We are entering, or have perhaps already entered, a strange new era. It has crept up on us while we were busy discussing inconsistencies in Battlestar Galactica and arguing about the ramifications of a particular pairing in the latest Harry Potter fanfic. It is the era of accessibility.
Chances are, your mother has a Facebook page. Your sister-in-law (yes, the one who never misses an episode of Project Runway) has an iPhone, iPod, iPad and Kindle. And while your grandfather may not be compiling a Linux kernel on his netbook at this exact moment, it’s really only a matter of time.
Technology, historically the demesne of the geek caste, has become a standard element of middle-class life. The relative who needs us to set the clock on her VCR is a dying (if not altogether extinct) breed, and we find ourselves standing at a crossroads. The fact is that access to technology, and the accessibility of that technology, have conspired to make the geek obsolete. We are no longer the socially awkward miracle workers of the office, but are instead the guys with the poor hygiene who know too much about The Simpsons and too little about etiquette. We are returned to our roots as unwanted outcasts, only now our smug sense of superiority is based on nothing at all.
Let’s consider the facts. But first, a word…
It is not my intention to pass judgment on anyone or anything (except where it’s funny to do so). I am not attempting to discuss truth or virtue – rather I am pointing out trends common to subcultures as they evolve. A new movement is, by virtue of being new, rebellious. A movement that is resistant to new developments is conservative. These terms should not be read politically, although there are certainly ramifications in that arena.
Now, if it please the Cos, let us continue!
The term “geek” as we know it did not reach the American Heritage Dictionary until the late 70’s. As late as 1976, the only official use of the word was to describe a carnival freakshow denizen who bit the heads off of live chickens. We’ve come a long way, baby! At some point (and our elder readers might be better able to nail it down) the term ‘geek’ became more-or-less synonymous with ‘nerd’, implying both a gross inability to comport oneself publicwise and possession of a certain degree of intelligence or skill in an unpopular (but not necessarily disapproved of) arena – specifically, technology.
Napster is commonly vilified for its role in the downfall of the music industry, but I believe its major contribution to culture was that virtually everyone wanted in on what it offered enough to get online and figure out what the hell was going on. From that point, the popularity of blogs, online journals and networking sites were pretty much assured, and easy access to those resources has been a key marketing point in the production of new, user-friendly hardware.
One can’t help but notice that, as this evolution in technology has taken place, so too has an evolution in geek culture. While geeks have certainly always been prone to specialization, one finds that people (especially in the 90’s and 00’s) began to see ‘geek’ as too broad a concept; enter the movie geek, music geek and science geek. This evolution coincides, as I mentioned, with the traditional geek medium, technology, becoming more popular – and we began to see people who were not traditional geeks begin to apply the geek moniker to themselves. Young female pop music fans, for example, would sometimes call themselves “Britiney Geeks”. I consider myself something of a “History Geek” and “Lit Geek”. The hipster culture led the charge on “geek chic” as a fashion concept. There were even Sports Geeks for crying out loud!
And perhaps I shouldn’t use the past tense. These terms are still in circulation, and it is perhaps only the traditional usage that has fallen out of favor. Not entirely out of use, but certainly less bound to its original previous moorings. So while the old guard geeks yet live, our language has been more-or-less hijacked. As our interests became more attractive, they were also made more accessible, so while there’s a lot of talk about “geeks” being cool these days, it’s simply not so. Cool adopted “geek” as a term, but it didn’t adopt the people. It seemed like it was going to, because for a time the only people who knew how to upload a video and embed it in a webpage were the same people who had spent their adolescent years assembling motherboards in their parents’ basements – but as that skill becomes disassociated with narrow specialization, those specialized people are made both less special and less necessary. And this has certain, predictable ramifications:
1) Geeks have become more generally conservative.
