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Atlas Shrugged, the book all geeks should read

Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged is Edmond Woychowsky's ultimate geek book because he finds the concepts strikingly familiar to incidents in his life.

We asked several Geekend contributors to write about the game, movie, comic, and book an aspiring geek must play/watch/read. This is the final installment in the series.

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Like the mythical Atlas, geeks hold the weight of the heavens upon their shoulders. And, if they are taken for granted or mistreated, those very same geeks can shrug off that weight and let the world crash down. This concept is in direct opposition to the two basic tenets that business majors preach: There is no "I" in team, and people are interchangeable. This is the theme of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged.

The story follows the actions of Dagny Taggart, one of the heirs of a railroad, as she becomes aware of an economic stagnation that appears to be spreading across the planet. Along the way, she meets Hank Rearden, a steel magnate and inventor, who like Dagny, has realized that their civilization is on the decline. Together they search for an answer, all the time wondering about the meaning and origin of the enigmatic phrase, "Who is John Galt?"

The meaning of the phrase quickly becomes evident as a synonym to "I don't know." The phrase's origin, however, is far less easy to determine. Even harder still is determining the identity of John Galt. John Galt, with a group of like-minded individuals, conceived of a method where the geeks can shrug off the weight of the heavens and go their own way, leaving the world that we know to those that have only the illusion of power.

I find the concept of a world that demands the fruits of geek labor, yet belittles the geeks themselves strikingly familiar. A part of me remembers incidents in my own life where I felt that the world at large was well on its way to the dystopia that Rand describes. In those moments I ask, "Who is John Galt?"

(Note: After we publish all installments of the series, we'll feature some members' geek profiles with their "ultimate" selections.)
127 comments
hjxnm01
hjxnm01

One of the worst books I ever read - actually worse than "To Kill a Mockingbird"

JoWazzoo
JoWazzoo

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the best books of all time. Period. I have read it 4 times. Its sales have escalated over the course of the past year. Ayn died way too early. But she was mystical/smart enough to see this crap over 60 years ago. heh. John Stossel (sp) did a freaking 1 hour special on it a day or so ago. That says something. Anyone who is a libertarian, conservative, freedom lover or just a capitalist pig should read it. cheers

ar_admirer
ar_admirer

A book that masterfully presents what's possible when reality and reason meet and what happens when there's a disconnect.

ferdi
ferdi

It is a crap book by a bad writer. Come on... Even geeks have some sense when it comes to literature!

wtmillerjr
wtmillerjr

Excellant article. Being number 89 in the comments list, I am happy to add my own thoughts, with little hope of it being more than an exercise in typing. I identify with The Foutainhead more than Atlas Shrugged. It is the story of a man true to himself and his principles in the face of professional adversity. He refuses to crumble to the pressure of compromise. I recommend the novel. To me it represents the source of personal strength that made this country great. In my humble option, Tom

Rhodent
Rhodent

Oh, give me a break.... Geeks means people who escape into technology 'cause they can't get a life. Some of the more talented ones can land great jobs or sometimes even become rich, but neither they, nor the cheap bullies who used to haunt them rule this world. It's the ruthless politicians and businessmen. So wake up, people, snort some coffee and wake up. And, BTW, one of the greatest generals who had ever lived was illiterate. Genghis Khan. And I'm sure history had forgotten many others. Also, many of the "bullies" have become quite rich, I am sure, while many "Geeks" who could, maybe, have been more talented or at least better educated, joined the gray masses of Geeky employees in various tech firms....

