Saturday, 8 December 2007

Geeks are cool

This is something that's been bubbling inside me for quite a while now, and something which still irritates me: The idea that geeks are 'bad', or that they should be ashamed of who they are. This notion was recently pushed in my face while I was in the middle of a frustrating search for a new flat-share, here in unrelenting London.

Having noticed the only adornment in a potential home's living room was an old Robocop poster, and having made amiable chit-chat about the 1987 Paul Verhoven classic, and then spotting a crudely hidden collection of consoles under an old table cloth, I felt I was on pretty solid ground: The two 23 year old men who lived in this flat were, like me, geeks. Geeks without any talent for interior design, yes, but geeks non-the-less.

Learning that one of them worked at Microsoft, only backed up my initial reaction. Here was a pair from the same ilk as me, with the same interests and passions. Here was common ground, and the promise of enjoyable conversations and sharing of mutually relished past-times. In other words, bonding material.

"So", I later ventured cheerfully to the girl who was showing me around, and whose room was being vacated, "I take it there are some geeks here?". Her face, suddenly serious, took me off guard. "We don't like that word in this household", she fake-niced to me.

I faltered. What could be wrong with being a geek in this day and age? Are we not fully integrated members of society? Have we not earned the right to be who we are?

To be who are are.

I was quickly ushered out of the house, knowing I hadn't got the room. Polite goodbyes. A geek and geek-sympathiser, banished.

What's going on?

Those two men were geeks. They were geeks before I noticed the crudely blu-tacked sci-fi movie poster on their, otherwise bare, living-room wall. Before I noticed the gaming consoles. Before I learned one of them worked for Microsoft. Before I called them geeks. They were so geeky that their housemate was aware that they were sensitive to the word. Sensitive to it.

Why is this something to be ashamed of? Those that want to be seen as cool; why don't they realise that being a geek is cool?

The generally accepted idea of 'cool' is, I believe, someone who likes the 'right' things, does the 'right' activities and wears the 'right' clothes. In other words, someone who fits in with other people's shallow ideals. Someone who follows fashion. Someone who, unless they're genuinely being themselves, is controlled by the opinions of others, and if they are genuinely being themselves, enthralled by the shallow.

Is this really something to aspire to?

I'm sure most of you are already aware of what I'm getting at, but it surprises me how many people, even those much older than me, haven't learned this yet. Cool is subjective. Cool is temporary. Cool is in the minds of others. Why let other people control what you do with your limited time on Earth, and how come you haven't realised that everything worthwhile ever created was created by a geek?

That sounds like a bold statement, but it's true. So why do folks like my two (previously) potential flatmates feel so bad at being thought of being one?

Well, for one thing, it takes guts to be who you are in a society that bombards us with advertising telling us we're not good enough as we are, not pretty enough, not well-dressed enough, not popular enough.

Another problem is that sometimes we forget how transient 'cool' is. For example, if, dear reader, you're young, and you're part of a music scene you consider to be 'cool'. You probably think that the music that people who are older than you listen to is 'uncool'. If so, brace yourself for a bit of a shock: In ten years, that music you love will be considered old fashioned. Dated. 'Uncool', by the little tykes younger than you, who need to reject what came before them and find their own voice.

Not only that, but geeks created that music you love. You don't become and accomplished musician or song-writer by going to parties, getting wasted and nearly drowning in your own vomit. You do it by staying in, night after night, practising, learning, honing. Then, when you think you're good enough to display your skills in public, you spend the rest of your time organising and scheduling. You don't get to be a fuck-head rockstar until your record company is reaming your money off of you, you've been touring your ass off, you're fed up and, all of a sudden, the world wants to make you happy.

Some people get this backwards. They are not cool.

The people you see on TV, in magazines, in films, have all been dressed, lit, framed and, usually in the case of magazines, airbrushed, in order to sell you things. Talk about aspiring to shallowness.

If what you're aspiring to be is only going to age, be considered 'uncool' and ultimately be discarded, should you forever keep progressing and trying to keep up?

