On Danny O’Brien on Shift Run Stop

July 8, 2010

Today’s episode of Roo-and-me internet show Shift Run Stop features an interview with 90s internet celeb and naughties civil rights campaigner Danny O’Brien. I’ve known about him for as long as I’ve known about the internet (when I was 13, I wanted so badly to see this) – and memorably, I finally met the man himself when he sold me a ticket to the 2004 NTK conference, Notcon. He’s been consistently supportive and good to me over the years. It was Danny, in fact, who cyber-introduced me to Dave when I told him I wanted to make some kind of funny zine about obsolete technology. “Do you know Dave Green?” said Danny, adding in capitals, “TALK TO DAVE.” Of course, Dave’s now a good friend and regular on our podcast. And as you will hear, Danny is very funny and charming, has loads of interesting anecdotes, and was really fun to interview.

The NTK newsletter ran for 10 years and was tremendously popular with a certain kind of programmer geek. Danny reflects on what they were going for, what the point of it was, and why it was so successful. In the early days, at least, they were doing something niche at a time when the internet was full of highly specialised people. No one understood what a web developer was, no one knew what these people actually did all day, and no one was trying to make them laugh. Then NTK came along and found the funny.

But then something happened. Suddenly there were a lot more people who understood the web. Suddenly it wasn’t just people with technical specialisms, it was a social thing. Anyone could do it. It didn’t have to be hard or alienating or something people needed cheering up about. By the same token, it stopped being something you could relish as exclusively yours. The tribes broke apart and all the flaming and forums and competitiveness started to look a bit silly. You’d suddenly find yourself in a meeting with your IRC enemies from five years ago. And everyone suddenly wanted to be thought of as a geek, because of the cache of haughty cleverness and the mystique of esoteric knowledge that came with the term. The exact things, in fact, that the writers of NTK were so hooked on, so long before.

There’s a bit in the interview where I ask Danny about the geek thing (cut because presumably rambly and unclear, or at least off-mic) – I’m trying say something about how meaningless the term has become. It’s not about technology anymore, we’re getting further away from understanding anything genuinely technical, and it seems like we don’t care. I think that’s a real shame. That’s why I’m interested in vintage technology – because I think we’re creating more and more excuses not to understand anything properly, and that seems to be distancing us from authentic enjoyment. It also stands in the way of creative production; if kids were encouraged to break their Nintendo DS open and look inside, imagine what one of them might do. Imagine who they might grow up to be. I’m not technically skilled, but technology has a reassuring works-or-doesn’t-work baseline, and has become a mascot of our progress. We’re afraid to break it. We’re dangerously reverent about our own progress.

In my opinion, a geek is someone who’s very very into something – someone who really understands something, or at the very least, loves it so much it doesn’t matter. But, without wishing to sound overly soppy, to love is to want to understand, I think. A geek isn’t necessarily someone who works in social media and goes to events with the word ‘geek’ in the title. It’s not necessarily someone who has lots of gadgets. It’s not necessarily Stephen Fry. But it isn’t someone cornered by the limitations of the time either, whether that’s the pressure to work in the ‘interactive’ sphere (like me) or the pressure to develop websites when Hotbot was still a going concern. When the internet was new, the people who worked on it hadn’t consciously opted into a life lived in a tiny corner of public consciousness in order to uphold themselves as an elite programming master race. Danny wasn’t a ‘geek’ in the 90s, I just don’t remember the stigma. As far as I was concerned, he was a cool comedian who knew about the internet and wanted to take the good news to the masses with TV programmes and Edinburgh shows. (But you know, bear in mind that I was 13. I didn’t have a lot of context.)

I say all this by means of introducing another idea. Danny explains that they researched programming languages and every area of niche interest to create a self-consciously niche newsletter that a few people would really like. The flip-side, of course, is that to the vast majority of internet-users, including most of their friends and peers, NTK was indecypherable. Even Danny says he looks back on some of those issues and wonders what on earth they were talking about.

But then he wonders aloud why we, a British geek culture show, have such a broad remit.

