May 252014

The word “geek” has undergone a transformation in the last decade from juvenile pejorative to acceptance as a mainstream-recognized counter-culture. As such, it’s more and more become a marketing term–there are television series for geeks (Big Bang Theory), a plethora of blogs devoted to geek culture, geek-themed products, even a geek cookbook.

While this is undoubtedly a positive thing (mainstream acceptance is always at least a little more fun than underground alienation), as with most counter-cultural segments, the more geek has been subsumed into the mainstream, the more it’s lost its meaning. Not that it was a  particularly strict term before–”geek” has always been a catchall in contemporary American culture, subsuming fandom, hard-core science heads, and anyone else whose interests are regarded as obsessive and vaguely technical or science-fiction-y. But with the rise of a whole class of arguably entitled Silicon Valley workers, many of whom grew up privileged enough to never have to take socioeconomics and class ideology into consideration, the “geek” fever has risen to an all-time high.

I work in technology. As a programmer, some of my interests can be seen as “geeky”–after all, I develop for a living, I can JS/CSS and LAMP with the best of them, and I’m looking forward to stretching out into Node and Angular sometime in the future–just for kicks. It easy to assume that, my daily bread being my daily bread, I, too, am a “geek.”

But I don’t self-identify as geek for many reasons. Beside the shortsightedness of stereotyping in general (shouldn’t any human being be wide enough and complicated enough to warrant full individual consideration instead of shorthand stereotyping?), I’ve never been comfortable with the American tendency to buy one’s identity pre-packaged. Identity in the United States too often reflects its predominately market-driven ethos–during adolescence, one selects an identity from a set of well-determined types, rather than forging one’s own. One is “jock,” “prep,” “goth,” “punk”–the categories have undoubtedly changed since I was in school, but I’ll wager the mechanism is the same. The goal at the top is to have several defined demographics to sell to, so at the bottom you’d better funnel yourself into one of these silos, lest you be left in some indeterminate wasteland unreachable by marketers. If you’re none of these things, what will you buy?

Geekdom, just like any other ready-made identity silo in American society, ends up being a cargo cult marketing demographic, and ceases having any real social meaning other than as an audience hungry with demand for anything with the silo’s stamp-of-approval on it. It doesn’t help that geekdom already comes with the indelible marks of a cargo cult. Geeks are the ultimate conspicuous consumers–just witness the world of the “Whovians,” the “Trekkies,” Apple “fanboys.” These are communities that spring up for no other reason than to consume.

I’m not implying that I’m not a consumer as well. I, too, participate in communities based around products–I avidly read things like Hacker News, Ars, Techcrunch, in addition to other, more narrow silos. But I’ll openly admit I would be uncomfortable taking on any identity based on my consumption of product X or technology Y whole cloth. There are so many other factors that go into a human being’s identity, and I hate to see people sell themselves so short.

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 Posted by at 2:43 pm

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