What Is “Geek Culture”?

Whatever it is, it doesn’t involve true geeks.

Johnny Galecki, Kunal Nayyar and Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory.
Geeks, as seen by non-geeks.

Photo by Michael Yarish/CBS/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Geek culture isn’t just about biting the heads off of chickens anymore. Historically, the word “geek” originally referred to such circus performers, immortalized in William Gresham’s classic novel Nightmare Alley (1946). Wrestler Freddie Blassie gave us his 1975 novelty tune “Pencil Neck Geek” (“And if there’s one thing lower than a sideshow freak / It’s a grit-eatin’, scum-suckin’, pencil-neck geek”), and Katherine Dunn upped the stakes in 1989 with her grotesque novel Geek Love, in which two circus geeks intentionally chug poisons and irradiate themselves to breed deformed offspring.

“Geeks” began to be synonymous with nerds—merely socially awkward and bookish—sometime in the 1970s and ’80s. So you had the geek/nerd stereotypes of Revenge of the Nerds, Midnight Madness (and every other Eddie Deezen movie ever), and racist caricatures like Sixteen Candles Long Duk Dong. In the ’90s, we got Family Matters’ insufferable Steve Urkel, Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse, and Professor Frink on The Simpsons. The title character on TV’s Blossom was not a geek, since in one episode, titled “The Geek,” she bemoans having to go out with a geek while dreaming that a varsity letterman had asked her instead. Geeks, it seems, are at the bottom of God’s great chain. While “freaks” such as James Franco and Seth Rogen from cult TV show Freaks and Geeks have gone far, the geeks have not (although Martin Starr has carved out a career as a postmodern Eddie Deezen).

The tide may be turning for geeks, though, if the New York Times’ recent Room for Debate roundtable is any indicator—it was called “When Geeks Rule.” But there was little agreement among the panelists on what constituted geek culture, with definitions as varied as “nonconformist [and] hyper-rational,” “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” “the center of American capitalism,” and “self-professed victim[s].”

It’s no wonder they couldn’t agree on anything: Today, “geek culture” can refer to such cool things as tech startups, Burning Man attendees, rappers from MC Frontalot to MF Doom, math rockers, and “hackers” of all stripes. What happened? The answer is obvious: If a geek seems cool, he or she isn’t really a geek.

Look at the two classic characteristics of geeks: social ineptitude and obsessive devotion to some pursuit. These two characteristics are one and the same: caring more about something (computers, comics, Old English, rock climbing) more than society or social advancement. They’re neither social climbers nor rebels, because they are indifferent—or oblivious—to how the world sees them. In this light, “geek culture” is nothing of the sort. Tech executives are just Wall Street’s traders in new clothes. Cory Arcangel is a Damien Hirst­y hipster artist. Joss Whedon is not a geek but a talented hack writer in the tradition of Ben Hecht and Stephen J. Cannell, capable of synthesizing junk culture in clever and knowing ways. You’ve heard of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, but have you heard of Alan Perlis or Edsger Dijkstra, founding fathers of computer science? If geeks had really taken over, we would be talking about Henri Poincaré and Fotini Markopoulou-Kalamara. But no, first these geeks have to make something like Facebook or Buffy—something not geeky. But “geek” has come to mean anything having to do with tech, and as tech became bigger, more and more culture invariably falls under the “geek” banner. Meanwhile, “cool” and “hip” have become so uncool and unhip that trendiness now has to dress itself in “geek” clothes. It’s a sham!

To be a real geek is largely to be invisible. We may hear about the “hackers” behind the Fappening or DDoS attacks on game servers, but these are trivial attacks next to what security wonks like Bruce Schneier discover every week, from the infamous “goto fail” bug to byzantine weaknesses in RSA Security. Most of these hackers aren’t out for fame or damage or money, but for the thrill of the chase itself—which is what it really means to be a geek. Perhaps the “activist” wing of techies—people such as Richard Stallman or the late Aaron Swartz—is more visible, but even they don’t seek the limelight, and see publicity as a necessary evil.

Zeynep Tufekci wrote in the Times, “Much mainstream culture only portrays the geek culture’s outward appearance and through a distorted lens at that.” This is probably inevitable. Any culture that is so indifferent to trappings of success like money and fame is bound to be misrepresented by mainstream media. Geeks do not get into the Whitney, geeks do not care that much about money, and geeks don’t care that much about fame. (They are often rather boring to those who don’t share their passion—people like philosophy geek Derek Parfit, math geek Martin Gardner, and computer geek Donald Knuth may be eccentrics, but are remarkable more for their work than for their personalities, which is as it should be.) Consequently, pop-culture portrayals of “geek culture” are about as accurate as Austin Powers’ portrayal of the 1960s. Whatever details shows like The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley may get right are smothered by tone-deafness to the culture they are supposedly sending up.           

At its worst, real geek culture results in a dangerous elitism: the notion that you’re so much smarter and better than society that you can do without it. As polymath Jacob Bronowski wrote of quantum mechanics/nuclear weapons/computing genius John von Neumann, “He gave up asking himself how other people see things.” Meanwhile, what our mass culture perceives to be geek culture is just a packaged set of marketable trends, as empty a brand as Gen X or millennials. “Geek culture” is neither geek nor culture—though real geeks probably couldn’t care less.