The Future Of The Geek: Has Outsider Culture Become Mainstream?
Now that 'geek chic' is in the dictionary, and Topshop is selling 'dork' T-shirts can this group really be viewed as outsiders?
Cheer up, Britain – the clever people have won at last. Just look around you. If you went to a music festival, visited the beach or left the house this summer you’ll have seen incontrovertible evidence on T-shirts. They were everywhere, declaring the wearer to be a GEEK, NERD or DORK in that big fat confident slab-serif typeface that usually says you’re talking to someone who proudly attends PENN or NYU. Topshop brought out the three designs last Christmas, contestant Jordan Lee Davies wore the Geek shirt on The Voice in April, and they they were bootlegged quicker than you can say “gaga artpop torrentz”. By spring they were unavoidable, seen on the chests of schoolkids, Ibiza ravers and TOWIE nitwits alike, worn by everyone apart from, well … geeks, nerds and dorks.
Because what self-respecting comics fan, mathlete, Whovian, physics wonk, gamer, twee indie kid, alphabetiser of Criterion Collection DVDs or collector of BNIB original Transformer toys (pre-1990) would ever wear such a thing? They’re so mainstream. By rights, the people who bought Topshop’s geek tops and their knock-off market equivalents ought to be blinging it up in Hollister, SuperDry and Jack Wills as the Good Lord intended. A friend told me that seeing these shirts everywhere was like being beaten up by someone wearing an anti-bullying wristband. Maybe the ouroboros of irony shirts is finally devouring its own tail. Or perhaps Reddit user KezzzMC of Warwickshire can put it more pithily:
“Those T-shirts piss me off,” he rage-typed shortly after Davies’s appearance on The Voice, “mainly because throughout school me and my friends were called geeks, and now all the chavs that called us geeks have decided it’d be a good idea to start wearing them.”
Charming prole-bashing aside, you have to feel for him a little. But the triumph of the Topshop nerd top as the Frankie Say T-shirt of 2013 is just the latest phase in the geeking of our culture. It’s a massive reversal from the pre-digital 80s and 90s when geeks were friendless and marginal figures, ostracised in their Dungeons & Dragons groups, and their cousins in purgatory the nerds were so haplessly asocial that they became subjects of their own underdog movie Revenge of the Nerds – “it’s time for the odd to get even!” – in 1984. (On points of etymology, there are differences between nerds and geeks but you really shouldn’t let them bother you. Apparently geeks are collection-oriented and interested in the newest developments in their chosen micro-field, while nerds are achievement-oriented and “studiously intellectual”. As for dorks, nobody cares about dorks.)
So what turned things around? First the digital revolution elevated alpha nerds such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to unprecedented power and influence. Then Hollywood rediscovered a rich stream of intellectual property and coincident nostalgia in geek touchstones Star Wars, Marvel Comics and JRR Tolkien at the turn of the century. Coding nerd Shawn Fanning overturned the music industry with Napster, a geek project extraordinaire. Celebs got in on the act, with R&B producers The Neptunes rebranding as N.E.R.D. and stars as unlikely as Justin Timberlake, David Beckham and Myleene Klass donning thick-rimmed specs in the mid-noughties. Sitcoms The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory set out to satirise a geek world that was becoming more visible and powerful – face it, can you fix your own PC? – but did so with a surprising measure of warmth, making unlikely heroes out of Reynham Industries’ Moss and the poster boy for high-functioning OCD, Caltech theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper PhD.
Now the phrase “geek chic” has been introduced into the Oxford English Dictionary – a decade late, but who’s counting? – and editors at the rival Collins Dictionary are now tracking the very meaning of the word “geek” itself. Apparently it’s changing before our eyes. According to Collins’ Ian Brookes a geek is no longer a “boring and unattractive social misfit” and readers are “increasingly encountering the word in contexts other than computing, and with increasingly positive connotations.” And 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. In your face, beautiful people! The name of Inferno’s campaign? Geek Is Good.
Now the high end of the culture defers to geek-priests such as Malcolm “Tipping Point” Gladwell, Steven “Freakanomics” Levitt and statistician Nate Silver, surely the world’s only functioning sports psephologist. The kind of people we used to call public intellectuals now look like they play in a retro band. And the best rock bands, such as British Sea Power and Pathé newsreel samplers Public Service Broadcasting, are geeks and proud, fuelled by wide-ranging obsessions including maritime history and birdwatching. Meanwhile, in our society’s seedier reaches you will find wildly popular T-shirts featuring a succession of tired-looking Zoo and Nuts girls pouting in secretary glasses – because that’s geek, yeah?
