I had an IRC chat with one of my semi-regular commenters a few nights ago in which she reported giving a talk on hacker culture that went extremely well.
[00:12] <HedgeMage> It was one of those situations, though, where I felt *very* odd being treated like a subject-matter expert. I certainly don’t consider myself one in this case, though I guess it’s all relative, and as far as I could tell I knew more [abut hacker culture] than the audience.
[00:13] <HedgeMage> Sure, I knew more than those I was teaching, but it bothered me a bit that they seemed to think I was an expert when I clearly wasn’t.
[00:15] <esr> Been there, done that. The *really* weird stuff starts when you give descriptive reports of hacker culture that others begin to consider normative.
[00:15] <esr> If you’re not careful, you can unintentionally become a geek cred certification authority.
[00:15] <HedgeMage> I have an easy way to avoid that.
[00:15] <HedgeMage> I refer them to you :P
[00:16] <HedgeMage> So, no dying or I might end up there!
This actually isn’t the first time I’ve been in a conversation like this one. And that brings on some thoughts about social authority among hackers and geeks and in other subcultures that seem worth developing.
There’s a school of sociologists that has studied information transfer within communities of scientists and developed language to describe how it works. An important primary term for these sociologists is “invisible college” – that is, a voluntary social network of cooperating peers who share information. This term is a deliberate nod to Robert Boyle’s contemporary description of an invisible college in the 1640s among early scientists who would later form the core of the Royal Society.
Another important term in this language is “gatekeeper”. That is a member of an invisible college who has the social authority to include people into the network and declare them peers. The key thing about gatekeepers is that nobody appoints them and they have no source of authority outside the network itself; they emerge from the way members of the college internally rate one anothers’ competence and dedication.
I have observed several invisible colleges and noted that membership in them is not a binary predicate but graded. There are peripheral members and central members; centrality of membership correlates (though not perfectly) with relative status within the college. There is another role, not identical but overlapping with gatekeeper, which manages status and centrality within the college. Even when the criteria for in-group status are objective (you get cited a lot by other scientists), good work doesn’t reliably translate into in-group status or centrality until one of these internal gatekeepers certifies it to the college.
So, in addition to gatekeepers, invisible colleges have certification authorities. There’s a third role as well; “elder”. An elder has the authority to say whether the behavior of members of the college is within the college’s accepted norms of behavior. To summarize: a gatekeeper answers the question “Who is a member?”, a certification authority answers the question “How do we evaluate in-group status?” and an elder answers the question “Was this behavior correct within the college’s norms?”
Of course these roles mingle at the edges. And I’ve gone beyond the sociological literature here, which to the best of my knowledge does not systematically distinguish among them. But the sociologists get something right: unless somebody has the social authority to confer status, you don’t have a college. What you have instead is a bunch of people who may earnestly be trying to form one, but who don’t know what the in-group rules should be or how to cooperate.
Now let’s step back a little and ask why this matters. Why do people form invisible colleges, and assign each other these roles, anyway? There are at least two possible accounts, both true and complementary of each other.
In one account, people form invisible colleges because they agree on a mission. An invisible college is a cooperative social machine for producing results desired by the participants. Without the normative roles of gatekeeper/certifier/elder, the machine doesn’t function – it dissolves or veers off track.
In another account, people form invisible colleges because they have a genetically wired-in drive to play social-status and identity games, a drive so powerful that they’ll create same even around essentially meaningless activities like (say) stamp collecting. People really want to be able to say, to themselves if to no one else, “I’m one of the best at X”, or “I represent an X that is bigger than myself.” For games that produce these results to run, somebody trusted has to keep score.
As I observed in a more specific context in Homesteading the Noosphere, the virtue of invisible colleges is that they merge these accounts. They harness the human drive to play status and identity games to achieve other-directed goals.
It is also instructive to note where invisible colleges do not form. Where mission and status criteria are rigorously objective, the apparatus of peer evaluation is not needed and does not form. A good example is athletics; if your criteria of mission success is as crisply measurable as “who can run the fastest mile”, the need for gatekeepers, (internal) certification authorities and elders basically vanishes. (In this case the certification authority would be any guy with a stopwatch, not necessarily or even usually part of the athlete’s peer network.)
Now we have all the apparatus required to understand the nuances of my conversation with HedgeMage. What she was reporting was something I first experienced in the early 1990s while working on the Jargon File. That is: hackers desperately want certification authorities (and elders, too; on the other hand, we’re pretty effective about distributing the “gatekeeper” role so it’s not a bottleneck). Hackers want certification authorities so badly that if you show the least aptitude for the job, they’ll suck you into it before you can say foo.
Noticing this made HedgeMage very nervous. Welcome to my world, HedgeMage! Scared the crap out of me, too, way back when. It would take a dullard or a blind egomaniac not to find the implied responsibility frightening. If you accept it, you’ve got people’s self-worth in your hands, to the extent they’ve invested their identity into being hackers. And, you’re suddenly responsible for the mission. It’s become your job to define it.
HedgeMage doesn’t want this. HedgeMage wants me to live forever so she doesn’t have to answer that call. HedgeMage has some understanding of the costs – which begin with, for example, being perpetually besieged by fanboys and haters. HedgeMage is wise.
But I think HedgeMage also suspects that if the time comes that she looks around and sees a leadership vacuum, she will step up. Some people cannot turn away from that call and still be themselves. I couldn’t. If I’m any judge of character, HedgeMage won’t be able to if it comes her turn. She’ll bitch and moan, but she’ll do it.
There’s nothing special about hackers in this respect. I’m sure this story plays out all the time in other invisible colleges, too. The issues have the particular spin they do for us because we’re somewhere in the middle of the objectivity-of-success scale along with scientists; more in need of peer evaluation than athletes, less so than fine artists. I think we’re also more instinctively distrustful of authority than most other subcultures with invisible-college organization, which creates a conflict between our need for certification authorities and our unwillingness to acknowledge that need and that role.
I’ll finish with warning and encouragement.
I think I have a large enough reader-base to make something statistically certain. One or more of you, reading this, will become a hacker cred certification authority in the future. At least one of you, reading this, will have to face the fear HedgeMage and I have faced – that we’re not worthy, that we’d fuck up, that we’d be consumed by our own egos, or even that we’d make some monstrous well-meaning error of judgment and our college would follow us into a crash.
The encouragement I have is: this is normal. File under expected challenges of being human. You get used to it. You adapt. It stops being so frightening after a while – though, if you ever stop feeling the weight of responsibility, get the hell out because you’ll have become dangerously unmoored.
The thing that carries me through is a sort of bloody-minded determination. Having been shoved into the job of certification authority by all that need and then accepted it, I’ll be damned if I give it less than my best. It can be done right. Mistakes (and I’ve made my share) aren’t instantly fatal to your college. You can learn on the job, and you will get better at it with practice. (It will help if you can keep firm hold of a sense of humor.)
Truly, the rewards are worth playing for. Not so much the obvious primate-social-status thing; that may be on instinct level what drives the social engine, but as I’ve written before it stops being important once you reach a certain level. The true gain is elsewhere. The fool who claimed that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world should have referred to technologists instead; being a certification authority in the right kind of invisible college is power to shape the future in subtle but large ways.
Somebody has to do that. Maybe, just maybe, it will be you.