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What we can learn from gear porn

 

Swyft prototype for Canon Cat by John Abeles Creative Commons via FlickrNerds get a bad rap. We are being made fun of for our love of, and intimate ways with, our gear. When I say ‘gear,’ I mean computers, musical instruments, stereo equipment, cameras… anything that only reveals its depth when engaged with properly, and anything where there’s always a ‘step up,’ a better version that can be bought, configured or hacked. New, better gear fills us with desire, partially because it enables us to pursue some greater cause more effectively; partially because owning better gear than the next nerd gives us a certain gearhead cachet.

While I’ve been reading the big gear blogs for years — Engadget, Gizmodo, Tom’s Hardware, Computer Audiophile, Create Digital Music and the like — a recent addition to the field has kept me coming back consistently. What sets The Setup apart is that it consists of a series of interviews with real-life gearheads, the tech industry famous and not-so-famous, talking about the gear they own and the gear they’d like to own. They’re also asked to imagine their ideal future gear (“What would be your dream setup?”).

What makes The Setup special is that it accurately describes the almost symbiotic relationship nerds have with their gear. The most interesting aspect of it is the fluent, almost poetic voice with which most of the interviewees describe their equipment. This blog doesn’t dumb anything down for anyone: every contributor assumes that you are already a gearhead and that you’ll understand the language. This is not a blog for those who don’t already have at least the same tendencies. A lot is taken for granted here, and every interview asserts a common set of assumptions. There are no Mac versus Windows slinging matches, either; it’s clear that at this level of gearheadness, you’ve tried everything, understand it well enough, and have arrived at your preferred configuration.

There is something fundamentally inspired about presenting tech workers and their equipment in this way. It relates most closely, I think, to what we know about artists, artisans and craftspeople and their tools. There is an intimate connection between artists and their brushes and canvases; between goldsmiths and their forming tools; between artisan potters and their wheels and kilns; perhaps even between roofers and their hammers. In each case, an intimate knowledge of the tools is required in order to deliver quality work that others will pay for. Such mastery is obtained in the course of what are often long formal training programs or apprenticeships (or informal learning and ‘working your way up’).

Why should it be any different in the computer industry? I think that my long history with being an actively engaged, enthusiastic and analytical advanced computer user uniquely qualifies me to be good at my job. I know intrinsically how things work; while I’m not an engineer and have never designed any hardware, I understand hardware concepts very well. I’m even better at software: my work revolves around designing commercial software for my customers, and I take an active interest in my field. Yet, if I weren’t also a passionate, frequent, long-term user of all manner of software, I’d only be half as good at my work.

I think the popular view of the nerdy gearhead comes from the fact that a large percentage of the general population now also uses computers (not to speak of stereo equipment, digital SLR cameras, etc.). And for all those who use a computer merely as a day-to-day tool to achieve something else, it seems incomprehensible and ridiculous that there are some who engage much more deeply with their equipment.

In order to really create something great on a computer, you need to achieve a certain ‘symbiosis’ with your equipment that’s exactly the same as learning how to mix oil paints and successfully apply them to a canvas.

The nuances in The Setup are also revealing. Everyone’s got their own hobby horse, their own foible: Maggie McFee keeps talking about backing up; Jason Rohrer takes great pride in using an old Dell laptop that his sister was going to throw out. Only people whose understanding of a particular field is very highly developed are permitted to have eccentricities, and these folks are near the top of the heap in this regard.

I also thoroughly enjoy following the evolution of someone’s gear-related pursuits. For example, Tim Bray talks quite a lot about his high-end digital music setup (which is not unlike my own, to some extent). It’s inspiring to follow a true nerd’s passionate inquiry into a ‘related’ field and then see the finished product.

I’ve learned a lot from The Setup and — if you’re a nerd — you will, too. I think it’s time that the gearheads took back the legitimacy of their pursuits from popular culture’s disdain. If it’s true that (for better or worse) digital workers are like artisans (some more like artists, some more like craftspeople), then we should be allowed to have deeper relationships with our tools just like other, similar professions. I enjoy the ironic “taking back geekdom” movement that started as early as 1995 with Douglas Coupland‘s Microserfs as much as the next guy. But the irony only serves to mask our underlying suspicion that maybe, just maybe, everyone else is right, that these digital tools don’t deserve the same kind of respect, and that our deep, emotional investments ultimately won’t be paid back.

I say get rid of the irony and commit to being a gearhead. Embrace it.

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2 Responses to What we can learn from gear porn

  1. Daniel Bogan September 13, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

    Hah, cool!

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