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Remember when being a geek meant something? - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Remember when being a geek meant something? [Aug. 21st, 2010|11:32 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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That's a picture of the early Microsoft employees back in 1978.

Much has changed in the 3 decades since then. Being a computer nerd isn't the kind of eccentric pursuit that it once was. It all seems inevitable in retrospect — the difference in perception has been driven by the dual factors of techies getting rich in increasing numbers and information technology making people's lives noticeably better.

Hand-in-hand with this change in perception, techies themselves have morphed: there's less of a correlation with social incompetence these days. Perhaps the reason is that computers and software have gotten much closer to humans, and so pure technical chops without social intelligence don't confer the kind of edge they used to.

This has led to developments that would have been incomprehensible a few decades ago. For example, here in Silicon Valley there's a whole celebrity scene, complete with gossip about personal lives. Zuckerberg is the subject of a Hollywood movie. Thankfully there aren't any paparazzi yet, as far as I know.

The other day I was at a founders' mixer and there was this dude who was using tricks right out of the PUA playbook to pitch his startup to me. It grossed me out, and made me stop to think, and I realized how much things have changed.

Don't get me wrong — on the whole, I'm thrilled about the overall direction. But I feel there's something that's been lost in the sexing up of hackerdom. For example, I find that many people I interact with who're in somewhat peripheral areas of tech, such as social media, don't have a friggin' clue about the deep skill and mastery of the machine that's involved in being a hacker, and assume it's all about mindlessly banging out code. It would seem that hackers can have either mainstream acceptance, or respect for their craft, but not both.

I'm not remotely suggesting that social awkwardness as a way of signaling how smart you are is a desirable thing. But just as one might lament losing the ability to touch and feel a paper book while welcoming the era of e-books, I'm mourning something that was nice about the days past while recognizing that things have changed for the better overall.

The recently concluded AOL Geek Awards in Los Angeles give me a perfect opportunity to illustrate my point. The event's tagline, "everybody's a geek about something," brilliantly reduces the word to complete meaninglessness. Indeed, only one of the categories, "Web geek," has anything at all to do with intellectual pursuits. And who do you suppose won it? Blake Ross of Firefox fame? John Resig, creator of JQuery perhaps? Nope, those guys are too geeky to qualify for the Geek Awards.

The award goes to... Ben Huh of Cheezburger Network.


I look forward to the day when black-rimmed fake glasses will become the newest fashion trend to sweep the nation.

Endnote. There's an interesting parallel with black-hat hackers (regrettably) going mainstream, in the sense that they have been subsumed into organized crime. Back in the day, hackers who committed break-ins — especially the younguns — would often find themselves in the news and be viewed by the general public with a mixture of awe, admiration and fear.

P.S. I can't get that tagline out of my head, so I made this:

Acting geek

Eating geek

Murder geek?

[User Picture]From: liddybird
2010-08-22 01:53 am (UTC)

Beware of Posers, but also - Geek no longer mean Ninja-nerd

While I am aware that the potency of the term "Geek" has been diluted, I'm actually a bit surprised that otherwise practical scientists/technologists such as yourself are being nostalgic toward the transformation of a term of mockery from another era. It doesn't make sense that a pragmatic scientist should want to cling on to an outdated label, just as a shorthanded assertion of your technical superiority, especially when the term "10x Engineer" does a much superior job.

For the record, the AOL Geek Awards was a fun event that celebrated the rise of geekery in general, and in the process, the organizers wished to recognize some of the individuals who made some interesting contribution towards the general landscape of the ever changing geek-culture zeitgeist. (My opinions are my own here, since I can't really speak for the PR initiative behind AOL's Geek Awards, nor the PR Machine needed to secure talent at any given award show in Los Angeles)

"The event's tagline, "everybody's a geek about something," brilliantly reduces the word to complete meaninglessness. Indeed, only one of the categories, "Web geek," has anything at all to do with intellectual pursuits. "
Ok, that's just harsh. If you've ever participate in a brainstorming session with a composer searching through his gigs of music library for a specific song as inspiration, you'd feel the full geek power of a music geek, and see how music can be an intellectual excise. Ever see film buffs get into an intellectual argument with regards to the craft of theatrical art direction? How about design students discussing fonts and color theories? Linguists mulling over nuances in asian languages? C'mon, it's so unfair to say that music, fashion, movie are devoid of intellect. Beethoven's 9th Symphony concludes with Ode to Joy, a literary piece written by german aesthetic Fredrich Schiller, aesthics? beauty/style geeks! devoid of Intellect? please! And as for pop culture geekery, you can try telling the writers (and fans) of Simpsons, Lost, Firefly, BSG that their pursuit is devoid of intellect, I don't think it'll be well-received.

