This week Alice Roberts, newly appointed Professor of Public Engagement at Birmingham Uni, attacked the idea of “geek” being a badge of honour, even suggesting (gasp) that scientists study arts subjects during their education to make them well-rounded people. Setting aside the question of whether scientists should be diverting their time into reading (non-text) books when they could be spending it on their more economically productive STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) studies*, I would tend to agree. The tag “geek” is problematic for me, and to anyone who asks I will tell: I do not self-identify as a geek. Other people can call me what they want: sticks and stones…
This may seem surprising. I have a degree in physics and a PhD in a seemingly obscure branch thereof. I not only code, but teach programming. I perform at events with “geek” in the title. I wear tweed. Those things all mark me out as one. And I’m perfectly happy for it to be used in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek way. But…
The label is reductive. Sure I have a physics degree. I also sing and play guitar in a band**. I like making puff pastry, and observing the landscape of Utah. I don’t care for sport, but neither do I care for Buffy. I have a GSOH (6/10). I could go on.
Even if it doesn’t marginalise me in any practical sense, the label “geek” seeks to see me in terms of a set of attitudes and behaviours that don’t necessarily represent me very well. Like any label.
The label is escapist. This cuts both ways. I suspect that self-identifying with a set of behaviours means you don’t feel the need to act beyond them. Geeks can feel happy and justified in focussing on their area of geekdom and not, say, being politically engaged, or culturally aware, or sensitive to gender issues (particularly an issue in geek and skeptical movements). I’m not saying everyone has to be engaged in all these things, but on a fundamental level I find it profoundly depressing when I think people are consciously conforming to a stereotype in order to excuse (or minimise the burden of choice regarding) their behaviour, thoughts and conduct.
Self-identification with “geek” has a certain arrogance. It implies a high level of ability in something, as well as the negative social connotations. I personally know people who are either better coders, better mathematicians, better physicists or better geographers than I am. To claim geekdom requires a particular domain of mastery, and I honestly could not pick a domain where I would claim to be that good***.
Being reasonably good at a number of things is not geekiness. There are a number of labels; “jackass of some trades” is my preferred sobriquet.
“Geek” suggests that to be smart, you also have to be dumb. To be a good mathematician, you have to be on the aspergers spectrum. To be a good coder, you have to be scared of women. To be a good physicist, you have to have poor personal hygene. To be a good geographer, you have to have a beard. To be a good academic, you have to be disorganised and absent-minded, especially in your private life. These cliches should be as laughable and trivial as “women can’t be comedians” or “men are bad at childcare”, and while they exist they will force casual interest away from “geeky” subjects – “only those really hardcore people who care more about their subject than their families and friends and social skills should apply” – and leave it in the hands of a few.
The meaning of being a geek has changed. On one hand, geeks run the world. As Harvey Pekar points out in American Splendour, the “nerds” in “Revenge of the Nerds” are middle-class white kids studying for computing and engineering degrees at good universities. When they graduate they will be well-renumerated and relatively powerful. The Gates and Zuckerbergs. In celebrating one’s geekiness, one straddles a fine line. On one hand, you’re celebrating having found a peer group with similarly geeky interests in the face of marginalization by mainstream society; on the other, you’re celebrating your membership of an intellectual and economic elite. One is sweet and life-affirming; the other, not so much.
Geek chic is still in. Any English graduate can put on a pair of window-glass NHS specs and a tanktop, having the lit chic cake and eating it. In this climate of faux geekery, the label loses meaning.
Geek might be a useful shorthand. It is, undoubtedly, still an insult in the playground. But let’s be careful about how seriously we take our own stories. Part of the “we grew up and now the shoe’s on the other foot, big bullies” myth is – we grew up. We should be sharing all this amazing stuff we love and not apologising for being passionate about it – and not hiding behind the shield of the geek clique.
EDIT: I didn’t reference this very good article on a very similar topic, which gives a number of different perspectives on the “geek” phenomenon.
[Adds “citation needed” to academic New Years’ Resolutions]
*I am being sarcastic
**the science songs came after writing gloomy folk songs for 10 years.
***this might be reverse-Dunning-Kruger in action. But it probably isn’t.
I agree with everything you say, and I do not self-identify as a geek or nerd, in the sense that I don’t go around saying “I’m a nerd,” which sounds just about as dumb as “I’m a punk.” However, when I see other scientists calling certain scientists “nerd” or “geek,” I get a little concerned because we ought to be welcoming and affirming of certain qualities. We’ve all spent a little more time working on science or math than on the superficialities of social status, conspicuous consumption and other vacuous enterprises. That doesn’t mean that all social enterprises are vacuous, but many of them are. We should celebrate that we, as scientists, or geeks, or nerds, have certain values.