I think it goes like this. For Danny, a geek seems to be someone whose interests or specialisms are niche. It’s not the intensity of their interests that counts, its the number of other people who share them. Much as he enjoys our show, to create something as general as a geek culture show is, he thinks, pointless and destined to failure and he may yet be right. It may be that a world of interstructural networking tumbling towards an Interconnectedness Of Everything should be rejected in favour of championing weirdos and defending ghettos. But here’s my official response…

Personally, I’m interested in authenticity. I’m not a programmer, and not prepared to pretend to be one to earn the trust of real programmers. I want to talk to people who I think are brilliant, so our interviews range from authors to famous film-makers to fellow podcasters. It is hard for Danny (and Dave at times) to understand, but if there’s anything deliberate about our editorial, it’s that we really don’t want to leave people out, everyone has something.

It’s a friendly podcast. The end-product is pretty much as friendly as Roo is in real life, and much friendlier than I am. NTK was searing at times, and the sharp tongue of that monospaced Courier font made some enemies over the years – albeit many more fans. Roo and I just get people we like in for a chat. For me, at least, having to look someone in the eye as they sit opposite you, after coming in specially as a favour… well it makes it much harder to say what you really mean. See also, this blog post.

For us, this isn’t our job and never will be. That, quite honestly, has never been the point. We’re starting with the stuff we love talking about, and working from there to the stuff we realise we’re ‘geeky’ about. I think ‘geek’ should mean extreme, inclusive, enthusiasm, occasionally to the point of desperation, rather than, as it has come to mean, “someone who uses the internet”. But if the label is useful to some extent in 2010, it’s as a filter. If we say we make a geeky podcast, these days people will know to expect a bit of science, a bit of technology, some abstract ideas about the internet, and an element of people who have something a bit wrong with them. The truth is we’re not scientists. Roo plays down his technical form far too readily, but I’m not even remotely techy. I don’t play video games, I didn’t study science, I have nothing going for me at all in this world beyond a sort of outsider interestedness. If I did any of these things for a living, I think it’d be very unlikely I’d want to interview people about them; we really are learning at the same time as our listeners. So maybe it’s to do with the interview format. Turns out it’s perfectly possible to do an interview show without being part of the same gang as the interviewee or even the listeners, you just have to be enthusiastic. Not so with a newsletter or magazine.

Though Danny meant something fairly specific, didn’t he. He meant that there’s no point doing something everyone else is doing. I do agree. I’d say, though, that there’s a very good reason to do something that everyone else wished they’d thought of. In fact, I don’t know of anyone else positioned quite where we are in ‘geek culture’ in the podcastsphere… and perhaps that’s why we’re doing well.

The NTK editorial was superbly successful, and perfectly tailored to the time – but this is a different time. We’re not arch or especially sarcastic. We don’t want to alienate people. We’re positioned somewhere between just doing what we want and doing what people seem to like. It’s an editorial of feelings, and one of those feelings is certainly fear of getting into a scrap with anyone. On the one hand we’re encouraging our guests (and ourselves) to talk about what they really care about, because that’s how they’re unusual – actually, how everyone’s unusual. The thing they really want to understand is their geeky thing. Maybe it’s the information age – it’s so easy to know everything and understand nothing. On the other hand, we’re listening to and being listened to by a mainstream of heavy internet users; people who are interested in the way their new technologies work. Normal people who watch films and comedy and have special passions of their own. I suspect we’re being listened to by people who self-identify as geeks and people who’ve never needed to. I bet the latter tune in more often, but ultimately, it’s not up to us to decide who can listen to and enjoy us.

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23 Responses to “On Danny O’Brien on Shift Run Stop”

  1. iamjamesward Says:

    I found this all really interesting as I’ve been thinking about the specificness of interest/intensity of interest thing a lot (especially since doing Stationery Club and trying to understand why it seems to work and why people like it).

    Did you ever used to watch “For The Love Of” with Jon Ronson? It’s one of my favourite programmes of all time, because the idea is so simple and so lovely. A group of people who all share a particular interest (the belief they have all been abducted by aliens, time travel, Diana conspiracies, trees) just sit and chat about the thing they’re interested in. No-one offers a dissenting voice, no-one says “Of course the moon landing wasn’t a hoax, you loon”. Where there were arguments, it was about the specific details of an idea. It’s lovely.


