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Thread started by Dave Winer on Saturday, January 19, 2013.

We expect too much of geeks

I've been a developer since I was 19 years old. That's already 38 years. I went to Silicon Valley when I was 25, and immediately met the most powerful people in the Valley. It was like that then, and still is -- if you're bright and young, male, strong, assertive, confident and optimistic, you can have access. Probably a lot like sport, basketball, baseball, etc. If you're young and think you're hot shit, and there's some reason to believe you are, you can go far, very quickly. This has been going on for as long as I've been in tech, and long before that.

Computers are amazing things, they really are, in ways most non-technical people aren't even aware of. For example, when I learned about the process of bootstrapping compilers I was blown away. Still am actually. I tried explaining it to everyone I knew who wasn't a programmer. The only person who got it, sort of, was my uncle, a mechanical engineer. He could see using a hammer to make a hammer, so what's the big deal. How about using a specific hammer to make itself? How about that! His eyes glazed over. Yours probably are too. But ask someone who has made a real life compiler and see how mystical they get.

So we programmers in a sense are a secret society. Until you learn the handshake you aren't one of us. And we can be pretty arrogant about it. Until the computer kicks our ass. Or the market. Or users. Then we learn really quickly that what we learned in school was just the beginning. That when we thought we understood everything that was just the arrogance of youth. It's functional. Because how else could you take on the world if you understood how huge and complex and fucked up the world actually is! :-)

This is when depression sets in. All of a sudden you see that you are not all-powerful, you can't handle everything the world throws at you. But then what do you do if you've told everyone you can deal with it, that you'll come out on top? When I got to that point, which I remember very clearly, I felt I couldn't possibly face failure. I was locking up the office of Living Videotext one night, knowing the next day I would be firing half the company, and having no idea how we were going to bail it out. Yes, you can get lower than that. But between the two paths, one up and the other down, there wasn't much margin for error.

When young people risk it all, it would be nice if there were people who understood what they're going through, who could offer some perspective. Even better, if there was an oldtimer around when the world is telling you you're a god and can do no wrong, to tell you that's bullshit, to kick you in the butt, in a friendly way, tell you you're a mortal human being, and you need to understand that life has its ups and downs, and you're going to be around for a long time, and this is just the beginning, part of the learning process, and while it looks like everything is great now, or falling apart, or whatever emotion is driving you at this moment, let's go for a walk, get a burger, see a movie and hang out for a bit, watch a game, and notice all the other stuff that's going on.

Whew. That took a lot to write.

The other thing we all can do, if we love the product of technical minds, is stop thinking it's magic. There is magic in computers, but the magic isn't in the programmer or the tech writer or the visionary -- it's in the whole thing. The miracle isn't any one person, rather it's that humanity can collaborate to create something much greater than any one of us. Then we can all have an accurate perspective on our role in it.

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