gwcarter
gwcarter

If you read the book you not only know who John Galt was, but you also know that Galt, Midas Mulligan, et. al., represent those who do rather than those who carp and presume that intellectual produce of individuals is a resource that is property of the commons. Geeks (open-source or not) understand that their personal productivity fuels ALL economies (viz. USSR) and they continue to produce, even when their output is stolen by others less gifted. Open Source is a way that geeks contribute to the world, and, as Midas Mulligan would have it, cessation of those contributions will have a drastic effect. The book is not about free market, or unregulated individualism, but, rather, recognizes the truth that only individuals can do things and that drones are always ready to take credit for the produce of others (see Balph). Rand's suggestion that producers tell the world to piss off is the problem; I find it ironic that, via the longest purple patch in literature, Rand has her Ragnar Danneskjold tell the world (paraphrased, of course) to Tune in, Turn on, and Drop out. I found the book to be an effective antidote to Barak Obama's thesis that other people have an a priori claim on the produce of my labors. I will donate such at my discretion, not those of the gods of Political Correctness. BTW, kudos to IBM for anchoring Eclipse, and to Sun for MySQL.

j3hess
j3hess

If you were working just as hard in, say, Mexico, your economic output would be a fraction of what you manage here. (I hope you're not one of those who think people in poor countries are poor because they're lazy.) There's an infrastructure - physical and institutional - that has to be built to enable high productivity. A car is pretty poor transport without roads. And the infrastructure is built by the collective efforts and investment of the nation. And the way we pay for it is by taxing the fruit of our labors.

santeewelding
santeewelding

But, for Christ's sake, please break up your goddamned text so a drone like me who don't see so good doesn't have to struggle.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Basically, it's just enormoushly elongated variation of the recurring theme of the classic pro-capitalist anti-communist propaganda: A geek, who tinkers in his garage or barn, and becomes a giga capitallist http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_DaMKUP3Og (4:20 into the video) In real life, however, geeks who tinker with technology never become rich, no way! Voles, who tinker with other people's money become rich.

firstaborean
firstaborean

When I first read Atlas Shrugged, something like forty-five years ago, I read it while questioning every assertion it made and every notion I had that contradicted what was in the book. I ended up agreeing with many of the ideas in the book and disagreeing with some, but I had to re-think nearly everything I believed and then re-shape my convictions. As a result, I've been a very happy man for many years. When I started reading it, I was a biology major in college. Since then, I have had a 29-year career in electronics engineering and a still-ongoing one in the arts (fiction), loving all of it.

j3hess
j3hess

Mises, on reading Atlas Shrugged, wrote to Rand: "You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you." (Reisman, 356) In other words, geeks are under others because they are suited to their station. However, we all like to see ourselves as strong, self-directed heros. We used to use the image of the cowboy. Rand has provided a substitute mythology.

learn4ever
learn4ever

One of my all-time favourite books. I was a Mechanical Designer when I first read it, and now in my 2nd career in IT it still has relevance.

dpzulaic
dpzulaic

I liked the concept of reward for hard work in the book, if I remember correctly from reading it many years ago. Unions formed because of forced type hard work with no future rewards. You see business most likely did not operate that way. Now it seems that unions evolved into scenario of doing only what was agreed on and raises based on number of years worked, not how hard you work. In other words if you work too hard the others will gang up on you, so to speak. There has been talk of creating the same concept of engineers as is done with medical doctors; there is no equivalent medical association and doctor's office, (of course engineers solve by creating while doctors fix and prevent problems). There are engineering societies. There also is a science fiction story where the engineers just took over the ruling of society based on the Atlas Shrugged concept. In other words, they unionized to be able to go on strike, stop innovation, take away the toys, etc. One could compare engineering to sports; engineers have talents to create the things people want more and more. There is a lot of money involved in that, probably more than football. Geeks could probably handle the fame better than football players; not going off the deep end with dog fights, etc.

sboverie
sboverie

What I got out the book was that the captains of industry were working hard to keep their products on the market for a fair price. The problem was the regulators (Rand called them looters) kept changing the laws to benefit those who did none of the work. Dagny set herself to fight what she thought John Galt was about, she thought he was the one destroying the industries until she realized that he was trying to save it. What made the book hard to read was setting it in a historical perspective. For some reason it made sense to put it in the 1930's depression era. Rand made some great points about the power of business if it was not leashed to the control of beaurocrats. Rand also devoted a chapter to poke huge holes in the concept of communism. The from each what they can do and to each what they need was shown to be the greatest failure of communism. The idea that someone who puts in more work than someone else and whatch that person's needs out weigh his own is shown to start bitter rivalries, spying, accusations and bitterness. This chapter seems to have been written from Rand's experience living in the Soviet Union.

