On Being Geek

It is really a very typical sort of encounter for me. I’ve quite gotten used to it. I am standing in a store aisle lusting after some new technological toy when the lady in the purple dress suit approaches me and asks, “Excuse me, Sir. Can you help me?” It used to bother me, but I’ve worked retail in one form or another for a substantial period of my life and I’ve learned why it happens and come to terms with it.

I have the look. The unkempt hair, the thin rimmed glasses, the glazed eyes that stare past the people to the new toy on the shelf as if it were some form of physical nourishment of which I was in desperate need. Even the untrained eye can put me in the ‘Geek’ column with little to no effort. Of course on this particular occasion the bold green <GEEK> across the front of my chest might have given me away. Whether I advertise or not though, it makes precious little difference. The questions get flung at me all the same.

Having been in customer service for so long, and being a polite person to begin with, I answer reflexively: “Yes ma’am, what can I do for you?”

“Will this program run on my Windows 98? A gentleman that works here told me I would need to download something from Microsoft to my hard drive to make it work right.”

I survey the proffered item briefly. It’s a small box of the sort that have begun taking over software shelves in the past year. I grimace inwardly and restrain myself from launching into a diatribe about just what I think of the smaller boxes. The poor lady in purple doesn’t care about my ruminations on software marketing; she just wants to play her game. The flaming black and gold lettering on the front proclaims it to be an expansion pack. Arcane runes surround the demonic face of the lord of destruction who awaits those hardy adventurers who would dare install this software and challenge him. I smile for a moment, pausing to wonder if the game is for her or for a family member. You never know anymore.

“Yes ma’am, this game will run just fine on Windows 98. You might want to apply the patches that are available on the Blizzard web site. There will be a link to get there in the Programs menu on your Start button after the game installs. It isn’t necessary to play the game though. It will work out of the box.”

“I knew it. That man just kept going on and on about Windows Update and it just didn’t sound right. That GEEK!” The epithet is out of her mouth before she realizes she has said it. She immediately apologizes and begins to thank me somewhat more profusely than she might otherwise have.

Much to my surprise though, I am actually offended. Not at the use of that word as a slur mind you. Quite the contrary, I am very used to that. If I had not become desensitized to having words like ‘Geek,’ ‘Nerd,’ ‘Dork,’ and ‘Loser’ hurled disparagingly at me by the time I reached sixth grade I surely would be a weeping puddle of maladjusted insecurity by now. No in this instance I find myself offended by the fact that she chooses to affix that moniker which I wear as a badge of honor to someone who obviously does not deserve any such distinction. I file my curious reaction for further reflection, wish the lady in purple a good evening and stalk off to sporting goods in search of an appropriate blunt instrument with which to pummel that blue vested font of misinformation.

<< — ? — >>

It wasn’t always this way. I wear my label proudly now of course, as many of my kindred do, but once upon a time in a galaxy not so very far away it was anything but cool to be a Geek. We were social outcasts living on the fringes of our peer groups. No one imagined that one-day we might be giants. No one knew that our kind would someday become titans of industry and kings of new uncharted digital realms.

My time in the neighborhood based public school system was blessedly short. Rather than rap music, fights, and drugs my childhood interests turned to science, literature, and history. While other kids on the bus were gossiping about who was going to fight who in the lunchroom I was sitting alone on the front row dreaming about getting a new Atari console, or better yet a Commodore 64. I was the butt of the class clown’s jokes, the reject scorned by the tough kids and the invisible spot in the middle of the class ignored by all the girls.

Thankfully in sixth grade I applied to and was accepted at a college preparatory school. I dreamed that finally I would be among my own kind, finally accepted at the lunch table and in the group projects. It was a pipe dream of course. I was an outcast among the outcasts. Still mocked for not understanding the nuances of cool, and still rejected for caring more about the new IBM P/S-2’s in the computer lab than I did about the latest accomplishments of the varsity basketball team. The word ‘Geek’ still had four letters in it. My environment had changed but my status had not.

