By Gary Alan Fine
Stigma seems a heavy burden to bear, but groups, when they band together in common cause, can reveal astonishing skills of communal jujitsu. Words can lose their moorings and be transformed through the alchemy of collective action: insults become identity markers, and outsiders can find a welcoming home.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of late is the shaping of the word “queer,” once an insult and now the label of a scholarly discipline. “Colored people” have become people of color, and even, in some hip-hop circles, the N-word indicates the right sort of attitude. Artistic movements grab ahold of insults to their own advantage, as once happened with the Impressionists.
And so it is with geek culture (nerd culture is a related, if slightly distinct, species that deserves its own affirmation). The term geek in its current usage provides an image of a young man who is focused on the pleasures of technology, science, and mathematics. The term has been traced to the grand — macho but geeky — science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in his short story, “The Year of the Jackpot” (1952). This is appropriate in that geeks were always science fiction fans as well as fantasy game players (D&D geeks). A fondness for computers is implied as well.
But what gives the term its poignancy — and the need for pride — is the implication that many young men who love technology are socially inadequate. The commitment to technology implies undeveloped social skills and failed attachments to peers and attractions to young women. While geek still has something of a gendered implication (males are more likely to be imagined as geeks than females), the dominance of technology and its ever-growing presence in our lives has weakened this image, creating what some label “Geek Chic,” with its own couture. Geek Chic as a fashion statement begins with heavy black-rimmed glasses. The reality that celebrities have borrowed the style suggests how cheeky chic can be. In an age of smart phones and tablets, the pocket protector, once the hallmark of the committed geek, is an endangered species.
Embedded in techno-worlds, the engineer and the artist define today’s zeitgeist: replacing the salesman and the adman. And so it is appropriate the celebration of Geek Pride on May 25th, selected because it coincides with the 1977 release of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, such a technical and artistic marvel. I suppose a holiday celebrating the first showing of Star Trek might someday be created: every Easter needs a Christmas. (Pi-day, March 14 (3.14) is surely geekdom’s Thanksgiving).
The fact that Geek Pride Day is international (first celebrated in Spain) suggests that geekdom is as global as the Internet. Perhaps it is this transnational appeal that makes geek culture particularly characteristic of our age. Boundaries of communication have melted away in the face of the geek assault.
Although it is tempting to suggest that there is a single geek political stance, several streams have emerged. We see the technocrat and the hacker as two distinct models, connecting the technological to the political. Technocrats docilely serve government or corporate masters, and so are often the bulwark of the State and the bane of activists. This tradition is evident in the fact that many engineers are politically conservative, invested in the task before them without questioning its morality or political implications. The other wing of geekdom is flamboyantly anarchic or libertarian. It is a form of political counterplay. The great delight of such techno-rebels is to use science skills to undercut powerful institutions. Every time a database is hacked, a canary escapes from its cage. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements are laced with geeks.
And perhaps this is the message: Commitment to technological innovation need not imply any political stance or any social position. Geek Pride Day may subtly convey that geeks are a disadvantaged minority, oppressed by those who are cooler or more stylish, but the reality is that geeks are all about us. If geekdom reflects a youth subculture, then geeks are oppressed, just as teens always are, but if to be a geek implies that one has an enduring passion for the machine, then increasingly to be a citizen is to be a geek. Each decade more so. If so, perhaps the most apt slogan for Geek Pride Day is the reminder that in the end Geeks’R’Us.
Gary Alan Fine is the author of Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds and the co-author of The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter.