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January 30, 2011 ・ Blog

Both The New York Times and Guardian have now published accounts of working with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, providing fascinating insights into their working practices and the cultural clash of two very different types of organisations. Both also take the opportunity to attempt to describe and explain Assange, and one word, though only used once in each article - and obliquely at that - stood out to me: geek.

Geek’s a pretty amorphous sort of a word, used both as an insult and as a badge of honour. And commentary on WikiLeaks and Assange has regularly used it to describe the nature of the person who lead this extraordinary set of events.

I think Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, and Bill Kelner, executive editor of The New York Times, both used the term as a crude and rather dismissive way of describing the character behind their frustrating and difficult experiences with WikiLeaks.

Rusbridger “From being a marginal figure invited to join panels at geek conferences he was suddenly America’s public enemy number one. A new media messiah to some, he was a cyber-terrorist to others. As if this wasn’t dramatic enough, in the middle of it all two women in Sweden accused him of rape. To coin a phrase, you couldn’t make it up.”

To paraphrase, in their natural state geeks are harmless and utterly peripheral to the important things happening in the world. They’re hardly the type likely to rattle sabres - but this Assange somehow bucked this trend.

Kelner “The reporters had begun preliminary work on the Afghanistan field reports, using a large Excel spreadsheet to organize the material … They had run into a puzzling incongruity … A considerable amount of material was missing. Assange, slipping naturally into the role of office geek, explained that they had hit the limits of Excel. Open a second spreadsheet, he instructed. They did, and the rest of the data materialized — a total of 92,000 reports from the battlefields of Afghanistan.”

This one’s rather more dismissive, as if Assange, at root, is just that guy who knows how mail-merge works.

In both, the word is a mark of otherness, used to express a kind of surprise that someone so lowly and marginal could have had such influence. Both also go on to show how it took the partner newspapers’ attitude to proper process to disseminate WikiLeaks content and make it into the story it’s become. Not that I disagree with this analysis per se, but the subtext here seems to be that Assange is just a geek with a windfall who got lucky enough to have help from the big boys in putting it out to the world.

Clearly, neither article is focused on Assange himself, but writing his culture off as that of ‘geek’ fails to get anywhere near explaining the crash of worlds that occured when he originally approached the Guardian.

Contrastingly, we get rather better insight into all this from Bruce Sterling, who looks rather deeper into what geek, as it pertains to Assange’s culture, really means. Sterling sees WikiLeaks as “most exciting and interesting hacker scandal ever”, and draws a line between it and early 1990s anarcho-crypto culture.

Having read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon a couple of times, I’m fascinated by that culture. And Sterling’s point of view on the subject of geek is fascinating, too:

“Crypto guys — (and the cypherpunks were all crypto guys, mostly well-educated, mathematically gifted middle-aged guys in Silicon Valley careers) - are geeks. They’re harmless geeks, they’re not radical politicians or dashing international crime figures.”

“The geeks who man the NSA don’t look much like Julian Assange, because they have college degrees, shorter haircuts, better health insurance and far fewer stamps in their passports. But the sources of their power are pretty much identical to his. They use computers and they get their mitts on info that doesn’t much wanna be free.”

“The scale of [WikiLeaks] is so big that every weirdo involved immediately becomes a larger-than-life figure. But they’re not innately heroic. They’re just living, mortal human beings, the kind of geeky, quirky, cyberculture loons that I run into every day.”

“While others stare in awe at Assange’s many otherworldly aspects — his hairstyle, his neatness, his too-precise speech, his post-national life out of a laptop bag - I can recognize him as pure triple-A outsider geek. Man, I know a thousand modern weirdos like that, and every single one of them seems to be on my Twitter stream screaming support for Assange because they can recognize him as a brother and a class ally. They are in holy awe of him because, for the first time, their mostly-imaginary and lastingly resentful underclass has landed a serious blow in a public arena.”

Geek culture is sprawling and nuanced, then - as computers have a greater influence on the world, geeks are having a greater influence, too. And that means that it’s time for mainstream culture to attempt to understand it all.