tintalbraz
tintalbraz

"I find the concept of a world that demands the fruits of Mothers'/Women's labor, yet belittles the Women/Mothers themselves strikingly familiar." "I find the concept of a world that demands the fruits of artist's labor, yet belittles the artists themselves strikingly familiar." "I find the concept of a world that demands the fruits of US Founding Fathers' labor, yet belittles the US Founding Fathers themselves strikingly familiar." "I find the concept of a world that demands the fruits of Our Military's labor, yet belittles Our Military Personnel themselves strikingly familiar." "I find the concept of a world that demands the fruits of [Your Group Here]' labor, yet belittles [Your Group Here] themselves strikingly familiar." I find myself Grateful for what I do have, and what I can do, and how I can fulfill my dreams. I am Grateful for the Mothers and the Women and the Artists and the US Founding Fathers and the [Your Group Here] and all those who have given me MY Nation. May we not lose that Blessing.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Bit of a long read though. I think Rand suffered from Tom Clancyism, even though she predates him. Obama is definately NOT into Objectivism.

C
C

We can RULE THE WORLD! ;-)

senigma
senigma

Atlas Shrugged, besides being a really poor piece of literature, is a book for the immature, who are looking for an excuse to play the victim and find some moral justification, no matter how tenuous, for their selfishness. Is it any wonder that the architect of the financial crash, Alan Greenspan, was a Ryandian?

spamcan
spamcan

First of all, Ayn's Ovjectivism Foundation does not support the concept of a Federal Reserve interfering in commerce. Thats a whole different debate. Furthermore, the financial crash occurred because all the CDO's and credit swaps were basically worthless. This should be compared to Rearden's new steel, or the oil from Colorado, or gold, etc... all real goods and services and not paper futures/contracts/hedges or promises. In the book, Reardon would never have bought a hedge on materials he needed to make steel. Instead he lamented the fact that he could not trust the supplier. As a matter of fact, paper from Dagney's boyfriend's copper mine venture of was deliberately used to destroy the financial system. I think Atlas Shrugged was written to illustrate the dangers of communism. She never got a chance, however, to consider the cyclical effects of unfettered capitalism. Ironically, cyclical effects are documented in the bible, of all places. (seven years good..seven years bad) Certainly decreased jobs, wages and the lack of opportunity come with depressions and severe recessions in a capitalistic society. One must keep in mind that these are temporary (but painful nonetheless).

spamcan
spamcan

Sorry, but the book has nothing to do with a John Galt being an electrical engineer. In the broadest sense, John Galt's employers refused to reward the workers based on merit. Instead, they wanted to pay the workers based on need, like the communists. John had a great invention, and refused to give it to his employers. It was not because they did not pay him enough. Unfortunatly, we live in a post capitalist versus communist world. We are seeing capitalism in action with globalism and it hurts. If someone can do the job for less, they get the job. It is apparent that the living standard in the US will go down while wages are deflated by foreign competition. In the long run, wages and the living standards should go up in other countries and everything should equalize. The best job to have is one that must be locally. (legal, medical, car repair, building trades, something with a security clearance). And it is clear the recession is decreasing some of those opportunities as well

Woody Goode
Woody Goode

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other involves orcs.

masonm
masonm

You sir, are awesome. Couldn't agree more. I read LOTR when I was 14 and it changed my life. I can honestly say I am a better, kinder, more thoughtful person because of it.

