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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Kevin Smith: Geek is forever

Fishbowl LA, in its coverage of San Diego Comic Con, notes that über geek Kevin Smith said, at the Entertainment Weekly panel:

Geek culture is here to stay.

And then Fishbowl goes on to snark that “I’m sure someone said that about Disco and Grunge…” which makes no sense to me. Styles of music are equivalent to, you know, the revolution our society has undergone in the last three decades? The Internet and other communications technology — like the cell phone — have made geeks of us all. Superheros are serious business these days… not just major moneymakers but, obviously, cultural touchstones.
Now, it’s true that geek as a lifestyle, as a way of thinking, may not be here to stay on the same level that I see around me today. My generation, the Xers (say, those of use from our late 20s to our early 40s), we’re all geeks, pretty much, to one degree or another. Already, though, today’s teenagers, who take to cell phones and Facebook the way that I and my peers took to the VCR and our parents took to TV — as their godgiven right, and not something new to be played with on the fringes of what everyone else is doing — don’t seem particularly “geeky” to me; they don’t have that particularly intellectual component that influences how they think about, you know, the whole world. Geek is not a state of mind for them.

But that just means that, just as disco and grunge are still around as options in a sea of musical choice, “geek” will still be around as a style option… Some kids today are geeks, and some are hippies and some are rockabilly and some are preppy. And it’s all cool.

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  • Kathy A

    I think what most of the next generation are missing in any geek aspirations is that very few of them have the wide-ranging cultural touchstones that we have.

    For example, I watched my DVR’d episodes of “Spaced” yesterday (which I decided to record based on your review–thanks for the rec!!), and it occurred to me that, while someone in their teens/early 20s would get the Matrix and Star Wars references, I highly doubt they would get the Woody Allen or Cuckoo’s Nest homages. Whereas I knew as soon as I saw the tall Native American mopper where they were going.

    A friend of mine started teaching last year (middle school drama), and she says that the thing that depresses the hell out of her about the kdis is that they refuse to watch any film released before 2000 (“Holes” was ancient to them!), and as for anything from the ’70s or, God forbid, in B&W, forget it!

    But, those of us in our 40s and even 30s grew up with much more limited entertainment options–I’m 42, and cable wasn’t readily available until after college, and VCRs weren’t popular until the early 1980s, and even then tapes weren’t available for every film released the way they are now. We had to watch whatever was on TV, which meant Astaire and Rogers films on PBS while babysitting on New Years Eve, or old Basil Rathbone Holmes flicks on the UHF channel after school.

  • I think Kevin is a bit off when he says that geek culture is “here to stay”, because he’s implying that there was a time when there was no geek culture. I would argue that it has always been here, and it always will be.

    To me, being a geek is not just having gadgets and knowing how to use them. There are plenty of people, including a lot of dain-bramaged teenagers, who are well-conversant with using cellphones and MySpace and DVD players and such. This does not make them geeks. This makes them end users (or, more cruelly, “dead-end users”).

    Being a geek also means that you care how these things work; you know how to troubleshoot when stuff breaks, rather than just handing it off to someone else to fix. You can sit down with a completely unfamiliar piece of equipment and figure out how it works simply by playing with it. You know how the registry works in Windows, or how .plist files work on a Mac. (Or both, in my case.) You can operate any digital camera within 5 seconds of it being handed to you. (Handy skill at parties.) You can trace the wires connecting 10 different pieces of AV equipment and figure out why there’s no video on the TV. You know the difference between standard DVD and HD-DVD and Blu-ray, and you know why having a full 1080p TV is better than having a 720p TV. (And not just because the number’s bigger.) You’re not just a customer at the Apple Store; you’re the Genius behind the counter.

    From a non-technology perspective, being a geek entails having detailed, almost pedantic knowledge of movies, including arcana such as quotes, or knowing the differences between the different types of stormtrooper helmets in the Star Wars movies, or knowing that the original cut of Blade Runner contained an embarrassing number of continuity errors (and being able to name them). Comic book geeks can name the different names of Robin, or the fact that Kirby and Moebius drew the Silver Surfer comics quite differently. (You can thank Quentin Tarantino for exposing that bit of geekery to everyone in Crimson Tide.)

    Geeks have always been around. The car mechanic who can disassemble a car engine and find that one part that’s rattling; he’s a geek. The guy who sifts through Wired magazines at the bookstore looking for that one perfect copy to add to his complete collection; he’s a geek. The guy who can quote Full Metal Jacket from beginning to end; he’s a geek.

    I’m a geek, and proud of it.