This is a subjective issue, obviously, and it’s what I didn’t want to sound judgmental. Maybe being conservative is a good thing, maybe it’s not – that’s for you to decide. The point, though, is that conservatism is about, by definition, conserving something, real or perceived, that is slipping away. That’s why it’s so prominent in movements that have entered a decline. On some level (subconsciously for most) geeks have become afraid of the future and afraid of change. We’ve become resistant or even hostile to new ideas. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a geek who would acknowledge this in himself, because being a geek has traditionally meant that you were enamored of the future. It’s a strange reversal, and a significant, meaningful one.
Geeks rail against file sharing, for example. That’s fine on an individual basis. My point is not that file sharing is good and geeks are bad for opposing it. My point is that geeks created file sharing. You’d be hard pressed to find a geek, even the most rabid hater, who didn’t have and use Napster back in the day. They do exist, of course, but so do duck-billed platypi – and they break just as many helpful rules-of-thumb. So the point is that a change has taken place in the attitude of the culture.
2) Geeks have changed their focus.
While still claiming the label “geek”, we have become notably less concerned with our traditional focus, technology; and more concerned with the peripheral trappings of traditional geekdom – namely video games, comic books, science fiction and convention culture. Being a geek, to us now, means being a hobbyist. Personally, I think that’s unfortunate, but it’s not my call.
Remember, the telephone wasn’t invented by a geek. But phone phreaking was. It’s not that we are the great inventors, but we are the great understanders. We’re the first people to embrace a new development, push it to its limits and come up with new and interesting applications. That is our contribution to society, and it is significant. Or it was.
Now being geeky is less about technical savvy or intelligence, and more about useless trivia and obsession. Granted, there has always been a bit of fanboy-ism in geek culture, but doesn’t it seem that we’ve gone off the deep end? Geeks are no longer considered by the broader community to be bookish or bright, but to be boring, lecturing teetotalers. We are no longer the Kubricks. We are the Whedons.
The major ramification of this loss of focus is that while we cling to a term that is no longer used to describe us, the term itself is losing its association with us. Not only is it not used on us, but it no longer should be. Perhaps it is my own geek conservatism at work, but that makes me a little bit sad. The Britiney Geeks might be phony, but so are we.
3) Geeks are entering a Revitalization Movement.
This is closely tied to my previous two points. In fact, it’s difficult to separate the revitalization of the culture from the changing of focus.
A Revitalization Movement is a concept created by anthropologist Anthony Wallace to describe the process that a culture goes through as it attempts to define itself. This can happen a number of times in a given culture, but for our purposes we are talking about an effort to retrofit a culture’s traditional interests to a new set of ideals in the wake of a great change.
The most famous Revitalization is the Ghost Dance of 1890, where many Native American tribes came together in an attempt to embrace their older customs and shrug off the yoke of European influence. As I’m sure you all know, the Ghost Dance worked out great and they started throwing fire balls at police and a dragon climbed out of Mount Fuji and then ShadowRun happened.
Seriously though, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a popular (and popularly hated) role playing game’s mythos begins with a successful revitalization. I think that spoke very deeply on some level to a people in decline.
So what form is our revitalization taking? Well, there are geeky podcasts like Fear the Boot and others. There are geek-flavored blogs on every topic from politics to gender identity to simple daily life. There are geek archivers like the guys over at x-entertainment.com. There are groups like anonymous over at 4chan and Furries and CosPlayers (oh my!). Each of these groups (and there are many more, of course) embrace some aspect of pre-decline geekdom. It’s no wonder that they detest one another. They’re all participants in a conflict. Each group (without, I think, consciously realizing it) has a stake in being the one to carry the torch. In having a claim to the heritage of geeks.
What I hope you take from this essay, whether you agree with the premise or not, is that we are always a part of something larger. We are always watching history play out. You might, like me, spend most of your time playing video games or you might make lego sculptures or podcast – but there are real fields of study out there that find you (and your people) fascinating and relevant. You can witness the human condition anywhere you go, and that’s got to be worth something!