A fairly short piece today, on something I have mused over this week. I think it all started with a friend finally persuading me to watch the US comedy The Big Bang Theory: for the record I enjoyed it, and it’s a fun sitcom about geek stereotypes. In many ways it is similar to the wonderfully written British sitcom The IT Crowd – which features the IT department of a large utterly awful London corporation, and remains one of my favourite shows.
Geeks come in all forms, and The IT Crowd includes gaming geek references – there is a shot of what is clearly the board game Ticket to Ride in one episode, and another episode in which Moss ends up running a Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy rpg. The DVD series box set even comes with one of its own as I recall 🙂 Bravo! I personally enjoy these things immensely, just as I enjoy the mathematical geekery of Randall Munroe’s wonderful xkcd, which also featured the board game Agricola in one strip. 😀
Both Big Bang Theory and IT Crowd provide affectionate portraits of geeks; they mock, but with genuine sympathy. The geeks are the good guys and gals. This is fine, though it is noticeable that in both shows the female character is the non-geek, or rather, the slightly less geeky. I assume this is to reflect the traditional issues geeks are said to have with “girls” (though it may simply be a narrative framing device for the non-geek Watson to be more sympathetic?) but it is hard to say of that reflects reality any more. My experience is that geeks today, comic, science, maths, games, computer, whatever shade — that they are as likely to be women as men. I may be wrong, your experience may vary. Certainly geeks can get dates these days, and I was amazed when I googled it at the plethora of “geek” dating agencies out there. I actually think “geeks” are increasingly the sex symbols of our society — but I’ll get back to that later.
Now when I was an undergrad I was told to start assignments by defining my terms. Being as pedantic as I am, this usually meant I ran out of words long before I started to answer the question, but it did teach me a lot. However I am fiercely going to avoid trying to define “geek” here: the term is fairly synonymous to my mind with the older pejorative nerd, in defining a group of scientifically/mathematically minded folks who have cultural associations with gaming and science Fiction and Fantasy: but ultimately geek is what geek is to you. We can argue definitions in the comments.
Kicking My Own Argument for Fun
I’m going to make the case that The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory are symptomatic of a shift in cultural and economic power, and that the Geeks will (and have already to a large extent) inherit the Earth. I will try and defend that position. However, I’m going to start by critiquing the idea that a couple of TV shows really shows us anything. Back in the 90’s Graham Linehan, the urbane witty and genuinely brilliant writer behind The IT Crowd gave us another much loved show, Father Ted. For those who spent that decade on a remote Irish island, er sorry, in a cave, Father Ted gently mocks (and at times fiercely satirizes) the Irish Catholic Church. It was a masterpiece. And we can compare it with another show of the period, that did much the same to the Anglican Church in England, The Vicar of Dibley. (Vicar of Dibley deserves its own piece, for its romanticisation of English country life, and the feudal/pastoral idyll it depicted. I enjoy it, but there is so much we can say about it. That must wait however.) So, given that Dibley and Father Ted both dealt with Churches, does that mean that religion was in the 1990’s gaining in importance? Far from it: I think those shows in their own way reflect a (at times hideous) past – they refer back to an earlier age, and our childhoods. The churches were safe to mock in the 1990’s, because they had to many become ridiculous, and yet reassuring. I’m going to write more on this theme: for now I simply ask you to consider it as a counterbalance to what I have to say below. In short, I may be talking utter rot about geeks.
Here I Stand
So right, I am making the strong claim that geek has become mainstream, and may soon become the largest subculture, indeed perhaps even the mainstream culture of the UK (that is it will be hegemonic if you want to get technical – geek assumptions, morals and ideals will be seen as “common sense” and the reality, and those not sharing these values will be in ‘outsider’ subcultures.
Secondly, I am making the claim that geek culture is in denial of this reality, and continues to see itself as outsider and to some extent persecuted by “The Establishment” and “The Cool Kids”.
Thirdly, I predict that what we now regard as geek will simply become so mainstream that new oppositional subcultures will arise that will reject computing and Joss Wheldon programmes as much as geeks probably were not great fans of Blankety-Blank. We will see a new generation who just don’t think the internet is cool, and don’t give a hoot about SF or Halo 3. Based upon the end of the Victorian period in a dangerous piece of historical guesswork, I will claim that there will be an inevitable backlash and move to something very different, and probably anti-science and probably hedonistic and anti-intellectual. This is by far my most daring claim, because it is based on nothing more than what happened in the period 1860-1920, and history does not have to repeat itself.
To defend all these claims properly would take all day, so I have nailed my colours to the mast. I’ll just briefly explain my thinking. If I am wrong after all it will be forgotten in a week, and if I am right, posterity may credit me far more than I am due as having had insight rather than a bad sense of humour and a good sense of the odds. 😉
Defending The Theses
So let’s start with 1. that geek has become mainstream, and may soon become the largest subculture, indeed perhaps even the mainstream culture of the UK.
I think this is really easy to defend – how many people do not use computers today? How many people do not know who Cthulhu is? (And I must note with great sadness the passing of Lynn Willis, who only a tiny number of hardcore game geeks will recognize the name of, but whose cultural impact, along with Sandy Petersen and Chaosium generally, has been out of pall proportion to their sales as popularizers of Lovecraft. Lynn gave me my first break in to game writing, and is sadly missed.) How big is xkcd? How many people know what a LARP is now compared with in 1997? and most of all, how many people have played computer games obsessively, and chat on online forums, or attend conventions? Cosplay is pretty mainstream now. Dr Who is once again massive. We can have a new Hollywood Star Trek movie, and we can have good sales for almost forgotten classics like Sapphire & Steel, Logan’s Run and Blakes 7. Even Robin of Sherwood has fan conventions these days. 🙂
So geek is culturally pervasive, but it hardly challenges the Premiership and Coronation Street does it? No, but that is perhaps because the mainstream media and commissioning editors are woefully slow to seize the ball, and because geeks might neglect TV in favour of the net and social media. I have watched a tiny fraction of TV time in comparison to hours online for well over a decade now, though I was an early adopter of the web.
It is the Interwebz that really marks the triumph of the Geek. Who are the great heroes of our time? Well Steve Jobs came close to being beatified by his legion of Cultic Mac fans on his death, and Bill Gates has to be one of the most inspiring figures to a generation. Clive Sinclair has his fans as does Lord Sugar; and various hackers, programmers, game writers and tech-heads are way more popular than most pop groups these days. Or so it seems to me, I could be wrong, but if I wanted to check Twitter followers would be one way, and that while obviously a flawed methodology in this case still in itself tells us something about how our society is moving. When even footballers need Twitter accounts, we have reached the Age of Geek.
You’ve read Karl Marx and you’ve taught yourself to dance
OK, I’m now going to employ a bit of Marxist theory to try and explain what is happening. Technically it’s Marxistant – I’m using some of their economic theory stripped from the ideological assumptions. I’m not a Marxist, and don’t hold this stuff as dogma – I just think it makes sense to use it it here. (And just in case the section header id bothering you as you cant work out where you have heard it before – here. )
I am going to invoke the Marxist Base/Superstructure Model. This arcane piece of economic/cultural theory boils down to this — societies are founded on an economic base, and from that grows the superstructure of our culture. So a feudal society will embrace different cultural means of expression to a mercantilist one, or a communist one, etc, etc. Really all it comes down to though is if you alter the way people get paid, make money, are employed and buy things you change society. Please don’t skip this – it is useful. I promise to return to happy geek topics shortly. And also note I am massively simplifying all this. Wikipedia is your friend.
Now I’m not asking you to read Gramschii and Althusser. Just grab the idea that the economy MAY drive our cultural forms, and that is this is right then a societies hegemony is dictated by economic factors. If so “common sense” reality for the UK today is at least in part defined by the fact we increasingly have economies driven by the net, hi-tech, science and communications technology. New technologies have given rise to a country where Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox are seen as proponents of good sense: the internet meme helps define our actual lived reality. Perhaps cats will inherit the Earth.
If you don’t believe this, consider something that changed Britain forever. When I was young people were often unless professionals paid weekly, in little brown envelopes. Then to (I presume) cut down on tax evasion, the law changed and we all became salaried, paid monthly. So rents became due monthly, people had to learn to budget, but could make larger purchases each payday than before without saving, and could take loans which were pretty secure as their wages were now paid in to their bank accounts and deducted at source. Our whole society changed in massive ways in the 80’s through this one change – stop reading this rubbish and spend a little while trying to figure out all the impacts of that weekly pay packet to monthly bank payment change. Seriously, do it.