  • Mimi

    [blockquote]I think what most of the next generation are missing in any geek aspirations is that very few of them have the wide-ranging cultural touchstones that we have.[/blockquote]

    But I’ve heard that no-cultural-touchstone idea applied to my cohort (I’m 29) — cable was most definitely around for our formative years, and VHS and all that good stuff — yet there are a LOT of geeks my age.

  • Mo

    Disco and Grunge? Clearly someone forgot to tell these people that ABBA is currently #1 in the UK album charts: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/aug/04/abba.back.at.number.one

    It’s all bunch of big sine waves.

    Disco may have defined a single era, but dance as a whole never went away at all. As I understand it, rave culture started the moment disco supposedly “died”, and even now the underground is still going strong. The same thing is happening with grunge. It’s no accident that today’s teenage emos grew up surrounded by it, and judging by the timing of the current New Wave revival, I predict there will be some sort of a Grunge revival in about 5 years when they get old enough for their own bands to have an impact. It’s already happened across the pond with Britpop.

    My point is, I don’t see geekdom being any different. The specifics will wax and wane, but the culture will always be there. Myth, adventure, costumes and dress up, heroes and villans, recurring jokes, and quotes from shared obsessions, those are generationally universal. So its “Garden State” and “Napoleon Dynamite” at the moment. But it’s “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” too. Those superheroes plastered on everything have been around since the 60s mostly, and there have been Middle Earth obsessives since the late 30s.

    Not to mention Generation Y grew up idolizing you Gen Xers like cool older siblings. We learned our worldview through yours. There have always been cultural monoliths in spite of all the chatter- see the Dark Knight’s box office numbers for example. It’s just a bit more intense and complicated now because there’s more stuff.

    And like all the kids who currently think that Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd are the greatest things ever because they listened their parents’ music and haven’t found anything better, there are plenty of young geeks in the making whose worlds have been shaped by their geeky parents introducing them to their own obsessions.

    The good stuff always lasts, it just varies in intensity like that wave.

  • e

    I was at this panel, in the massive crowd. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure the question was essentially asked of the panel, “is geek culture here to stay or will it be used up and move onto other things?”

    In my short experience (first time at any convention, only saw 3 panels, was there for just Friday), quite a few panel questions aren’t very good or very helpful.

    It was a blur of a day, so Kevin Smith’s answer is also hazy, but I think he basically answered that comics and super heroes and many things associated with geek are certainly more legitimized now, especially for hollywood which has seen there’s money to be made.

    Just thought I’d throw it all into the mix. I’m only 24, but I never understood the reasoning when one of my friends stated he won’t watch any movie made before 1980. More importantly, I know I’m getting older when I’m training new hires, and they text all the damn time and I just want to tell them to stop texting…. and get off my lawn.

  • misterb

    I’m with Clayj – not only have geeks always been around, but geekiness is hereditary. My dad is geeky for big-band music in the same sense as I am for the media of the 70’s and 80’s, and my daughter has always complained that she’s been cursed with a photographic memory for trivia – her college friends would call *her* to settle arguments when the Internet was within typing distance!

    I think you can tell a formative geek when they hit about 7 or 8 – that’s when they start annoying the other little kids with their uncanny ability to know useless things.

  • Mo

    “I think you can tell a formative geek when they hit about 7 or 8 – that’s when they start annoying the other little kids with their uncanny ability to know useless things.”

    Heh… Truer words have never been spoken. It was third grade in my case. And most of my cousins on my Dad’s side are geeks- sure makes family gatherings interesting.

  • MaryAnn

    Geeks have always been around.

    Yes, that’s true. But they’ve never been mainstream or — dare I say it? — cool before. That’s the big difference.

  • Kathy A

    “I think you can tell a formative geek when they hit about 7 or 8 – that’s when they start annoying the other little kids with their uncanny ability to know useless things.”

    Hee! For me, it was not only knowing long words, but using them correctly. It drove my (older) sister crazy–she’d mock me for using a long word, then go home and look it up in the dictionary and discover that it was the right word for the context, and she would just grind her teeth in frustration.

    She mocked me for knowing key LotR dates from the books after we saw Return of the King, but her calling me a dork didn’t matter, because I was right.

  • melissa

    Movie-geekiness was highly encouraged in my family. We always stayed through the entire end credits at the theater. One of our family road trip games was to name a movie, and then take turns naming who was in it, who directed it, what year it came out, etc. I was the only girl in the 9th grade with a picture of Cary Grant in her locker. Man, people thought I was weird.

  • Man, people thought I was weird.

    “Thought”? ;-)

  • Paul

    I’ve defined “Geek” in a variety of ways over my lifetime.

