Geek: A history

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When dreaming up this site, the ThisIsForGeeks team keep asking of various things, “Is that geeky?” In order to determine this we realized that defining what geeks are is important. As a guide in discovering what it means to be a geek I offer you, our reader, this fantastic article by geek corespondent Will J. Munro.

Geek History

Will J. Munro

Geek:

1. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp. one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.

2. a computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)

3. a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken


While searching for information on the history of geeks I discovered the above definitions and thought “Well, that about sums it up.”

Take your pick.

Geeks many be greasy, awkward and hygienically challenged but they’re

One of us! One of us!

One of us! One of us!

quite useful at assisting the rest of us with issues of technology or mathematics. Geeks may be self-identified and use the moniker as a gesture to deflect criticism for what may be a particularly odd personal obsession, like, say, dungeons and dragons. Or geeks may the classic carny variety who literally–or figuratively–bite the heads off live chickens. Of this category, the former type have certainly been pushed to the brink of extinction by a general decline of American carnival culture and by enlightened attitudes about animal rights, the latter, however, still enjoy a healthy existence while attaining seven-figure scores on violent computer games or maintaining collections of Nazi military ephemera.

Geeks are brainiacs, geeks are savants and geeks are psychos.  And sometimes they’re a combination of all three.

And whatever they are, geeks are hot property these days. The word “Geek” pops up a lot in the media: there are computer geeks, gardening geeks and cooking geeks. Any “expert” or “enthusiast” with a strong interest in a particular subject may also be a “geek”. Geeky-looking characters abound from the tidy, efficient Verizon Guy to the bespectacled Harry Potter whose charm and broad skill set has rocketed him into the stratosphere of geekhood.

Geeky hobbies are also popular. There has been a huge resurgence in knitting and other handicrafts. Comic books–long the bastion of geeks and other school-age outcasts–have grown in collectibility

and value.  And, of course, there is a huge array of commercially available electronic gadgets that provide games, snap pictures, take videos and make irritating noises for the entertainment of those who prefer interaction with machines over that with other humans.

But like pornography, geekhood is hard to define–you just ‘kinda have to see it to recognize it. Which begs the question, where did the concept of geekhood come from? And is there such a thing as “geek history?”

The word itself may be traced to a term in use 500 years ago that described “a fool, dupe, or simpleton.”

The earliest citation referring to a carnival-freak geek is from the early part of the 20th century. But the geek as an archetype representing a talented and possibly attractive social misfit seems a far more recent development.

In his 2000 book Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho, Jon Katz describes

Vote Pedro

Vote Pedro

the Internet as the geek’s primary catalyst for escape from social stigma into visible and respectable geek communities. Since the mid 1990′s the talented-but-awkward filmmakers Todd Solondz and Harmony Korine have introduced a variety of peculiar, socially unpopular but sympathetic characters that have become cult icons.  Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite was hailed by one critic as “an epic, magisterially observed pastiche on all-American geekhood…” and has been the subject of at least one scholarly paper on Asperger’s Syndrome.

And geeks today are also…kind of sexy.

Type the term “Sexy Geek” into a Google image search and among the 2,700 hits you’ll receive are images of nerdy, overripe school girls,

Kari Byron. Sexy geek from Mythbusters

Kari Byron. Sexy geek from Mythbusters.

tattooed lesbian librarians and mustachioed bloggers who cook and ride motorcycles. In contrast, a search for “Sexy Jock” returns a measly 111 hits of boring soft gay porn.

In this particular example of culture war, it appears that geeks are the winners.

Yet, ironically, geeks are also distinguished by their deviation from conventional forms of beauty and style. Stereotyped geeks wear glasses. They’re shy and may have bad posture. They exhibit a general lack of style and suave. They may be clumsy or ungainly. But, as the saying goes, beauty is the sum of imperfections: it seems that “geek-chic” may be a reaction to pop culture’s dispiriting emphasis on aggressive attention-seeking and unnatural physical beauty.

For example: there isn’t much room in Hip-Hop for quiet, polite guys in sweater vests. America’s Next Top Model will not likely be wearing a corduroy skirt and toting a knitting bag. But you also don’t see geeks getting arrested on Cops. Geeks don’t get freakish boob jobs; they aren’t “babydaddies”; they don’t do meth; they don’t drive Hummers. The American entertainment industry has unleashed a flood of culturally toxic sludge that has mutated mainstream society into an ungodly parade of volatile, oversexed, nitwits who equate “being watched” with “being successful”.

In this midst of this chaos, geeks are distinguished by their calm hobbies, their modest wardrobes and their sensible life choices. Geek-chic seems related to a larger social trend that eschews popular culture’s destructive elements for simpler, more thoughtful and “authentic” lifestyles. The DYI movement is pretty geeky as is brown-bagging, thrift shopping, apartment sharing and biking. Geeks don’t carry guns, they carry Altoids. Geeks are culturally green.

Geeks are also distinguished by degrees of self-confidence and self-possession that further separate them from other marginalized social groups. In her study of “nerd” girls, language scholar Mary Bucholtz challenges previous studies that described nerds as “failed burnouts and inadequate jocks”. Bucholtz instead describes a community of high school girls who actively reject the various “forms of coolness” that define their less assertive peers. In short, nerdhood seems to be a chosen lifestyle.

Corn Nuts!

Corn Nuts!

If one were to define a geek as a “nerd with a purpose” then geeks, too,  are self-aware and self-defining. In the film Heathers, the character of Jason “D.J.” Dean seems to fit the classic Dangerous Geek stereotype: a brilliant, wounded social outcast skilled in both psychology and technology. If he’d been a merely quirky or intelligent nerd, D.J. would never have had the courage to make a move on a popular girl like Veronica Sawyer let alone seduce her away from her clique of mean girls. But D.J.’s edge enabled him to win Veronica and facilitate discovery of her own latent geekhood. D.J.’s charisma was his defining power and the defining skill of his geekhood.

So it seems that “geeks”, as we define them today, are a recent concept rooted in technological development and social rebellion. Emerging from the same roots as other outcasts, geeks are set apart by their dismissal of the herd mentality their specific talents and their uncanny ability to draw admirers. As the market for geek skills expands and popular standards of beauty and success grow ever more extreme, geekhood may be a new touchstone for sensible living as well as raw survival.

References:

Hope Levin and Steven Schlozman. “Napoleon Dynamite: Asperger’s Syndrome or Geek NOS?” Academic Psychiatry, 2006; 30: 430-435.

Bucholtz, Mary. “Why be normal?”: Language and Identity in practices in a community of nerd girls”. Language in Society, 28 203-223.

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One Response to “Geek: A history”

  1. james Says:

    Great article. I don’t agree with it in it’s entirety. I do comprehend the generalization of a complex term.

    I define GEEK as “a person whose influences and preferences reside outside of mainstream culture, often in a specific genre or media”

    I think that there is a big distinction between “geek” and “nerd.”

    I had a total geek-out moment today when I was watching E3 coverage on G4. …DC Universe on Sony Online Entertainment… I got chills and almost cried.

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