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.