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So…you wanna be a geek?

November 13, 2014

I’ve embarked into the realm computer geekdom as kind of a shadow figure.  (I actually think this is pretty common for women entering technology fields, but that’s another story…)  In any case, I know what it’s like to choose to stay in on a Friday night so I can fiddle with the drivers on a fresh operating system install–but I also know what it’s like not to do that.  I’ve never forged a virtual friendship, never owned an Xbox, and faced some serious scruples about investing in a smart phone.   And yet, I’m a geek–and happy to proclaim that to the world.

I appreciate and value the fact that a lot of people in this world do a lot of things other than hang around with computers.  Some people even hate computers.  And yet, I’ll to make the case that a little bit of geeking out may be healthy–and necessary–for everyone.  In my experience, the more time I spend tinkering with computers and devices, the more agency I’ve felt over the ways I choose to have technology to fit into my life.  Geeking out helps mitigate computer anxiety.  Delving head-first into computer problems and coming back alive–or learning when to step away–has become hugely empowering for me.

I’ve noticed that there’s actually very little that separates geeks from n00bs.  It seems to be more of a stepwise transition into realms of ever-increasing confidence.  So, if you want to be a “geek” (and I hope you do!), here are a few things that I’ve noticed that might help catalyze the transition:

  1. Back it up.
    There’s no way around this.  You’ve just got to back up your stuff.  This frees you up to play around on your computer and get over your fear of breaking things (see #2).
  2. Get over your fear of “breaking it”.
    Seriously–get over it. This takes an almost “Buddhist turn” in attitude: accept that you do not need to indulge computer-related anxiety, accept that you have friends and problem-solving tools at your disposal (see #3), and have faith that all will be well in the end. Yes, it may take time.  No, it may not work right away. Sure, you may be frustrated–but you can also be fascinated. Geeks tend to see the “blue screen of death” as an opportunity to fiddle around and learn, not a reason to chuck your computer out the window.
  3. When in doubt: Google it!
    Don’t cry or run to the nearest coworker! The key to solving all of your computer woes is always at your fingertips! Just Google it, and start reading. It will take a while to learn the relevant terms to search–but I promise it’s no harder than your average high school French class. (And I actually suspect it’s a lot easier!)  A starting hint: if your computer throws you an error message, try copying and pasting the exact text of it into a Google search, and see what potential solutions come out.
  4. Don’t accept defaults.
    In my experience, most geeks aren’t born with nerd glasses and a pocket protector. Instead, they start down the path to geekdom by making minor tweaks and improvements to the basic things they do on their devices and computers on a day-to-day basis. Start by installing some add-ons to your favorite web browser. (Don’t know what an “add-on” is, or a “web browser”? See #3.) Move on to installing some free software. Check out sites like CNET or How-To Geek to get suggestions and reviews.
  5. Don’t assume “nothing in life is free”.
    It is simply not true that everything involving computers needs to be expensive. That is an attitude that will just set you up to get scammed in life. There’s actually a lot of free, and cheap, and amazing stuff available, if you know where to look. Computers don’t have to be nearly as expensive as repair shops and software dealers make them out to be. Paying an arm and a leg for repair service or software products is for n00bs.
    Here’s a list of some propritary software you might be using, and their cheap/free/open source* equivalents:
    – Microsoft Office –> Libre Office
    – PhotoShop/photo editor –> GIMP
    – Microsoft OneNote –> Evernote
    – Video/Media Player –> VLC Player
    *Don’t know what “open source” is? Google it!
  6. Learn basic HTML.
    A webpage is basically just a regular document–like anything else you’d write on your computer. The only difference is that it has a little extra information embedded in it to let your web browser (Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.) know how to display it for you. In fact, you can write your own basic webpage right now. So what are you waiting for? To create a webpage document, you’ll want to ditch Word and stick with a simple text editor (like Notepad or TextEditor) that comes standard on most computers. Open up your basic text editor, and create a new document. In the document, type in (or copy and paste) the following:

    <h1>Your Title Goes Here</h1>
    <p>This is a paragraph. You can write anything you want in here. Make it long or short. Experiment. Try this text from Lewis Carroll, for example: `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.</p>
    <h2>You Can Put a Smaller Heading Here</h2>
    <p>And now you can type more text. <span style="color: green">You can even make it green.</span> <span style="color: purple">Or purple.</span> <span style="color: red">Or red.</span></p>
    <p>You can also make a <a href="">link to Google</a>.</p>

    When you’ve copied and pasted, save the document with whatever name you’d like–just make sure you tack on the extension “.html” at the end when you’re saving, and remember where on your computer you’re saving it to.  Then, open up a web browser. Choose File > Open File > then select the file you just saved. Your document will open and display in your browser! It takes a little more work to get your new webpage to be accessible online to anybody–right now, your webpage is only saved locally to your computer. But the principle is the same: any webpage you look at is simply a variation of the type of document you just created. In fact, if you’re curious, you can hit CTRL + U while you’re browsing the Internet and view the HTML code for any page you’re looking at. Try it, and see how much you can recognize!

  7. Make it political.
    Technologies aren’t just fun to geek out with–they are growing increasingly political. Cultivating a sense of agency surrounding the ways you choose to use or eschew certain technologies can become a political act. Private industries, the government, individual thinkers and activists–all will play an increasingly heated role in shaping our norms and policies surrounding privacy, online commercialization, distribution rights for creative works, equity of access to networked technologies, censorship, etc. These are things that have very real consequences for our day-to-day lives. It’s already happening. History has taught us that old societal power structures have a way of replicating themselves in new domains–and online life is no exception. The Internet is still a very new phenomenon, and is still closer to the “carefree and fun” stage of its evolution. As this changes, and as new norms and policies are forged, a little healthy geeking out can prepare you to lend your voice to the discussion.
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