Obama's Geek Appeal

I have to say that all the focus on Obama's faith recently has made me a bit squeamish. It brings to mind some of my reasons for initially supporting Edwards over Obama in that the language of faith that Obama is so into is both too familiar and too foreign to me. The idea of "hope" is all fine and good for sci-fi/fantasy flicks, but we all know that it has no place in the modern political landscape. And the last seven years of the Bush Administration's ignorance-masquerading-as-optimism has compelled me to turn a blind eye to anything that looks even remotely like it. Forget faith and give me facts, is my motto.

Well, one fact about Obama I couldn't ignore is that his political impact on this primary has been overwhelmingly positive. He has been a major force in encouraging record-setting voter turnout. He's getting more young people and other traditionally under-represented folks involved in politics and the number of small individual contributions he has received has been outstanding. And the kinds of endorsements he's been accumulating have shaken up the way many of us see the Democratic Party establishment. Anyone who doesn't see the value of these accomplishments is seriously deluding themselves. And it shouldn't surprise any of us if we find that, whether we like it or not, Obama's faith talk has helped him reach many a wary voter.

Beyond this, as much as certain aspects of Obama's campaign turned me off, there were other elements to it that I've learned to appreciate over time (after Edwards dropped out). I like Obama's explanations of his background in civil rights law, academia, and community organization. I admire his rhetorical capabilities and his unusual ability to try to get into and make sense of those cloudy areas between two different bits of information that just don't add up right. And his aspirations to try to turn politics away from diatribe and into dialog have a lot of potential. All of this I have attributed to his geek appeal. The side of his brain--separate from faith--that enables him to explain the world based on facts and reason instead of on faith. Until now, I have always thought of this rational side of the brain as the side that generates geek appeal.

In fact, I'm not the only one who's observed Obama's geek appeal. He's garnered endorsements from uber-geeks such as Marc Andreesen and Lawrence Lessig. As for Marc Andreesen's endorsement, it basically amounts to this:
Smart, normal, curious, not radical, and post-Boomer.

If you were asking me to write a capsule description of what I would look for in the next President of the United States, that would be it.
While stopping short of "I looked deep into his eyes and saw his soul", I'm intrigued by Andreesen's personality-based endorsement of Obama for it's ability to be both specific and general at the same time. And as for Lessig, he had this to say about Barack:
First, and again, I know him, which means I know something of his character. "He is the real deal" has become my favorite new phrase. Everything about him, personally, is what you would dream a candidate should be. Integrity, brilliance, warmth, humor and most importantly, commitment. They all say they're all this. But for me, this part is easy, because about this one at least, I know.

Second, I believe in the policies...
While Lessig goes on to explain more about some of the specifics of Obama's policies, I find it interesting that he thinks about Obama's personal qualities first--before policy. This sentiment, although expressed inversely, is similar to that of the folks at TechCrunch who said this when they endorsed him:
Senator Obama has put more time and effort into defining his technology policies than any other candidate. In November he released a detailed position paper on technology issues, and we had a one-on-one interview with him two weeks later.

He is staunchly in favor of net neutrality, and has promised to make it a priority to reinstate it in his first year in office. He has proposed intelligent programs for increasing technology education and access to children. He doesn’t believe the FCC went far enough in their proposed rules for opening up the 700MHz spectrum auctions. He wants to see increases in the number of H1-B visas given out each year. He strongly supports research into renewable energy sources and he has a realistic, market based approach to capping carbon emissions.

More importantly, though, Senator Obama talks about the future with a sense of optimism that the other candidates seem to lack....
It's fascinating to me to see uber-geek's go gaga over specific facts and proposals they like and then say, "More importantly though..." before they talk about this squishy thing called "optimism." How very ungeek-like.

Now, all this is not to say that Andreesen, Lessig, and those at TechCrunch aren't highly reasonable, thoughtful, fact-based thinkers. I have no doubt that, if they didn't agree with Obama on his major positions, they would not be endorsing him. Nonetheless, seeing how the geekiest among us describe their own rationales for making a political decision compels me wonder about my own supposed reliance on fact when it comes to these things. Maybe I am, in fact, more enthusiastic about his personal sense of optimism than I am about his ability to bring in new voters or initiate a green energy policy. Maybe I am, in fact, more appreciative of Obama as a normal person than as a normal politician. Maybe I am, in fact, more susceptible to charisma and various intangible qualities--including faith--than I want to let myself believe...

Speaking of squeamish...Ick.

Great video: Obama speaks and answers questions at Google
at 22:52:
Question to Obama: “What is the most efficient way to sort a million 32-bit integers?”
Obama's response: “Well, ah....I think the bubble sort would be the wrong way to go.”
(funny stuff)

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Nothing New byslag at 8:12 AM

3 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here):

Gye Greene said...

Good points.

I don't think "Geek" is synonymous with "rational, not emotional" -- e.g. Mr. Spock was a geek, but not all geeks are like Spock.

Some things are just **cool** -- like 64 bit processors instead of 32 bit processors -- even if your 32bit machine is working just fine for you... ;) Or having half a terrabyte that can fit in your shirt pocket.

In other words: thinks that butter a geek's beans are things that appeal to her/his interests, values, and aesthetics. These things can be empirically measured, of course -- but these interests/values/aesthetics aren't necessarily in themselves rational.

Howzzat? :)


slag said...

GG: I think we need to separate those two things--rational and emotional. I don't think anyone is either one or the other (Spock was half-human after all :).

But I would suggest that the majority of geeks would not like to think that the primary rationales for the choices they make are that they're "cool". It's my impression that they generally like to think that their decisions are primarily driven by facts, and therefore, highly rational. I know I like to think that's how my decisions are made.

Sometimes, however, I am reminded of a more complicated reality that shows that we're not always aware of the motivations behind our decisions. And when that reality strikes, I think it's important to observe and maybe even document it so that, when we get high up on our fact-horses, we can be more honest with ourselves and each other about how irrational we can sometimes be.

Gye Greene said...

As always, good insights. :)

Follow-up to geeks & rationality: I'm afraid that I still think that -- regardless of how geeks might WANT to perceive themselves re: rationality (and I'm not sure that it actually is part of their self-image [have 4-T ask his co-workers]), buying an old Sun server from Boeing surplus just to "see if you can make it work" -- or buying a cutting-edge PC or laptop -- when **really**, your 1.3GHz machine with 512MB RAM from three years ago will compile your code sufficiently quickly -- it's because it's **nifty**, not **needed**.

("Nifty, not needed" - a good anti-consumerism slogan?)

As Edgar Kiser would attest (Rational Choice Theory) -- and as you suggest -- the goals and values, tastes and preferences aren't the things that are "rational" -- it's the means we use to pursue those ends that are...

Supposedly. :)


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