We don’t have to value the things that are obviously detrimental to society, nor do we have to reduce all qualities of geekdom to psychiatric disorders. Some amount of social awkwardness is just okay. I used to work in a child psychiatry lab, and I heard physicians trying to medicate the nerdiness out of kids all the time. I would hear them talk about people who were just like me and my friends were in high school, talking about their habits and behavior as if it was life-threatening. I would just say “Sounds like he’s kindofa nerd,” as in “That’s okay, that’s just who he is. He’ll learn to live in his own way.” I didn’t mention that I felt like they were talking about me, the statistician.
I also don’t “self-identify” as a Buddhist, mainly because I don’t want people to hear that and think that they know everything about me. About the only things I “self-identify” are my occupation (“I’m a scientist”) and my areas of activism: software freedom and education. But that’s because I want people to know that those things (freedom and education) are important to me. However, when people hear “software,” “science” and “teaching” the next thing they probably think is “ha ha NERD!”
Just one note: you may not have meant to imply such, but Gates and Zuckerberg were far from middle-class. They certainly have nothing to do with it now 😉
I actually did not know Gates and Zukerberg’s pre-wealth wealth, as t’were. Good point.
Some people in science and academia are less socialised; some people are on Asperger’s spectrum (I don’t mean to sound flip or dismissive, and I don’t have the studies to hand, so happy to be refuted, but… anecdotally I have found this to be true). It would be a shame if people thought this was how all “geeks” (whether scientist, engineer, etc) are. This could put a lot of people off, and lead others to emulate those behaviours because they seemed to be “how good scientists behave”. I think if you’re shy or socially awkward or Aspergers, that’s obviously not a “bad thing” – I just don’t think it’s something to emulate, or a good culture to inculcate. Lots of people don’t find those sorts of working environments much fun, and we should let those people in too! I suspect that “those people” are rather in the majority.
I rather thought that ‘geek’ had evolved to have a generic meaning of “really into some activity”. So you could be a knitting geek. Or a computer geek. Or a kitchen geek. Or a math geek.
It wasn’t even necessarily about achievement, just that you had ‘ideas’ about it that you wanted to share with others (and, with luck, it was with others who were equally interested). So by this measure, CASA would qualify as a lab full of ‘geography geeks’ and I can say that without thinking that I’m pigeonholing myself and the other researchers here or that I’m implying that nowhere else does geography like we do. Finally, as demonstrated by the fact that we we do everything from orienteering to linocutting and tennis to photography this isn’t really a defining characteristic of an individual.
Maybe it a cultural usage thing, but in America I’m not sure geek still has the connection to the physical sciences/computer sciences that it seems to in your thinking…
All good points. I don’t know whether “geek” has quite evolved to that point in the UK – what do other brits think?
I was actually going to post something similar to what Jon said (and am UK-based) – while I wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as ‘a geek’, I would definitely own up to being geeky about some subjects, in that I’m very interested in them and probably over-keen to talk about them.
However, I do think this distinction might (unsurprisingly) depend on your social group; if you’re particularly ‘into’ something that’s outside what might be considered mainstream interests, you’re probably more likely to be comfortable with using the word ‘geek’ in that context. Within my friends, I can’t remember the last time I heard ‘geek’, ‘nerd’, etc used with any kind of negative connotations, although my brother – who is primarily interested in football / girls / drinking / wearing whatever is apparently fashionable just now – did so recently.
Interestingly (or not), he’s currently studying for a PhD in biochemistry, so I don’t really know what that does to whatever vague semblance of a point I was trying to make.
It means HE’S A GEEK AND HE DOESN’T EVEN KNOW IT.
Or, he doesn’t really want to identify with a stereotype he doesn’t feel reflects him well. But he’s happy to label others that way?
Haha 😀 well, he probably gets called a ‘geek’ by his former workmates at Jack Wills due to his current studies, so perhaps he’s just pushing back.. or is used to it being an all-encompassing, negative stereotype?
Back to social group context, I’ve realised that he uses ‘lad’ as a positive term, whereas I am far more likely to use it negatively (as in, I’d rather not go to Wetherspoon’s on a Friday night, it’ll be full of ‘LADS’).
I’ll be claiming the ‘#IAmNotALad’ hashtag if that takes off though, thanks very much…
You can count me in for that one… 😀
Everything that you say is true, but I’ve argued that allowing kids to identify with geeky adults (well, actually spoddy adults) should be encouraged – in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL blog here https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2011/11/25/in-spod-we-trust/
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” To be a good coder, you have to be scared of women.” – is the inevitable internal conflict why there are so few women coders? Enquiring minds want to know.
Good point. I think these stereotypes are usually male, which is another issue. But that’s a separate point, and by eliding it, I ended up with a bit of a mish mash. Apologies, all.