Geek [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“Geekhood has the potential to be opened up or modified to fit local conditions of selfhood experienced across nations, genders, or other cultural categories.  But every effort should be made to place geekhood as mode of selfhood and citizenship within the historical and cultural context from which it emerged.”

 
The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)

 

Geek Christina Dunbar-Hester, Rutgers University

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “geek” as: “depreciative. An overly diligent, unsociable student; any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit.” [1]  This usage goes back to at least the 1950s.  The OED offers a more recent definition (from the 1980s) of “geek” as “a person who is extremely devoted to and knowledgeable about computers or related technology” and notes that “[i]n this sense, esp. when as a self-designation, not necessarily depreciative.”  Another iteration of “geek” meant a circus freak or carnival performer.  This usage is a bit earlier, with the OED listing 1919 for a carnival performer and 1935 for the colorful description, “a degenerate who bites off the heads of chickens in a gory cannibal show.”  Precedent for both the circus geek and the academic geek is found in 19th-century usage meaning a foolish, offensive, or worthless person.

Geeks may or may not differ from nerds.  On this distinction, Science & Technology Studies scholar Ron Eglash quotes novelist Douglas Coupland, who writes that “a geek is a nerd who knows that he is one.”[2] In other words, self-awareness and embrace of one’s geeky status are components of geekhood.  Geekhood can be borne with pride, whereas nerds are just nerds, dweebs, losers. [3]

The genealogy of “geek” is important for multiple reasons.  Not only has its use drifted from a term of insult,[4]  it has also become centered around arcane knowledge, especially of computers.  Many people use “geek” to describe themselves and others in a fond, self-aware form of teasing and playfulness.  As with other iterations of identity politics,[5] geeks have laid claim to a title with a history as a term of disparagement in order to gain power over its use, and they now derive strength from a label which had once been injurious to them.  Geeks’ embrace of this term now signifies their own uniqueness from the mainstream and commonality with each other.

This shift in the meaning of “geek” (and especially its newer positive valence) coincides with computing’s rise in prominence over the past three or four decades.  Computers have made a leap in the popular imagination from symbols of dehumanizing bureaucracy to intimate machines for self-expression and liberation.[6] Programmers, computing magnates, and hackers have catapulted into the limelight.  This is evident in the stature and perceived social power of such figures as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg.  Their technical “wizardry”[7] is an object of public reverence (even though so-called “hackers”[8] such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden may also be met with suspicion and ambivalence).

“Wizardry” is also gendered, of course.  Technical masculinity precedes computing.[9] Susan Douglas locates amateur radio operators’ work with radio as a site of reinforcement of ideas about masculine identity and technical competence in the early 20th century (1987: chapter 6).  She discusses how the tinkering work performed by men and boys, celebrated in the press, helped attenuate tensions between conflicting definitions of masculinity.  Tinkering offered access to a masculine technical domain which was accessible and valued, and which stood in contrast to masculine ideals of ruggedness, strength, and plunder, which according to Douglas were becoming less accessible and less valuable.  Douglas’ account demonstrates that radio amateurs seized the new technology and interpreted it in a way that emphasized masculinity and different gender roles in relation to it; the technology was used to reinterpret masculinity itself.  Electronics tinkering was a remarkably stable elite masculine hobby during the 20th century, which offered suburban men and boys both a masculine space within the domesticity of the home and training for white-collar technical professions.[10] But by the last couple of decades, the object of tinkering had begun to shift away from radio and towards computers.[11]

The continuity of tinkering as a masculine pursuit offers some clues about geek identity.  Computer geeks (like the hams before them) are overwhelmingly likely to be white men (or youth), often from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds.[12] Reasons for this likely include exposure to computing at a young age, parental educational achievement, gender expectations and socialization of children and youth, and cultural norms in computer science and hobbyist communities, among others.[13]

This is not to say that participation in computing or related technical pursuits is closed to all who are not white men.  Strategies to combat the association of geekiness with white masculinity include linking geek identity to technical engagement as opposed to technical virtuosity.[14] Technical communities including free and open source software and hackerspaces have repeatedly sought to address issues of “diversity” within their ranks.[15] Women can and do identify as geeks.[16] And Ron Eglash argues that Afro-futurism is an example of an improvised way to achieve technical prowess or identification without being tied to geekiness per se.[17] Yet the association of white middle-class masculinity with aptitude and affection for computing is entrenched.

It is worth locating geeks in space and culture, not only in time.  Arguably, to be a geek is to assume a subject position within capitalism, or at least in a technologically advanced society where an abundance of gear and surfeit of time (whether one’s own leisure time/volunteer labor, time stolen from an employer, or something in between[18]) can be presumed.[19] A subsistence farmer is not a geek, no matter how technically adept she is.  Not only does “geek” originate within a largely North American or European cultural context, the export of geek identity can be interpreted as a means to bring people in other parts of the world (especially the global south) into alignment with neoliberal[20] and capitalistic values.  It is not a coincidence that some of the values of geek communities, including self-organization and peer production, can be easily ported onto discourses of entrepreneurship and bootstrapping.[21]

Such attempts to convert, e.g., “Africans”[22] to geekhood rightly identify “computer capital” as a “as a mark of distinction with which to ensure their viability on the job and in the social structure.”[23] Yet they fail to consider the inadequacy of the “distributive paradigm” as a mode of intervention into systemic inequality.[24] In other words, social power and technical participation are imbricated to such a degree that they may at first glance seem interchangeable, but increasing participation in technology is no guarantee of movement into a more empowered social position.