    • Reading this depressed the bejesus out of me, because I’m now so bored of what net culture has become, and miss the mid-90’s era when we had better things to talk about than whether Android was good and Apple was evil.


      • Oh Ian. You just need to take a handful of smart drugs, wash them down with a can of jolt, and read your back issues of Mondo2000 again, my love.

    • Danny O'Brien Says:

      AMAZINGLY TRUE FACT: The Internet’s Dave Green was a researcher on “For The Love Of”!

  2. Martin Says:

    Very much enjoyed the episode and this accompanying piece. God I used to love NTK, especially as I didn’t quite understand it all. Something I think is played down in a lot of sci/tech communication is the joy of taking in something that’s a bit beyond your level. Both because you feel smart engaging with it and it inspires you to find out more!

    Just wanted to add that it was great to have a show where at least part of it was *about* interviews, as promised in the intro. Hurrah!

  3. enemyofchaos Says:

    Martin, I think that’s an excellent point about reaching beyond your level, glad you enjoyed reading this & thanks for telling me about Notcon and coming with me!

    Ian, yeah obviously I’m bored of it all too, and I can never work out if it really has gone all pastichey now, or if it’s me that has a problem with getting excited about the things I should be. Sorry to depress you though. One of my tutors at university said I had an “unrelentingly negative view of modernity”.

    James glad you liked it – that Jon Ronson things sounds like just the kind of thing I’d like – cheers!


  4. Hotbot, YES! Goto’s considered non-harmful. Of course!

    Didn’t understand a word of NTK, read it from cover to cover every week^H^H^H^Hfortnight.

  5. Danny O'Brien Says:

    Dear Leila, (I think it is always important when you are going to start writing something almost doomed to be patronising to start with “Dear somebody”)

    Hello! I am sorry I have not written back earlier, you wrote a very complicated blog post and I kept putting off being clever enough to answer it. I will try now, when everyone who might read this has gone on to check out that Jane Austen’s Fight Club video.

    Actually, AND I THINK THE UNEDITED TAPE RECORDING WILL SHOW THIS, my wondering aloud about the wider tone of SRS was mostly me awkwardly making a joke of the fact that I had just given my standard, throwaway excuse about not doing NTK anymore – that the geek market is now incredibly overserved and so there was no point in us doing a weekly thing about it – and then realised in mid sentence that I was implicitly saying that SRS should immediately fold and go away too. Which was not what I meant at all and wrong, and the correct thing when you have said a wrong thing (or *anything*) is to hurredly make a joke out of it.

    What I really meant though, as you’ve rightly described, is that now the geek market is so big, NTK and its tone wouldn’t be much use in the modern context, or at least not really achieve the same effect, or be as much fun, as we’d intended. It would have to change and honestly we couldn’t come up with a way to change it that would work. And you are right that Shift Run Stop is just an infinitely better model for how to do it in these modern times with their MP3s and their Faces-books and their Grand Thefts Auto.

    I also agree with the point about the sarcastic tone, and again, I think that was another reason that I think we both wanted to let it go.

    Constantly walking the line between enthusiasm and archness can be a bit corrosive to your intent and your soul. For me, writing like that was never actually about hurting someone or making enemies, and in fact I keenly felt if we ever did so in NTK, we were probably Doing It Wrong. One of my mental images of how to write in NTK style was a sort of donut-shaped devastation, where everyone in a certain circle thought you were being incredibly harsh but funny, except for the apparent target, who would actually be left relatively unscathed, either because you’d said something they’d readily acknowledge, or that they would be blissfully unaware of your critique.

