Friday, April 27, 2012

The obsolescence of geeks and nerds

Image via Fresh Cargo

It’s apparent to everyone at this point that the geeks have inherited the earth, right? I mean, no one doubts that anymore. When I was a kid, it was an unthinkable concept. Sure, everyone loved Star Wars, but not everyone was obsessed with it. Reading comics or playing role-playing games had all sorts of social stigma that you didn’t want to deal with unless you were so into those things that loving them was worth the dishonor. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the war Star Trek fans waged to be known as “Trekkers” instead of “Trekkies,” as if that was somehow cooler. We don’t have to deal with any of that anymore. But in a world where liking geeky things is the norm, what does the “geek” label (or “nerd,” if you prefer; I use them interchangeably) mean anymore?

The Mary Sue ran an article on this, which is part of why I’m writing this. I was already thinking about it, but it was the Mary Sue piece (written by Becky Chambers) that pushed me toward my own keyboard. In it, Chambers decides that geekdom is defined by being interested in details. “All of these things are chock-full of tiny little details,” she writes, “just waiting for a curious mind to patiently examine them. Want to write code? Mind the details. Want to develop a good strategy in a game? Pay attention to the details. Really like that sci-fi book you just read? You’ll enjoy it even more when you look at the glossary and the galaxy map. They’ve got tons of details.” And she’s right of course, but I also think that she’s missing part of the picture.

Chambers is still focused on traditionally geeky stuff: science, genre fiction, role-playing, etc. The truth though is that everyone is geeky about something. This is an old observation, but sports fans are total nerds. I’m not just talking about the ones who join fantasy leagues either, but the ones who follow all the teams, know all the players, and can quote all the stats. I’ve felt a lot of social pressure over the years to be “into” sports, but have resisted because I just couldn’t get into the detailed minutia the way my sports-geek friends were. Going to a ball game with them was like going to the comic book store with That Guy; the one who wears the Captain America T-shirt and will not stop talking about which Green Lantern is the best. Chambers is correct that it’s all about the details, it’s just that everyone obsesses about something: comics, sports, movies, or scrapbooking.

Knowing that, I wonder if it’s not time to retire these terms as identifiers. Rick Remember recently tweeted, “I'm calling overdone on comic folks self-applying ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’.” I think I agree. When everyone is a thing, does that thing even need a label anymore?


ben c said...

unfortunately it all creates a new hierarchy of geekness. there was at least the theory of shared exile in the past, but if geekdom is now cool, then people who are just not cool by nature no longer fit in it with the same level of comfort as in the past.
i was surprised (or perhaps not surprised) that the article on feminism and female objectification in geekdom focused almost exclusively on the model of sexism as a male imposition on female self-identity, but glossed over other issues that arise when a culture that was originally something of a cultural meritocracy (and refuge from conventional social pressures) is turned, by females as well as males, into simply another arena for "look at me" popularity.
(i personally don't object to large numbers of young women dressing like baby doll, but the mtv-ization of geek culture always struck me as a mixed blessing, when it results in simply separating a new crop of individuals into attractive & cool vs goofy or ugly or overweight etc.)

Michael May said...

It's a disappointing realization. What promised to be an egalitarian meritocracy has been revealed to be just as corrupted by the same old cultural values as everything else.

I'm optimistic enough to hope that it's not a lost cause (I do see progress, even if it's just that people are having this discussion), but obviously there's a lot of work to be done and it's going to require deep, deep cultural change.


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