at a tech venture, or as a lawyer or doctor.

Throughout it all, they are aware of the other smart people, and sort themselves into a hierarchy. Everyone knows the ‘smartness’ of their friends, and it’s no different in the wider circle of the community. The pecking order is established through knowledge and intellectual sparring, rather than bashing hands and heads together. Places are known, and all is happy.

Thus the Alpha Geek is established.

The Alpha Geeks and Pirates

So we have alpha-geeks. For centuries they’ve puttered around, doing what they do, which is generally advancing society. However, in recent years, their work has been more and more regulated and controlled by governments, while their work has expanded from local projects to ones of a larger scale.

Most of this is because of the explosion of communication technology over the last 30 years. Back then, you used the postal service to talk to people overseas, cellphones were almost non-existent as a consumer good, and computers were small, hooked to the TV and could maybe manage 9 colours. All the while with less ram than than would take to hold this webpage.

Now, it’s as easy for me to keep in touch with people 100, 1000 or even 10000 miles away, as it is the person next door. And I can manipulate data at home, with an ease not even purpose-made commercial setups could have managed 15 years ago (You want me to stabilize 30 minutes of shaky video, match it to a presentation, split screen it, clean up the audio, and present it all in 720P? took an afternoon - took longer to upload it in fact. On the editing desks Comedy Central used when I worked on one of their shows, would have taken a few days)

Along the way, this tinkering has upset many established players in the business world. Technology and innovation have undermined traditional businesses, and business models (from Saddlers to CD sales).
We’re sorry. We’re trying a new thing, that’s what we do. We experiment, we tinker, if it works great, if not, oh well. That’s how civilization has worked for tens of thousands of years, in countless societies. Only in the last few hundred, have we started saying ‘no, I don’t like your progress’ and worked against it with laws and litigation.

Traditionally, that was an activity usually reserved for the religious institutions, but the government is another issue altogether. Smart people are to the point where the action of trying to influence is not working, and as geeks do, when something doesn’t work, change your approach. Since influencing those that run for office hasn’t worked, it’s time to try it themselves. They’re running for election, and calling ourselves Pirates.

Pirates and Politics

At present, politics is mostly about words. It’s about the lie most easily swallowed. The problem is that by focusing on lies, we end up with a leadership that has to perpetuate lies, to keep in power. One that creates new messes in an attempt to fix the messes caused by their last lies.

"You use words, and I'm told you it well, but words are soft and can be pummeled into different meanings by a skilled tongue. Numbers are hard. Oh, you can cheat with them but you cannot change their nature. Three is three. You cannot persuade it to be four, even it you give it a great big kiss" - Marvolo Bent in Pratchett's "Making Money"

Pirates are different. We’re fact (or 'numbers' according to Mr Bent) based . We may not have the ‘skilled tongue’, but we have the skills for the job instead. Or, to put it another way:
  • Traditional politicians have to skills to GET the job but are typically terrible at it
  • Pirates have the skills to DO the job, but are typically terrible at getting the job.
Why is that? Well, people think they’re arrogant, or condescending, that they don’t connect with regular people, and they have some sort of elitism, or they’re going to do something ‘evil scientisty’.

The first two are fairly understandable, and are reflective of how different brains think. My wife thinks I’m condescending when she’s struggling with algebra, or calculus, but the problem is, I see the problem, I see the answer. I can’t explain it, it’s just ‘obvious’, but what’s obvious to me, is arrogant or condescending to those who can’t follow it. It’s like trying to explain ‘blue’ to someone who has always been blind.

This can make them hard for people to connect to.

Elitism is a problem too. We don’t have enough of it. We’re talking about leadership positions in society, the ability to regulate and pass laws affecting everyone. Isn’t it maybe a good idea to put the best people in those positions? If you do feel that the ‘common man’ might be a better idea, then let’s go back to Sortition, and have our lawmakers selected by random lottery; Plenty of ‘common man’ thinking then.

 “Evil scientist” things is much in the same vein, and like the first, is an appeal to emotions (generally personal insecurity and inferiority). In reality, these are ploys that are pandering to stereotypes, but they’re acceptable stereotypes to the general populace. However, point out that your existing lawmaker is a liar, or that they just plain can’t be trusted (even/especially by their wives) and people will go ‘yeah, so what’.


So now the next thing Alpha-Geeks are working on, are the nuances of political communication. Like all other subjects, they're generally approaching it from an empirical standpoint. Trial and error, observe, and re-test. There may be - no, will be - failures of what is said and done. That can come across, again, as condescending, or arrogant (funnily enough, that was how the early draft of this piece was described).

Yes, they could copy the old way of doing things, and be done with it too, but that's not the way to progress. If the 'current' was enough, we'd still be in the stone age. It's only by trying new things that we move on. DaVinci was a great inventor and designed flying (and everything else) machines a-plenty. They didn't work, but they didn't stop him trying, and finally, the Wright brothers succeeded. Nor did we stop there. New and different designs were constantly tried. Some worked, some didn't and some were a disaster, but it's dealing with failure, and moving on that's important.

That's where pirates are at now. Trying new things, because the old just don't seem to work that well, and because there must be a way to make it better. Again, look at the rapid progress in any number of areas. Compare the 1600 to 1800 and you'll find little difference; from Shakespeare to Washington. there were minor differences, as experimentation was made, but no radical change. Even 40 years ago, television in colour was a new thing, now we have High-definition sets 2cm thick, with 3D and internet capabilities, and ultra-high resolution ones just announced. But not everything succeeds, even in the TV market - Prestel, teletext, laserdiscs, Betamax were all successful (as in they worked) products, that failed.

So yes, Alpha Geeks (and Pirates) will make some mistakes, and it will take time, and there will be some failures. But the failures tend not to matter too much in comparison to the end product. When we think of Edison, we don't remember the barn arson, or the train fire, or the near poisoning of his friend Michael Oats; it's the electric light.

But if that won't satisfy you, I can but suggest that you follow the advice of Shakespeare, in the form of Puck.
"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue
, We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends."

This piece was also published at and is released under a CC0 license

No comments:

Post a Comment