    We sometimes consciously broke that rule like after 9/11 or when I went after Eric Raymond or a hilarious series of TV reviews Dave wrote about bad Internet TV shows which I cannot find now but I’m sure you can appreciate was EXTREMELY POINTED. But I do think you have to keep those direct attacks relatively rare otherwise it stops being funny and/or you’re unnaturally forcing an emotion you don’t actually possess. Or even worse, that you’re just getting ANGRIER and ANGRIER, and that means you’re sacrificing your grip on reality for your writing style, which I would personally counsel against doing. It also gets harder to calibrate these attacks the more actual privilege and power in the world you have, which was another one of the delights of being willfully obscure.

    Gosh, there’s lots more in your post that I haven’t even touched on. About leaving people out: again, I wouldn’t want people to think that that was the *point* of NTK. In fact, I’d say it was the opposite. The pressure in tech and science journalism at the time was always that you had to demystify and “humanise” tech. I felt that, while a perfectly reasonable aim, it destroyed something in the process. It also rather confirmed a divisive underlying belief, that somehow the love that drove technologists and science was somehow inexplicable as love in its own right, and had to be converted into some other “true” emotion before it could be appreciated. Like scientists had to say on Horizon “well, the amazing thing about the sub-atomic world is that it’s *very* *tiny*” instead of saying, well the amazing thing about the sub-atomic world is that it makes me stay up all night staring at these sets of equations until my head explodes and i can’t actually tie up my shoelaces anymore without thinking about Yang-Mills gauge field”.

    We believed that there was a place for actually letting people burble on about their enthusiasms, because that in itself is interesting, because they’re human too, and their enthusiam is a human emotion that anyone can appreciate. NTK wasn’t so much the listening to other people talking enthusiastically though, as much as an attempt to deliver that burble ourselves, and make it clear that you could *do* that, without oversimplifying, and still be entertaining. SRS’s interview approach seems to me to be entirely complimentary to that — right down to preserving Dave’s ability to burble to a wider public to this day, which I sincerely believe should be a British institution on the same level as the Shipping Forecast.

  6. enemyofchaos Says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write that, I’m really glad you responded and I think you’ve cleared a few things up. Hope it didn’t seem like I was criticising NTK (it did) – or putting words into your mouth (well…) But really, this was me wishing I’d had a conversation with you about these things at the time. I am conscious that SRS is not as engaged with the particular geek niches as NTK was, and I’ve wondered if that’s about the times we live in, or us, or something else. It’s interesting to think about, and neither Roo nor I seriously thought you were dissing us.

    The donut-shaped devastation idea is great, mystery of tech reminds me of what Martin says in the comment above; that thing of reaching beyond what you understand. Whatever you were doing it obviously worked.

    • Danny O'Brien Says:

      Oh I know! And I know that you know that I know! I could also talk about this things for millennia, so I am happy to can carry on having a conversation.

      For instance, I was thinking a lot about what you said about authenticity. One of the bits of geekiness that I always like is whatever triggers that sudden lack of guile, when the pent-up enthusiasm for whatever overcomes people’s reticence to reveal what they really feel. Did you mean that kind of authenticity? Or are you talking about the nature of how to do good interviews? Or something else?

      (Okay, now we are going to turn on the mannered public intellectuals-writing-a-series-of-fake-letters-to-one-another style, as used in special “heated debate” sections of the Guardian. At some point, I will have to say “As you know, Leila”, and you will have to say “I’ve always respected what you had to say in your collected lecture series, Professor Daniel, but SERIOUSLY FUCK OFF NOW”)

      • enemyofchaos Says:

        Hehe ok, just hard to gauge tone on the internet and I looked at what I’d said and thought “My god, I am a cow!” But I didn’t mean it that way at all Anyway I heed your warning and am going to reply to this as quickly as possible and not edit it, to avoid this turning into History Today.

        I am obsessed, OBSESSED with authenticity. I’m actually really boring about it, but fuck it, this is my blog so I don’t care. In fact, I see the above post as half of a thesis (Professor), with the other, yet to be written half, being about “The new sincerity”. It is something that Roo and I are constantly on the brink of having a really good conversation about. It’s the freedom to say awesome without being ridiculed, and to genuinely think things are amazing and be allowed to go on and on about it forever.

        To be honest, I always found that annoying. If everything’s a big bag of win, I thought, maybe you should think about taking a few of them down to Oxfam.

