Friday 18 November 2011

What is a geek?

Lashings of Ginger BeerPosted by Lashings of Ginger Beer

I (Annalytica) have recently been going to a course on C Programming. At the last session, the tutor began by talking about how people are often put off from learning about things like programming and maths and engineering, because of the stereotype that anyone interested in such things is a geek or a nerd.

He was keen to assure us that being interested in programming does not make you a geek, and urged us to challenge this idea, by pointing out that astronauts have engineering degrees and they're not geeks.

I found this interesting because I know so many people who proudly embrace the term "geek" as part of their identity. Instead of denying that they are geeks, they deny that "geek" is a bad thing to be. In fact, so many of my friends are self-described geeks that the idea that it might be something to be ashamed of struck me as surprising.

Still, in spite of having so many geeky friends, I've never really thought of myself as one. I was curious to explore what the word meant to those who do identify with it. The following is taken from a recent email conversation between some of the Lashers, on the topic of geekery.

Annalytica: It strikes me that lots of you use the word "geek" a lot, and often people describe Lashings generally as geeky, and I don't actually know what it means. I thought it meant someone with a slightly obsessive interest in something - but on that definition it'd need to be qualified by specifying the thing they were interested in. Or sometimes it seems to mean someone with any kind of interest in certain areas eg sci fi/fantasy/gaming, whether or not they're obsessive (or maybe people who have the slightest interest in those areas tend to have a very strong interest?). It's not a term I identify with because I feel like in order to claim to be a geek I'd need to know EVERYTHING about the object of my geekery, and I never feel like I know enough about anything to, well, claim that it's a thing I know about. Just thought I'd throw the question out there because I'm always a bit confused by it.

Sebastienne: For me, geek is not about the *amount* of knowledge, but about the *style* of interest - it doesn't have to mean encyclopaedic knowledge, especially in the age of wikipedia, but it does have to mean respecting the ideal of encyclopaedic knowledge, maybe even aiming to tend towards it.

And yet, as I sit here thinking about what differentiates a Doctor Who geek from someone who watches Doctor Who, all it comes back to is "self-identification". Or is it about enjoying the show versus engaging with (NOT necessarily 'knowing all about') the wider mythology?

From the outside, "geek shows" are the kind of shows that tend to engender this type of interest. From the inside, "geek shows" are the kind of shows my friends like, whether they are "geeky" about them or not.

 I have the feeling I'm only adding to the confusion, here...

Galatea: OMG, this is so interesting!

Really briefly, and probably quite problematically: I find that frequently, being 'a geek' can mean both having an obsessive interest in a subject, and being part of a group that shares an obsessive interest in that subject. I do wonder whether the group dynamics are sometimes more exclusive than some people who identify as geeks realise (and I'm as guilty of reinforcing this problem as the next person). In particular:

"I feel like in order to claim to be a geek I'd need to know EVERYTHING about the object of my geekery,"

strikes me as something that can be projected quite strongly by (some) geek circles: 'You must know [X much] about [geek!subject] before we'll allow you in/treat you as an equal'. I also have a strong hunch that [X much] tends to vary depending on the gender, race and class of the person seeking admission to the group (and that of the group members).

 It's probably also complicated by the fact that some people are far more socially conditioned to believe that they know EVERYTHING than others!

 Really interested to see how this develops.
Nigel: The way I've most often encountered it, or have chosen to interpret it when it was probably meant as an insult, is for someone who demonstrates more knowledge (or even just interest) in the subject in question than is expected/fashionable/normal. So I agree with Galatea's suspicion that [X much] depends on who's doing the expecting, and their perceptions of what's "normal", but it's also affected by what the mainstream knowledge of the field is. eg. The requirements for being considered a Tolkien geek a couple of years before the LotR films were released were probably very different than for several years afterwards.

The barriers/qualifications for computer geekery may be more affected by that kind of change: some level of computer literacy is being taught in schools, presumably pushing up the norm, and computers keep becoming more widespread and affordable, so it's less likely for someone to be called a geek by a self-identified non-geek for knowing this stuff. But the gatekeepers will still declare that standards are slipping because in their day they used to have to do all this with punched cards.

Annalytica: How important do you feel the term "geek" is in describing your identity?

 Zim: Oh! Oh! Pick me!

 In recent years, I've kind of left the term 'geek' behind (I still occasionally refer to myself as a nerd because it appeals to the pseudo-intellectual part of me even though it doesn't really apply, but that's a whole other bag of puppies, I think). Partially because of what Galatea and Nigel mentioned; where the gatekeepers of geekdom, as it were, define what makes you a geek on any given subject. Which wouldn't be so bad were it not so malleable depending on who comes a-knockin', but whatever. The main reason I left it behind, I guess, is because I chiefly identified with videogames as my geekdom of choice until I realised I had committed the grievous sin of never playing a Zelda game. (Growing up poor meant that a lot of the classics were simply unavailable to me. I never had a portable anything until last year, which is shocking to a lot of my friends.) Also a lack of time once I started actually paying attention to my studies. I felt a bit uncomfortable defining myself as such.