If that's naturally what you love doing and it makes you happy, then fair enough, of course, that's great. If you're following fashion because you feel that others won't like you any more if you don't, then that's not so cool. If you judge others on their ability to follow fashions as well as you, then, well, you're scum.

The truth is that the only thing you've got that will last and that will genuinely make you happy, is you're own opinion. It's the only thing that will not date, will not go out of fashion and can, if you're brave enough to listen to it, genuinely make you happy.

It's also what leads people to become obsessed with things and create. Every writer, musician, artist, inventor, scientist, and generally anyone who is truly successful at something they enjoy, is a geek. They are driven and controlled by the things they love, not what others love.

This the message behind the common cliché "be yourself".

If you can be yourself, ignoring what others consider to be 'uncool' or 'cool', then you've got my respect, because those that can remain themselves in face of those who tell them they're 'uncool' have a difficult path.

It's one thing to be affable and attempt to ingratiate yourself to people, that's great, but it's another thing entirely to be afraid or ashamed of your passions.

It takes a lot of courage to be yourself, especially if you're surrounded by people telling you that you're 'wrong'. It takes even more bravery to know that this is the reaction you're going to get, but to still decide to stay true to yourself and keep going.

The people that succeed at his are the real rebels and innovators, and they inspire others to do the same.

Provided you are mindful of the thoughts and feelings of those around you. Provided what you love causes no harm to others (and you know within yourself whether that's true or not). Then why not jump right in and splash around? Enjoy yourself. I know I'll certainly salute and admire you for it, and you'll undoubtedly find yourself having a good time, too.

In a perfect world our character, not our clothes or chosen past-times, would be what we're judged on. If you're a great, supportive friend, if you're a loving spouse, parent or sibling. If you're wonderful person to those around you, why should it matter that you catalogue and collect local fungi on the weekend? That you stand for hours on platform waiting for that train to arrive? That you get excited when you see certain postage stamps?

Be honest with yourself. If you're a geek, embrace it. Don't be afraid of losing face with those people you consider to be 'cool'. Those that stick around you will be better friends than those you have to impress.

Embrace yourself and your idiosyncrasies, learn to love what you are. This is the only life you've got, and it's closer to ending every single minute.

So don't grab hold of life, grab hold of yourself and don't let go. It's the only thing that you can truly trust to make you happy.

Now if only I could find a bloody flat to live in.


Villane said...

Great post! It was great to happen to read this right now as I've been thinking about this topic recently.

I've never really liked associating myself with the word geek, although I guess I am exactly what is meant by it, especially when used by geeks themselves. I don't feel like I need to hide anything that makes me look like a geek, I just don't like being called one (it's actually even more of an issue in my native tongue as there is no direct translation for "geek" and the translation commonly used is actually closer to the meaning of "nerd").

But even in English, I think it is that word that bothers me. If you look at Merriam-Webster ( ), the first definition for "geek" (circus freak) has quite a negative connotation, and as far as I know, it's the original meaning of the word. The second definition (disliked intellectual) is closer to the meaning we are talking about, but is still quite negative. The last definition (enthusiast in a field) is what I would associate myself with without a problem, and even the previous one to a degree, but I think that often when the word is used, especially by non-geeks, the negative connotations of the other definitions are still in the air, although I guess less and less so as time goes on.

In my opinion -- be what you are, whether it's geek or not, whether it's cool or not. In the end it doesn't really matter what you are called, either, but I think that everyone prefers being accepted by default, and it's also quite all right for someone to not take pride in the fact that the dictionary definition of part of their essence is "uncool" -- that's not an excuse for being ashamed of what they are, though. Sure, even the meanings of words change over time, but helping to change them does not have to be the personal battle of everyone that could be associated with them. Or maybe I just think so because I'm lazy :)

Actually, now that I got this off my chest, I feel a lot less bothered by the word geek. Thanks!

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, I'm really glad you've changed how you feel about the word 'geek'!

Just to make things clear; I'm talking about the third definition of the word: "enthusiast in a field", but should add that its meaning usually has "uncool" added to the middle of it. Especially when it's used derogatively.

In other words: "Enthusiast for something generally considered uncool".