        But then I met Roo, who has been waiting for this moment to arrive all his life because he is just like that! People who are enthusiastic about life and haven’t had those enthusiasms crushed or warped into sideline affectations, because society insists people at its edges must suffer some kind of red shift distortion.

        Regarding interviews, and maybe this says more about me than anything else, but I think you can never be completely genuine with someone when you’ve got them staring into your eyes. I just don’t believe it. Maybe that’s why the New Sincerity stuff works so much better written down than someone shrieking EPICK WINZ! into your astonished face. And actually that’s where NTK beats us again, because the roundabout sarcasticness and lyric flow enables a between-the-lines sincerity that gets behind words. Now that sounds like I’m just describing Dave, but you know what I mean, maybe?

        So when I’m talking about authenticity, I mean, I want us to do what we can as honestly as we can. And we can never be completely honest, because we’re creating a product to fit an editorial, albeit an editorial as rough and close to disclosing its facture as possible. I think the real-life interview format DOES get in the way of honesty in many ways, but I also think there’s an honesty about us not caring too much about that, that kind of trumps it. I’m also conscious that the more I try to explain this, the more likely it is to break.

        I love your description of the moment of geekiness as authentic, it really is. I see the world as stuck in permanent battle of authenticity vs affectation. There can be a madness about it, but it’s still valuable if you authentically, genuinely, think it, and can’t even explain why you think it, and don’t even care that you can’t explain it because you’re so in love with the idea of it… I can’t help but respect that even when people are clearly wrong or, like the guys on For The Love Of, pretty much mentally ill. It can be geeky to persevere something that only you think is important (or good, or worthwhile, or interesting), despite going against the grain of society, and maybe that’s what this is about. Though of course you can be quite geeky without being socially subversive at all, and you can work for Microsoft or Apple. But that subtle, individual authentic voice of weirdness doesn’t care about fitting in and doesn’t speak any of the languages of contemporary copy or The New Sincerity, or in fact, any of the WIN/FAIL/AWESOME/PWN stuff that has (maybe despite itself) become a way of shaking off threatening individuality and joining a club.

      • Danny O'Brien Says:

        Oh, oh! I just found this bit of stuff I was going to post in this comment section. Sorry!

        You know what never happens in those public intellectual exchanges? They never just abruptly end when one person knows they’ve been totally scuppered, and he/she just abruptly stops replying to the emails. They should have at least one where Melvyn Bragg just ends up going “Hello, Malcolm? Are you still getting these?”. Awkwardly.

        ANYWAY

        My ideas on sincerity are entirely screwed up by moving from the UK to the US, where sincerity plays the same role as humour does in Britain: which is to say as a generally inoffensive social tool generally used to put people at their ease but which can also be quickly adapted to be a vicious shiv if you need it.

        There’s like a million kinds of sincerity here, from yelling DOUBLE RAINBOW at double rainbows to Feynmanesque wide-eyed questioning to weird psychopathic Los Angeles frankness, and they all mean different things societally that I’m still only just beginning to adapt to. It’s all initially very scary if you’re from Britain where “sincerity” has only one meaning: “obviously lying”.

        I like it though, and obviously it mirrors my career move from non-stop sarcasm to non-stop worthiness. But I don’t know what generationally has happened in Britain. Is there a New Sincerity? There seems to be a lot more acceptance of expressions of emotion, or at least modes where that’s not immediately suspect.

        Again, it is hard to tell, because my own perceptions are being slowly Americanised. Whenever I go home, I see all British people as sort of wimps-by-default, partly because THEY HAVE NO GUNS, and partly because of the little deference dance that we/you/they all do. So I don’t know whether the acceptance of emotional honesty is just me thinking people are a bit more blubbery than they were, or is a movement to guilelessness. Princess Diana would know.

  7. nick s Says:

    It seems strange to think of NTK as a historical record, but the threshold of ancient web history seems to creep forward every time I look, and having that archive feels important for my memories of the mid/late-90s interwebs scene in Britain.

