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Revenge of the Wonks

By Annalee Newitz

EVERY GOOD GEEK becomes a wonk in the end. Think about it--you can't keep hacking forever, kids. There comes a time when staying up all night looking at the output of tcpdump, with nothing but two liters of coke and a bag of jelly beans to sustain you, is no longer possible. Your body just won't do it. And that's when you'll begin to listen to the call of the wonk.

Apache guru Brian Behlendorf heard it. He went from being an open-source coder to being an open-source philosopher--actually, a much easier transition than you might think. Free-software crusader Richard Stallman did it, too. Once, he hacked all night to the sound of purring mainframes. Now he answers email instead. You know: wonky email. Even hacker hero Kevin Poulsen heard the call of the wonk. After living as a fugitive from the feds (for a hackish crime he says he didn't commit), Poulsen now has a respectable desk job editing SecurityFocus, where he wonks out over privacy policies and security issues in the computer industry.

But what, you ask, is a wonk? Wonks are people who like to obsess over public policy with the same degree of passionate freakiness and brainy thirst for accuracy that geeks bring to their code. If you ever see a couple of people heatedly debating a recent congressional hearing about the allocation of federal funds or weighing the pros and cons of a complicated package of legislation proposed by an obscure politician from Vermont, you're witnessing two people wonking out.

Wonks know the teensiest details about municipal budgets. They memorize the names of every single congressional committee and who heads it. Wonks even have a fond little term for the people who hang out at the nation's capitol and make laws or policies or proposals: congresscritters. There's just nothing wonkier than sitting around dissecting changes in the political positioning of your congresscritter and her causes.

Wonks treat laws and social issues the same way geeks treat machines. After all, there's a reason why people refer to certain government cliques as "political machines." The rules for making public policies are as intricate as those that govern hash tables or TCP/IP--in fact, they're probably more complex, since when you're talking about controlling the behavior of a populace there are a lot of random and irrational elements that come into play.

Ever hear wonky lawyers talk about laws that are supposed to reflect "everyday behaviors"? That's because wonks actually have highly codified ways of talking about things like the way you are in the habit of taking off your shoes when you go into a house and how that habit might fit into a larger social issue about appropriate indoor behaviors. If your definition of appropriate indoor behavior deeply offends someone else who believes feet are dirty and should always be shod, your everyday behavior might possibly be violating someone else's civil rights. See what I mean about how geeky wonks are? It's their penchant for taking a highly structured, technical approach to seemingly vast and insoluble issues that knits the geeky community to the wonky one.

There are no social problems that can't be solved in a wonky universe. Sure, they may require reams of legislation, suits and countersuits, and a thousand years of longitudinal studies, but they can be solved. That's why I love wonks. They're fearless. Want to solve the problems of racist violence and religious separatism? The wonks are on it. They'll contact your local community organizations, get some researchers thinking, ask a couple of lawyers to pondering the implications and inspire a few policy-minded journalists to write something. At the end of the month, they'll have a 10-point proposal on how to end racism and secularize the nation.

Unfortunately, the wonks have about as much social power as geeks do. Sometimes you can get the congresscritters to listen to wonks, just as sometimes Bill Gates probably listens to his geeks. But a lot of the time, wonks' brilliant ideas and research languish in the libraries of think tanks and universities. Like geeks, however, wonks never give up. They want to make public life as sane and rational as they possibly can--just as geeks want to make tech that is smart, reliable and useful. And there is nothing quite so awesome as the wrath of a wonk scorned. You thought the exploits of an angry geek were bad? Sure, a geek can mess with your computer. But a wonk can destroy your world. Or fix it.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who follows the way of the wonk.

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From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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