Even if you can’t follow, or disagree with the above, we can use a plain ol’ Yankee analogy – “Follow the money”. The big bucks are in computing, IT, social media, and online sales – soon the world of Are You Being Served? may appear as quaint as the world of the Vicar of Dibley. You can get rich in the City, or you can get rich in Silicon Valley, or you can get rich in writing the next big console hit, but you ain’t gonna be as rich if you open a greengrocers on the Lower High Street. The true power, the true sanity and sense in our society lies in the geeky IT department in the basement: because they understand the changed game rules. Their decisions are what matters now. Richard Ayoade’s brilliant portrayal of Moss – though to me he is forever Dean Learner – is the kind of character who today makes the real power decisions, NOT the boardroom. Well, maybe. We have a class struggle between the net literate IT crowd and the establishment business-folk — and we idolize those who combine both qualities, like Gates and Jobs.
By this analysis, Geeks are a) increasingly mainstream b) damned sexy – they have money = power = sex (Sheep on Drugs, 15 Minutes of Fame) and c) defining our reality and cultural norms. They are literally Geeks bearing gifts.
Now not all Geeks are by their skill set computer wizards working in IT implementation or emerging technologies. Gaming geeks, comic geeks, SF geeks, and all the other little geekdoms stand to benefit from this cultural transformation as well however. They a) provide services directly to a new market – I predict an increase in board game, rpg and comic sales in the next few years for example – and b) they are culturally literate in this “Brave New World”. Many accept the anti-homophobic socially liberal pro-science mindset as common sense and the norm for any society. They have embraced the new hegemony, because they helped define it. Let’s move on to claim 2.
Rebels Without A Cause
My second claim is that geek culture is in denial of this reality, and continues to see itself as outsider and to some extent persecuted. Now I would say that: I am oppositional, in that while i have spent a decade kicking around sceptic and atheist forums, I’m actively engaged in parapsychology and religion, two subjects the emerging hegemony dismisses as false or irrelevant in the main. (Or such is a sub-claim of mine). Yet I have noted, time and time again, that despite the evidence of book sales, conferences and general pervasiveness of memes, atheists and sceptics continue to regard themselves in the UK as a persecuted outsider minority. I have argued their attitudes have long since become hegemonic, and that the cultural influence of say Richard Dawkins massively outweighs that of the archbishop of Canterbury, and that of James Randi or Richard Wiseman dwarfs that of say the late lamented Prof. Archie Roy or even Derek Acorah. These groups have become culturally mainstream here; yet their rhetoric remains that of the “Culture Wars” of the USA instigated by the Religious Right. Persecution complexes in majority groups can have horrible results. This is not the Mid-West guys.
Yet the elitism and outsider position are cool toys, and hard to give up. And yes, many geeks are scathingly elitist, if only in an ironic sense. Scientific literacy and intellect are valued over character and decency — we see exceptions, like Robin Ince, who has a great moral compass and seems from his tweets a genuinely decent guy I’d like to know, and Ben Goldacre who I also admire – but geeks can be cruel, scathing and vastly smug. It feels like being beaten up back in the late 90’s by nouveaux-Pulp fans, who had decided that you were one of the mainstream kids and somehow had decided to lash out in faux-nerd frenzy: the irony of geek on geek violence is never lost on me. “Hey Jarvis, can you hear me now?”
Science is more popular than ever before, but the sense of persecution persists, together with dangerous historical myth-making I have torn in to on this blog. The Geek Revolution will not be a velvet one – and strangely, the modern generation of Geeks might not know much about 1989, or care. Come to think about it they don’t know much about the Velvets either — can you tell a track from Live at Max’s Kansas City from something off say White Light/White Heat? Geeks are scientifically literate, but sadly many are historically and artistically illiterate – there are many exceptions of course, like the aforementioned Ince, but I try to discuss Marinetti in vain these days.