    The people who were writing, contributing tips and reading NTK were watching an industry form around themselves, with the beginnings of job titles and formal structures and everything that now seems obvious. But at the time, it was a lot of improvisation and a smidge of bullshit to take to the suits, all built on a shaky foundation that was simultaneously liberating and terrifying and exhilarating, a bit like Danny’s line about coming up with Haskell jokes.

    Everyone was winging it, and to me, NTK’s appearance in the inbox on a Friday always seemed to say “as long as you’re doing good stuff that you care about, that’s okay.” The obvious comparison is with Suck, which came out of the Wired office in San Francisco, but I don’t think NTK ever had the vein of nihilism that marked out Suck in its early, headline-grabbing days. I have wider thoughts about the New Sincerity, but I think it’s possible to have an ironic authenticity when everyday stuff is sufficiently in flux to command (or demand) a kind of irony towards it.

    Also: Danny’s too modest to share, but his valedictory email on Wired UK (the first incarnation) really digs into that culture.

    What I find most lovely about SRS is that it seems to show a triumph over the fear of being “found out” somehow for geeky pursuits, and how it then becomes part of a grand tradition of amateur enthusiasm.

  8. enemyofchaos Says:

    Maybe this should be a “five things I’ve things I’ve been thinking about” post instead, but as sort of a memo to myself and because I’m entertained by the idea of using a comments section as a blog…

    1. I’ve also been thinking about the extent to which geekiness is having passion without affectation. How can geeks be enthusiastic when we think of them as one-note, single-minded, dispassionate weirdos droning on? But there is a thing that they’re sure is interesting, it’s just the communication where things can fall down, which is of course why it can be hard work talking to people on the extreme ends of this. When you’re sure of something, it seems absurd to even try to explain it, and you’re not going to get a lot back from whoever you’re talking to. So does this work to shut the channels down even further on contact, the passion reducing the field of vision until you share less and less of the same world? Maybe to do enthusiasm authentically you need to shield off the social context, maybe it never can quite be shared. You can’t hold your world and the outside in play at the same time without bringing in affectation or some sort. But… you need to PLAY SOCIETY’S GAMES JUST TO SURVIVE!

    2. So – can our most sincere beliefs ever really hope to take the same direction as society, which relies on us all seeing the same things in the same way? I don’t think it’s inherently anarchic to believe in things – but speaking from a personal point of view – I do see myself resisting (or, let’s face it, finding boring) anything that’s begun to speak the common languages. The downside is that I attach myself to things that are almost definitely going to have no commercial success, ever.

    3. Yes, we could pitch Shift Run Stop as a Radio 4 documentary show, but I like that we’re allowed not to. People praise the democratic nature of the internet – everyone can make a website! Anyone can publish themselves! But this is a problem, because we always end up with conformity. I have no interest in giving everyone the right to show off. But when you find yourself with these powers you have to choose your fights and your compromises quite carefully (the iTunes promotion brought us to a much bigger audience but the potential for hypocrisy is everywhere.)

    4. For me, the really great thing about doing SRS on the internet is that we’ve chosen to be here, no one’s said “you should do something on the internet, anyone can do anything there” – a sentiment that just cheapens everything. We’ve didn’t make something that ended up on the internet, we’re making something for the internet… and while we’re here, we should at least talk to the neighbours (and the relatives, NTK!)

    5. Nick (thanks for the comment btw) – your point about irony fitting the NTK days reminded me of something. Someone used the word ‘ironic’ in relation to SRS the other day and Roo and I both had to remind ourselves not to be offended. We couldn’t think of anything we do that’s intended to be ironic or knowing or amusingly paradoxical. But I think the truth is you can’t say geek now without that wry ‘a-ha-ha!’ because the word has become so utterly integrated with humour and absurdity. It’s boring and I’ve historically denied that wanting anything to do with it, but unfortunately it’s still the best and fastest way we have to explaining what we’re doing with SRS.

    But now the definition of geekiness is slipping away from me. My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid

    • nick s Says:

      “Irony: like steely, but more brittle.”