Something happened on the way to adulthood though. Something I don’t think any of us in that lonely band of bespectacled morlocks ever expected. Somewhere in the 90s Geeks became cool. It was not a thing that happened overnight. Neither was it an unfathomable occurrence whose origins are shrouded in mystery. No the seeds for that revolution were sown in the late 70s and early 80s.

You see while we were tying up our parents phone lines logging into local BBS systems there were adults becoming Geeks as well. Originally the territory of Geekdom belonged solely to the engineers, and our Geek culture has inherited much from their idiosyncrasies but make no mistake that they were a different breed of animal altogether and quite distinct from the modern Geek. Some of them became part of that first generation of adult Geeks, but most of those founders came from other fields and were dragged into their new roles due to their propensity for understanding and working efficiently with the new technologies which the engineers were thrusting upon the business world.

While we were cutting our teeth on Pascal and C+ those brave pioneering souls were tending the mammoth mainframes and gently nurturing the fledgling coaxial networks of their offices. And they were also having children of their own. Some of them were even having daughters! So it was that in those bright-eyed little girls was born the hope and promise of the Age of the Geek. It was those daughters of the Geek-fathers who would bring Geekdom into its own.

As the decade of ‘irrational exuberance’ matured we Geek children began to graduate, get good jobs, and some of us even became fabulously wealthy. A few even managed to attain celebrity status, mostly by way of wealth and corporate power. Now this had its own effect on Geekdom of course. Any group of people who suddenly emerge into the public eye wielding vast amounts of power by virtue of the traits that had them labeled as outcasts merely a decade prior will grab immediate attention. More important however to the emergence of Geeks as the new ‘in-crowd’ was the maturation of the daughters of the Geek-fathers.

You see it is human nature for us to look for mates who remind us of our parents. Young men seeking a wife often look for certain traits found in their mothers and young women likewise look for men who remind them of their fathers. It is one of the primary reasons that breaking the cycle of abuse is so difficult. Girls from abusive homes instinctively reach out for abusive men. Likewise girls who lived with affectionate fathers will look for men who display affection in similar fashions. And therein lies the magic.

At the same time that we boys of the first Geek generation were becoming valuable corporate assets the Geek-daughters were beginning their search for life mates and just who is it that they started to suddenly find attractive? None other than the same outcasts they ignored in high school. Now not only were Geeks getting rich and famous, we were getting the girls too and as everyone knows that is the key to being cool. The money and the fame are nothing if you don’t get the girl.

<< — ? — >>

Which brings me back to my consternation over the idiot that didn’t deserve the title of ‘Geek.’

The source of my discontent lies in the sudden appropriation of ‘Geek’ by all sorts of people who really have no clue what it is to be a Geek in the first place. Because it is suddenly cool everyone thinks they can lay claim to the title. The ranks of our brotherhood are swelling but I am noticing that too many of the initiates into our motley band no longer display the traits that identify us. It is almost as if we require a guide now on Geek validation, to separate those of us who truly live with the shadow of it on us from those who would just seek to grab the glory without having suffered the pain.

The first and easiest marker of a true Geek is the deeply ingrained love of technology. This love is primarily directed at computing technology but it will also often take form in other endeavors as well, such as home theatre and home automation systems, and personal gadgets. If the subject in question cannot muster the least bit of enthusiasm for a new video card or for the latest in handheld computing then you may immediately rule him or her out. There is no Geek in them.

Also central to the Geek character is the love of gaming. For many in the modern Age of the Geek this affection is largely satiated in the realm of electronic games. The platform of choice is flexible but an opinion on what is the superior means of electronic gaming is essential. Lack of conviction on this point merely reveals that the subject is not nearly opinionated enough to attain the status of Geek. This passion for gaming though is not confined to the electronic realm. Indeed rare is the Geek who has not darkened the door of some tabletop gaming establishment in the course of their lifetime. Those few Geek souls who do not know the feel of a twenty sided die in their hands must be all that more ebullient in their love of the electronic gaming medium or else relinquish their claim to Geekdom altogether.

