August 28 2013
by Todd Hixon

The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth

This post first appeared at on 08/05/2012.

The Economist: In Praise Of Misfits

The Economist article linked above is one of many discussing the apparent shift in economic and organizational power towards “Geeks” versus well-rounded, non-technical people. There is an edge to this discussion (which The Economist gently rebuffs). It’s often observed that Geeks are anti-social, quasi-autistic people, not the sort you would want to have in charge of important institutions.

NEW YORK - APRIL 19:  VP of Search products an...
Marissa Mayer: the uber-geek Googler who is now CEO of Yahoo. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)


A couple of thoughts here:

1. In An Information Society, The Wizards Of Information Are Naturally Powerful. A century ago, industrial success was about organizing the labor of tens of thousands of rude workmen to create physical products: think building railroads and great ships, or the ascendance of Ford and GM. Today business success is about manipulating information, often in huge quantities: organizing the labor of tens of thousands of computers in the cloud, programmed by relatively few talented geeks, to market services to the masses via the (increasingly mobile) web. Many of the most dynamic businesses we have today share this characteristic: Internet- and mobile-based businesses, financial services (hedge funds, short term traders), even health care technology (genomics & proteomics, bio-informatics). On the supply side, the Geeks who can mine gold from big data and the Über-Geeks who can manage them are in demand, and some of them succeed in leveraging their insights to create important institutions.

2. Social Isolates Tend To Be Disruptors. Very bright people who are less connected to the mainstream in the world of work are more likely to try a radically new approach that disrupts the status quo. The Economist article cites David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue, and Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s, as examples of successful entrepreneurial CEOs with attention deficit disorder (ADD), a condition typically associated with both intelligence and relationship difficulties. ADD led them to strike out on their own and try different approaches (often multiple times). Plus the Internet has changed the game by providing a way for geeks to be connected to the economy without having much face-to-face interaction with people. (To paraphrase: “On the Internet no one can tell you are socially awkward and dislike talking with people.”) And, this may prove to be less aberrant behavior that it seems to older generations: “Millennials” seem to prefer communicating via text messages of different kinds and dislike talking on the phone.

3. Geek Success Creates Lots Of Opportunity For Those Who Are People-Oriented. The Über-Geek companies employ tens of thousands of non-Geeks in important roles (perhaps not quite as important as they would wish). Do business with Google, for example, and you will encounter lots of administration. Geek companies employ many outside lawyers, ad agencies, PR firms, design consultancies, etc. Plus there are the service jobs created by the multiplier effect of the high incomes paid to geek company employees. And then there is government, which grows apace with the commercial economy, and is the ultimate home for administrative types.

4. The Best Über-Geeks Find Their Soft Side. I expect that, 100 years from now, Bill Gates will be best know for his philanthropy, much as Andrew Carnegie is best remembered for Carnegie Hall, libraries, and his foundation (do you remember how Carnegie made his money?). Steve Jobs matured enormously as a manager and as a person, as chronicled by Water Isaacson. Marissa Mayer, who had badge #20 at Google, describes herself as a geek, and is the new CEO of Yahoo!, is clearly a multi-dimensional person.

The rise of the Geek, including the extraordinary focus that makes great Geeks great, is part of the evolution of our society in response to technology. Once warriors and hunters were highly prized (and still are in the NFL). As countries and companies grew more complex, political and oratorical skills ascended. Now mastery of software and information has its place in the sun. The liberal arts crowd will do well to stop complaining that this change violates the natural order of things, and learn to profit from it.

Comments are closed.

Top of the page