Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Renovating Geekville: Part 2

I'm assuming that you were around for last week's post? Of course you were and thus have been waiting patiently for the continuation of my epic voyage into the land of Geek. What does it means to be a geek, who can honestly call themselves one, and were celebrities wrongly included in a video that celebrated geek culture?

Lights are flickering, cash bar is closing

Part 2 begins:

Did you know that the original meaning of geek, according to wordnet.princeton.net, is a carnival performer who performs disgusting acts? Not only is a geek a carny but he/she does something utterly grotesque (apparently it was in reference to a performer biting off the head of a live chicken- in all seriousness). The Germanic root of the word geek is geke (foolish) and the Dutch root is gek (crazy). What an auspicious start. I connect with this next definition a tiny bit more: a person who is single minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits, but is felt to be socially inept. That definition is pretty inter-changeable with the one for nerd, except that nerd covers all different academic fields and has an even more pejorative tone to it. But the most significant definition that I keep finding is more of a reference point than a definition: See 'computer geek'. That instruction often manifests in my geek Google searches. And to compound this observation, if you type in computer geek in a Google search field, geeks.com comes up. What is this site? It's an online computer store. And the cartoon logo of 'the geek' is highly stereotypical: glasses, messy red hair, big nose, beady eyes. Geeks and computer geeks are more often than not interchangeable...at least on Google. I wonder why that is? (#sarcasm).

This parallel sheds some light on the celebrity Geek backlash. Is being an authentic geek contingent on an affiliation with computing? And I'm not talking about owning a MacBook Pro and having a Twitter account, I'm referring to serious programming skills. So how much is needed? If this quiz that I found really does establish who is and is not a geek, then I better travel back in time and yell at my Comp Sci teacher. No celebrity, save Bill Gates could call himself a real geek (he's known as the alpha geek actually), nor could, I'm assuming, 90% of the people showcased on the I Am A Geek video. But I know that this must be an outdated definition as the very purpose of this post is to address the evolution of the term geek, thus I rejoiced when I landed on this great passage from Julie Smith:

"He was the very personification of a 'geek', a bright young man turned inward, poorly socialized, who felt so little kinship with his own planet that he routinely traveled to the ones invented by his favorite authors, who thought of that secret, dreamy place his computer took him to as cyberspace -- somewhere exciting, a place more real than his own life, a land he could conquer, not a drab teenager's room in his parents' house."

Sigh. Eyes almost welling with nostalgic tears. In my reality, I used books and my imagination to escape to non-Earth planets as a youngster, but the image above still hits home. Here is someone who would hard wire his brain to his computer's mainframe had he the chance and escape into world of limitless possibilities, built on 1's and 0's. I think this passage sums it up perfectly: geeks turn to technology for escape from the regular world.

This passage illuminates three important points about geeks: an affinity for technology, a need for escapism and an inception at youth. How does escapism go hand in hand with an obsession with computers, you ask? Why the escapism? Let me ask you a question first...if you do consider yourself a geek: Were you popular in school? Don't give me the, "yes I had lots of friends in band and one really close buddy that lent me his dad's Playboys and who I went to see 'Return of the Jedi' with". We're you popular? Were you part of 'that crowd' that ruled the school and was filled with stereotypes from a John Hughes movie? If you consider yourself a geek and were popular, I really want to know so I can put you in a room and study you.

Throughout school, I resided on the fringes of popularity. I was a cute girl and was friends with one of the popular girls, probably because I lived in a nice house, but did I feel liked and more importantly understood by my popular peers? No...Definitely not. When I was a younger, even as a teen, I felt horribly different and alone. Having panic attacks about the sun going supernova on the Earth and trying to understand the probability of random accidents befalling me and my family were common occurrences by age nine (not that my parents knew or to the shrink would I have gone!). 

Beyond the chaos of my tortured brain, however, I simply wished that I had a super duper group of best friends who liked me. Unfortunately, the world around me just didn't seem all that accommodating...so I got got lost in stories. I couldn't seem to digest enough of them- in fables, Greek Mythology, Nancy Drew and Chose Your Own Adventures and in Roland Dahl's worlds of peaches and witches. Then in Betty and Veronica comics and 'He-Man' cartoons. My favorite stories were actually ones that my father and my grandmother would make up on the spot, about Sinbad the Sailor and about a brave young girl lost in the woods trying to find her way home. Because they were told instead of read, I became enamored with the power to create a multi- dimensional image with just words. I didn't know it at the time (as all I would envision was the day when I was finally an adult and free of 'mean girls'), but those hours of storytelling coaxed my brain to become idea generator that it is today. I was reading an article on one of the co-founders of the internet, Leonard Kleinrock, who credited his obsession with Superman comics with inspiring him to build his first radio, at age six. No wonder children have an easier time crossing over into the parallel universe on 'Fringe', their minds have the opportunity and the willingness to go anywhere and do anything. 