Despite the towering symbolic value of IT, geek identity as a global subject position faces obstacles.  Gender, for example, is constructed and experienced not in isolation but within a matrix of factors that affect social identity, which include class, nationality, ethnicity, and race.[25] Much of what we know about the intersection of gender and technology suffers from the fact that scholars have disproportionately attended to western cases.  Ulf Mellström suggests that we “[need] to investigate configurations of masculinity and femininity in a cross-cultural perspective more thoroughly”[26] in a study illustrating the relative prevalence of women computer scientists in Malaysia.  The fact that there are more women computer scientists in Malaysia than in the United States does not necessarily mean it is easier for women to be geeks in Malaysia.  Mellström never uses the term at all, and we would be wrong to conclude it is an especially meaningful category in this case.[27]

Anthropologist Carla Freeman advocates “localizing” our understandings of work with technology, by which she means attuning any analysis we might conduct to the historical, sociological, geopolitical, and economic factors which materially ground all instances of work with technology.[28] This resonates with the acknowledgement by Wendy Faulkner and many feminist scholars that context matters and “one size does not fit all.”[29] Geekhood has the potential to be opened up or modified to fit local conditions of selfhood experienced across nations, genders, or other cultural categories.  But every effort should be made to place geekhood as mode of selfhood and citizenship[30] within the historical and cultural context from which it emerged.  It cannot be held out (or exported) as a universal way of being in the world.


Notes

1. This obsessive diligence may also be expressed as fandom (Bailey 2005).

2. Coupland 1996 quoted in Eglash 2002: f.n. 1. See also Dunbar-Hester 2008.

3. The OED notes that “nerd” has also acquired a definition as a person who pursues a “highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication”. However, it is still more likely to be depreciative, and it is also more broadly defined as “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person; a person who is boringly conventional or studious.” Much more could be said here. For example, the appearance of the “black nerd” in popular culture indicates that reclamation of “nerd” is possible as well. Significantly, this appropriation (re)codes nerd racially, tying African-American-ness to intellectualism. (It thus decouples blackness from primitivism, a linkage exemplified in musician Brian Eno’s statement, “Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him,” quoted in Eglash 2002: 52.) It also expands roles for African Americans beyond “thug, athlete, or rapper.” See “The Rise of the Black Nerd in Popular Culture” (CNN Entertainment, March 2012). Online at: http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/31/showbiz/rise-of-black-nerds/, accessed 4/25/14. It is worth noting that all the examples of black nerds cited in this piece are men.

4. In popular culture, “geek” can mark outsider status (e.g. the reality television program Beauty and the Geek, 2005-2008) or outsider status along with studiousness (as in the cult tv show Freaks and Geeks, 1999-2000). Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel Geek Love centers on carnival geeks negotiating belonging within their family and the wider society. Thanks to Jack Bratich for these references, as well as for reminding me that “geeking” can occur around topics other than technology. See also Jason Tocci (2009) on geek identity within popular culture.

5. For example, “queer.” Judith Butler points to a tension for these terms of exclusion, in that even as they are reclaimed and vested with a “positive resignification” (1993: 223), a total metamorphosis, in which past derogatory valences are cast off, may serve to vitiate their full significance. She cautions that “normalizing the queer would be, after all, its sad finish” (1994: 21). See Dunbar-Hester 2008.

6. Streeter 2011; Turner 2006.

7. Rosenzweig 1998.

8. See Coleman entry in this collection of Digital Keywords.

9. And computing was originally women’s work. See Abbate 2012; Light 1999.

10. Douglas 1987; Haring 2006.

11. See Coleman 2012: 28-30 on youth and coding.

12. See Dunbar-Hester 2008; Kendall 2002; Misa 2010.

13. Kendall 2002; Margolis and Fisher 2003; Misa 2010. See Ensmenger 2010 on the historically tenuous status of programming and the rise of academic computer science.

14. Dunbar-Hester 2008; Dunbar-Hester 2010.

15. Coleman and Dunbar-Hester 2012.

16. Newitz and Anders 2006.

17. Eglash 2002. See also Fouché 2006.

18. Söderberg 2008; Turner 2009.

19. See Coleman 2012; Kelty 2008; Söderberg 2008.

20. Streeter 2011.

21. Streeter 2011: 69-70.

22. See “How tech geeks in Africa are transforming IT education” (Computer World, April 2012). Online at: http://www.computerweekly.com/opinion/How-tech-geeks-in-Africa-are-transforming-IT-education, accessed 5/10/14.

23. Postigo 2003: 600.

24. See Eubanks 2007.

25. Delgado and Stefancic, scholars of critical race theory, assert that “Race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological nor genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient” (2001: 7). I invoke race as a category of analysis in light of this insight.

26. Mellström 2009: 886.

27. Mellström argues that two main factors influencing Malaysian women’s computer science participation are how Malaysian society constructs appropriate class positions for its multiracial population, and that Malaysian women may embrace “global, corporate masculinity” in part because many Malaysian men reject it for being western or foreign (2009: 898).

28. Freeman 2000: chapter 3. See also Wyatt 2008.

29. Faulkner 2004: 14.

30. Of course “citizen” is rightly a contentious concept for some. In my use of the term, I wish to signal activity around civic or communal participation, not to marginalize those without full legal status as citizens. Though I do not have space to interrogate “citizenship” here, using it to stand in for a mode of engagement open to “everyone” may present problems.


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Coleman, Gabriella. Coding Freedom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

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