2005/09/06

Geeks have been with us always

Ancient Geek


Geeks have always been there. They just solved math problems with an abacus instead of a laptop computer. They skulked through medieval castles playing Dungeons and Dragons with swords rather than wireless mice and 12-sided dice.

Today, the tools of the trade are different, but the geek remains the same, cultivating one primary characteristic: a single-minded pursuit of a particular passion to the exclusion of all other social norms.

Pop culture has recently embraced the geek with his absurd smarts and social awkwardness. For proof, consider that The O.C.'s nebbish Seth Cohen is today's version of '90s heartthrob and 90210 sidekick Dylan McKay.

But at geek central — i.e. the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — geek chic is dismissed as readily as someone who can't recite the numerical value of pi approximated to the first 100 decimal places.

Geek culture is neither coming nor going, says Mark Pearrow, senior system administrator in MIT's Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab.


"It has been around forever," he says. "I'm sure there must have been a caveman equivalent of a geek, maybe with a sabre-tooth tiger skin pocket protector, or maybe with a vastly improved do-it-yourself skull chisel for releasing evil spirits ... ergonomically!"

Makes sense that a caveman geek who forgoed the annual mastodon hunt to play with his rock collection "invented" fire.

Geeks pop up throughout history, says Bert Hall, professor at the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. And most, it seems, were scientists.

"Science is an area that rewards geekiness," he says. "Obsessive concentration, repeated experimentation until they're absolutely sure of the results, thinking outside of the box, breaking away from the established theory. These geeky traits are not easy to come by."

But not all scientists are geeks, he adds. For example, Benjamin Franklin was not a geek.

"He was very socially adept and was quite a success with the ladies, which is not a geek trait," he says. "He used his public persona to his own advantage."

Isaac Newton, on the other hand, was a classic geek, he says. The English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and alchemist was so wrapped up in his work he would forget to eat.

One of history's earliest geeks was the ancient mathematician Archimedes, says Hall.

During a raid on his hometown, a Roman soldier approached Archimedes while he was working on geometric problems in his backyard sandbox. The soldier asked the mathematician to stop his problem solving. When Archimedes refused, the soldier cut off his head. That's tough price to pay for your right to be geeky.

Fast-forward through history to Thomas Edison, one of a few geeks to grow out of their geek- iness. The 19th-century inventor was the classic, obsessive, driven experimenter, says Hall.

"He came up with a number of valuable inventions and in time became a public figure, then an industrial giant and finally a grand old man," he says. "The message here is not that geekdom pays, but that geekdom is not a permanent status."

Good thing, if one accepts any of the definitions of geek given by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: "1a. A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy. b. A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.

Another meaning of geek is equally disturbing: A geek is a carnival performer who bites the head off of a live chicken, while hanging out in a pit he dug himself. Yes, there was such a thing as the circus geek.

With the advent of the binary computer came the rise of the modern geek. As technology permeated society, geeks multiplied and soon found a place to call their own: university.

James McLurkin, a PhD student at MIT's, is a self-professed geek. He studies "distributed algorithms for swarms of mobile robots." Or, in English, he's trying to figure out how to program an ant colony.

He says geeks rose to superstar status during the dotcom boom.

"It became very clear to the rest of the universe that geeks were going to inherit the world," he says. "Computer technology and networking is critical. Nobody can escape using technology these days. Everybody has to have at least one geek to manage their technology or help them when it fails."

With so many geeks managing so much technology it was inevitable that geekiness would one day become cool, says McLurkin.

The ultra-hip MP3 player is really geeky, he says. A geek cares that MP3 stands for Moving Pictures Experts Group-1 Part 3 Layer 3 — and he or she understands what that means. But those who just want 300 songs on their arm during their morning jog, simply don't.

"MP3 players really catapulted micro digital geeky stuff into mainstream," McLurkin says.

Now the geek himself is cool — and has been for awhile.

A quick look at the recent evidence: Comic book heroes like Batman and the Fabulous Four topped the summer blockbuster list. A spasmodic geekazoid portrayed in Napoleon Dynamite launched the independent movie to cult status. Rock stars are sporting jam jar-thick eyeglasses and donning sweater vests.

Neil Feineman, author of the new book Geek Chic, isn't surprised pop culture latched on to the geek. He points out geeks are guarding the gates of the global economy; they're running companies, designing networks, inventing gadgets — and pocketing their hard-earned cash.

"They are outsiders who have managed to carve out economic and social careers by following their dreams," he says.

Feineman admits geek culture is not exactly new.

"The notion that geek chic jumped the shark (or, thanks to the Tom Cruise/Oprah debacle, jumped the couch) has come up intermittently," he says.

"There may be an element of truth to it in the sense that geek culture is now so established that there's nothing terribly outlaw or rebellious about it now.

"Having said that, the success of objects of techno-lust such as the iPod, actors such as Topher Grace and bands such as the newly resurrected Devo, Weezer, the Postal Service, et. al and billionaires like the guys from Google suggest that the ongoing appeal of the geek is going to be as enduring as a phenomenon, like skateboarding."

Geeks are in the limelight because the rest of society equates geek with money, counters MIT systems administrator Pearrow.

"(But) when the public has been saturated with reality shows about geeks, and when biotech overruns high-tech in their mind's eye of economy, they'll be relegated back to the uncomfortable seats in the back of the school bus, complete with wedgies from unfascinated meatheads, who have turned their attention to the latest spastic flavour-of-the-millisecond alternative group that seems to be living better — or at least stranger — than they are."


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ID@thestar.ca

1 comment:

jaybird said...

looks like I was born at the right time :)

now I just need to manipulate this short window of time to make the best of things before I'm overcome by biotechnologists.