So my thought is that if our childhood reality was fairly miserable, our instinct to survive compelled us to create a new one. For some of us, that was in our heads through an active imagination, for others it was vis a vi Dungeons and Dragons. How can it change our lives? Well for me, I dreamed of experiences far past the boundaries of my hometown and my creative essay secured me a spot at a top university (I know this for a fact). I have held on to the idea (albeit naively) that if I can envision it, and I work hard enough, it is possible. For others still, it was looking at a computer terminal and dreaming what the potential of such a device was, of actually teaching one to speak and think. Hello technology, good bye status quo and the popular crowd that embraces it.

What about geek culture and the fact that it is becoming more mainstream? All I have to say is Comic Con and even the least geeky person has heard of it, and might even be trying to get tickets. Geek is chic now...which aligns with the whole celebrity aspect of my post…but why? Because the geek culture represents a passionate, supportive community. The sense of community in society today is practically non-existent; do you know all your neighbors or go to Town Hall Meetings? Didn't think so. You probably don't go to church anymore either (I certainly don’t). 

We as human beings need companionship, a community, we need a tribe (as Seth Godin explores in his TED speech). If we are ones who don't align with the status quo, we definitely need to find our tribe. How do we do that? If you weren't popular and didn't feel accepted by the popular kids in school and turned to comics, or 'Star Wars', or 'Buffy', how did you find like-minded devotees? Technology, as Seth Godin pointed out, solved that problem. The internet didn't create one large homogeneous community, it allowed countless smaller ones, tribes as he calls them, to form. These communities don't care about where you live, your dress size or your paycheck, just your passion for the topic. As these online communities strengthened, so did the technological platform that they were built on. You can now connect and play against million of people on 'World of Warcraft' and then watch a webseries about fictional WoW players! Soon, you will be able to become part of a Star Trek online gaming experience if you chose to put your Trekkie knowledge to the test and subscribe to the MMORPG.

These type of online communities have of course now spilled into the mainstream. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, these are all social networking platforms that could be seen as mass derivatives of online communities originally founded by ‘geeks’ looking to connect. Though created by geeks, technology has become a device of the popular. What do you do when the popular even want to call themselves geeks?

Let them. Let popular people be exposed to the subjects, gadgets and stories that have long dominated the lives of us here down in the sub-cultures. We all need a little escapism these days and as geeks we need to be welcoming, not cliquee. Because, can we honestly say that Shaq was part of the status quo as a kid? No, he was a 7 foot alien to his peers. Or Oprah? Talk about bashing down the status quo! And she didn’t have Twitter to help her during her early years. Or even Ashton...he was a model and a sitcom star who has made a respectable career for himself as a producer. Look at what he’s done- it’s pretty innovative. He’s definitely an idea guy and he challenges the mainstream’s idea of entertainment all the time. I have no idea what their childhoods were like but somewhere there was the impetuous for them to create change, so they might be the geekiest peeps amongst us.

Do you see why geeks can't just be computer geeks anymore, though there is a direct correlation between the original term and the more evolved one? I don't believe there is one set of parameters that defines who is a geek in today's times. I definitely agree that it shouldn't just be because someone uses Twitter, but then again, maybe that someone joined Twitter because they wanted to expand their perspective on life and be exposed to new minds, new ideas. If no one desired change, no one would challenge the status quo, thus no evolution would occur. In a nutshell, I believe a bunch of geeky, unpopular kids paved the way for life as we know it today. They dreamt big because they had to. So during these days economic and social strife, head to Star Trek for two hours of fantastic escapism, turn off your phones out of respect now matter how much you want to twitter, and let's just support all those who don't quite fit in and want to dream of something better.


Be back soon...All Things T


worldofhiglet said...

Great post, Taryn! There's been a big kerfuffle on Friendfeed recently about new people coming in but I'm with you - let them! If they like it and stick around then that's a good thing. Otherwise they'll soon be off in pursuit of the next shiny thing.

In the new order we'll all be geeks - lit geeks, tech geeks, fan geeks, zombie geeks...and I think that's a good thing!

Majnun said...

I read this wanting to disagree, but you sold me. Great post.

Taryn O'Neill said...

What's wrong with blogger? (or at least my knowledge of using it) I had no idea there were comments! thanks worldofhiglet and Majnun!