      I do think there’s a wee bit of wryness about SRS (perhaps the influence of Naughty Uncle Dave Green) which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that the terms have been muddied over the past twenty years. I blame Nick Hornby, or something.

      There can be something Radio 4-ish about amateur enthusiasm, for sure, because it’s often bundled with eccentricity. But then I think of the Soane house in London, which is really just a fantastic testament to an eighteenth-century kind of geekery. Or Mark Twain’s 1900s technophilia, putting a lovely wooden phone booth in his entrance hall and getting excited about the latest and greatest fountain pens and typewriters.

      The point behind those references is that sequestration and marginalisation isn’t the historical norm; it’s very modern, at least co-existent with the rise of mass/broadcast media and perhaps a consequence of it. These kinds of conversations have happened since forever, among friends and correspondents and like-minded groups in big cities.

      • enemyofchaos Says:

        Yes. Lovely John Soane, eccentric, mental, ahead of his time. And maybe we are wry after all, I might be too close to it to see what others do. There’s certainly all kinds of self-awareness layers that have to come into play just by virtue of trying to do something funny and unscripted.

        I sort of think of us as Radio 4 to the extent that we’re *not* all that shambolic. It’s easy to make something rough around the edges, so easy, actually, that I find it hard to respect that as a broadcast style because it’s a slippery slope to being completely disrespectful of your audience.

        I think you can be as mental as you like on your own, but if you are imposing something you’ve created on an audience you’re engaging in a deal and asking for their time and reaction. So you’re duty bound to do it as properly as you can without giving up your personal interest in it.

        I suspect this is a problem of MINE but I do think of our amateurism as a means to an end, something it’s decent to be a bit embarrassed about rather than revel in. So I tell myself, if we’re amateur in our production values or our interviewing skills or whatever, well, at least we don’t really mean to be. It’s just that we don’t care about that stuff… we’re too busy caring about something else instead.


  9. It’s interesting that you raise passion, because in my experience that’s actually what the most intense geeks lack: real passion about their chosen area of geekiness. It’s simply the endless collection of “facts”, information as trophy.

    Passion involves something broader than that – but now I have to run off to a meeting, so I’ll have to think about it later!

    • enemyofchaos Says:

      OK I had a shower and thought about this and I think there might be a thing that’s socially defined as ‘passion’ which has the same effects as whatever it is the geeks have, and so is essentially the same. It’s just that socially-adept folk bother with the connecting signals, the eye contact, the reinforcement of being seen to get excited. The geeks on the other hand quite authentically don’t or can’t make their Belief in Importance fit the usual system, but they still have an extreme response to something they believe is important. Their response might look distorted from where the rest of us are standing.

      Information as trophy is interesting too, and maybe I’m being too generous in the above ^. I think there probably is a competitiveness to all this that we haven’t talked about at all yet…


      • Perhaps that’s what differentiates “a passion” from “an interest” – with a passion, what’s important is the emotional demonstrativeness as much as the knowledge about something. You can, for example, be passionate about a football club without being obsessed with knowing the names of every player in its history.

        Information as trophy is, I think, a boy thing. Have you ever watched men play “fact tennis”, where they ping facts about something at each other? Usually in pubs…

      • enemyofchaos Says:

        Yeah, you’re right. You can be very, very into something without being able to communicate that enthusiasm in a way that makes it look like you’re having a good time (& thus potentially infect others with it). Or you can be very into something without needing to know everything about it (and perhaps it feels more fresh and joyful to everyone as a result).

        I wonder what the fact tennis thing is about. There is a particular boyness there, yeah, it’s competitive – maybe showboating knowledge. Interesting tension between wanting to be the best and wanting to live in one’s own little world. Seems relevant to mention that I read somewhere that a lot of women on the autism spectrum suffer from eating disorders.

        I also think there’s a point where the symptoms of geek authenticity make it look so appealing – robust, objective, impermeable to criticism – that they are adopted as cultural affectations…


  10. […] all its attendant conversations. It’s fascinating and exciting and reminds me a tiny bit of my exchange with Danny O’Brien the other day. Except much less friendly of course. At the heart of all this is a blog post by the […]


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