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Geek Studies

Hackers, freaks, outsiders, Homo Superior? Call them what you will, geeks are everywhere, and their stories help explain how science is shaping us

by Harvey Blume

July 13, 2000

Somewhere in the middle of Martin Scorcese's film Mean Streets (1973), Johnny Boy, the character played by Robert DeNiro, calls another character a "mook." "What's a mook?" the guy asks, looking around the pool hall for guidance. Nobody seems to know, so just to be on the safe side the guy slugs DeNiro and starts a brawl. Today, the situation with regard to "geek" resembles the melée over mook. True, there is some rough consensus about the meaning of the word geek -- something to do with alienation and lack of savoir-faire -- but when you try to get down to particulars, it's chaos.

For one thing, as with mook, there is no agreement as to whether geek is an insult or a compliment. Nor is there much clarity about whether geeks can subsist apart from the computer culture with which they are often associated: in other words, is geek but a synonym for "hacker"? (The Jargon File, maintained by open source advocate Eric Raymond, among others, pretty much equates the two words, defining the computer geek -- and specifying no other kind -- as "One who fulfills all the dreariest negative stereotypes about hackers: an asocial, malodorous, pasty-faced monomaniac with all the personality of a cheese grater." But with all due respect for Raymond's exertions on behalf of open source, on the matter of geek being the same as hacker, his mind appears closed.)

At least one fact about geeks is beyond doubt -- they are getting a lot of attention these days. Three recent books -- Jon Katz's Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho, Paulina Borsook's Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, and Richard Powers's novel Plowing the Dark -- have made significant, if contradictory, contributions to what might be called "geek studies." But these volumes need to be seen in the much broader context of the movies, animated cartoons, comic books, television sitcoms, Web sites, manifestos, and neurological writings that are all by, for, or about the geek. And that bulging corpus, in turn, has roots in a much older literary tradition in which geeks went by the name of "wild men" but were subjected to much the same kind of scrutiny they are getting today.

Some constants emerge from geek studies. Geeks are almost always depicted as deficient in traditional social skills but as possessing some special gift or talent in recompense. Writers tend to be divided over which side of this equation should be emphasized (usually to the exclusion of the other). Some fear that the spread of geekdom means an irreparable hole is being torn in the social fabric; others see geekdom as a less hidebound and authoritarian society in the making. But if there's one overriding theme to the geek corpus, it's that tales of the geek will almost always be tales of science -- of what science is doing to us, what it's turning us into. Much as God is always a presence, however peripheral, in the Hebrew Bible, so science rules the expanse of geek studies. That in itself is one reason geeks are getting so much attention: the impact of science on our lives is something we're endlessly anxious to understand.

These days, naturally enough, the science operative in geek studies will most often be computer science. But, contra Raymond, it's hardly computer science alone that figures in geek lore. Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love (1989), for example, a foundational work in the field, traces the rise and fall of a carnival freak show. That Dunn's book is set in the carnival, not the cubicle, underlines the fact that the geek and the hacker need not be identical. The carnival, after all, is native ground for the geek. It was in the carnival that the word itself came into being to describe those performers whose sole claim on viewers' attention was a willingness to bite off the heads of live chickens. Dunn's characters have no need for such uncouth devices. They are designer geeks, products of rudimentary bioengineering. When pregnant, mama geek Lillian ingests a home-brew rich in insecticides and radioisotopes so that her progeny will be lavishly deformed, and thus able to keep the family freak show going. Dunn assigns her geeks a moral complexity some later writers, prone either to demonize or adore the geek, do not. Several of Dunn's mutants are sweet souls, reconciled to life in the sideshow, but others have a dark side, and an angry, vengeful will to power. Arnie, for example, a leader of Dunn's geek brood, plots an awful revenge on those who pay to gawk, declaring of his kind, "We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares. The thing that lurks in the bell tower and bites out the throats of the choirboys."

Jon Katz and Paulina Borsook, in their recent books, take diametrically opposite positions to each other on the question of whether geeks should be celebrated or deplored. Katz portrays his geeks as outsiders whose technical talents are finally of great use to society, while Borsook sees behind every geek the unappeasable image of an Arnie.

In his columns for Hotwired in 1997 and 1998, and thereafter for Slashdot, Katz became known as a leading advocate of geek pride, and he continues in that vein in Geeks, tracing the impact of the Internet on Jesse and Eric, a pair of incommunicative working-class white kids. Describing an encounter with Jesse, who is in the process of taking apart a computer's motherboard, Katz writes, "His face was void of expression, a mask I came to know well and could rarely crack." Several decades ago, Jesse might have been taking apart a carburetor, but digital technology changes his life more profoundly than auto-mechanics ever would have. That motherboard helps link Jesse -- who had been in trouble with gangs, liquor, and drugs -- to the Internet, where he finds his voice, his community, and his direction. "Such kids don't suffer alone anymore," writes Katz. "They tell their stories to one another almost continuously via twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week messaging systems." The Internet Katz describes is both a technological and a social upheaval in progress, and it sweeps Jesse and Eric out of the shallows and into the mainstream. As Katz puts it: "The whole notion of outsiderness has been up-ended in a world where geeks are uniquely -- and often solely -- qualified to operate the most complex and vital systems, and where the demand for their work will greatly exceed their ability to fulfill it for years to come."