    1: Someone who is dedicated to an uncool hobby. Thus, if it is cool, it is not geek. As much as I respect a mechanic I used in college for being able to listen to my car and tell what was wrong, that was too cool to be geek. (He was in his sixties and still built like a bull, too)

    2: Someone who spends more money on books than on beer, or I suppose the above hobby. I guess that would quality roughly 10% of the population.

    3: Someone whose personal preferences interfere with obtaining dates with nongeeks or other forms of social punishment.

    I also enjoy musing upon how calling nerds “geeks” is cultural projection. A “geek” orginially was a person who ingests foul food for the entertainment of others. I think that describes people who do drugs, drink to excess, and other “cool” things far better than the behavior of nerds. If you define geeks as those who take in unhealthy information, that would be the general public, not nerds.

  • Jurgan

    I would suggest that what is geeky now will become mainstream in the future. Surely VCR’s were geeky once. In the next twenty years, nearly everyone will be using the internet regularly. That won’t be geeky. The geeks will be the ones who stay on top. If you get to be seventy and start complaining about how “in my day the internet was just text and videos- none of this other junk” (whatever such junk may be- we can’t know, but we know it will exist), then you’re no longer a geek. Geek culture really has to be somewhat out of the mainstream, I think. Geeks are the ones who stay ahead of the trend. While they may be leading the way today, if they stay where they are now in the future, they will no longer be geeks.

  • Paul

    I agree with Jurgen that there is the geek of the future, but there is also the geek of the past. Ghost World’s geek was fascinated with the past. I can’t imagine giving up my books for curling up with a computer.

  • amanohyo

    I realize that the word geek was at one time associated with uncool and/or technology related hobbies, but for me at least, it currently refers to someone who is extremely passionate about a topic, to the point where they know many minute details and facts that the average person does not.

    admirer : stalker :: enthusiast : geek

    A geek is obsessed with a certain topic, to the point where they engage strangers in conversations about it, think and write about it, and enjoy debating the finer points of it with others who are similarly obsessed. Even though it’s not socially accepted to do so, there are plenty of men out there who I would classify as sports-geeks, car-geeks, stockmarket-geeks, or hunting-geeks (some women too). The nice thing is that geek has almost compeltely lost all of its negative connotations; when it does, I think people will discover that almost everyone is a geek in some area.

    You can’t just be interested though, it has to be a passion that informs and affects your life on a daily basis.

  • Jurgan

    Well, yeah, amonhoyo. The post here specifically was about technology geeks. There are obviously other areas of interest which one can be devoted to. You could be a Babylon 5 geek, for example, and still not care what kind of DVD player you watch it on.

  • i think it’s time to revive the Geek/Dork/Nerd meter that maryann used to post regularly…

    for example:


  • Paul

    I don’t think geek/dork/nerd works as a “meter.” For example, only “nerd” actually requires intellectual intelligence (while being a dork implies being stupid as well as uncool), so nerd should be the most instead of least favorable. A geek can go either way. I’m not even sure these words have agreed upon definitions useful enough for such . . . use.

  • i disagree — a geek is not only intelligent, but capable of living in the “real” world, has better social skills and is self-aware. a dork is a little less socialized and a nerd is an obsessive to the point of not getting social signals and not having social skills.

    i say this as a self-defined, “geek.”

  • Bill

    According to dictionary.com…

    dork: a stupid, inept, or foolish person; nerd

    nerd: an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit

    1. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp. one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
    2. a computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)
    3. a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.

  • Following up Bill… to me, the definitions have always laid out like this:

    GEEK: Very smart, esp. with respect to technology, movies, comics, books, SF, etc. But also social and able to deal with people on a regular level.

    NERD: Very smart, like a geek, but lacking in social skills. Usually dressed funny.

    DORK: Neither smart nor social. Think Napoleon Dynamite.

    In high school, I was a nerd. But I have since “moved up” to being a geek, because I am capable of socializing and “ungeeking” temporarily.

  • Paul

    Ah, Clayj, you have fallen from our noble ranks and compromised with the surrounding society of silly fools.

    I’ve been watching “Big Bang,” a TV show about nerds, and have flashbacks to college. Sometimes it’s painful to watch, especially if there’s a new woman in their life to make them miserible.

  • MaryAnn

    According to dictionary.com…

    Language is a living thing, especially the English language. It takes a long time for dictionaries to catch up with actual usage.

  • Bill

    MAJ – You’re absolutely right. That’s what makes discussions of this kind so interesting. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that the buck stops with Mirriam-Webster. Just wanted to throw another take on the distinctions between the words into the mix.