Thirdly all Geeks share an abiding fascination with pop culture. For some this manifests in a substantial DVD collection, for others it is towers of CD’s stacked to the sky. The forms are variable but the passion remains across all boundaries. Whether the Geek in question can quote every joke from the Simpsons, recite all of Chris Knight’s witticisms, or act out the entirety of the Holy Grail by themselves all Geeks share a devotion to popular culture and to the classics that define it. Any failure to show interest in such exposes the pretense of a would-be Geek who cannot claim real brotherhood with the souls who suffered for their love of these timeless treasures.

Lastly all Geeks share a propensity for collecting and often displaying trophies to their Geekiness. In some Geek households this is reflected by stacks of posters while in others it involves cherished toys lovingly mounted and cared for. Some collections are merely trinkets that have no meaning to anyone outside of the Geek’s circle of friends. In all cases the collected items are an eclectic reflection of the specific categorical interests of the Geek in question. Some collections are openly displayed, others privately held for personal enjoyment, but rest assured all Geeks have a collection of some sort.

In addition there are also some helpful guidelines to follow regarding things that do not impact the validation of a Geek. First among these is hardware or software related prowess in the computing fields. While all Geeks share a love of and familiarity with technology and most especially with PC technology the ability to recompile the Linux kernel blindfolded does not automatically confer on one the status of Geek. It may simply mean that said person is an engineer, and as we discussed those creatures while related are not in and of themselves Geeks.

Neither does any of the above components automatically validate the Geek by themselves. They must be taken together, for a pop culture fanatic may be little more than a hollow shell of marketing and a toy collector may be nothing but an enterprising convention attendee. Geeks are well-rounded individuals in their own quirky way, and will display some measure of all these traits in varying degrees.

And it is these marks, these pillars of our character that set us apart not just now but also as we matured. Those things that are seen now as interesting, eccentric, or even cool, are the same things that made us outcasts in previous years.

<< — ? — >>

I remember when I finally stopped trying to fit in. I was stubborn and pretty needy so it took a while for me to come to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth the effort. I think most of us who claim the mantle of the Geek can probably commiserate about some time in our lives when we finally realized it was a futile attempt and we were better off adopting an insular, immured attitude. For me it was my final year of high school.

I had given up any attempts at real social integration and determined that if I was to be ostracized for my love of all of the above I would at least enjoy those things without fear. I gave into the hedonist’s argument: If I am to be damned for it, I may as well enjoy as much of it as possible. So I spent my afternoons leading our RPG campaigns, disappeared into the fledgling Internet at home and filled volumes of notebooks that should have contained school work with character sketches, evil plots, and imaginary worlds. I reveled in those simple pleasures and the rejection hurt a little less as a result.

When things started to change however, when the morlocks finally emerged from the dark and began to take places of acceptance and even power in the world at large, that quiet resignation turned into a brooding pride. Sweet vindication at last was to be had. Our favorite gadgets were quickly becoming the tools that made the modern world go round, our classic pop culture trophies became valuable collectibles and our comics, games and books were vaulted to the pinnacle of the box offices and the prime sections of the toy departments. Suddenly we are outcasts no longer. Now we can proudly proclaim that we were punk rock before punk rock came in!

And that is the thing that universally separates all of us who earned the label of Geek from those who simply aspire to join the party now that it’s no longer a source of shame and social loathing. We paid the price of admission that these esurient latecomers had no desire to pony up for. And when, as inevitably occurs in the whims of culture and society, it is no longer en vogue to be Geek, we will remain as we have always been. Those wastrels who were unable to shoulder the weight of our legacy by contrast will doff the mantle like so much old hat and leave us again with our titles as terms of derision rather than endearment.

It is for that cause that I hope the nice lady in the purple dress suit will forgive me if I was a little offended by her casual use of the term ‘Geek.’

I earned the honor. I and many others just like me bought it with time and tears and we are loathe to see it so freely granted now to those who never paid a similar price and who will quickly dispose of it when it is no longer so attractive to wear.

Being Geek won’t always be glamorous, but we will nonetheless always be Geeks.

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