The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Nerds, Geeks, and Growing Up

There are numerous blogs that I read which have recently had entries regarding what it means to be a "nerd" or "geek" (see here, here, here, and here for examples). These entries are typically either decrying that there is such a thing as "geek chic" in which those interests and skills that once were the territory of a select (and usually mocked) few have become mainstream interests or skills, or else they are reacting to the hatred directed towards the recent adoption of once geeky traits by the mainstream.

Some of this writing is quite good, some of it is bad, most of it is interesting...but I must admit that I find this all very odd.

Growing up during the 80s and early 90s, I was definitely a geeky kid. I was fascinated by Star Trek and Doctor Who, taught myself to write computer programs (even writing several computer games of my own design), owned and used a telescope, and was so painfully socially awkward that I cringe to think about it now that I am an adult. I was bullied, constantly and mercilessly. School was miserable (with a couple of teachers even joining in to the bullying), and much of this continued even in my life outside of school. While things improved a bit in high school, it wasn't until college that I finally broke free of it all and began to find more certain social footing - and even this came largely through the help of some excellent and patient friends (Scott, Kirin, Sarah: yeah, I know the role you guys played, thank you).

So, what I am saying is that I know what it was to be socially awkward, to be bullied, to have my interests and talents mocked and frowned upon. When I was in high school, I was infuriated by the kids who had been some of my biggest tormentors taking on the "lonely outsider" persona when it was essentially what they had thrust upon an unwilling me for so many years.

So, I can understand the impulse that many people have look with scorn upon those who currently label themselves as nerds or geeks. We earned the label through punishment, why should they get to take it as little more than a fashion statement?

But, while I understand the impulse, I think that this is a rather stupid thing over which to waste energy. Why? Because I have grown up.

Those popular kids who were trying on the persona of the loner? However much it infuriated me, that was typical teenage stuff. They were behaving appropriately for their age. And while some recognition from them would have been nice (even as simple as "wow, we treated you like crap, didn't we"), it didn't come, but my life went on anyway. They are adults now, past the posturing attitude, and I am an adult now, past being a victim. Yes, of course, many effects of the bullying linger, and the myriad of ways in which it has and continues to influence my thoughts and behaviors are too complex to get into here, but the actions themselves are in the past and, as an adult, I have had to put them into perspective. And, as a result, I have also had to put every aspect of my geekiness, both youthful and ongoing, into perspective.

Those things that I took pleasure in as a kid? Some of them I outgrew, others I still enjoy, and yet others I enjoy more now as I understand more about them. But they were never mine, at least not solely mine. That other people take pleasure in them is fine. It does not bother me one whit. Indeed, the fact tha Doctor Who has become popular within the United States means that it is easier both for me to get my hands on DVDs and to talk with people about it - I feel no need to look down on them for not knowing the ins-and-outs of Colin Baker's exit from the show, or even for not watching anything before the series 2005 re-launch. The presence of these people means that the show that I enjoy will continue to be produced, and for that I am grateful.

Similarly, while I may not be a particular fan of the changes made to Dungeons and Dragons (another old time geek hobby rapidly turning mainstream), that the game has been developing a fan base well outside of its traditional one of high school nerds and college students means that it is easier for me to find a gaming group in any moderate-sized city, instead of having to skulk around looking for players, like a junkie looking for a dealer, as was the case even just ten years ago. That these people have not played through the Temple of Elemental Evil or had to work out the intricacies of 1st-edition psionics rules matters little, they are now interested in the game, and that gives me more opportunities to play.

And the same is true for the many things that interested my childhood and teenage mind - Star Trek, computers, Isaac Asimov novels and short stories, etc. That these are increasingly common and mainstream means that I have more opportunities to continue my own interest, rekindle old flames, or discover something new. Certainly, there are many people hanging about with only a surface understanding of the subjects, but so what? They still help to make these things more widely available, and as such I am grateful.

What's more, the growing popularity of what was once the province of geeks and nerds alone means that more girls and women are becoming interested (or at least being comfortable with their interests). This means that my fiance is comfortable experiencing many of these interests with me, and that my daughter, as she grows up, will be able to share in some of her dad's interests.

