On the day where some, but not all, celebrate the idea of pure geekery, I would like to put forth the idea that it is actually the idea of geekery that has done more good in the world than many other ideas before it.
If I were to define geekery, I would break it down into the components it contains. On the first level, you find that it is a co-opted slur or taunt. The word Geek is most commonly believed to have come from a term used for carnival workers who would for some reason or another be objects of disgust and scorn because their performances usually included feigning craziness and biting the heads off of chickens. These folks were called geeks. Then, as taunts do, it evolved to be used against others who someone wanted to be scorned.
The next level of its meaning became a rallying cry for the folks that were being called geeks. This may have been due to a number of factors related to human nature. Since people, and even before people, there has been a tendency to other what we fear. Sometimes that is because one’s own self yearns to be part of a group, and that can lead to succumbing to peer pressure to confirm the group’s ethos of separation from those who are not in the group because the group relies on feeling “better than.”
This sometimes leads to those scorned spending their time alone, becoming devoted to their own interests. As with everything in life, what one puts their attention to studying becomes a source of deeper knowledge. As a fringe benefit of that, many find that to be a source of self-esteem and strength. In some places, this also led to a communion of like minds. In places where people had always shared interests that were more specialized than broad, like academia, or the arts, there was a natural sense of community. In combination with the former tendency, those communities became stronger as a reaction to any scorn and derision. Then they could use their label as a source of pride. At this point, the response to being reminded of the label becomes “Yup. And what of it?”
Eventually during the euphoria created by the dramatic advances in technology that began in the sixties, what had once been considered as impenetrably arcane in science and technology became a source of pride in society, rather than the province of socially inept weirdos that were somehow necessary. As this moved forward, and a new generation was born for whom computers in the home, humans on the moon and in space, mobile phones, unthinkable advances in medicine, worldwide communication, and transportation became something taken for granted, attitudes towards the people who created them changed.
The next level of the meaning of the concept of geekdom embodied this change. People began to realize that to be a geek about something was to be enthusiastic about it. It became just another word of description. And with that it was accorded the greatest compliment any former slur can receive. Folks who would never qualify for, and who could only have a superficial reason for doing so began to refer to themselves as a geek. While this may cause some mixed feelings among those who first realized that they were geeks, it is the first step towards the eventual next meaning that the constant evolution of language will accrue to this word.
What society is currently taking from the concept of geekiness is this: geekiness is basically finding a passion and interest that can provide interest and meaning. Currently, this is a term that is applied to only a narrow set of interests, but it is beginning to be understood as a way to show devotion to a hobby or intellectual pursuit. It is also merging with and defanging the word “nerd.” People now refer to themselves as a car nerd or car geek to mean they love cars, or a band geek for being in the band, or a trivia geek, or any other type of geekishness, from Star Trek to NASCAR.
Additionally, the example of Star Trek itself began the concept of having a convention to share the sense of community with the other participants, and to flaunt it to the world. It gave geeks of any stripe the idea that there were others out there who would know the answer to “which performer played the most different roles in all television incarnations of the Star Trek franchise?” (It is a tie, by the way. Jeffrey Combs, and J.G. Hertzler both have played eight different characters.) This had led to everything from comfort to romance, massive promotional events and money making opportunities, and the creation of similar opportunities for those who follow their passions and obsessions to their logical conclusion to find a place in the world and a tribe to be there with.
Being a geek for something has even found its way into professional sports, where statistics geeks are reinventing how games are played and how deals are made, and being highly sought after for the skills that allow them to do so. This all began after one man working as a bored night security guard at an empty pork and beans factory took his love of baseball and his mathematical ability and produces his first mimeographed copies of the Bill James Baseball Abstract for the year, which looked at all the actual numbers that measured a players and teams’ performances and showed that the way the game was understood could do with some further examination. Fast forward forty years, and many yearly incarnations of the Abstract or other related works, and you get a geek formerly working alone in a silent factory at night who is named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Geeks Unite, one might say.
Happy Geek Pride Day to all those who geek out as a way of life, and who find pleasure in delving so deeply that they awake their true selves just to see how far they can go.