The rise of geekery in all shapes and forms

Every time you download music god kills a kitten

Just posted to Slashdot and Digg is ZDnet's The essence of a Geek by Matthew Broersma.

A general rise in technical literacy driven by gadgets such as the iPod could be evidence that 'geekery' as a personality trait is becoming more pervasive.

You're right about that, geek is no longer a bad thing. It's actually a very good thing to admit now. I bought a range of Tshirts from Jinx recently and I get tons of comments on them. The one which seems to get the most comments is the no one reads my blog one. The most interesting thing is actually who I get the comments from. As you'd expect most of my friends just laugh but I get really nice comments from non geeky people. Its actually tempting to buy more because their really nice on the skin and a good laugh. I mean who would have thought, Not even norton can protect you tshirt would raise a laugh from a very senior manager at the BBC?

Anyhow back to the article, before I start talking about the amount of recent interest from non geek people about setting up their own blogs. Some choice quotes…

For a few years, an interest in computers and technology became inextricable linked with wealth and power – geek became chic. Technology companies suddenly became the focus of the kind of attention that had been reserved for the music or fashion industries. In the UK TV makers even went so far as to create a hip series, Attachments, based around the antics of a tech start-up

Funny you mention Attachments, I was just talking about in this post about Geek sitcoms.

IT industry analyst James Governor of RedMonk, claims that while it may not yet be cool or trendy to admit, a degree of technical sophistication has become expected. He claims that increasingly, “we're all geeks” – even if a lot of people don't care to admit it.

To illustrate his point, Governor recalls a recent conversation involving his wife and some of her friends – mostly women who would probably describe themselves as non-techies. One of the women pulled out a new Windows Mobile smartphone while protesting that she wasn't “a geek”. Governor then politely enquired whether she had her email sychronised to the device – she did. This then initiated a conversation about mobile phone design – the last thing the technical analyst was expecting given the company. “You expect to have that kind of conversation with guys, but not with women,” Governor says.

Although I'll leave the obvious sexual stereotypes alone for now (the women I know are equally geeky and I'm sure to meet even more at the girl geekdinner), James is right. It still makes me smile when I hear non self described geeks friends talk about their mobile phone and it's features in a way which would be frowned upon by their peers if it was about a car. Geez even my mother was giving it the big geeky one about her next washing machine over christmas.

A recent survey by the Sci-Fi channel discovered that an increasing number of women could be included in the ranks of a new demographic it nick-named “New Geek”. The research revealed that a third of the UK's total 6.9 million geeks were actually female. “Whereas once geeks were seen as solitary, embarrassing and uncool, the statistics show that New Geek is chic, popular and hugely influential,” the researchers claimed.

Enough said really! Hey and lets not forget that third is growing all the time. Don't forget the findings of this survey recently.

Somewhere along the line, geek also seems to have lost most of its negative connotations — unlike nerd and anorak, which still tend to be used as insults. The word's reclamation was probably a more or less deliberate effort on the part of geeky technology types who began using it to refer to themselves, say some. “It's a taking-back-the-language thing,” says Jez Higgins, a freelance developer.

To some degree “geek” overlaps with “hacker”, a word used as a badge of honour to mean a particularly adept programmer, though “hacker” has some extra moral implications that “geek” lacks. Most would agree that Bill Gates is a geek, but few would class him as a hacker, due to the perecieved quality of his company's technology and his taste for world domination. “He doesn't have the hacker's ethos,” Higgins says.

Indeed, one of the best things a culture/movement/community can do is take back a negative word. Its what black rappers and gay people did in the 90's. I'm not saying taking back geek is on the same level but it shows a certain maturity in the culture that it's able to do that. Hence things like Geekdinner, Geekcamp, etc. I'm a self described geek and have been caught saying that x is so geek recently. Instead of that x is so cool. Geeking out is another word which use to be quite negative and now has been reclaimed as something good. Even Geekhag is a concious thought that being a non geek but hanging aroudn with geeks is a good thing. I expect that word to circulate more, and remember my wife was always a self described geek hag.

This shift isn't a one-way street, however — we may be coming to resemble geeks a bit more, but through the growing importance of design, technology is also changing to be a bit more human. Strangely enough, many have found the emerging crop of digital video recorders, such as Sky+, far easier to use than the traditional VCR. Gadgets such as the iPod employ complex technology — it's even possible to install Linux on one — but they employ very simple interfaces.

The iPod's success was crowned at the end of last year with designer Jonathan Ive receiving a CBE, and many see such products as the direction geek culture will take next. A new crop of influential programmers, such as 37 Signals' David Heinemeier Hansson or Ubuntu Linux's Mark Shuttleworth, are not even particularly geeky.

“These kinds of people are where the next great successes are coming from, they're great designers and great coders, and also uber-communicators,” says Governor. “Great design is a way to create huge new markets, and that is a lesson IT is learning.”

And a good point to end on. Geek isn't limited to IT. I can argue that Dj's, Designers, Chef's, etc are some of the most geeky people I know. The fact remains that being smart and knowing your stuff is now a good thing. And honestly thats a good thing. I just hope it translates down the line to children in school who sometimes act dumb with their peers so they can fit in (unless they are very strong willed). Can you just imagine a school where not know your stuff will turn you into a outcast? Yeah I can't quite see it yet. But hey I can dream…

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.