Tech Cults: 6 Sects of Fanatical Tech Loyalists
Call it what you will -- fandom, devotion, obsession -- certain technologies have a way of inspiring an extremely loyal following. So committed are these devotees, you might as well call them technology cults.
Sometimes these cults are inspired by elegant lines of code. Other times it's dedication to an ideal. Some are looking to transform the way software is made. Others hope to transform humanity itself. And some just want to argue about it all -- endlessly and at great length.
[ Think you're a tech fanatic? You've got nothing on these guys: True believers: The biggest cults in tech | Find out which of our eight classic personality profiles best suit your IT temperament: IT personality types: 8 profiles in geekdom ]
From the Singularity to Slashdot, each of these six tech cults has fierce devotees and, sometimes, even fiercer critics. Mess with them at your own peril.
What cults did we miss? Add them in the comments field below.
Gathering of the tribes: /. (Where else?)
Major deities: Linus Torvalds, Neil Gaiman
Holy scriptures: The Lord of the Rings; Programming Perl (aka "The Camel Book")
Ritualistic sacrifices: Roasting newbies over an open flame
Mantra: Pants are optional
Long before there were comment wars on blogs, long before Digg and Reddit and all the other "social media" sites, there was Slashdot. Its raison d'être: to scour the Net for things of interest to the geekerati, and give them a place to fight about it.
To have an article or post "slashdotted" is both an honor and a curse. It can drive tens of thousands of readers to your site and cause them to question everything from your competence to your ancestry. Pity the fool who wanders blithely into a discussion and says, "What's the big deal with Linux? Windows works just fine." His online remains will later be hauled away in Chinese takeout boxes.
"What sets the cult of Slashdot apart is that we were the sorts of people who were online before the Internet became common," says founder Rob Malda, better known to the Slashdot faithful as CmdrTaco. "So our 'rituals' involved having the Internet largely built into our lives in a way that the previous generation finds stupid and the later generation takes for granted. We come from BBSes and modems, not Twitter and DSL. These whiny texting kids don't know how easy they have it."
How does one recognize a Slashdotter in public? One doesn't, says Malda, because they almost never leave the house.
"Why would we need to go somewhere?" he asks. "We meet on Slashdot 24/7."
Tech cult No. 2: The Sirens of the Singularity
Gathering of the tribes: The TED Conference, H+ Summit
Theological Seminary: Singularity University
Holy scripture: "The Singularity Is Near"
Major deity: Ray Kurzweil
Minor deity: Ramona, the singing AI bot
The goal of Singularitarians could not be loftier: immortality as realized in a living, breathing man-machine hybrid -- a Transcendent Man, a Human+.
This concept, articulated by author Vernor Vinge in 1982 and made popular by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil in "The Age of Spiritual Machines" (1998) and "The Singularity Is Near" (2005), has drawn acolytes numbering in the tens of thousands. According to Kurzweil, the "singularity" will occur by 2045, when technology has advanced to the point where humans and thinking machines finally converge.
(Kurzweil is also famous for communicating via a software bot named Ramona, the talking/singing hostess of his KurzweilAI.net site.)
"I proudly admit to being called a 'Singularitarian'," says writer and researcher Brad Acker, though he's not entirely thrilled with being called a member of a cult. "But the idea of equating the concept of Singularity, an event horizon which has never happened before in the history of evolution as we know it, with OS/2 aficionados or Slashdot fans is nonsensical."
He has a point. For example, not many cults have established their own university, co-sponsored by Google and NASA's Ames Research Center, where the leading lights of technology congregate to hack the next stage of human evolution.
Like Acker, Singularitarians are, well, single-minded -- and very serious about Kurzweil and his work. "This is a scientific movement that must be joined by more individuals if we are to safely and beneficially guide our evolution of humans merging with their tools into transcendent man," Acker writes (in boldface and all caps).
No cult would be complete without its rival faction, even if its members number in the single digits. Dr. Stephen Thaler, who calls himself a "porcupine-ularitarian" just to tweak the Kurzweil crowd, argues that the singularity is not near, it is already here -- and has been since at least August 19, 1997. That's when he received a U.S. Patent for his Creativity Machine, a "conscious" neural network that has been used to design everything from toothbrushes to U.S. military satellites.
"Unlike Kurzweil, I'm not optimistic," says Thaler, who sees this technology inevitably falling into the wrong hands. "I've built the leading form of AI in the world, and all I see as a result is conflict and suffering."
Thaler says he will unveil the secrets of machine-generated consciousness at the WorldFuture Society Conference next July. And then, perhaps, he'll inspire his own following.
Tech cult No. 3: The High Priests of Wikipedia
For internecine intrigue and power struggles, the Wikipedia makes the Vatican look like a coffee clatch. This seemingly informal encyclopedia that anyone can edit is in fact a wiki-ocracy where self-anointed experts vie for control.
Though the Wikipedia has more than 12 million registered users, its inner core consists of roughly 1,700 administrators who possess the ability to reject edits, lock down pages from further editing, and deem entire entries unworthy. But the real power lies in the Wikipedian equivalent of the College of Cardinals -- some 200 to 300 super-administrators who may banish transgressors for life and chart the wiki's strategy and direction, says Sam Vaknin, author of "Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited" and other books about personality disorders.
"This is not an informal network: It is completely rigid with a hierarchy, titles, job descriptions, remits, and responsibilities," he says. "By 2003, the Wikipedia had acquired all the hallmarks of a cult: hierarchy, arcane rules, paranoid insularity, intolerance of dissent, and a cosmic grandiose mission."
Gaining entry to the inner circle isn't easy. One rises into the hallowed ranks through editing massive numbers of articles and mastering the Wiki's labyrinthine rules, says Vaknin. Little wonder then, that the typical Wikipedian resembles a young monk: overwhelmingly male, unmarried, childless, under age 30, and, according to a 2009 study by Israeli psychologists, unusually grumpy and close-minded.
Question the Wiki's methods or reliability, and you are almost certain to get flamed by one of the Wiki faithful. Violate its code and you will be punished. Even Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, the Wiki's flamboyant co-founder, relinquished some of his administrative rights after what some Wikipedians felt was his overzealous deletion of allegedly pornographic images from the site.
For his part, Wales says he wasn't forced to give up anything, and he takes issue with virtually everything Vaknin says.
"I've met more Wikipedia volunteers than anyone else in the world," he says. "They are kind, thoughtful, loving people who work really hard to try to make sure that Wikipedia is accurate. We have an open culture that is highly democratic and very tolerant of dissent and criticism."