Links: The State of the Geek

February 26th, 2008

Here’s another (very loosely) themed post, collecting a bunch of links that give a sense of what it means to be a geek in the 21st century. (Also, I’m out of town for a few days, so please pardon me if it takes me a bit to get back to your email.)

MIT Nerds: While googling around about the Mystery Hunt, I came upon this Discover Magazine article about nerd culture at MIT. Among other things, it offers a glimpse at the Hunt in action, and describes today’s students as more idealistic on average than those of the ’80s, who were more likely to pursue lucrative careers.

Geek Parenting: I lost track of which post it came from, but I strongly suspect I learned about Geek Parenting from Z. over at Hipster, Please! The author describes the site as “a blog for pop culture junkies who have spawned, yet refuse to give up their geeky obsessions.” Interesting that the implication is that parents are otherwise expected to give up those obsessions—whether out of lack of time, or simply having to resign to being “grown up.” Also interesting: The geeks of today may be largely a product of socialization in our school systems, though perhaps the geeks of tomorrow will be increasingly socialized to know what a d20 is from day one.

Nerds and Race: I’ve had a couple links kicking around (from Church, I believe) about whiteness, blackness, and being brainy. One is a 2002 Village Voice article on “The Rise of the Black Nerd,” which describes black academics who have felt alienated on all sides now coming into their own. As sort of a companion to this, consider “Acting White” in Education Next, which argues that minority students are seen as traitors to their ethnic groups when they get good grades. I have to read this in greater detail still, but I’m interested to see whether this data makes a distinction between making a visible effort to get good grades and simply getting those grades; the former, according to research I’ve read, is shunned among students of all racial and ethnic groups, though it’s possible that what is construed as “effort” differs between groups.

Social Networking for Geeks: MyGeekLife.net (now in alpha, also tipped from Church) seems like a Facebook/MySpace for geeks. It’s perhaps surprisingly comprehensive in the number of interests it qualifies as “geeky,” including technology, comics, nerdcore, fantasy lit, knitting, MMOs, academia, and more. I signed up as a “Red Shirt” (alpha tester) to find out more.

The Fall of the Jock: In Jock Bottom,” John Patterson wonders in The Guardian whether the rise of the geek means the fall of the jock. My brief response: No, not really. The geek character of Judd Apatow movies (one of his big examples) is still just as much to be laughed at as to be sympathized with, and I certainly know plenty who come from the “jock” tradition who love such movies. Making football TV shows like Friday Night Lights is more about appealing to certain demographics than about the elimination or defeat of other demographics. (I highly doubt it has cut into NFL ratings.) The rise of the geek has yet to be felt among the kids labeled geeks in school, according to relatively recent research. And even adult geeks remain painfully aware of how juvenile and unmasculine some pursuits are still generally considered, perhaps willing to admit to some hobbies (video games are okay now!) and not others (D&D doesn’t come up on the first date).

Still, the author paints an amusing picture.

High school may be the wimps’ collective nightmare, but the rest of life is pure unadulterated collective revenge. I bet even Steve Jobs on occasion drives his fully-loaded, pimped-out Cadillac Escalade past the used-car lot where his old high-school nemesis, the ex-quarterback, now toils for buttons. I’d like to think he whips out an iPhone or a skinny MacBook and yells, “I INVENTED this, dickhead! And you’re 38 years old and living in your mom’s basement! Sic transit gloria, motherfucker!”

That one’s for you, people who found their way here from MacUser.

Nerds Are Cool: I have no idea how I stumbled across this, but here’s a funny little anecdote by a children’s science book author about being told that, thanks to him, it’s now cool to be a nerd.

A Geeky Blog: I think it was probably Church (again) who tipped me off to For the Love of Geeks before the domain name even propagated. The blogger asserts that geeks are cool, here to stay, and dedicated to a number of technical and non-mainstream interests (perhaps save for band geeks, with a wink).

NADDS: Rands in Repose (which I’ve linked previously) offers the term “nerd attention deficit disorder” for your consideration.

Monty Python++: The Onion AV Club suggests 20 pop-cultural obsessions even geekier than Monty Python. Perhaps controversially, the list includes Michael Jackson and omits D&D in favor of items like the Buffy RPG.

