According to an essay on “geek culture” in the Guardian, “a survey by advertising agency Inferno indicates that the public finds intelligence and passionate engagement with a hobby four times as attractive in a person than good looks or dressing well”. Of course! Thus, the chess clubs, libraries and bookshops of the nation heave with men and women panting over Monopoly champions and experts in nuclear physics, while in ill-attended bars and nightclubs, bronzed gym rats and supermodels dance and drink in miserable solitude. It all makes sense to me now.
If in laying claim to the designation of “geek” you are defining yourself as one who has eager and eclectic tastes, and a keen sense of intellectual curiosity, I commend these attributes but dislike the term. Were geeks truly independent in their voyages through high and low culture there would be no need for such an all-encompassing label as some men and women would strike up an interest in philology, others in particle science and others in the tribal dances of East African peoples, and they would share little common ground. The foolishness of applying the term to such a broad swathe of obsessive intellects is illustrated by the Guardian’s list of “the top 10 geeks” that accompanies the article, which brackets Umberto Eco next to Mary Berry and proves that modern culture can trivialise everything. You too can be like a novelist, critic and semiotician: learn how to bake scones!
Far geekier men than I could create a typology of people who fall under the label of geek”. The first group – the largest, and the most diffuse – is made up of bandwagon-jumpers: people who care little for programming but enjoy iPods; people who have barely read a book but think glasses look sexy; people who think Sheldon Cooper is amusing in The Big Bang Theory because he behaves like how real people don’t. These young men and women, who coat their essential superficiality with a gloss of intellectualism, are the reason that companies can make millions selling t-shirts printed with the word “geek”.
For others, geekdom is a lifestyle to be embraced more than it is a fashion to be ransacked for accessories. Their interests are obsessive and escapist: tending towards the fantastical - Lord of the Rings, Dr. Who and video games – and the abstract – programming, statistics and scientific scepticism. All of these pursuits can be enjoyed on their own merits but I am with the author of the Guardian essay in suspecting that a factor that can unite their enthusiasts, and attracts newcomers, is the chance to escape into worlds other than our own. In a time where the young (and old) are short of jobs, familial structures and prospects for either of them it is especially appealing to immerse oneself in an alternative reality, with fewer of the bleak demands of the modern world, and different standards of acceptability and accomplishment.
Two broad political trends have drawn influence from geek culture: creating whole systems of ideas that, while not without real-world consequence, need not have it as their focus. One is formed by the technocrats and transhumanists who focus their obsessive empiricism on matters of data. They can fall at any point on the political spectrum – from Gladwellian liberals to Murrayesque reactionaries – but are common in extrapolating from the hard sciences to society. The other is left-wing advocates of identity politics; those who devote themselves to the intricate analysis of language and interaction in their offences to egalitarian ideals. They have their internal language; their concern for abstractions; their spectacular fondness for memetic marketing and, of course, their desire to see a female Dr Who.
These movements contain the makings of the bitter wars that will split the world of geekdom. The egalitarian geek has to contend with many an apolitical male geek, who has a bumptious anti-authoritarianism that takes its influence from his heritage of hackers, pirates and trolls, and whose alternative worlds are liable be the insalubrious products of his sexual frustrations. In many cases, they are also doomed to fight the data-driven geeks, whose cold cerebral minds and intellectual adventurousness can lead them through the dark backwoods of genetic research, evolutionary psychology and revisionist history; defying their empirical conclusions and emotionalistic principles. Geeks, as a popular movement, are destined to fracture into hostile tribes.
In the meantime, some geeks will have kept their heads down and got on with the inventing and entrepreneurship that will make them the next generation of Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins; captivating us with their programmes and their gadgetry, and shaping us through our data and our desires. Geeks have always had a vein of elitism, not simply because they are, in many cases, blessed with great intelligence but as they often nurture a quiet disdain for the crude tastes and boisterous manner of their classmates and colleagues. Let us hope that we are not offending them too much.