MargaretlBartley
MargaretlBartley

I read this book decades ago, in high school, and I do remember it, so that's a point in its favor. The main things I remember, though, are that she did a wonderful job of describing a civilization in decline - the lazy workers, slimey politicians and bureaucrats, the sleezy union officials, the lazy workers, and the creepy social workers. What I hated, though, was her complete contempt for the people who actually DO the work. In the whole book, she talks about her grandfather who "built" the railroad. At one point, the lazy workers were going on strike over safety conditions as they were building a bridge across a big river, and her grandfather got out there with a steel hammmer and started pounding on rails himself, and so shamed all the workers back to their job, and the bridge got built. At another point, when she in in the valley in the Rockies, she points to two places pretty far apart and says, "Hmm. Now, if we could just build a railroad between these two points...." and I'm thinking, "..*WE* build a railroad? You and what army of coolies?" Where is she going to get a gang of starving workers to build that railroad for her? I can see her out there breaking her fingernails by doing manual labor. She did the same thing with the Fountainhead. The architect doesn't like what has happened to his his building design, so he has the moral right to blow it up? the financiers, the owners, the workers, none of them did anything? Same thing in Anthem. ONe guy dreams up the idea of electricity, and ends up building an electric fortress? Who dug the copper out of the mines? Who smelted the tungsten to make the light bulbs? Who built the factories to make the light bulbs? I can understand her saying, "I"m a philosopher, I spend my time thinking up things that should be. I should be in charge, because my ideas are better than anyone else's; I'm smarter and more important than anyone else on the planet." I just don't understand people who let her get away with this .

TommCatt
TommCatt

You may want to read it again. I think you'll be very much surprised how it will come across much differently now from your teen-aged interpretations. In particular, you'll see that workers are not belittled as you think. Quite the contrary.

just another guy
just another guy

Rand is from a story telling tradition where facts are not so important, and it is suspension of disbelief that matters. Not that different from Freud and others of that era. And it is not just that people let her get away with it, they encouraged and demanded it from her. But not because of some personal motive on the part of any one person. That is where we all stumble. Because our minds are innately flawed. Flawed in ways that make us think we have qualities we do not, and to project qualities onto others that they do not have. It has been said that the human mind has two main components, one that does things, and one that makes up a story about what the other part is up to. Those parts of our mind are not able to communicate directly because the part that initiates action can't use language, and the part that can speak won't shut up and thinks it is in charge. Which is what makes Rand so appealing to that part of our mind that is constantly surprised at our own actions and has to keep coming up with cover stories to tell ourselves and everyone else about why what we did wasn't stupid. That part of our mind thinks it is running the show, that it is Atlas, hopped up on Free Will and carrying the weight of the world around and that is what makes folk tales like Atlas Shrugged so attractive. There seems to be a recent resurgence of interest in Rand, especially among the IT crowd. Which is a little disturbing because her ideas were already out of date in the early 1900's when she was born. The world simply doesn't work the way she describes. Her views are from the 18th century and amount to folk tales. Alan Greenspan ran the Federal Reserve in a way that was intended to unleash the pent-up creative energies of all the Atlas's being held down by regulation. He eventually had to admit that there was a flaw in his thinking. What we need today is not a few more geniuses, however you wish to define genius. We need to raise the bar at the middle. Think of it this way, if we could make 100 cars that got 100,000 miles to the gallon it wouldn't make a dent in the energy problems we are dealing with. If we could take all the 15 mpg and less vehicles and increase their efficiency to 20 mpg it would put a huge dent in our fuel consumption -- because there are so many more of them. We need to both raise the intelligence of the average person, and celebrate the contributions that groups of ordinary people make to our society. We need to teach our children more than just facts. We need to teach them how to work together to solve problems none of us can solve on our own. The Founding Fathers of our country would have laughed at Rand. Benjamin Franklin, who was likely the smartest man on the planet at that time would have found her "Philosophy" especially laughable. He said, "As we enjoy great advantages from inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously." It is groups of people that make history. Ordinary people.

