Somehow, during the years when I mucked about with rocks and critters, and poked at bones of extinct species, being a geek became, well, cool.
I use the word “geek” with the great respect it deserves. My world is peopled by persons passionate about things odd or overlooked, by collectors of specimens, information and ideas, by those who make it their lives’ work to turn over rocks just to see what lies beneath, to grasp what is remarkable in it, and to remark on it. These people never outgrew the childhood need to ask “What?” “Why?” and “How?” that is stifled in so many others.
Sometime during the last 20 years, smart became the new black. Brainy people with focused, intense interests showed that thinking off-centre and poking about in odd corners can mean opportunity, vision and, sometimes — and of particular importance to how our society measures worth — wealth.
People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs led the way in creating a new class of elite. Geeks even got their own prime-time sitcom and popular television dramas.
In Victoria, they’re considered local heroes. The region’s high-tech businesses provide well-paying jobs to those bright and nimble enough to keep up, when other sectors still lag. Startups fill downtown offices that would otherwise sit empty. Their earnings help keep coffee shops, restaurants and other local businesses healthy.
Yes, gone are the days when being interested in science, math or computers meant being labelled boring, awkward or socially misfit.
I look at Nature Boy’s nephew, who dropped out of university after one semester and was out-earning both of his professional parents by the end of the same school year. He works on web projects with clients around the world.
“Geeks are cool,” his equally geeky, equally successful, but much more geek-chic wife tells me. “Nerds are OK, too.” (I note that she wears thick-rimmed, thick-lensed Harry Potter glasses, and recall my grade-school experiences with a smelly old chestnut about girls who wear glasses.)
“What’s the difference?” I ask.
They both shrug. The words mean much the same thing.
In The Guardian in 2013, Andrew Harrison describes geeks as “collection-oriented and interested in the newest developments in their chosen micro-field,” and nerds are “achievement-oriented and studiously intellectual.”
The Oxford English Dictionary is less neutral. It deflates “geek” as “an overly diligent, unsociable student,” or “any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit.” Nerd fares worse as “an insignificant, foolish or socially inept person,” “a person who is boringly conventional or studious,” “or a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”
I learn that geek and nerd serve as both nouns and verbs, and that, in 1993, Scientific American defined “nerd” as “movie shorthand for scientists, engineers and assorted technical types who play chess, perhaps, or the violin.”
Some time between then and the introduction of fruit-flavoured computers (blueberry/ammonia, strawberry/cough syrup, lime/chlorophyll, tangerine/amber, grape/mauveine), smart people became influencers. They’ve created tools and services that change how we think, how we interact and how we live. They have normalized the marginal and brought the outsiders into inner circles.
In a 2013 U.K. survey, participants rated intelligence and passionate engagement with a hobby four times more attractive than good looks or dressing well. The most-selected “geek” definitions were “an expert or an enthusiast” and “a person with a dedicated passion or hobby.” The dismissive dictionary definition ranked last.
But stereotypes linger. In a recent conversation with a bright, young, perky, decidedly non-geeky woman who works for an organization representing engineers, I mentioned how being in touch with my own inner geek helps me relate to people like her clients. She instantly drew back, and I suddenly had a creepy junior-high-school moment. Had I said something wrong? In admitting to geekiness, had I unwittingly crossed an unmarked social boundary, as if I’d admitted to — I don’t know — anal leakage or something?
You would think, given her age and her job, she would be aware of geek-cool culture.
Ah, well. No matter. Lots of people know exactly what I’m talking about.