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."
Tech cult No. 4: The Temple of Drupal
Gathering of the tribes: DrupalCon
Major deity: Dries Buytaert
Holy scriptures: The Drupal Handbooks
Religious icon: The Drupal Drop
It's the biggest conspiracy you've never heard of. General Motors and Proctor & Gamble, the White House and the World Bank, Christina Aguilerra and Mensa -- all have joined the Temple of Drupal, the open source content management platform created by Belgian programmer Dries Buytaert in 2001.
It's estimated that 1 percent of the world's Websites use the social-media-friendly Drupal, a number that may increase dramatically after Drupal 7's code is finalized, which is expected to happen later this summer.
"The thing that set Drupal apart and allowed its community to grow so large and so rapidly is, first and foremost, Dries, the guy who founded it," says Matt Tarsi, project director for Accession Media, a Web design, development, and marketing agency that relies on the Drupal CMS.
Dries is currently co-founder and CTO of Acquia, which offers its own flavor of Drupal and sells support services for it.
"I think he really knew how to cultivate the developer community from very early on," says Tarsi. "Even now, as Drupal gets serious enterprise adoption, the company leading the way there is Acquia. Ever hear the phase 'Nobody got fired for choosing IBM or Microsoft'? CIOs like to have a vendor to lean on for product support and upgrades and to scream at when things go wrong. Acquia has now become that for the Drupal community."
The faithful gather twice a year at DrupalCon and 24/7 at sites like Drupal.org, where they welcome newcomers and politely tolerate comparisons to other open source CMSes like Joomla and WordPress, says Tarsi.
Drupalistas are usually easy to spot, he says. They often sport stickers and T-shirts featuring the Drupal "Drop," a Smurf-blue figure with a Hershey's Kiss-shaped head that's become as iconic as the Linux Penguin to earlier generations of geeks (pictured right).
"Someone mumbling about
preprecess_node() is also a dead giveaway," he adds.
Tech cult No. 5: The Way of the Warp (OS/2)
Gathering of the tribes: Warpstock
Holy scripture: OS/2 Warp Unleashed (1995)
Sacred relic: Original OS/2 Warp CD-ROM (circa 1994)
The Antichrist: Steve Ballmer
Once they were legion. Now only a few thousand remain. And yet the devotees of OS/2 Warp are keeping the flame alive -- united by a love of its functionality, a hatred of Microsoft, and sometimes just necessity.
Tech consultant Jamie Wells says a client he works for still uses OS/2 to run its homegrown ERP and CRM systems, only instead of PCs they run it virtualized on Mac Minis.
"It gives them the appearance of being a cult, but they don't think of themselves that way," says Wells, whose company, SheerBrilliance Consulting, specializes in any operating system, as long as it doesn't come from Microsoft. "As technology has changed, integrating these apps with the outside world has become more difficult. We've had to learn more and more about OS/2 to keep them working."
OS/2 has been declared dead more times than Abe Vigoda, yet it lives on as eComStation (eCS), an operating system based on Warp v4 that was created by Serenity Systems after IBM abandoned development of OS/2 in the late 1990s. Many bank ATMs continue to be powered by OS/2, and eCS is still in active development. Some Warp-heads with too much time on their hands have even managed to run Windows 7 under eCS 2.0 [video].
Still, the Way of the Warp is a low-key group that lacks many of the trappings of a cult, such as major deities or bizarre rituals.
"Some argue that using OS/2 is a bizarre ritual in itself," says Andy Willis, vice president of Warpstock, which holds gatherings of the faithful in North America and Europe each year. "Those practicing, however, find it more bizarre to subject oneself to something coming out of Redmond."
Still, using OS/2 more than a decade after it was abandoned by its creators is a bit like operating inside a time capsule, adds Neil Waldhauer, Warpstock's secretary.
"Most OS/2 and eComStation users are rugged individualists who know the technology has moved on, and don't really care," Waldhaeur says. "OS/2 does enough for us, and does it in a style we love."
Tech cult No. 6: The Open Sourcerors
Gathering of the tribes: SourceForge, Open Source Initiative
Major deities: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Eric S. Raymond
Minor deities: Too many to name
Holy scripture: "The Cathedral and the Bazaar"
Animal spirit guide: The Linux Penguin
Vast, sprawling, and anarchic, the open source movement is perhaps the tech world's largest and most anti-authoritarian cult -- and that's exactly how they like it. Their goal: to radically transform the world, one line of code at a time.
"From the geek point of view, what open source gives you is clean technology," says Simon Crosby, CTO of Citrix's Datacenter and Cloud Division, and founder of open source virtualization vendor XenSource (now part of Citrix). "The notion that the best code from the best contributors rules. It has the inherent appeal of technological elegance, independent of business BS."
Hundreds of millions of people use open source products every day, but the numbers of open source developers is unknown. Geoff Radcliffe, director of business development for iPhone and WordPress development shop Raster Media, estimates 70 percent of hard-core geeks are open source cultists.
"This is a movement that won't soon be quashed," says Radcliffe. "The opportunities for a smart mind to get rich, famous, and popular from open source development have evolved considerably since its first introduction and will only continue."
But it's also a movement rife with internal divisions, none more prominent than the schism between the followers of Richard Stallman, who believe software should be free, and pragmatists lead by luminaries like Linus Torvalds, who feel commercialization is perfectly acceptable as long as the code is good and accessible to all. Add in the dozens of different open source licenses, each with their own advocates, and the movement splinters even more.
How do you recognize Open Sourcerors? Look for the geekiest people in the room -- the ones with Perl security algorithms printed on their T-shirts or "There's no place like 127.0.0.1" stickers on their laptops, says Crosby.
Yet it's the geeks who will inherit the earth, he says.
"There's no doubt that open source development has profoundly transformed the world," says Crosby. "None of today's cloud applications -- Google, eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, SaaS, or the iPhone -- would exist without open source. It frees people to do amazing things with software. And wow, they sure have."
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