winfielr
winfielr

from the small bit I was able to slog through, and the sophoric devotee's that touted it and enthusiastically supported Ayn. If you are young, totally healthy, need none of the trappings of civilization such as food, water, fuel, hospitals, roads or all else made by others, then you can completely ignore the social contract, turn off your frontal lobes and follow her

jlw+tech.republic
jlw+tech.republic

Copied/Pasted from the Customer Review I posted back on 2/9/2009 at Barnes & Noble's website: I remember seeing this sitting on my mother's bookshelf growing up. It's typical College English Literature that I somehow managed to avoid 30+ years ago. I had a 15% off coupon that was about to expire, and there wasn't anything new in my typical reading interests, so I said "What the Heck -- I probably should have read this ages ago, why not?" and bought it. Normally I read 2 to 3 books a week. It took me from THANKSGIVING through the 2nd week of JANUARY to plow through this. My wife, who usually takes 2-3 months to read light mysteries like Monk or Diagnosis Murder actually finished one of those AND Marley & Me in the time it took me to read this one. Since putting it down I've gotten back to my usual speed so it left no lasting damage ;-) It's clearly a literary classic nonetheless -- it just reads HARD for somebody who generally reads NOT for personal growth or to discuss with others or all the other snobbish reasons one might pick up a book like this, but rather for entertainment. I found if I would put the book down (which was frequently), it sometimes would take 2-3 minutes just to find where I'd left off on the 2 pages offered by the bookmark! While I can't say I enjoyed this, it's another thing to check off my "bucket list."

fractalzoom
fractalzoom

I first read "Atlas Shrugged" in my early 20s, and I was naive and idealistic enough to be swept up by Rand's themes of individual accomplishment being the only currency of any true worth. As time passed and I gained more maturity and experience, I came to realize that this view is unrealistic. At some level, it *is* our obligation to look out for and protect those more vulnerable. Taken to a pure extreme, Rand's views would produce the law of the jungle. In this regard, "Atlas" is a fable, and as such is more effective exactly because it is taken to en extreme. And I would point out that the idea of "caring for the more vulnerable," if taken to its extreme, would also produce undesirable results. It's a matter of finding that middle. Unfortunately, today's debates are cionducted from the extremes, and anyone not in the extreme camp is labeled as belonging to the opposite extreme.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Rand is not necessarily against "charity". She's against the notion of a compulsory "obligation". There is a difference, albeit a subtle one that most people (and all "progressives" miss.

rocket ride
rocket ride

"Rand pulls a trick of fixing the answer by her choice of axioms, the premises on which she bases her scenario." And, of course, progressives never do any such thing. -- Paul

santeewelding
santeewelding

If you wrote that on the fly -- real damned good.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

It's simply amazing how much of what she wrote of 60 years ago is happening right now. You're right. It's not history. It was more of a warning.

j3hess
j3hess

This is enlightening as to Rand's theory, thanks. Rand pulls a trick of fixing the answer by her choice of axioms, the premises on which she bases her scenario. "Group needs and desires are only aggregates" is only true if there is no such thing as society. You might consider also the concept of emergence - that the properties of a systems are not reducible to the properties of it's components. (No individual part of a car has the property of transportation; it's their assembly in specific relations from which transport emerges. No individual component needs oil, but once they're rubbing against each other oil becomes vital.) It is in no individual's interest to die in war. Defense is necessary for the community to survive, however. People can sometimes be motivated by emotional attachment to the society whose very existence Rand denies, or compelled by obligation. We see Rand's world in operation on Survivor. But you and are are not born onto an island of self-selecting aggregates of selfish individuals, we're born into communities which provide us benefits and make demands. Remaining within that community, you effectively if not intentionally elect to accept the obligations. "Objectivism does not denigrate society"? No - it just denies it's existence and then hides that error in a fictional where the author controls everyone's thoughts, personality, and behavior in order to achieve a predetermined outcome. I never confused the James Bond stories with the real live of spies, but Rand's fans confuse her fictions with histories.

TommCatt
TommCatt

It shows a massive misunderstanding of Rand's philosophy to speak only of individual action. Progress is best achieved through the cooperative action of groups of individuals working together for a common end. Each individual, however, is acting voluntarily out of his own self interest, not under any mystical "obligation" that he did not place himself under. Objectivism recognizes only individual needs and desires. Group needs and desires are only aggregates and never take precedence over the individual members. Objectivism does not denigrate society. It just says that gangs of individuals (and society is just a very large gang) has no right to force any member to act against his own self interest. Which, btw, is the only time force is required, isn't it?

j3hess
j3hess

Let me guess - she recognizes no contribution of the community to the success of the individual, and hence no obligation to contribute to the maintenance and reproduction of the community?

j3hess
j3hess

I see you have matured through your experience; too many maintain immature world views even as they age.