  • Bill

    If I am a geek, I am a “The West Wing” geek. Below is an exchange between a main character and a young lady who came into work wearing a Star Trek pin. What he describes sounds to me like a geek. So my question is, could it be the tendency to fetishize one’s interests that distinguishes geeks from nerds? Or is “fetish” an inaccurate or unfair way to characterize how geeks enjoy whatever it is they are geeky about? I’m lookin’ at you, “Doctor Who”ligans.

    I’m not obsessed. I’m just a fan, and I care.

    What’s your name again?


    I’m a fan. I’m a sports fan, I’m a music fan and I’m a Star Trek fan. All of them. But here’s what I don’t do. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: “Let’s list our ten favorite episodes. Let’s list our least favorite episodes. Let’s list
    our favorite galaxies. Let’s make a chart to see how often our favorite galaxies appear in our
    favorite episodes. What Romulan would you most like to see coupled with a Cardassian and why? Let’s spend a weekend talking about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians and then let’s do it again.” That’s not being a fan. That’s having a fetish. And I don’t have a problem with that, except you can’t bring your hobbies in to work, okay?

    Got it.

    Except on Star Trek holidays. [exits]

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t remember that episode, so I don’t remember what else happens, but it seems that Josh is being unfair to Janice. Did she attempt to do any of those things he makes a joke about? Or is she just wearing a pin? If the latter, how is that any different than, say, wearing a baseball cap from your favorite team?

  • i do remember that episode and no, she didn’t do any of those things, and even got in some good points about josh’s secretary wearing a cross around her neck, and i think also about things like the baseball hats… not sure exactly what the wrap up was though.

  • I remember that episode distinctly. Josh’s point was that when you work in the White House, as this young lady was, you don’t bring your hobbies in to work with you. Wearing a ST:TNG Starfleet communicator pin makes you look a bit of a moonbat, basically, and the White House is supposed to be a place of seriousness.

    I own an official Babylon 5 jacket, very nice suede with a big embroidered B5 logo on the back. But I don’t wear it when I am working; it’s reserved for nights and weekends, when I am not going to be seeing any clients.

    The fact that Josh brought up “galaxies” shows how little he really knows about Star Trek, of course. He’s a politician and cares little about such things; he’s ageekual. But what it really boils down to is Aaron Sorkin thinking he’s clever, when in that case he was not; it was a valid point he made, but in a very ham-handed way.

  • Bill

    She was just wearing a pin and working away at her desk. Nothing disruptive. I don’t see how it’s any different than a flag pin or a brooch or a ball cap, for that matter. I agree that it seems unfair. However, it’s clear from her reaction that she does indeed spend her weekends talking about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians. I’m just wondering about the relationship and boundary between what we’ve been describing as geekiness and what is generally recognized as fetish. But if you guys wanna talk West Wing, I’ve got all weekend to talk about Republicans falling in love with Democrats:)

  • MaryAnn

    Geez, who would fall in love with Cardassians?

    Yeah, it sounds like Josh was being just a tad unfair, and stereotyping her as one of those “get a life” fans who really are not able to understand the difference between reality and everything else, and don’t know the boundaries between your work life and your personal life (whether that’s hobbies or whatever). It does, however, seem acceptable, in the workplace, for SOME of one’s personal life to interfere with work. Hands up, whoever’s had to take over for someone who had to go to a PTA meeting or a pediatrician’s appointment in the middle of the workday. If the workplace can accommodate some people’s personal lives, even if they’re somewhat disruptive, it should be able to accommodate everyone’s without making a judgment on whose personal lives are more important.

  • Parsing this out a bit more: Wearing a Starfleet pin and wearing a cross, a Star of David, or some other obvious religious symbol are different because Star Trek is not a religion (some will call me blasphemer for saying this, I know), and even if it were, it would not be a conventional one. In an uptight environment run by uptight people, you have to conform to rules of what is and is not acceptable attire, including jewelry. Josh might have come down equally hard on someone wearing a Mr. T-esque amount of gold chains, for example.

    Also, the pin would be on all the time; Josh or Sam might wear a NY Yankees baseball cap or jacket on the way in to the office, but they’d remove it as soon as they got there. Again, it’s OK to be a fan; but it’s not supposed to be in everyone’s face while you’re at work, unless you work in a looser environment. (When I worked for Microsoft, I could wear pretty much anything I wanted at all times. They simply did not care as long as I got my work done. But at my current job, I have to dress a bit more “professionally” because that’s what the clients demand.)

  • MaryAnn

    Agreed, Clayj. But how “in your face” was that Star Trek pin?

