When did “geek” become fashionable?
My entire life I have known that I was a geek. From the early days of school the differences were apparent – at lunch, I was in the computer room whilst the cool kids played football. I liked maths and science when they liked art and drama and sports. When they were listening to Radio 1, I had discovered comedy on Radio 4 and the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide cassettes. I was never part of the “in” crowd … realising some time around secondary school that most of the “in” crowd were complete dicks.
I was a geek – a socially-awkward computer nerd. I would never be the poster-boy for rugged, outdoor health. I would never be a Hollywood star, treading red-carpets and shmoozing with film stars. My calling was not a fashionable one. And as it turns out … I was absolutely fine with that.
And yet in the last few years, “geek” has suddenly become sexy. Fashionable. Apparently I’m a trend-setter – I’m geek chic.
On the surface, we could attribute this to a radical shift away from stereotypes, or a new understanding of modern technology and the people who make it. We could cite highschool nerds who are now billionaires, or people who flaunt government secrets whilst maintaining an ambitious sex life.
But I’m not sure it’s that. Instead, I think the word “geek” has been devalued. People call themselves “geek” to be self-deprecating or to call attention to themselves, rather than understanding what it really means. They use it in the same breath as the oxymoronic “slightly OCD”. This frustrates me.
What is a geek?
I (like many others, I suspect) used to associate the word “geek” with those into computers, computer games, and sci-fi. But my recent year working in the rail industry introduced me to trainspotters, who (for me) redefined the geek scale. Until that point, I had believed myself to be dwelling well within the upper-chambers of the Palace of Geek. But after speaking to trainspotters, I realised I had hitherto only been hanging around in the foyer. There are rooms (and cells, and dungeons) within that palace that no normal person would ever want to see.
After the initial terror, it became interesting to compare and contrast the two subspecies. What did traits do they have in common? Did they evolve from a common ancestor?
The experience highlighted that “geek” is a term that spreads much further than a particular hobby or pursuit. Far too often it is considered only within the context of computers, electronics, or trainspotting … but actually, when you look at what fundamentally defines a geek then you’ll find them everywhere.
I would define a geek as follows: to take an extreme and focused interest in a subject or hobby, often to the detrement of trivialities like dress-sense or social skills. It is often characterised by an obsession with minor details, and desire for factual accuracy. And they fail to comprehend why you aren’t as obsessive as them!
This behaviour is why technology happens. It’s why we have light bulbs. It’s why airtravel is as safe as it is. And it is why you are able to download free porn without the faintest knowledge of the seven-layer network-stack or the intricacies of video encoding.
When identifying a geek, try not to consider physical attributes – such as anoraks, glasses, sandals or facial hair. These are merely the uniform worn by a particular subset of geek – dare I say, the “classic” or “common” geek. This dresscode is not what makes them a geek – it is merely a way for them to express their geekuality.
If you suspect that you may be a geek, or you may have a friend or family-member who is a geek but has not yet “come out” then don’t worry. It is no longer something to be ashamed of. There are plenty of self-help books, helplines, and even the occasional geek-pride rally (though they often call them “Star Trek conventions” or “Maker Faires”) to help promote awareness and social acceptance. At the end of this lecture, my assistant Bernard (he’s the one wearing the Arduino-powered, scrolling LED namebadge that displays “my name is BERNARD!”) will be at the stand at the back of the hall to answer any of your questions in the strictest confidence. He will also be selling a range of “I’m proud of my geek son” T-shirts and car stickers.
Quick guide to other geeks
So if we put aside the ‘classic’ geek for the moment, what else do we have? Well, here’s a list of a few to get you started.
- Hifi geeks – paid more for a pair of headphones than you paid for your car. Will pour scorn on you for not owning any LPs.
- Food geeks – use words like “jus”. Are actually interested in Masterchef. Will pour scorn on you for eating in McDonald’s.
- Film geeks – only watch films with subtitles, in restored 1920s cinemas. Will pour scorn on you for preferring “The Assassin” over “La Femme Nikita”.
- Real-ale geeks – smell faintly of yeast. Describe their shed as a “micro-brewery”. Will pour (haha) scorn on you for drinking Budweiser.
- Literary geeks – go on about the beauty of words on paper. Will pour scorn on you for reading any book advertised on a railway platform billboard.
- Wargaming geeks – carry rulebooks and small tapemeasures. Won’t be aware of your existence unless you’re carrying a properly-painted army.
If you find you enjoy cataloguing geeks, then perhaps you are a geek spotter! Effectively, you are a geek-geek, or meta-geek. Collect an example of each one in a geek net, stick a pin through it and keep it in an album. This rather excellent poster from Scott Johnson might make a useful guide.
But you are NOT a geek if …
My original complaint was that people often refer to themselves as geeks, when really they aren’t. So, for example:
To like Star Trek does not make you a geek. Star Trek has been socially acceptable for the last two movies. If you hear anyone say “I’m a geek because I like Star Trek” then ask their opinion about episodes like “Spock’s Brain” or “The Corbomite Maneuver”. If they look at you blankly then they are not geeks; they’ve just been to the cinema and fancy Benedict Cumberbatch.
You are not a geek if you watch Doctor Who. You’re not even a geek if your mum bought you a sonic screwdriver for your birthday. You are a Doctor Who geek if you can compare and contrast the personality traits of the Peter Davidson and Tom Baker incarnations, and argue vehemently about why Daleks shouldn’t fly.
You are not a geek if you wear “ironic” thick-rimmed glasses, and socks and sandals. If you’re taking what used to be a geek uniform and turning it into some sort of self-deprecating fashion statement, then you’re just a Hipster. You will be revealed as a fraud the moment someone asks you your opinion on Linux vs BSD. Don’t feel bad about that: hipsters are like geeks, but they tend to have less OCD and more social skills, and are a little more self-absorbed. That probably means you’re going to have a more interesting sex life.
You are not a geek if you play computer games. There’s a game for everyone these days. If pensioners are playing Grand Theft Audio then it’s hardly an exclusive club. But you might be a gaming geek if you still own a Megadrive.
You are not a geek if you choose to use Apple products. You are not “alternative” if you mock Windows users. Buying a desirable mobile phone and bitching about Windows is hardly non-comformist, is it? You’re a geek if you build your own computer because you don’t trust anyone else to. You’re a geek if you’ve compiled your own Linux kernel.
Do you STILL “adore” geeks?
Girls: the next time you wear a T-shirt that says “I love geeks!” consider carefully: would you consider it a surprise romantic date to sit on a railway platform all day waiting to see the new 170-series travel from Wilnecote to Tamworth? If he tells you he’s going to take you out and you’ll need to “dress formally”, would you be pleased to discover that it’s a Sci-Fi convention and the two of you are going in matching Starfleet uniforms?
If so, then best of luck to you: I shall toast your happiness with my Thermos of tea and salute you with my Bat’Leth. You shall have a happy future together; with the most secure and well-maintained home computer in a hundred-mile radius, and a toaster with its own disk drive and printer.
If not: don’t say you weren’t warned.