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

"Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution" by Steven Levy "The Soul Of A New Machine" by Tracy Kidder

mtucker
mtucker

'Selling the work ethic' by Dr Sharon Beder. Serious, well researched non fiction, unlike the propaganda that Ayn Rand wrote.

jimmanis
jimmanis

Poorly written propaganda made popular by the people who found it propagated the notions they already held as truth. "I feel like I'm being crucified! I must be Jesus!" By the way, in the myth Atlas did not have the choice to drop anything.

TommCatt
TommCatt

Alas, so few pieces of literature are made popular by those who disagree with it. But I won't say more. Wouldn't want you to feel like you're being crucified. ;)

jimmanis
jimmanis

That's okay. I've been crucified before, but I've never learned to walk on water. Read Joyce's Ulysses. It's both the most important novel of the twentieth century and the most overrated.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

What are electrical power plant technicians? If power techs are Atlases, what are power plant construction workers? If construction workers are Atlases, what are steel mill workers? Etc.

rocket ride
rocket ride

Folks -- Might I commend to your attention the poem "The Sons of Martha" by Rudyard Kipling? -- Paul

TommCatt
TommCatt

Just because you're job is important doesn't mean you're indispensable. In it's own way, every job is important to the smooth running of civilization. The sudden disappearance of all bakers or all truck drivers or all ditch diggers (positions I have held at one time or other) would be a severe inconvenience to society. But, yes, they would be relatively easy to replace. We're not talking about the people who labor to keep us going, we're talking about the creative geniuses who lead us into the future. And we're certainly not talking about the min-wage teenagers who drive around proclaiming they're part of a squad of geeks.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"The average technician and laborer are not the Atlases of the world; when one quits, he is easily replaced. Not so the true geek. ... We see clearly that the modern world rests squarely on the shoulders of just a few thousand geeks." Based on the number of outsourced technology jobs, I submit replacements are easier to find than you think. As to the ease of replacing those in what are traditionally called 'trades', ask any HR manager how easy it is to find someone with tool and die skills. "What if these people became aware of just how much the rest of the world relied on them and withdrew their talents from the marketplace?" I assume by 'these people', you mean the ones in agriculture. Or did you mean the transportation industry who brings food to us? Or the warehouse, distribution, and retail system that makes food easily available to us? The modern economy is so interrelated that its short-sighted, narrow-minded, and egotistical for any one sector to think it's irreplaceable or that it's absence would bring things to a halt any quicker than another specialty's absence. Where would we be without those who provide us with clean water and then treat and manage the sewage? If you think those aren't technical fields, visit your local facilities.

TommCatt
TommCatt

A geek is not just someone who works in a technological field. Many people work at their jobs because they have a bit of talent in it and a technological job is as good as any, better than most. Geeks live for their work. Their constant drive to excel and see what new thing can be done with the tools at hand are what makes geeks...well, geeks. The average technician and laborer are not the Atlases of the world; when one quits, he is easily replaced. Not so the true geek. One only has to consider the advancement of the last generation, the rise of computers and related data-driven advances, the Internet, cell phones, games, medicine and on and on -- plus the close proximity of nanotechnology, genetics and all else that is coming down the pike. We see clearly that the modern world rests squarely on the shoulders of just a few thousand geeks. Atlas Shrugged just asks the question: "What if these people became aware of just how much the rest of the world relied on them and withdrew their talents from the marketplace?" It's a rhetorical question, of course -- Geeks would never act in such a concerted manner. But the purpose of literature is to ask such questions and provide possible answers. In fact, didn't I read here recently a calculation of how long we could survive an outbreak of zombies?

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