It’s Friday night again: time for good Jews to light their sabbath candles, or in our family’s religious tradition, to feel vaguely guilty for not even thinking of it. We lead highly secular lives, not because we’re techno-centric geeks, but in spite of it.
For all that the Internet is often cast as the culmination of a post-Enlightenment, scientific and secular culture, the day-to-day experience of life online suggests that geeks may be among the world’s most zealous worshippers. Geek religions differ from conventional spiritual practices in the breadth of their explanatory aspirations and the kinds of rites they encompass, but they evoke similar levels of fanaticism and evangelical fervour.
Once you learn to recognize the technological commitments that have crossed the line into religious devotion, you will be far better equipped to maintain a healthy skepticism and a rational approach to tech decision-making. Here are a few of the biggest tech religions, the ones you should immediately suspect for their totalizing worldview and missionary tendencies:
- Apple: There’s a reason they call it the Cult of Mac. Apple users workshop and fetishize their products as the received wisdom of Steve Jobs, made concrete — and as if the simple act of holding an Apple product in their hands has made them just a bit wiser by osmosis. This is one of the easier tech religions to join, since you can buy your way in by simply spending an extra 30-50% on all your technology purchases.
- Microsoft: Microsoft users are the Catholics of the tech world. They use Microsoft products because that’s how they were brought up; the Church knows all their secrets, and leaving it could condemn them to the eternal hellfire of file incompatibility. They won’t try to convert you, but they will worry about whether your soul is safe without the security of Microsoft product.
- GTD: Getting Things Done is not a technology per se, but a zen of how to work (and its adherents will tell you, live) in a tech world or with a techie brain. In theory it’s just a system for staying organized, but it has spawned so many software tools, notebooks and training products that it has now become a Complete Framework For Doing Everything. If someone uses a passionate tone to ask you a mundane question like “why do you usehanging files?” or “is that where you write down your to-dos?”, brace yourself for an attempt at conversion.
- Inbox Zero: If GTD were Judaism, Inbox Zero would be Kabbalah: a mystical subset of practices that can be revealed only to those who commit to them diligently. Get your email inbox to zero (empty) on a daily basis, and you will have access the true wisdom and peace known only to your fellow practitioners.
- Follow back/don’t follow back: If you use Twitter, you will know that the decision to follow back everybody who follows you — or conversely, to only follow back some of them — is THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISION YOU CAN MAKE IN LIFE. Like most religious wars, this one hinges on an issue that people outside of either religion do not care about. At all. And yes, you can use Twitter without taking sides — just like you can visit Jerusalem as a tourist.
- Open Source: What started as an approach to building and licensing software code — by following the example of Linux, and allowing anyone to see, modify, use, contribute or fork the code base — has turned into a model for everything from movie making to political organizing. This is the tech religion that comes closest to a conventional religion in promising (at least according to some adherents) a breadth of potential benefits including world peace, a source of limitless cheap energy, a truly democratic system of governance and a stable operating system.
You’ll notice that none of the tech religions I describe include the technologies I myself proselytize most frequently: Evernote, Plex, Drupal, Skitch, Gmail and HootSuite. That is because any nerd worth her salt will be able to tell you that her fervour for a particular tool or tech approach is the furthest thing from religion; that her endorsement of Magic Software 2.1 is a result of rigorous and dispassionate analysis.
Rigorous and dispassionate analysis might indeed lead you to the same tech choices or principles as any of these tech religions — just as it’s led me to my favourite tech tools. But you’ll only know if you resist the sway of a tech religion, even if you need a cross and a head of garlic to do it.