I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Moving up the stack

From Benjamin Stein’s great post about geek-tech pioneering that you should read right now, before continuing:

In those days, it was really easy to see where consumer technology was going. You could just look at the nerds and know that’s what you’d probably look like in 2-5 years.


But then something strange happened. Lots of people switched to Apple laptops. But the nerds didn’t move on. My nerdiest programmer friends use the same computer as my wife.


So my question is, why haven’t the nerds moved on? Where are all the alpha geeks and what are they doing? I look around and I don’t see them anywhere.

It’s a great question.

Part of my own transition was what I called grown-up computing five years ago, after a year of “adult” life:

Grown-up computing is, put simply, the way I use computers and my attitude toward them now that I’m out of college and settling into the 9-to-5 world. It differs greatly from “young computing”.


The last thing I want to do is figure out why some program isn’t working or reinstall my operating system. I see these as zero-gain activities: generally, I learn nothing new, I don’t enjoy myself, I’m not being entertained or enriched, and my effort only results in maintaining the status quo.

I’d rather get a computer that didn’t require any maintenance and simply allowed me to do productive work. I’d like to have something to show for all of my clicking and typing instead of simply making information balloons go away. I’d rather write an article for this site than type my serial number again. I’d rather search the internet for interesting or entertaining information to read instead of looking for the solution to an obscure problem for which I only have a useless generic error message. I just want things to work.

It’s likely that most geeks that Ben and I know are in or near our age group, and are probably “computing adults” in a similar sense: they’d rather use computers and related technology to accomplish a goal greater than just messing around with their computers.

But what if this effect, on a larger and less age-specific scale, is the bigger trend that Ben’s seeing?

What if most geeks today really are just buying Macs instead of building their own overclocked Windows PCs from Newegg parts?

What if PC gaming really is on a decline because only a very small slice of the population is willing to pay $500 for a giant, hot, loud video card and endure the Great PC Gaming Pain-in-the-Ass Trifecta of drivers, patches, and copy protection, leaving almost every gamer to just stick with game consoles for a fraction of the cost and hassle?

And what if a big slice of even the most hardcore geeks have abandoned their netbooks for iPads because they just work so much better most of the time?

Even geeks (like us) have their limits of reasonability. At some point, we often decide that what we’ve been doing or what we think we should enjoy just isn’t worthwhile.

Ever build a carputer? (Yeah, that’s a computer in your car.) I attempted it when I was 18: it was a bunch of old PC parts inside a Dremeled-out Rubbermaid tub with a gamepad next to my parking brake to control Winamp so I could play MP3s. It was ridiculous. I had to wait until my carputer booted Windows 98 before it could play music. Even I couldn’t take this thing seriously. It lasted about 3 days until I drove over a speed bump and the CPU fell out of the slot. I scrapped it and just bought an MP3-CD player (the second one ever released) instead.

More recently, I even stopped using my geeky pfSense router when I moved to this apartment because I wanted 802.11n support and WDS, and the AirPort Extreme Base Station was just easier than trying to wedge those things into my geeky alternative. And it happens that the AirPort Extreme is actually much nicer, because it Just Works™ with new crazy things like WDS and UPnP and Xbox Live and MobileMe, and I never need to think about it.

Aging technologies fall out of favor even among geeks. Even excellent programmers avoid writing assembly code because they know that it’s almost never worth doing. Nobody’s using those Linux phones (did they ever?). PC self-builders rarely mess with Creative’s dumb sound cards anymore because every motherboard’s onboard sound has been good enough since 2001. I don’t think anyone really uses water-cooling anymore, and I bet the [H]ard|OCP Forums peaked in popularity a while ago.

We may just be past the era in which many geeks were interested in messing around with their computer’s (or phone’s) hardware or software internals.

And as many major technologies and platforms become dominant, we stop tinkering at those levels. We’re all happily using Ethernet and TCP/IP instead of trying to invent new protocols at those layers. Nobody’s writing a PC OS from scratch in this decade. Nobody’s even writing their own web search engine anymore. It wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve seen the last new social-network giant for the next decade.

What if we’re also settled on the current handful dominant OSes, mobile platforms, and hardware manufacturers?

I’d argue that, if that’s the case, we’re better off. That was an interesting time, but it’s time to move up the stack and mess around at higher levels.