What does it all mean? Has geek finally been absorbed and neutered, its network of rich and sustaining subcultures that were rooted in a real love of pop-culture minutiae and genuine expertise in matters technical now reduced to an unearned T-shirt and a pair of heavy-framed glasses with no lenses in them? Or has it, Borg-like, assimilated the mainstream and begun to subtly direct our world via its norms and memes? (Example: people actually know what memes are now.) Is geek just the post-noughties’ fleeting equivalent of punk or lad culture, or does it mark a more fundamental realignment in our society? Above all, have we finally reached Peak Geek?
Chris Coleman is head of print and graphics at fashion trend forecasters WGSN. He puts the Rise of the Nerds in straightforward economic terms. If education, once free to all, is now scarce and expensive then you’ll begin to unconsciously flaunt your commitment to the life of the mind. Thick glasses and a cardigan thus become the red braces and power-shoulders of the 21st century. Enticingly, you become both an outlaw and a member of an elite.
Being a geek is a sign of education,” he says. “The working environment has become so harsh that young people think that if they’re going to succeed they’ll have to do it for themselves. Though geek first appeared as a kind of anti-fashion statement, it’s becoming bound up with entrepreneurialism, self-motivation and independence instead of weakness. Knowledge and craft and detail are cool again. It’s about TED talks and Brian Cox – or even The Great British Bake Off – more than The X Factor. Someone calm and friendly but very knowledgeable like Mary Berry can be a geek hero too.”
Knowledge and craft, humility and enthusiasm … these are surprisingly conventional values. According to the prolific comics and TV writer, technology theorist and Wired magazine columnist Warren Ellis – who has scripted X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four as well as his own game-changing comics series The Authority and Transmetropolitan – the notion of geek culture itself is becoming outdated.
“I find the term ‘geek’ weirdly disparaging and box-like for something that’s so huge,” he argues. “People will call Buffy the Vampire Slayer geek culture and yet it ran for seven years and is one of the most successful TV shows of all time. You could argue that superhero and fantasy movies are modern cinema. Geek hasn’t beaten the mainstream, it’s the new iteration of the mainstream. You don’t have to buy a fanzine on mail order to be part of it any more. You can be part of a digital community that draws you together and keeps building your interest.”
Meanwhile in geek’s other fiefdom – technology – the old nerdier-than-thou elitism is evaporating. The digital explosion has democratised technology. Ten years ago Ellis had to dismantle his phone and read a dozen websites in order to pull off certain communication tricks. An iPhone will now perform most of them out of the box. “It’s not really geeky to use that level of technology any more,” he says. “A 16-year-old girl using SnapChat on her iPhone isn’t a geek, she’s a functioning modern teenager.”
In turn, as cheap technology advances it has colonised what used to be the mental playground of the geek world, science fiction itself. What used to take place in a Gollancz paperback now happens in the real world. “A lot of people are arguing that the science fiction novel is dying,” Ellis explains, “but it’s thriving everywhere else, in television, fashion, pop culture, everywhere.”
The most interesting contemporary science fiction, he thinks, is being created in “design fiction”. Here, otherwise staid design firms and architectural practices visualise future trends much as The Usborne Book Of the Future [large PDF] did for 70s kids – but with added plausibility underpinned by hard design and science. Design fiction is where the geeks roll up their sleeves and it can be dazzling.
You’ve heard of PayPal billionaire Elon Musk’s planned San-Francisco-to-LA Hyperloop transport system. What about the design practice Dunne & Raby’s work United Micro-Kingdoms which has just finished showing at the Design Museum in London? This thought experiment divides England into four distinct new counties with their own technologies and cultures. How would you like to live: as a Digitarian, a Communo-Nuclearist, an Anarcho-Evolutionist or a Bio-Liberal? Geek-driven ideas such as these liberate science, technology and philosophical ideas from the tedious necessity of having to carry a plot. As anyone who knows that Arthur C Clarke conceptualised the communication satellite before anyone built it understands, the true technology visionary thinks geek.
This summer’s Topshop T-shirts might be the most conspicuous indicator that our culture has been geeked. But it’s a fashion moment and it will pass. Something deeper and more significant began taking shape in the 90s, and it’s making modern geek both broader and more robust than previous cultural waves: the advent of the Geek Girl.
