A Word or 1000 on “Geek Culture”

“I’m such a geek!” – everyone who has knowledge of and passion for absolutely anything.

Groan. Geek has become one of the most overused descriptors of our day.

Don’t get me wrong. At the root, I see what the attempt at reclamation could be – I think passionate, driven and intelligent individuals who will change the game should be celebrated. But that’s not where geek came from, and that’s certainly not what’s going on in so called geek culture today.

The word geek originated in the early 1900s, meaning circus freak. The word likely originated from the Germanic geck, meaning a fool or simpleton. It wasn’t until the 1980s until the word comes into more familiar use: someone who lacks social graces but is obsessed with computers. Nowadays there are a variety of geeks: computer geeks, music geeks, book geeks, even sports geeks and porno geeks. Yikes!

My problem is not at all with anyone who proclaims to be knowledgeable and passionate about any subject – indeed, I love listening to someone speak to a subject they are really into and driven towards, regardless of whether or not it’s something I know much about at all.

My issue is with the word becoming not only a catch all descriptor of a dangerous culture of consumption, but used as an exclusionary, self-deprecating and bullying expression, as well as a fashionable (marketable) “sub”culture – all of this paints an incredibly ugly picture for our kids who we need to be passionate and knowledgeable and engaged in order to solve the shitty mess we’re leaving them.

Catch-All Fakey-Wakey Crap

Seriously, how many times this week did you hear someone call themself a geek? I’m such a music geek. I’m such a football geek. I’m such a <insert popular sitcom> geek. I’m such an Apple geek. Being obsessed with sports or Apple products doesn’t make you a geek: it makes you a fan and consumer of popular culture. And being an uber-fan and uber-consumer is regarded as kind of wacky. We wish our obsessions could be useful and productive (like a “traditional geek” whose abilities and interests brought about great strides), but sadly most of them are simply not.

This is not to say that some self-proclaimed geeks are not legitimate “experts” or “intellectual contributors” to their chosen geek field, but that brings us to our next heading.

Come Here/Go Away

I see the word geek being used to the detriment of knowledge-seeking culture in two completely opposite ways.

1)      Exclusionary: Self-identifying (or perhaps having your own drove of fanboys who identify you) as a geek has become some kind of badge of honour, setting you above others with similar interests and likely equal intelligence. To say you’re an Apple geek doesn’t fly with me unless you’re Steve Jobs. And he’s a ghost. And he’s laughing at you because a gold iPhone and every subsequent iPhone doesn’t make you a geek. But it did make him really rich. Similarly, self or group proclamation of your apparent savviness on any topic – even if you are really, really good at it – gives you no right to exclude others. While “traditional geeks” may have been socially awkward, they weren’t entitled assholes.

2)      Self-deprecating and bullying: At the opposite end of the spectrum is geek is the pseudo self-groin punch of identifying as a geek. I’ve witnessed so many people sheepishly self-identify as geek like someone might self-identify with having explosive diarrhea. Likewise, I’ve witnessed people calling others geeks in a way that makes you think they’re one sentence away from “can’t you take a joke, Poindexter?” This socially acceptable kind of bullying is pretty rampant in the tech world (as I’ve heard first hand from people who have been called geek on a daily basis.) Because the word is so watered down, it’s seen as an acceptable way to address others in the workplace. It’s all in good fun though, right? Not so – as it stems from that original familiar stereotype. You work with computers so you must be some kind of awkward savant.

Not sure? Ask yourself this: think about other similarly socially derogatory terms. Stoner. Jock. Square. (I refuse to get into terms that denote race or sexuality because quite frankly that’s a completely different conversation.) Even in a day and age where it’s becoming more socially acceptable to smoke pot or incredibly encouraged to be physically fit, applying these terms would ultimately do more harm than good, regardless of how much society may “reclaim” them. Regardless of reclamation, the negative connotations still exist.

The Chic Clique

And claim someone has, though I’d say geek chic culture should be as transparent as a cheap pocket protector. Like the Hollywood trope of the geeky girl taking off her glasses to be a total sexbomb, we’ve started reverse packaging in the name of sex appeal. And why not? If the word geek has become a guise for an uber-consumer, why not market a throwaway subculture fashion to make them feel even more at home? Not geek enough? Buy yourself a look: it’s way easier than actually trying. And who doesn’t want to be look like a hot librarian?

The Bottom Line

Okay. If you can’t tell, the whole thing leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth and acting like a big old stick in the mud. All of this, for me, boils down to one thing: our kids.

We are giving our kids the wrong ideas about being intelligent, driven, and passionate about knowledge and technology.

We should never call ourselves geeks when what we mean is that we’re really interested in and passionate about something. We should never call ourselves geeks to set ourselves above others. We should never call ourselves geeks when we actually just have product obsessions. We should never call ourselves geeks when we’ve spent $70 bucks on a fake pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a sweater vest. We should never call ourselves geeks to apologise for our talents.

Bottom line: let’s encourage our kids to be passionate about what they’re passionate about, and celebrate when their interests in knowledge and technology bring their own sense of self-awareness, self-esteem and interest in the world to a new and exciting level. Teach them to be inquisitive and interested. Teach them to never ever EVER apologise for being good at something. We need our kids to have the capacity and drive to solve big problems. We need them to want to solve big problems. And we need them to have confidence in their abilities and respect for the abilities of others.

And that is not geek culture. That is the future of education or we’re all terribly, terribly screwed.