Thinking Geek

I consider life hackers to be geeks, and I understand geeks to be those who are enthusiastic about a topic.1 For instance, reef geeks are into aquariums. Of course, when speaking of geeks what is most likely to come to mind are those enthusiastic about technology and fantasy, such as computers or comics. We can make use of this understanding of enthusiasm to also consider nerds and hackers. Nerds are geeks who are enthusiastic about learning. Hackers are enthusiastic about understanding, exploring, and improving systems. (Contrary to the popular understanding that hackers necessarily break into computer systems.) Hence, life hackers are geeks that are enthusiastic about understanding and improving their lives, in a systematic sort of way.

Consider David Finch’s The Journal of Best Practices. Although he does not use the term life hacking, his journal is “a memoir of marriage, asperger’s syndrome, and one man’s quest to be a better husband.” Finch is a former semiconductor engineer, prone to “belaboring” decisions and logistics as “only engineers” do.2 The “Best Practices” of his title references the systematic practice of documenting one’s decisions and their results, common among life hackers. Best practices represent rules arrived at via experimentation and experience. In this case, Finch was a thirty year-old husband and father who realized that his behaviors could be problematic. He came to this insight, later confirmed by a doctor, by way of an online quiz his wife asked him to take. He could recall the exact date of this realization because it was the day before March 14, what his “fellow nerds” observe as “Pi Day”: March 14 can be represented as “03.14”. Realizing that his routines, enthusiasms, and focus sometimes were sub-optimal, he set about compiling a set of rules so as to be better husband and father. This included things like trying to take his wife’s perspective, going with the flow, and having fun. This systematic approach ultimately led to “the final best practice: don’t make everything a best practice.”3

Beyond this particular anecdote, is there evidence that geeky folks are more likely to think in systematic ways? Psychologists speak of a cognitive style as an “individual’s preferred way of gathering, processing and evaluating data.” It is a stable personal attribute that is seen in patterns of thinking (e.g., mental models) and behavior (e.g. making decisions).4 Typically, two different cognitive styles are discussed: systematic (rational/analytic) and intuitive (associative/experiential). Those with the systematic cognitive style tend to look for patterns and apply rule-based thinking. In an experiment, systematic thinkers improved at playing the game Sudoku because they “used past experience to discover rules, which they then applied to enhance their performance in subsequent tasks.”5 Intuitive thinkers tend towards a larger, holistic view and rely upon the integration of intuition, feelings, and context.6

There is also evidence of associations between the systematic (analytic/rational) style and geeky professions. Among a sample of new computer-systems students, there was a significant correlation between academic performance and those with a preference for analytical thinking.7 Similarly, a sample of hackers attending ShmooCon 2008, a computer security conference, tended to prefer rational thinking styles over intuitive approaches, complex problems over simple ones, and demonstrated “high confidence in their ability to reach optimal decisions through a rational deliberation process.”8

Finch’s Journal of Best Practices exemplifies a popular suspicion that being geeky and systematic might intersect by way of autism. In a 1993 Wired article, Steve Silberman characterized autism as the “geek syndrome.” Given that autism is partially hereditary, Silberman opined that concentrations (and eventual pairing, known as assortative mating) of geeky folk in places like Silicon Valley meant that: “genes responsible for bestowing certain special gifts on slightly autistic adults—the very abilities that have made them dreamers and architects of our technological future—are capable of bringing a plague down on the best minds of the next generation.”9 A few years later, neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues tested if there was “a link between engineering and autism?” Analyzing surveys from parents of children with autism, they found that fathers of these children were twice as likely to be in an engineering field than those of other children.10 Baron-Cohen would go on to posit gendered types of thinking (female/empathizing vs male/systematizing) and argue that autism is actually a type of extreme male brain.11 He came to call this the “The Hyper-Systemizing, Assortative Mating Theory of Autism”12

Baron-Cohen’s theory is controversial. On the topic of gendered brains, critics note that men and women have far more overlap than might be assumed from reports of small differences in averages or in greater variance at the extremes.13 Even Baron-Cohen reported that only about half of females have the “female” or “empathizing” sort of brain14 Also, whereas one physical indicator like height, waist-to-hip ratio, or having a deeper voice can be somewhat predictive of the others, this is not the case for behavior: gender is multi-dimensional rather than categorical or taxonic: “those who score in a stereotypical way on one measure do not necessarily do so on another.”15 This relationship is true of underlying brain structures as well: human brains are “mosaics” and cannot be categorized into two distinct classes.16

Second, the literature shows mixed results with respect to gender and cognitive styles. Whereas one study found a weak association between men and systematic thinking,17 others found the inverse,18 or no significant gender pattern at all.19

Third, more rigorous studies of autism and assortative mating found no link between parental profession and autism or a slight association with mothers’ professions.20 Conversely, a large study of almost have a million viewers of UK Channel 4 found a positive relationship between being male, working in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematical), and having higher a Autism-Spectrum Quotient. On average, STEM professionals had a 15% higher quotient than non-STEM participants. A similar elevation was seen among men relative to women.21 Presently, the results are mixed with respect to autism and assortative mating.

