Martin Zaitz Austwick, writing on sociable physics, has picked up on Alice Roberts’s comments about the geek identity limiting participation in science and preventing scientists from being well-rounded individuals. He concurs, and describes the term ‘geek’ as reductive, escapist and arrogant, and criticises it for being too trendy. I couldn’t disagree more. ‘Geek’ is a very positive identity.
Part of my problem with the post is that I understand the term geek in a broader way than he or Roberts do. My idea of what it means to be a geek is heavily influenced by Nerdfighteria, the hacker ethos, and the verb ‘geeking out,’ as well as the (contested) definition of geek that sets it apart from nerd – nerds are specifically geeky about studying, whereas geek refers to a category of cultural products and practices. A Times article referenced by Austwick explains this broader conception of the term:
A computing geek is rather different from a film nerd or a policy wonk, a lit-crit dork, a history buff or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer superfan. They all have their own specific communities, knowledge and languages, but all might be seen as geeky, and all may use the term positively about themselves while finding it hard to explain their enthusiasms to others. [Emphasis added]
My identity as a geek is stronger now that I have learned to code and started analysing video games, but this identity doesn’t rely on some sense of myself as a scientist. I’m not, by any means, a scientist. My academic work sits at the intersection between history, cultural studies and design criticism, and even when I was studying 18th-century Shinto, I was definitely a geek. Geekiness does not preclude being a well-rounded individual, and Roberts is wrong to assert that A-level subject choices should be geared towards producing well-rounders. Geekiness in fact encourages the life-long self-education that fosters broader knowledge than the education system can allow.
Austwick explains that the term geek doesn’t fit him, stating:
… the label “geek” seeks to see me in terms of a set of attitudes and behaviours that don’t necessarily represent me very well. Like any label.
I know that feel, bro. There’s a whole bunch of labels people use to make sense of me that I feel don’t represent me very well. I’m still learning how to deal with that, but I think eventually I will grow up to let people use whatever analytical categories they need and just try to show with my behaviour that I’m not who they think I am. It kind of irritates me that Austwick gets to condemn his uncomfortable label as ‘reductive, escapist and arrogant.’ When I’ve tried to do the same with my own uncomfortable labels, people rightly criticised me.
Now, having said that, Austwick is perfectly within his rights to choose which labels he voluntarily ascribes to himself. I choose the label ‘geek’ because it describes me better than a lot of other labels. I believe that it describes the fact that I value study and knowledge in and of itself, my appreciation for the beauty of systems and databases, and, in spite of Austwick’s charge of political complacency, my support for a radical hacker ethos. My only misgiving about the term is that it relies too much on a consumerist idea that I am what I buy, since it is rooted in a particular taste in media products. This is not, however, Austwick or Roberts’s problem with the geek identity, and I feel as a self-identified geek I should defend my identity against Austwick’s criticisms.
One of Austwick’s criticisms is that since geeks ‘rule the world’, to call yourself a geek is to align yourself with a elite group. I object to that for two contrasting reasons. Firstly, I don’t benefit from the privilege given to graduates from numerate disciplines, and that privilege is not directly analogous to the category ‘geek’, as Austwick states. For one thing, it’s very difficult to become a successful entrepreneur or CEO if your spirit has been crushed by anti-geek bullying; Zuckerberg and Gates are geeks, but they are geeks with particular, beneficial skills. Additionally, not everybody with a numerate discipline is a geek, yet they all equally benefit from the special attention that HR departments in tech companies give to science and maths degrees. It’s not geeks that are the problem. It’s narrow-minded HR people.
Secondly, denying that you belong to an elite group is extremely dangerous. It’s poor taste to talk widely about your elite position, but it’s downright foolish to pretend that you don’t occupy one. Even having said that I don’t benefit from the specific sort of privilege that Austwick ascribes to geeks, I still have to admit to myself that I’m white, I went to one of the best universities in the world, and I’m a native speaker of English, and therefore I have a significant leg-up in this world over people who lack any of those three sources of privilege. Failing to recognise your own privilege is complacent, ignorant, and precludes any serious action to create a more equal society. Rejecting the ‘geek’ label won’t ease the burden of privilege.
In a similar vein, I reject the idea that geekiness assumes extraordinary talent. Geekiness is about enthusiasm, not achievement. It only looks like talent because so many geeks are male, and men in general are socialised to bullshit about their abilities.
Is it a problem that so many geeks are male? I’m genuinely not sure, and it’s something I think about a lot. Part of the reason why I like the label is because it’s masculine, but it’s not the same as claiming to be a man. I personally don’t identify as a ‘girl geek,’ though I think it’s probably another useful category for a lot of people. ‘Girl geek’ interests – wearable computing is the first example that springs to my mind – are very useful for demonstrating that affinity with technology is not incompatible with conventionally feminine interests and pursuits. OkCupid is geeky, sex-positive feminism is geeky, pixel dolls are geeky. Geekiness can be horribly sexist, but can also be incredibly progressive.
Finally, to Austwick’s point about trendiness, all I can say is that when I was 17 years old, me and my ‘alternative’ friends used to whine endlessly about aspects of goth culture being co-opted by non-goths. It got pretty tiring. Grown-up identities do, I believe, function differently, and I think Austwick and I are in agreement on that.