Again, this is all to the good.

So, I don't take issue with people taking an interest in, or even making mainstream, those things for which I was teased, heckled, and bullied as a kid. I am, as I say, grateful that this is occurring as it increases my ability to enjoy those very things, and to do so without facing harassment for my pleasure. But what the terms "nerd" and "geek" themselves? How do I feel about people adopting them?

Truth be told, it does kind of irk me. But only a little bit.

I would be lying if I were to tell you that I don't feel a certain sense of territorialism about the terms. While I may not have wanted the terms applied to me, the fact that they were accompanied by abuse and derision means that I feel like I paid the price to own them now that they are becoming terms of endearment and occasionally respect. So, yes, I do get annoyed with people self-applying the term.

But, mostly, I wish the terms would just go away. My feeling of ownership is really not healthy. I didn't choose them - they were inflicted on me. I adopted them eventually, mostly to take the sting out the fact that they would be constantly applied ot me anyway, but they were always intended to be terms of abuse. The way that these terms were applied to me bears so little resemblance to the way that they are used now that the current terms "nerd" and "geek" are really homonyms of the terms that were applied to me, rather than the same terms. But they were derived from the earlier terms of abuse, and while some people may find this somehow empowering or inspiring, I just find it mildly annoying.

Still, the terms are here to stay, and they are now self-applied terms, and we might as well get used to it.

In short, the increasing mainstream acceptance of formerly geeky things works in the favor of those of us who have long enjoyed these things. We need to grow up and appreciate the benefit that we get from this and not treat it as a horrible development. As much as the labels "nerd" and "geek" may have defined me as a child and teenager, I am now an adult, better defined by such labels as "father", "fiance", "Archaeologist", "holder of an advanced degree", "published researcher", "nice guy to be around", etc. - you know, the labels of my accomplishments, and not those placed on me as terms of abuse, however much they may have been co-opted into meaninglessness.


Evan Davis said...

"We earned the label through punishment, why should they get to take it as little more than a fashion statement?" - That seems to be the core of it.

I've learned to welcome our wannabe friends and dazzle them with my ancient artifacts of geekdom. When all want to be geeks, we rule as kings.

Anthroslug said...

Precisely - while there are annoying folks in any group, many of these newbies to the world of previously-niche-interests are fun people to have around, and rather than treat them as we were once treated, it's much more rewarding for us and fun for them to help introduce them to things that they'd not known or heard of.

runester said...

Good article, well written, moderate in stance.

Perhaps like you, I still cringe when someone refers to me as a 'geek'; despite the current positive spin, it still refers to someone with less-than-stellar social skills, not exactly who you'd want to sit next to during a dinner party!

I've also seen some confusion around this, when (for example) some cute girl announces that she thinks geek guys "are the cutest!" She's probably not referring to the fat beard with the BO problem and the encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel Universe. She's still talking about the cute boy in her class, only now the one wearing glasses and the trendy Iron Man tee-shirt. And, I suppose if you're the fat-beard, this realization can sting.

Anyway, what I always like to remind people, is that trends by-their-nature change. This too shall pass! Soon enough, the hot new trend will focus on some other subgroup and everyone who's "IN" will want to look and act like them, and suddenly geeks will be relegated to last years clothes rack. Then we can all go back to being meta hipsters - "I was a geek long after it was fashionable!"

Anthroslug said...

Thank you for the compliment:

"I was a geek long after it was fashionable!"

I sense a new bumper sticker for your co-host to put onto his computer.

I think that you are correct, but I think that there is one other aspect to this, which is that many of the traits of geekiness - the poor social skills, the obsessive focus on a narrow range of interests, etc. - are also traits associated with certain types of personalities (including, but not limited to, people with Aspergers) that were long treated poorly, but are now being better appreciated by the world at large. As a result, I think that some of what we are seeing, in addition to the fashion trends that you point out, is also a recognition that some people are just simply wired differently, but still have their worth (as proven by the rise of the internet).

At least, I hope that this is one of the things that we are seeing. Perhaps I am overly optimistic.