Some reflections on geekdom

Haha! The opportunity to take over every site in the world, one WordPress login at a time, begins! Only I have to not swear while I’m doing this.

So… let’s talk about geeks. The word itself has a weird and wonderful origin:

Etymology: probably from English dialect geek, geck fool, from Low German geck, from Middle Low German
1 : a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake

But of course it has a much different meaning in the modern day. But what exactly is it? Armand and I both proudly self-identify as geeks, but defining what makes you a geek is a bit tricky. Armand and I have often discussed the matter, and a few months ago Armand put forward a mostly agreeable definition of “A person with great passion for life, and things in it” but to me it doesn’t quite capture the essence. Passion is not enough; it’s the slightly neurotic devotion that we have to whatever it is we’re fans of that sets it apart. In addition, the word “passion” is becoming increasingly misused and co-opted by business-speak, and by using it we may be muddying the waters:

We’ve used up so many great and needed words this way, and passion is a sacred one. It’s the language of Abelard and Heloise, Petrarch, Anna Karenina, Beethoven, and Oppenheimer. It belongs to lovers, artists, and worldchangers—who rarely need to talk about it, because they live it—and it means something more than “kick it up a notch.” We have good words for what we need—curiosity, enthusiasm, craftsmanship, and dedication. Let’s stick to them, and save passion for when we (really) mean it.

Curiosity, enthusiasm, craftsmanship, and dedication are all geek-like qualities in addition to passion, particularly craftmanship; the pride one takes in a particularly good bit of code, or an astoundingly funky design, or an excellent and nuanced insight. At least, in my opinion. But it means we’re left with a less snappy tagline.

Even with additional embellishment, we are still left a lot of latitude about what geeks are into; defining an actual “geek culture” it is actually quite hard. I for example, have always been far more into computery geek things, leading to all-too amusing situations where I’ll send Armand a link to an XKCD comic strip (such as this one, which I now have on a T-shirt) and Armand is left having to ask me to explain it. At the same time, I know next to nothing about graphic novels and fantasy sci-fi, while Armand’s knowledge (and personal library) is staggering.

Trying to pin us down to particular cut and dried stereotypes about our hobbies and interests is never going to work. Still, you can trace particular threads through much geekdom, extrapolating from the basics established above: an attraction to novelty, regression to childhood delights, an unerring devotion to the topic at hand and an eye for detail, with a strong streak of fantasy and idealism. Putting it like this, it makes us sound dangerously autistic, verging on a state of permanent infancy. And yet, for the most part, the geeks I know are functional and sophisticated adults as well, even if it can take a little longer to get to know or appreciate these qualities.

Of course, all this shows is that you cannot rely on a single identity to live by, which is as obvious for this as it is for any other form of identity, be it gender, race, religion, politics etc. But it’s a trap a lot of people seem to fall into; in over-emphasising the geek aspect over the others. As wonderful and enjoyable as it is, you should never let it rule your life.