 BUT I DIGRESS. I guess to me, I'd define a geek as someone who gets invested in their funtimes of choice. Whether it be background research, participating in the fandom(s), or just ridiculously long discussions with friends about it. Which is to say, it's about feelings rather than a particular amount of knowledge, or being part of a select few who know X piece of trivia or having done Y thing. And feelings, my dear friends, are something I have in abundance. About a lot of things. So in essence, even though I'd hesitate to actually call myself a geek, it's something that makes up a core piece of my identity and the way I interact with things that interest me. If that makes sense?

Sebastienne: "Geek" is massively important to my identity. It is my cultural context. It replaces the mainstream framework of "things everyone is interested in" with a framework of "things geeks are interested in" - I don't have to justify my disengagement with fashion or celebrities or football. I still have deviations, of course, but they are smaller - I won't play that board game because I dislike the implied politics, I won't watch that show because I don't like its treatment of women. Geek culture for me is intertwined with fan culture - groups of people with shared interests creating their own realities through creative play (roleplaying, writing fan fiction, literary and sociopolitical dissections of their works of choice... whatever inspires). It's an enjoyment of and engagement with a particular work in a way which is active as well as passive.

I've strayed back into "what is a geek". I find Zim's take on this really telling, and kinda sad - I want to defensively shout, "we're not all like that!" but then I realise that I can hear "oh my god, you've never x'd y?!" in the voice of like half my friends. And while some of them would realise afterwards what a privileged, obnoxious, heard-it-a-hundred-times-before statement that was... a lot of them wouldn't. 

It's a well-acknowledged problem that a lot of mainstream privilege/oppression dynamics are replicated in geek culture, and that this is not well-addressed. I guess that so many geeks view geek culture as a haven they have found after much bullying and not fitting in, the idea that they could be recreating that kind of hurt unwittingly is really hard for them to engage with. Like so many geeky guys can recognise and reject sexism in mainstream culture (with which they are not engaged, and which they are ego-defensively dismissive of) but just won't engage with the fact that the porn in their presentation slides is a problem. Or maybe they're just knobs, and I should stop making excuses.

But anyway, I guess that's why I'm the most comfortable in the Lashy intersection of politics and geekdom. These fandoms, I love them so much, it's only natural for me to engage them with every faculty I own - including my faculty of sociopolitical deconstruction.

Annalytica: I guess I'm basically the opposite of a geek. For me, taking an interest in something and learning about it and demonstrating that I know more than the average person about that topic has always been so closely tied up with earning approval, that I have a hard time separating the things I'm genuinely interested in, from the things I take an interest in so that I'll be accepted. I'm not in touch enough with my own authentic desires to know when I'm really interested in something in spite of it's not being regarded by others as a thing worth taking an interest in. But this is complicated by the fact that the people whose approval I'm trying to earn aren't usually the "mainstream", so superficially it probably looks like I'm rebelling against the mainstream by striking out and doing my own thing, when really, I'm just trying to fit in with a different group. I don't think you can fake being a geek, though. It quickly becomes obvious that I don't really have an opinion on the things that my friends have spent hours dissecting. It's good that y'all accept me anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is really interesting. I'm a geek, and I wear the T-shirt, but I don't always geek hard over the things that feature centrally in the geekery of my friends. This leaves me feeling ignorant a lot of the time; unwilling to express an opinion on Dr Who, for example, Because I've only watched it for five years and have only watched about half of those episodes multiple times. Let's examine how foolish that sounds.

    For the most part, I have great friends that don't mind that I'm not familiar with the writers/actors names of my favourite fandoms or that I can only put names to half the faces in a 'strong women in si-fi' montage.

    However, I've also experienced what you might call Firefly Syndrome. People who are generally super tolerant of other people's individual preferences repeatedly being a bit un-selfaware when the cultural artefact in question is NECESSARY to my understanding of my own social niche. Unsolicited loans of DVD box sets and Neil Gaiman novels.

    I'm not angry about this at all, although I do find it amusing sometimes, and I've often discovered something I love through a friend's recommendation. But there are a few works within the broad scope of 'things to geek over' that get pushed like drugs.

    I've never tried to get this type of friend to read Michael Chinnery's seminal volume on the terrestrial invertebrates of Northern Europe, lol, but that's something I geek over HARD.