So I think Geeks have failed to recognise they have gained power, and while mainstream broadcasting is partially denied to them, the last bastion of the older influence groups, that may be because they don’t want it. Geek-chic is outsider culture, hence this terrible pretence, just as in the USA the Christian majority make a mockery of themselves with their claims of victimisation (a few of course are absolutely legitimate, the rhetoric more rarely) based on cultural memes of Second century Roman Empire.
The first stage in dealing with a problem is often recognising it. I hope geeks will realise they hold the keys to the kingdom; they have the empire, now as then.
My third claim is geek will simply become so mainstream that new oppositional subcultures will arise. I think this is actually happening in youth cultures that stylishly adopt the memes of the last pre-computing age, the 1950’s. Rock n Roll hedonism, blues, soul, austerity chic all seem to be making a revival in disenfranchised younger folks. Amy Winehouse and even Bruno Marrs are raiding the dead vinyl dreams of a pre-download age to bring us a new subculture or movement, however loosely defined. Football, dancing, drinking, sex n drugs n rock n roll – may all arise again, and form the basis for new subcultures. They will be subcultural though, not mainstream,and I am not sure if they count as geek or anti-geek. I’m thinking Jazz Age hedonism, the great Gatsby, the flappers and the rejection of science and militarism. If there is anything to historical determinism, I think these memes may create the new youth culture as surely as hippy followed 50’s corporate America. I’m not even going to tray and defend this claim yet though. I can explain why I think there will be a there will be an inevitable backlash and move to something very very different, and probably anti-science and probably hedonistic and anti-intellectual though.
We have been through something similar before, from the age of the first Internet, the telegraph, through the social dislocation caused by the rise of typist pools and telephones, mass media and radio. The late Victorian Era was characterised by I believe HG Wells as the “Age of Whoosh” – there was a tremendous optimism about scientific solutions ushering in an age of progress, justice and ease. (And many of those beliefs have been historically justified in the 20th century). Prince Albert espoused something close to the MacDonalds theory of conflict prevention – that no two countries with a MacDonalds had ever fought (true till 2008 as it happens). Obviously Prince Albert did not foresee the burger empire — he felt mutually beneficial trade would result in less war, as countries worked towards mutual benefit and this led to constraints on military adventurism. The Kaiser had similar visions of European Union, as did Napoleon, leading to less war and misery ultimately. yet all these ideas were blown out of the water in August 1914, and in the prolonged horror trench warfare in the Great War (1914-1919). The mechanisation of war had already wrought horror on vast scale in the American Civil War, but it took the deadlock of Flanders for Europe to get it. World War 2 was less costly to us, but left us living under the shadow of the Atom bomb and mutually assured destruction. Geekery and worship of science could hardly prosper in a Cold War environment when our most brilliant minds were dedicated to the issues of how to destroy each other; and the culture that emerged in the 19320’s was frankly hedonistic, and that of the 1950’s was frankly at times anti-intellectual, or challenged the intellectual establishment as phoney. No more heroes anymore.
So I think our situation now is similar in some ways to 1912. We don’t take prophets of doom, even the serious pontification of Lord Rees on threats to humanity seriously anymore. The Millennium Bug, the Doomsday Preachers, the 2012 nonsense, all have made the idea anything can interrupt our smooth progress seem loony. Our main concerns are the economy, politics, and faster progress. Yet some concerns are real, no matter how much those who express them are pilloried. We live in a complacent age, and age that reminds me of the one Walter Lord famously described as ending on April 15th 1912 when the Titanic hit an iceberg. If that smugness is justified it is hard to tell, but a Cold War era kid like me can smile at the beauty of Justin Sullivan’s 1989 lyrics in I Love the World, and a few of us still understand exactly what he meant, however much the geeks of today seem to have forgotten the lessons of history. I’ll leave you with some of his words…
Well I never said I was a clever man but I know enough to understand
That the endless leaps and forward plans will someday have to cease
You blind yourselves with comfort lies like lightning never strikes you twice
And we laugh at your amazed surprise as the Ark begins to sink
This temple that is built so well to separate us from ourselves
Is a power grown beyond control, a will without a face
And watching from outside I wish that I could wash my hands of this
But we are locked together here, this bittersweet embrace
Oh God I love the world
CJ, January 19th 2012.