Of course, that's NOT what the word means, it just means someone that's enthusiastic about something. People are geeks who often don't realise it (and will probably argue with you if you tell them). Fans of music or sports don't tend to consider themselves geeky, but they are.

I think enthusiasm is a Good Thing, however. I'd take an enthusiastic person over a cynical one, any day, but for some reason people associate cynicism with coolness.

It's easy to be cynical, and in my books, it's far from cool.

I'm glad you feel better about being a geek! Life without any passion is a life wasted.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely, and was thinking about this a few years ago. You can effectively call someone a geek if they're really into something. Thus you get skateboarder geeks, computer geeks, sailing geeks, car geeks, DJ (music) geeks etc. Geek is essentially a derogatory word used for someone who is interested in something. As far as I'm concerned, if you're not a geek, then you aren't interested in anything in particular - which has got to be dull. Ok, so real geeks perhaps aren't very interesting to others outside their chosen field (I know some bad ass mechanics and scratch DJ's that I would call geeks, and who would describe themslves as being so if they were being honest), it's just that some people's interests are viewed as 'cooler' than others. Declaration of interest: I'm a car, music and computer geek by the way. :)

Johnny Walker said...

Hi Norfolk, thanks for the comment! It's much appreciated. I think you said something which I might have forgotten to make clear... but you summed it up perfectly in a sentence: People without interests in their life are surely more dull than those without... not the other way around! But you're right, to people outside their field, geeks are probably impenetrable at times. Saying that, I enjoy seeing enthusiasm in people, even if I don't necessarily 'get' their particular love.

Thanks again, it's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels this way about these things!

Karim said...

You HAVE to read this:

Johnny Walker said...

I love it! They're definitely geeks, if you ask me, and I think it's a bit sad that they won't admit it because of the negative connotations associated with the word.

How those women can say that they're not "geeks" is really only because Sex and the City is considered "cool" by them and the media they read... Much the same could be said for Star Wars fans and Trekkies, I think!

Thanks for the link, Crumbs!

Storm said...

Villane said:

"...I think it is that word that bothers me. If you look at Merriam-Webster, the first definition for "geek" (circus freak) has quite a negative connotation, and as far as I know, it's the original meaning of the word. The second definition (disliked intellectual) is closer to the meaning we are talking about, but is still quite negative. The last definition (enthusiast in a field) is what I would associate myself with without a problem, and even the previous one to a degree, but I think that often when the word is used, especially by non-geeks, the negative connotations of the other definitions are still in the air, although I guess less and less so as time goes on...."


Maybe it's because I'm American, maybe it's because I'm... well... older than you, but man, the word "geek" was ALWAYS a straight-up INSULT when I was growing up, and still was until really recently. "Geek" means someone who is physically unattractive and/or awkward, as well as some kind of freak. When I'm am called a geek, I clench my teeth and say "Excuse me, but I have NEVER bitten the head off a live chicken, no matter how hammered I was. *I* am a NERD, thank you VERY much." Because "nerd" has always meant a really smart, studious person who happens to also like "weird stuff" like Star Trek and Hammer vampire movies. "Nerd" was/is often tossed around as a kind of insult, but it was usually said by people who were secretly jealous of how smart you were; "geek" is just another way of saying "dork" or "lamewad" or "wanker". At least it is to me. I guess Young Nerdfolk have embraced the word and taken it back, the way Pagans did with "witch" and LGBT folk have with "queer", but it just brings back too many bad schoolday memories for me.

So yeah, I got married on the bridge of the Enterprise D, while dressed as a Klingon-- ain't no shame in MY nerdy game. I'm open about it, usually dressed in some kind of theatrical crazy way that screams "NERD!" at you at first sight. I make no effort to hide it, and every effort to only hang out with others of my nerdy ilk; mundanes are boring, unimaginative, negative people. BLECH!

Say it loud-- I'M A NERD AND I'M PROUD! But call me a "geek", and I'll 'ave you. ;)

Cheers, darling,


Johnny Walker said...

Maybe this is a middle-ground?

Be a geek and a nerd: Jim Kakalios at Convocation 2009