Also, our understanding of autism itself is likely biased with respect to gender.22 Its initial formulations were largely based on boys, girls may have different behaviors or topics of enthusiasm, and society’s expectations about appropriate behavior likely affect socialization and diagnosis (i.e., girls may be more likely to “camouflage”).23 Finally, Baron-Cohen’s methods are critiqued as they often rely upon surveys and entail comparing (already) high-functioning autistics with neurotypical children.24

I don’t wish to belabor the gender or autism points because they continue to be contentious, and this question need not be resolved in order to characterize life hackers as systematic thinkers. As yet, there is no specific, quantitative study of life hackers and cognitive style. However, the inference that they tend to be systematic is not unreasonable given the computer science and hacker studies mentioned. And one can find plenty of qualitative evidence of systematic thinking. Indeed, its inherent in many of life hacking’s definitions. In a 2005 interview by Gina Trapani (founder of Lifehacker.com), Danny O’Brien’s (coiner of the term) described a hack as “a way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, nonobvious fix.”25 Five years later, Trapani herself was interviewed for a documentary about life hacking and she defined it as “a sort of clever shortcut, or way to get something done, or systematic way to get something done in your life, whether that’s on your computer (it’s often on your computer) or just doing your laundry or folding your socks.”26 Life hacking is the application of geeky, hackish ways of thinking: enthusiastic and systematic.

References


  1. J. A. McArthur, “Digital Subculture: A Geek Meaning of Style,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 33, no. 58 (2009): 62, doi:10.1177/0196859908325676

  2. David Finch, Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger's Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband (New York: Scribner, 2012), 110. 

  3. Ibid., 217. 

  4. Christopher Allinson and John Hayes, The Cognitive Style Index: Technical Manual and User Guide (United Kingdom: Pearson education, 2012), 2, https://www.talentlens.co.uk/assets/legacy-documents/71874/csi%20technical%20manual%20and%20user%20guide.pdf; Lilach Sagiv et al., “Not All Great Minds Think Alike: Systematic and Intuitive Cognitive Styles,” Journal of Personality 82, no. 5 (October 21, 2013): 403, doi:10.1111/jopy.12071

  5. Sagiv et al., “Not All Great Minds Think Alike,” 414. 

  6. There is not yet consensus as to whether systematic and intuitive styles are two poles of a single dimension or whether a person could be both highly systematic and intuitive. 

  7. Sarah Moore, Donncha O'Maidin, and Annette Mcelligott, “Cognitive Styles Among Computer Systems Students: Preliminary Findings,” Journal of Computing in Higher Education 14, no. 2 (2002): 54, doi:10.1007/BF02940938

  8. Michael Bachmann, “The Risk Propensity and Rationality of Computer Hackers,” International Journal of Cyber Criminology 4 (2010): 652, http://www.cybercrimejournal.com/michaelbacchmaan2010ijcc.pdf

  9. Steve Silberman, “The Geek Syndrome,” Wired, August 30, 1993, http://www.wired.com/2001/12/aspergers/

  10. Simon Baron-Cohen et al., “Is There a Link Between Engineering and Autism?” Autism 1 (1997): 153–63, http://docs.autismresearchcentre.com/papers/1997_BCetal_Engineer.pdf

  11. Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain (New York: Basic Books, 2003). 

  12. Simon Baron-Cohen, “The Hyper-Systemizing, Assortative Mating Theory of Autism,” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 30, no. 5 (July 2006), doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2006.01.010

  13. Lise Eliot, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps -- and What We Can Do About It (Boston: Marine or Books, 2009); Yanna J. Weisberg, Colin G. Deyoung, and Jacob B. Hirsh, “Gender Differences in Personality Across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five,” Ncbi, August 1, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3149680/

  14. Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2010), 16. 

  15. Bobbi J. Carothers and Harry T. Reis, “Men and Women Are from Earth: Examining the Latent Structure of Gender,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, October 22, 2012, 12, http://www.psych.rochester.edu/people/reis_harry/assets/pdf/CarothersReis_2012.pdf

  16. Daphna Joel et al., “Sex Beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic,” PNAS, October 2015, 1, doi:10.1073/pnas.1509654112

  17. Paul Norris and Seymour Epstein, “An Experiential Thinking Style: Its Facets and Relations with Objective and Subjective Criterion Measures,” Journal of Personality 79, no. 5 (September 26, 2011), doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00718.x

  18. Allinson and Hayes, The Cognitive Style Index

  19. Moore, O'Maidin, and Mcelligott, “Cognitive Styles Among Computer Systems Students”; Sagiv et al., “Not All Great Minds Think Alike.” 

  20. Rosa A. Hoekstra et al., “Heritability of Autistic Traits in the General Population,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 161, no. 4 (2007): 372–77, http://docs.autismresearchcentre.com/papers/2007_Hoekstra_etal_AQin_twins_APAM2007.pdf; Gayle C. Windham, Karen Fessel, and Judith K. Grether, “Autism Spectrum Disorders in Relation to Parental Occupation in Technical Fields,” Autism Research 2, no. 4 (2009): 183–91 page 186. 

  21. STEM professionals (m = 21.92, SD = 8.92) scored higher than those in non-STEM careers (m = 18.92, SD = 8.48). Similarly, men (m = 21.55, SD = 8.82) scored higher than women (m = 18.95; SD = 8.52). 

  22. Jordynn Jack, Autism and Gender: From Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2014). 

  23. Meng-Chuan Lai et al., “A Behavioral Comparison of Male and Female Adults with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions,” ed. James Scott, PLoS ONE 6, no. 6 (June 13, 2011): e20835, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020835; Meng-Chuan Lai et al., “Sex/Gender Differences and Autism: Setting the Scene for Future Research,” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 54, no. 1 (January 2015): 11–24, doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2014.10.003

  24. Lizzie Buchen, “Scientists and Autism: When Geeks Meet,” Nature News, November 2, 2011, http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111102/full/479025a.html

  25. Gina Trapani and Danny O'Brien, “Interview: Father of "Life Hacks" Danny O'Brien,” Web log message, Lifehacker, (March 17, 2005), http://lifehacker.com/036370/interview-father-of-life-hacks-danny-obrien

  26. Gina Trapani and Joey Daoud, “Interview with Gina Trapani,” in Part of You 2.0 - A Documentary on Life Hacking, ed. Joey Daoud (Coffee and Celluloid Productions, 2010). 

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