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Worlds Without End Blog

Time to Die? Posted at 7:36 PM by Jonathan McDonald

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Last week comedian Patton Oswalt wrote an editorial for Wired magazine suggestively titled "Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die." He makes the case that geek culture, long submerged in the subconscious of national (and global) culture, has clawed its way up into public consciousness, and that this rise is leading to its inevitable death. Geek culture, he posits, shrivels up in the sun, and can only thrive beneath the damp topsoil of the larger culture.

Admittedly, there’s a chilly thrill in moving with the herd while quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity. Something about which, while we moved with the herd, we could share a wink and a nod with two or three other similarly connected herdlings.[...]

Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun. The Lord of the Rings used to be ours and only ours simply because of the sheer goddamn thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling.

The topsoil has been scraped away, forever, in 2010. In fact, it’s been dug up, thrown into the air, and allowed to rain down and coat everyone in a thin gray-brown mist called the Internet. Everyone considers themselves otaku about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top Chef. American Idol inspires—if not in depth, at least in length and passion—the same number of conversations as does The Wire. There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans. And I’m not going to bore you with the step-by-step specifics of how it happened. In the timeline of the upheaval, part of the graph should be interrupted by the words the Internet. And now here we are.

What do you think? Is geek culture as it existed in the mid-to-late twentieth century gone forever? Is it better out in the open and in possession of Hollywood budgets, or does it thrive on poverty and a small and esoteric fan base?

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8 Comments

jwbjerk   |   03 Jan 2011 @ 15:57

In my opinion, the authentic geek couldn’t care less if geek culture is popular or unpopular. He likes what he likes because he likes it, not because he is making some kind of statement, or trying to demonstrate how cool (or uncool) he is. For instance LotR is awesome for its own sake, not because i can congratulate myself on reading something really long."Is geek culture as it existed in the mid-to-late twentieth century gone forever?"Any living culture or subculture is continually changing. Keeping geek culture unchanged for decades was never an option. But if being part of a tiny minority is what you want, then there are all kinds of little subcultures within the expanding, diluting geek whole.

Carl V.   |   03 Jan 2011 @ 22:13

I’m with jwbjerk in that I think the authentic geek, however you define it, doesn’t really care. While there are some interesting things about the article, this feels akin to "underground" music fans who get bent out of shape when the bands they like finally make it big, and then go on to accuse those bands of "selling out". There are and always will be those people who are just jumping on a band wagon, and geek culture is more popular right now, but those of us who are truly passionate about "geek" things will continue to be passionate and, if we feel the need, will seek out those we can share that passion with. Just because it is easier to find those people now days doesn’t single the death knell of the geek culture.

Emil   |   04 Jan 2011 @ 02:48

Some stereotypes spring to mind! Unfashionably dressed, pimply, video-game-playing young boys rolling Dungeons and Dragon dice. Rich, self-absorbed, intelligent, ruthless entrepreneurs line Wall Street and kindly, wise, absent-minded professors dream brilliant yet unintelligible thoughts in ivory towers. I agree with the sentiments from both Carl V. and jwbjerk – in the knowledge-driven, hyper-competitive, 24-7 economy, geeks are key weapons in any business’s arsenal. As technology continues to drive business productivity and competitiveness (and concomitant, culture), the role of the geek become increasingly critical. The error, I think, lies in the thinking that whoever attracts and retains the best geeks win. This is only a half truth. Getting them is one thing; knowing what to do with them is another. Think about all the dead dot-coms! To me geeks are the knowledge workers who specialize in the creation, maintenance and support of high technology. As such, that segment of our culture will always remain. They are synonymous with innovation. Geek cultural will adapt to the changing content. Some will "sell-out". Geeks love puzzles, they gravitate to this sort of work. There will always be puzzles. Patton Oswalt misses a very important point: the work that geeks do is anchored by its inherent ambiguity (consistent uncertainty and inconsistent facts). Geek culture expresses an emotional need that lie at the core of humanity’s drive for knowledge, understanding, and dominance over the environment. I don’t see that need disappearing very soon. Time to die? Never!

Emil   |   04 Jan 2011 @ 03:04

Then again, Geeks will do what Geeks do. There will always be mainstream. And a new "underground" because of that. Other people is already busy forging the next generation’s geek culture. Can evolution excogitate death?

David   |   04 Jan 2011 @ 08:18

I have to disagree with your premise. To me, Star Wars was only peripherally a "geek" thing. The original Star Trek is pure geek.The real geeks among us rant and rave at the LoTR movies and what was changed and left out. We also don’t find LoTR to be a terribly long read. You can separate the real and faux geeks by asking who has read the Hobbit and the Silmarilion. The former is less read because it hasn’t been made into a move. The latter will separate the posers from the real geeks just because it’s a more challenging read. In comparison, LoTR is "See Spot Run" (not that I don’t love LoTR given that I’ve read it and the Hobbit probably a dozen times in the last 30 years).I work out 4 times a week, work in IT, I’m middle-aged with a business degree (no CS degree) and am far, far more of a geek than my Star Wars friends. Why? I continually seek out new authors, I devour science and technology news of all flavors and I use best-seller lists as guides to what not to read – not out of snobbishness but simply because that stuff is never bleeding edge SF or Fantasy. It’s mainstream. True geeks will only ever be mainstream in their own world.

Deven Science   |   08 Jan 2011 @ 04:07

David,Your premise has its flaws, as well. I am most definitely a geek. From my awful school experiences, to my love of Star Trek, to my consuming of books on physics and chemistry. However, while I love my science fiction, I’ve never enjoyed fanstasy. Give me a dragon, and I’ll give it right back to you. I’ve never read or enjoyed Silmarilion, nor any LotR. So, by your theory above, am I a poser?

Thomas Baughman   |   08 Jan 2011 @ 22:35

How do I fit into your theory? I read The Silmarillion but not Lord of the Rings?

Rico   |   12 Jan 2011 @ 15:14

Perhaps it is a matter of degree. A poseur simply won’t log the necessary hours that it takes to know every intimate detail of each scene in Princess Bride or bring him(or her)self to love truly crappy presentation so well as to actually complain that the current productions of Doctor Who have "sold out" because they have increased production value, hire actual writers and use passable actors. The origins of the nerd stereotype, I suspect, don’t so much rely on the trappings of science (or fantasy), but on a depth of knowledge in narrow fields that make the nerd profoundly ignorant of other things. The nerd is a hedgehog, not a fox.

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