GeekOut

Joe Peacock: 'It's 2012! Ignorance is inexcusable!'

Editor's note: Fans of "Akira" probably know Joe Peacock as the owner and curator of the Art of Akira Exhibit, which tours fan conventions around the world. He is also the Creative Director/Crayon Monkey for FARK.com, a blogger and author.

There were many effects and stories to come out of Wednesday’s huge internet blackout in protest of SOPA/PIPA. But I was struck, specifically, by  how stupid people can be, and how it has polluted our Internet. It made me realize that as geeks, we have a responsibility to help clean up the mess.

If you missed it, this was spectacularly illustrated by a dedicated Twitter feed collecting and retweeting peoples' utterly ridiculous reaction to having no Wikipedia for a day. There were even people who thought Obama banned Wikipedia.

If you’re like me, this sort of thing fills you with outrage. “It's 2012!” you’re yelling. “Ignorance is inexcusable!”

And you’re right.

As Seth Godin points out, not knowing how to do something is the most easily solved problem any of us has these days. The entire sum of human knowledge is available on a 4-inch device that fits in your pocket. If you own a computer, everything you could ever want to know is one click away.

And that’s why we as geeks get aggravated with people taking the time to leave Wikipedia, fire up Twitter, and proceed to demand to know why Wikipedia was down, when Wikipedia put a link directly on the front page explaining why.

“Why didn’t they just click?!?” we ask ourselves. If someone is too lazy to just click that link right in front of you and figure it out, perhaps they don’t deserve to know. Geeks see stupidity as a problem easily solved by initiative: Just stop being lazy and you’ll stop being stupid.

I can’t stand not knowing things. I care very much about the things I love, and have a need - not just desire, but need - to know everything I can about them. Even topics I don’t necessarily care about get a quick glance from me. I feel it’s important that I at least read enough about the news to not be ignorant about it. And you’re probably the same way. Its our instinct as geeks.

But something occurred to me yesterday that changed my perspective on the situation. I was reminded of the Internet-wide Blue Ribbon Campaign For Free Speech in 1996, launched immediately after the Communications Decency Act was passed that February. It also featured a day of blacked out websites in protest of government censorship of the internet.

There's a very notable difference between the two protests: Back then, the internet was much smaller - less than 1/100th the size it is now, both in terms of users and active servers. The people who were on the internet back then weren't there to nonchalantly post pictures of their cats to Facebook.

Back then, if you wanted to post pictures of your cat, you not only had to build your own dedicated website for it, you also had to wait roughly 2-3 minutes per picture to upload them, as the only way to get them was scanning physical pictures into inefficiently compressed JPGs of 50-100kB and uploading them over a 28.8K modem, which wouldn’t actually upload at 2.8kB. It was usually less than 1kB upload then - and that’s only if you were able to afford the best modem of the day.

The people using the internet in 1996 were mostly geeks, with 57.8% of users having either education-based or computer-based occupations.

While not all of them were “computer geeks” per se, they shared a common trait: They were obsessive about what they loved and cared enough about it to learn how to use a computer, learn how to connect to the Internet via a phone line and modem, learn how to post information to news groups. They were passionate, intelligent and motivated. I know, because I was there.

Today? Not so much. The stream has been polluted by, well, everyone who isn't us. And the result, while shamefully entertaining, is a feeling that the world has gotten stupider.

It probably hasn't. We're just more aware of it now, because everyone has a channel to broadcast their minds with very little barrier to entry.

A geek’s natural reaction to this is to sigh, shake our head and make references to the film “Idiocracy,” (Which posits a world that has become populated almost exclusively by stupid people because all of the smart people stopped breeding. It’s an uncannily fitting metaphor.)

But there's a flip side to this coin. The reaction to SOPA/PIPA should make geeks responsible for educating our less enthusiastic peers.

Geeks can point other people to the resources that teach them what it is they don't know, (even if you have to sigh when you do it.) Geeks could even write and originate the information others need in order to learn about how the internet really works. The fantastic Khan Academy video explaining the SOPA and PIPA bills is a great example - rather than taking the opportunity to create a video lampooning how stupid people can be when they're not geeky, they break everything down to extremely easy-to-understand concepts and then illustrate them.

In 2012, you can become a part of the solution of the global stupidity epidemic. You can be a better geek. Sure, it's inherent in our culture to snark - it keeps the fakers and posers at bay. Yes, some people absolutely deserve to be derided - when they are willfully ignorant and won't listen to your warnings about the consequences; they deserve to learn what it's like to touch the hot stove.

But for those that can and might listen, it's your responsibility as a geek and a knowledge-owner to spread that information and help them. They don't have to be a member of our club to understand why it exists or the work we do. And if they don't understand, at least they'll know where they can find some information.