Thursday, January 7, 2016

Notes on Geekiness

Geeks have come a long way in recent decades. Once upon a time, the word "geek" meant a sideshow performer in traveling carnivals, who made money doing foul and degrading things like biting the heads off chickens. Then the word came to be associated with people who were smart, but socially-awkward. In other words: nerds (a word invented by Dr. Seuss). The fact that people equated nerds with pariahs like circus geeks says something about the regard nerds were once held in.

But now it's different. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are classic computer geeks, and they're some of the most powerful people in the world. Bill Nye, who used to wear a bowtie to play up the geek image, now speaks to sold-out crowds in arenas. Traditionally geeky forms of entertainment like science fiction, fantasy, comics, and gaming have gone even more mainstream than science. The comic-con/gaming crowd is a proud and thriving subculture.

Still, if you want to be cool in today's world (and even middle aged people do these days) there are some topics still considered too geeky to talk about much. At most social gatherings, you're much safer talking about TV or football than science or philosophy. Those topics make people squirm.

Of course, sometimes talking about that kind of thing is socially awkward for legitimate reasons. If someone just isn't interested in science, for example, then it's rude (or at least socially tone-deaf) to yammer on at them about it. Still, it's striking just how many people aren't interested in intellectual topics. What's even more striking is how many people who are interested in them are uncomfortable talking about them in a social setting. Clearly, there's a stigma at work here. There's still a distinct air of uncoolness surrounding many intellectual topics. I think that's a shame, but I also think it's interesting to think about how the stigma works.

Think about what you have to do if you want to talk about geeky topics without making people edge away from you nervously. First, you have to make it clear you know it's geeky, and be ready to change the subject as soon people start cringing or gazing off into the distance. You have to be aware of the uncoolness; few things scream "geek" as loudly as social obliviousness. Second, you have to joke about it. You don't want to sound too cerebral, too serious, or too into stuff like that. Not if you want to be cool, anyway.

Why does doing those things let you off the hook? First, as I mentioned, I think acknowledging that the topic is considered geeky shows that you aren't oblivious. You know what the rules are, and you're consciously breaking them. As for joking, it seems to have a similar purpose--it distances you from the ideas you're talking about, so their stigma doesn't stick to you.

Plus, it's just not cool these days to sound too earnest or innocent. Some of today's biggest idols are comedians who excel in a particularly modern brand of never-serious, always-ironic humor. Think about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They host intellectuals and discuss real ideas on their shows, but they're only able to do it by constantly joking; sneaking in the big ideas by wrapping them in a cloud of jokes. Their associate, Jon Oliver, has built a whole show around this approach. Serious ideas are still getting out there, but what does it say about our culture that this is the most effective way to get people to pay attention to them? As brilliant as I think Colbert is, sometimes I wish he would lay off the jokes and let whoever he's interviewing talk. I suspect he wishes he could do that too sometimes, but then, of course, the show would flop.

How did we get so averse to sincerity? Maybe it's a defense mechanism against the barrage of advertising and political spin we're faced with these days--advertisers and politicians would love for us to still be as fresh-faced and gullible as the beaming drones in ads from the fifties. Still, stigmatizing earnestness can be a problem, because there are times when it's called for. Besides, as somebody once said (maybe Oscar Wilde but I can't confirm that), "If nothing is serious, then nothing is funny."

In any case, Stewart and Colbert certainly aren't geeks--at least in the sense of being awkward or unpopular. They're enormously popular. They're what I think of as smart-cool--they address serious or tough ideas, but they avoid being geeky with comedy.

But then, alas, there are the dumb-cool people: the airheaded celebrities and dumb jocks of the world, and the legions of people who want to be like them. These folks are in no danger of being seen as geeks, because they never talk about science, philosophy, history or anything boring like that. If u talk about that stuff u must b a total geek LOL!

When I think about it, it seems to me there are two related stigmas going on here: a stigma against intellectualism, and a stigma against seeming too earnest or innocent. First, a strain of anti-intellectualism always been common in American culture. We're still enough of a frontier society that many people have more respect for brawn than brains. Add to that the modern obsession with celebrities, which pretty much guarantees that brains will take a back seat to physical beauty, fashion, or an entertaining personality. Think about what the stereotypical caricature of geeks--they don't have brawn, they aren't good-looking, they aren't fashionable, and they're socially awkward. They're the antithesis of both the frontier tough guy and the stylish movie star. Yes, they usually have brains, but brains just aren't valued as highly in our culture--especially pop culture--as those other things. And that, again, is a shame.

But humor is valued--especially the kind of ultra-ironic humor I mentioned above. But that brings us to the second kind of stigma, against seriousness or earnestness. The result is that the only way you can get away with discussing serious ideas, if you want to still be cool, is acting like you're not really serious about them. And really, that's a shame, too. 

Let Your Geek Flag Fly

Photo by Alan Fitzsimmons. Click for photo credit and info.
Not long ago, I spent a bunch of time writing one of my long and cerebral blog posts. And then I thought better of it, because I was making a simple point complicated. So here's that simple point: The world is full of staggering natural wonders and deep intellectual mysteries. It's endlessly complex and surprising. It's millions of times bigger and older than we are, which means we could live millions of lifetimes in it and never run out of things to discover, or mysteries to ponder. But we don't get millions of lives. We most likely just get this one. So if we want to ask the big questions about "life, the universe, and everything", we better do it now.

Nabokov once said, "common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." If that is true--and I've never seen good evidence to the contrary--then life is far, far too short to let it pass without learning something about the amazing world we live it in.

And yet--somehow--there are people who think it's embarrassing to be interested in science, philosophy, or other fields devoted to learning the answers to big questions. At a party, it's fine to talk endlessly about sports or TV, but talking about Plato's cave or neutron stars will get you labeled a geek. There's a stigma attached to those topics. It's deeply weird, if you think about it. Do people not understand how short life is?

Many of them don't, of course, or rather, they disagree with me about getting just one life. They believe there will be plenty of time in the afterlife to learn about stuff like that, so I can understand why they might have this attitude, even if I don't agree with it. What I can't understand is the people who don't believe in an afterlife, and still think it's embarrassing to think about science, or history, or philosophy. They just don't care, or perhaps they're too embarrassed. Maybe they're too cool, or just hope to be. In any case, they're likely to laugh at anyone who talks about these things. You can talk about pop culture, football, maybe even politics, but only weirdos talk about deep philosophical questions and things like outer space, right?

Actually, I'm pretty sure it's weird not to talk about these things. If these folks don't want to look up at this immense and astonishing universe in wonder now; if they don't want to ponder the big questions in life while they're ALIVE...then when do they think they will?

But it's their life, and their decision. As for me, I say life is too short not to marvel openly about the wonders of science and nature. It's too short not to ask big questions and discuss them with your friends. And it's certainly too short to let anybody make you feel small for thinking big thoughts.