Yes, the term 'geek' has been democratized. The transforming definition of the term Geek means that someone like Ben Huh, who has made an impact on the geek-minded audience of 4chan, is worthy of being called a geek. The Geek Awards also honored Kevin Smith - whom I definitely think deserves the title Movie Geek, being the creator of the Jersey Trilogy which was practically on autoloop during my engineering undergrad days as background noise. This award was also attended by C.S Lee, who played Masuka in Dexter - Masuka is probably one of the smartest technical geeks on the show. This guy also plays Harry Tang on Chuck, a show to celebrate geekdom if ever there is one.

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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2010-08-22 08:38 am (UTC)

Re: Beware of Posers, but also - Geek no longer mean Ninja-nerd

Some great points, thanks. First of all, let me reiterate that I'm not nostalgic; I *don't* want to roll the clock back. I made that point in my post but apparently it didn't come across clearly enough :-)

You're absolutely right that music, movies etc. have deeply intellectual components as well. I was out of line there. Thanks for pointing it out.

That said, I do believe there's an essential difference between those arenas and the ones for which the word geek was traditionally reserved. Perhaps we can agree to disagree?

It would indeed be silly to be stuck-up over the loss of exclusivity, as you put it, and I'm not. But it would be remiss not to comment on it, which is why I did. I also wanted to express my personal distaste for the celebrity scene around here.

I'm glad you had a good time at the Geek Awards! I hesitated before posting my essay because of the virtual certainty that it would offend you at least a little bit, but in the end I had to say what I felt. My apologies for being harsh. Thanks again for the perspective.

Edited at 2010-08-22 08:39 am (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-08-22 01:54 am (UTC)

Rest of my comment.

If we were to consult the original Geeks in your photo - i'm sure they would say that above all, being a geek was fun to them. To that point, democratization of geekery just spreads the fun to a larger group of people. If we consult the way-back-when machine, before the age of Wikipedia, Google, Ebay, Netflix, blogs, twitter, rss feeds, content aggregators, etc, being a geek meant that you'd have to read actual books, obsess about specific passages in papers, look up authors in the library, find more books and papers, take copious notes, and spend weekends in libraries to discover all sorts of information, and in the process, 'geeking out' also meant being able to go down ridiculous number of tangential routes, organically gaining an interesting breadth of information about a certain subject. These days, with all the technological advances, 'geeking out' has been made MORE fun, since a lot of the logistic (and pain) of research has been eliminated. Sure, as a result of all of that, 'geekdom' no-longer implies many of the reclusive social habits of old-school research-ninjas. At the same time, a lot of present-day geeks are much more socially accessable, since after an exhaustive google search, there's still time to hang out and have coffee and a good a chit-chat. While it's ashame that the term "geeks" is no longer synonymous with "awesome technorati with rockstar technical vision," its popularity also means that obsessive research and quest to discover are acts embraced by a larger public.

Isn't it better that what was before a term of ridicule is now celebrated as a badge of honor, that the spirit behind general geekery is celebrated by a member of general media? That credit should be given to a member of the media who is attempting to celebrate Geeks taking over the world? How about being flattered that someone is socially courting the larger geek-community who are in the past often dismissed or mocked? As far as the "larger picture" is concerned, isn't it cool that these days entire business verticals are devoting efforts toward learning how to work better with technically superior talent, to cater to their needs? I am sincerely baffled at the dismissively negative tone of your post. Instead of mulling over the loss of the exclusivity of the term "geek," wouldn't it make more sense to celebrate the fact that engineering talent is a recognized need, as opposed to a "necessary token"? le roi est mort, vive le roi.
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[User Picture]From: tomtomtomtomtom
2010-08-22 06:06 pm (UTC)

Good news, Arvind

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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2010-08-22 09:26 pm (UTC)

Re: Good news, Arvind

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