  • “Wearing a Starfleet pin and wearing a cross, a Star of David, or some other obvious religious symbol are different because Star Trek is not a religion (some will call me blasphemer for saying this, I know), and even if it were, it would not be a conventional one.”

    so, if you’re a Hindu and you wear Shiva’s symbol, you can’t wear it in the White House, or if a Buddhist wears an “om” symbol, that should be not allowed? a Bah’aist? where would you draw the line? some people believe that Star Trek reflects their philosophy of life… and unless you’re a robot (or really don’t have a personal life) your personal life and your work life are gonna overlap at some time or another. i work in a huge, conservative law firm — it doesn’t stop people from expressing some form of their personality at their desks and in their clothing or jewelry. i agree that a Star Fleet uniform at work would be inappropriate, but frankly, i think so is a yalmulke and/or a hajib… and certain persons wearing short skirts. again, where does one draw the line? is it, “I don’t know how to define ‘inappropriate’ but I know it when I see it?”

  • It was right there on her lapel, as if she were a Starfleet cadet.

    And if it were a NY Yankees pin, a smiley face pin, a “Where’s the beef?” pin, or anything else with a non-work-related message attached to it, then it probably wasn’t appropriate for that particular work environment. A generic piece of jewelry, like a brooch, would be OK; as would a small religious adornment like a cross on a necklace (on the lapel makes you look like a minister, so that’s probably not ideal), or a US or state flag pin.

    A great big honking cross like the Pope would wear wouldn’t be appropriate. Nor would a jacket made from a US flag.

    Part of being a geek, I have found, is knowing when you can get away with being a geek. That’s why geeks often do better than nerds in social or work/professional situations, because it’s easier for most geeks to blend in and suppress their overt geekiness. Nerds are more obvious.

  • Bronxbee, “I know appropriate when I see it” is exactly how it works in many organizations. Someone makes the rules, based on their ideas of how things ought to be. Sometimes the rules are written down, in varying degrees of detail; sometimes it’s purely based on the whim of the person in charge. Obviously, the Deputy Chief of Staff in the White House has some leeway in asking a lowly intern to not wear something he thinks might reflect poorly on the White House. Whether or not we personally agree with him is basically a moot point as far as he is concerned.

    Religious adornments like yarmulkes are almost always OK, especially when they are requirements of their religions. Christianity has no requirement (that I am aware of) that its adherents wear crosses; this is ironically a negative when it comes to religious discrimination. For example, Christians can be ordered by work not to wear crosses because there is no requirement that they do wear them, but Muslims can (or try to) claim that headscarves are required, and consequently are allowed to.

    We’re getting off track here, I think, but the point remains valid: Outer expressions of geekdom sometimes run afoul of workplace expectations. So I can still be a geek and dress conservatively while I am at work, and then geek out when I get home and on the weekends.

  • Bill

    And geek out you do! Suede, embroidered Babylon 5 jacket? Wow. :)

  • Well, I don’t wear it very often.

    The point is that I would NEVER wear it to work. The same goes for my Buzz Rickson’s black MA-1 “Pattern Recognition” jacket (inspired by William Gibson’s novel)… even though it has no adornments of any sort, a lot of clients wouldn’t react well to someone coming in wearing what looks like a vintage Air Force bomber jacket. That’s the sort of thing you wear when you’re not at work.


  • Bill

    Right on. Fortunately, all I need to do is put on a suit and I can be Toby Ziegler bustin’ republican heads. In my head I’m walkin’ to a meeting on the Hill because some knuckle draggin’ goon wants to cut the NEA’s budget. I can geek out right there on Wall Street and blend right in at the same time.

  • Paul

    Bill, I think it would be easier for two people of different religions to marry then a liberal and a conservative. A liberal Christian, a liberal Jew, a liberal Sufi, would basically agree on the issues, while a liberal Christian and a conversative Christian would argue, argue, argue.

    I’m not saying the former always work and the latter never do, but in America the religious divide is easier to cross than the political one.

    I saw the West Wing episode in question (obviously, since I’ve seen all of them), and I think it is unfair for there to be sports stuff on the walls of staffers (what are those long, trianglar things with the names of sports teams on them called?) and the President wearing Notre Dame caps create the defacto right of employees to have small, personal touches in the fictional White House.

  • shoop

    There seems to be a lot of humorless harumphing about that “West Wing” scene–I don’t know how it played, but it READS like a playful swipe at geekery, ending on an inclusive and welcoming note (the line about Star Trek holidays). I think we can draw a few conclusions from reactions to that particular post…

    1) If you have an emotional investment in the meaning of that scene, you’re probably a geek.

    2) If you don’t see the humor in that scene, you might still be a geek, but you have serious nerd-like tendencies–that is, if we’re accepting as one of the boundaries between geeks and nerds the ability to laugh at oneself.

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