First digital culture and cyberpunk dragged geek out of its Simpsons Comic Book Guy dungeon, then internet business culture started to open up to self-motivated women with geeky inclinations. In turn Hollywood recognised that you can’t build an entertainment blockbuster on half of the population. Geek culture is now powerfully feminised, from convention cosplay – there’s enough material in all those Princess Leias to build countless theses on gender identity – to movie franchises that at least acknowledge that female viewers exist. Enabling it all is a thriving world of geek girl sites and blogs such as TheMarySue.com.
It’s not that women are just now getting involved,” argues Susana Polo, managing editor of TheMarySue. “They’re just more visible now. Every time you think that women are just getting into this stuff you discover that the very first Star Trek conventions were organised by women, or that women were key to the creation of Doctor Who. The Harry Potter, Star Wars and Star Trek fandoms are gender-equalitarian if not female-dominated.”
Yet women coming into the geek world have found themselves on the wrong end of an ugly backlash from men who claim that they’re “fake geeks” who are – irony within irony – only getting involved to win attention from geek boys. We’ve clearly reached some kind of end point when the sort of people who used to be shunned can now think of themselves as prize catches. “The idea of the fake geek girl, who pretends in order to get the attention of geek men, is harmful gatekeeping of the highest degree,” says Polo. “Geeks should welcome people into our world. Otherwise it’s geekier than thou and it’s gross.”
Geekier than thou – who’d have thought it, that the weird values and introspective obsessions of this most despised subculture would suddenly become something to aspire to? Certainly not the novelist and scriptwriter Ernest Cline, a resident of Austin, Texas, who wrote a satirical sci-fi novel about a future world shaped by video gaming primarily to discover if he could write a book at all. Ready Player One went on to become a New York Times bestseller. As soon as he finishes his next book, Armada, this year Cline goes straight to to working on the screenplay – Universal Pictures bought Armada, unfinished, for a seven-figure sum.
“I was writing these things mainly for myself,” he says. “I had no idea that any other person would care. They just didn’t seem universal, and I didn’t mind. But it turns out that there are millions of people all over the world who share the same interests in pop culture and movies and video games. My whole life changed because of that geek culture.” Ready Player One has now been translated into 22 languages.
Cline thinks that the world going geek does not just represent a change from the achievement values of the 80s and 90s. It’s more fundamental than that – it’s the end of the 1950s-to-Reaganism Regular Joe mindset with all its suspicion of outsiders, intellectuals and, by extension, dweebs in short-sleeved shirts.
“The atomic bomb and the second world war had made people naturally fearful of technology, and suspicious of the scientists who had opened these Pandora’s boxes,” he says. “In all the science fiction movies of the time you saw rough-and-tumble military guys solve the problems that these nerdy, irresponsible scientists had let loose, and that was comforting. But in the 80s and 90s you can’t sustain that. You see geeks like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates bring miracles into being, not least the internet which has changed everything. The geek becomes the hero.”
But don’t the geeks’ obsessions infantilise us in the long run? Superheroes, video games, fantasy novels, homebrew computing, movie trivia … these are all about retreating into the comforts of adolescence instead of facing the world as it is. If the future is geek-shaped then we’re surely just locking ourselves away in the metaphorical bedroom.
“You can’t disparage people for celebrating escapism,” Cline counters. “It’s an essential part of how we live now. We didn’t evolve to work in cubicles and sit in traffic.” Our hunter-gatherer instincts, he believes, are just as healthily expressed in a video game as on the football field. “Huge numbers of our young people effectively aspire to be a highly rewarded soldier in simulated televised warfare for the entertainment of the masses. How is that right, and yet playing out those same instincts in a virtual universe or a fantasy environment is wrong? Escapism is part of being an integrated human being.”
Perhaps escapism is what really matters. Maybe that’s the reason that geek is displaying greater longevity and adaptability than previous cultural waves. Unlike punk, lad or dance culture, geek can take you out of your head into a fantasy environment, but its business institutions – Apple, Marvel/Disney, TED, MMPORGs and a thousand smaller entities – are robust enough to keep a grip on the real world. Geek has the ideas and the money, and it seems the staying power. Who can handle the demands of an ever-diversifying world without choosing one little area and mastering – or mistressing – it? It’s all about the geek in me. Better get those horn-rimmed glasses on order. And make sure they’ve got lenses.