Nerdcraft: Thanks to Hipster, Please! for introducing me to the term “nerdcraft” through this Globe and Mail story (update: link is dead, try this one instead):

Generations X through Z have rediscovered crafts such as knitting, quilting and crocheting, and now they’re blending these old-fashioned arts with their love of newfangled technology to create a new genre: nerdcraft.

Thus we have the knitted iPhone, the Super Mario Bros. embroidered pillow, countless iPod cozies, the Q*Bert quilt and Baby’s First DNA Model — a stuffed toy complete with GC/TA base pairs represented by orange-green bars. […]

“There’s definitely a movement,” says Carla Sinclair, editor of California-based Craft magazine, which caters to the hip and crafty. “We’re seeing more and more of this type of crafting.” […]

She realizes her hobby may seem a bit odd to outsiders, and she’s fine with that. Most people, Ms. Chapman notes, “don’t watch a puppet show and mentally take apart the stitching to imagine how the puppet was made. … They don’t look at a structure and wonder what it would take to make a cake version.

“Nerds do those things. Nerds can’t stop asking questions and mentally disassembling the world around them. Nerds wonder, and wonder is at the heart of creativity.”

One thing I love about this article is that it never specifically says that this is a women’s movement (even though, admittedly, everyone quoted seems to be female). Geek culture could probably use more pursuits that aren’t specifically gender-coded, or that reject the notion that the default coding of “geek” is male.

We’re All Geeks: And finally, Church refers me to a college newspaper article suggesting that anyone with a passionate interest is basically a geek. (This, Church suggested, fits somewhat with his own idea of geekiness.) The author’s argument looks a lot like the one I made in the first paper I wrote for a class on geek stereotypes, such as in specifically comparing car tinkering to computer tinkering. I enjoy how he also offers sports nuts as an example, pointing out how close what some sports fans do is to cosplay. “Tell me the difference between all of them and comic geeks,” he challenges.

I think the short answer to that challenge is that sports and cars have long-standing associations with traditional masculine norms of physical toughness and sexual conquest. Computers are just barely edging in lately thanks to the traditional masculine value of having an impressive source of income, as we’ve discussed elsewhere here. Comic books and video games—which are still widely believed to offer not much more than violent fantasy and scantily-clad women—probably seem more like a substitute for masculinity than an exercise of it. And, as alluded to above, most people probably still think of geeks as being male by default (and the unmasculine kind, at that).

All of that said, I see a lot of potential value in encouraging use of the term ‘geek’ that strips away assumptions of gender norms and traditional value. Perhaps that could gradually encourage the notion that the passion behind an interest is more important than the image behind the interest. Or perhaps it could just leave more strongly self-identified geeks feeling like the term that describes their culture has been co-opted and watered down. Thoughts?


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5 Responses to “Links: The State of the Geek”

  1. Z. Says:

    Now that I think about it, Jason, I believe I know almost as many male nerdcrafters as females. Two notable ‘crafter-dudes include Dennis of Joined at the Stitch/Vagrant Aesthetic (http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=10616) and venerable musician, visual artist, and yo-yo ninja Doctor Popular (http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=78702).

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    That’s kind of nice to know, actually. Not like I’m saying the dudes need to take over the ladies’ hobbies, but I’m pretty much all for people being able to make and do creative stuff without having to worry, “OMG does this violate hegemonic gender norms?”

    Also, I hope I can some day have a title as impressive as “yo-yo ninja.”

  3. Jason Tocci Says:

    Ooh, I also meant to mention (in the “geek parenting” part) about how Z. has found his way into the Wired “Geek Dads” podcast. (Check out the Geekdad blog here.)

  4. Jason Tocci Says:

    ALSO, I meant to post this review of David Anderegg’s new book, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, courtesy Church.

    I have the book out from the library and have yet to read most of it. It’s aiming to be more readable than academic, which is good in many ways, though of course occasionally triggers my “you should be citing this!” reflex. I’ll post more as I get a chance to read it.

  5. Geek Studies » Blog Archive » How People Explain Female Geeks Says:

    […] both female and a geek. This is why I was so impressed with the “nerdcraft” article I linked to awhile back. It could have been pitched as “women bring femininity to geekdom,” but […]