I think a lot about geekdom. And since my previous blog (on music geekery), I’ve had a few people engage me in what “geek” actually means. While I’m not a fan of citing Wikipedia, the “geek” page seems to indicate that one of the elements of geekery is a hyper-focus on detail or a willingness to obsess about things. Lars Konzack of Aalborg University, in his paper “Geek Culture: the 3rd Counter Culture”, doesn’t really answer the question but does suggest that the modern educational system that extends well into adulthood creates a culture of experts with specialized knowledge. CNN Living asked, “Are You a Nerd or a Geek?” The pages seem to suggest that being a geek is all about your way of dealing with the wider world, specifically a fascination with information. If you obsess over details, offer your opinion even when it is not asked for, and willingly engage in lively exchanges and intense friendships with others who share your obsession, then you are probably a geek.
But in today’s world of massive informational access (overload?), aren’t we all geeks now? What is the difference between a person who knows every single detail about, say, The Lord of the Rings and a person who knows the names, point standings, and crew of every single NASCAR driver? If someone can obsessively rattle off the names of every producer that Rush, Steely Dan, or Tom Waits ever worked with, what makes that person less socially valuable than the person who can rattle off the statistics of every player for the Atlanta Braves for the last ten years? And gaming has entered the mainstream: I used to be mocked for my devotion to video games, role-playing games, and simulations. My son, on the other hand, was given an Xbox a few years back because NOT playing video games made him a bit of an outcast. And the people who used to mock DnD players are often now obsessive participants in Fantasy Football leagues.
Part of the modern geek culture, I would argue, comes from the easy access we have to information; this same access wasn’t possible twenty or thirty years ago. In the darkest days of geek-prejudice, we geeks banded together because we knew something. We had areas of expertise. We were unlikely to be popular, we typically weren’t terribly athletic, and most of us… well, my group of friends wasn’t going to be gracing the cover of magazines in our youth. If we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the herd, we needed to find areas of obsessive expertise. I found music and history, some of my friends found physics and math, others found film, comics, SF TV shows, or any number of other areas of knowledge.
But today, the depth of knowledge that geeks had some kind of lock on is available to everyone. The easy access to information that our modern technocratic economy has created has made it possible to have obsessive knowledge about everything: knitting, golf, dog grooming, or zombies, whatever your interest… you can show an obsessive level of expertise simply by pulling out your smart phone and surfing for a few minutes.
Most definitions of geekery also suggest that geeks lack basic social graces. We obsess at the drop of a hat. While this might separate the music-geek from the baseball fan, I think that this wall is coming down as well. In the modern era of Twitter-sharing and Facebook transparency, we all feel as if our opinions are wanted and valued by everyone. Hey, let me tell you what I think about The Phantom Menace for the next five hours… and don’t forget to read my tweet about the tuna sandwich I just ate!
(Note: Just look at the act I am currently engaged in. I am blasting out my opinion to dozens of people, many of whom I either don’t know or only know vaguely. And we reward that kind of opinionated transparency. We friend people, follow Twitter feeds, and feel connected to them based more on the quantity of their posts, tweets, and status updates than the quality of the same. The best and yet worst advice anyone ever gave me about blogging: post regularly, even if you have nothing to say. Doesn’t that remind you of the geeky kid in high school who would engage any passerby in a long harangue about the superiority of Shadowrun over Battletech? It doesn’t matter that people don’t care… he just needed someone to listen. How is blogging, or tweeting for that matter, different? We all want someone to just listen. And most geeks, I suspect, feel as if we aren’t being heard.)
We are all geeks now. We carry around a lot of information in our heads, and we have access to even more through the fifty million screens we interact with every day. Embrace it, and live it. You probably are living it already, even if you don’t know it.
And I promise, if you tweet, I will read it. As long as you read mine. It will probably be about Shadowrun.