Whereas Katz sees an irresistible democratic impulse at work in geek culture, Paulina Borsook, a former writer for Wired, detects only a new, stubborn elitism. Borsook grew up in California's post-World War II aerospace milieu, and recalls that the engineers and scientists of those days typically subscribed to the view that "progress in our shared civilization was helped along by government programs supporting scientific research, public health, education, and the bringing of electricity and telephony to rural areas." They believed, above all, that "there was a shared civilization worth fostering, for geek and non geek, rich and poor." In Borsook's account, that belief in shared social values was shattered in Silicon Valley and environs when computer geeks consolidated their hold on power. Flush with money, prestige, and a confidence that they were, as Katz puts it, "uniquely -- and often solely -- qualified to operate the most complex and vital systems," computer geeks grew contemptuous of any social or philanthropic purposes beyond their own welfare. According to Borsook, they dressed that contempt up as a political philosophy and gave it the name "technolibertarianism." Just behind the anti-government, anti-social biases of that creed, Borsook sees a face much like Jesse's as described by Katz -- a face "void of expression, a mask I came to know well and could rarely crack" -- and it frightens her.

Oddly, the moral complexity Katherine Dunn saw in her carny geeks shows up better in pop culture than in serious but one-sided studies such as Katz's and Borsook's. A timely example is the X-Men saga, which started in the late 1960s as a comic book and has morphed into animated cartoons, action figures, graphic novels, and now the movies, along the way generating more characters and plot lines than the Mahabharata. X-Men is a story of mutants, "children of the atom," whose numbers are increasing owing to pollution and radioactivity -- the pervasive impact of science and technology (as one X-Men novel asks, "who knew what even sitting too close to a TV set might do?"). Like Lillian's children in Geek Love, these mutants are capable of extraordinary feats, such as teleportation, flight, and control over electromagnetism and the winds. Some style themselves Homo Superior and want to dominate and punish the Homo Sapiens who have persecuted them, but others -- the band of X-Men led by Charles Xavier, who has telepathic powers -- are determined to show that not all super-powered mutants are bad guys.

A rift within mutantkind is likewise the theme of David Cronenberg's best film, Scanners (1980). Owing to an experimental drug taken by their mothers, scanners are born with the ability to hear the thoughts of those around them. The trick is to control this power, and to turn it off when necessary, lest its possessors be driven mad by the collective roar of other minds. One scanner in particular, the most powerful (the inevitable Arnie in the bunch), has learned to use telepathy to dominate others and is opposed by less malign members of the group. The plight of Cronenberg's scanners, their inborn defenselessness against other minds, is a superb statement of another common motif of geek studies, namely the terrible vulnerability of geeks to the thoughts and judgments of the collective. Scanners are not indifferent to others, as geeks are sometimes thought to be, but only too painfully susceptible to them.

In his new novel, Plowing the Dark, Richard Powers takes up this theme, and recasts geek vulnerability as a hyper-susceptibility to heartbreak. Nearly all the book's characters -- programmers and graphic designers for a Microsoft-like corporation named TeraSys -- have lost at love so badly that they're prepared to abandon the real world, which rubs their hearts raw, and put their faith in virtual reality. Geek talk, like science talk, is notoriously brainy, but undeveloped when it comes to emotions. Richard Powers's geeks, for example, are forever overwhelmed by and at a loss for words for their feelings. Questions of human intimacy reduce them to whispers or to silence, but boot up a good stockmarket-forecasting program on the company mainframe and they grow effusive.

Yet Powers's geeks are still romantics at heart, insulating a part of themselves from science (a part that, for lack of any other language, grows mute). Paulina Borsook sees no such partitions among the geeks she describes. For them, the language of intimacy and feeling has been turned into a dialect of science and technology. She argues this point most clearly with regard to geek sexuality. Borsook claims that geeks are inordinately attracted to sadomasochism, not, as trauma theorists would be quick to assume, because they were physically or sexually abused as children, but simply because S&M is contractual and explicit -- with limits, roles, and preferences negotiated in advance. S&M is nearly algorithmic; it minimizes the difference between having sex and writing code.

Different as they are in other ways, Katherine Dunn's Arnie, David Cronenberg's scanners, and Richard Powers's crew of down-in-the-dumps VR designers bring together two defining elements of the geek -- one modern, in the form of science, and one very old.

The geek is an update of an ancient type -- the wild man, as portrayed by John Block Friedman in his book The Monstrous Races in Medieval Thought and Art (1981) and Richard Bernheimer in Wild Men in the Middle Ages (1952). With his roots in Greco-Roman typologies, the wild man was a stock figure of medieval bestiaries, travelogues, peasant pageants, and aristocratic picture books. Bernheimer points out that Shakespeare's Caliban, for example, the original proprietor of Prospero's enchanted isle in The Tempest, derives from medieval descriptions of the wild man. The locale of the wild man, whether at the world's edge or within the recesses of the dark forest, was (Prospero notwithstanding) terra incognita to civilized man. And though the wild man was barred from the pleasures of society and forced to contend with other strange beings at the chaotic margins of the world, God compensated him with special powers, such as an ability to control the winds and summon storms. The wild man was among the many monstrous races created by God to teach a lesson, the exact nature of which medieval schoolmen spent a good deal of time pondering -- though there was general agreement among them that the wild man's very existence had to be deemed a matter of "high significance."

Medieval wild-man studies enjoyed one certainty geek studies do not share -- a sense that God had installed His wild men in the hinterland, where He meant them to stay. There was no prospect of wild men crossing over and going mainstream. When it comes to geeks, though, it is significant that no such limit applies. The mainstreaming of the geek is, in fact, one of the things that most fascinates us about them -- and about ourselves. We don't know how deeply science will transform us, or what areas of our experience, if any, will remain untouched. Borsook shows that for geeks, even pillow talk is tech talk, and if geek studies attests to anything it is to the fact that there's no reliable dividing wall between geeks and others. Sure, Arnie would stand out in a crowd, but Powers's characters are indistinguishable from the rest of us -- except for their urge, not so unusual these days, to desert material for virtual reality. Despite appearances, geek studies are not about the rarefied or isolated other. We consult them for advance warning of the physical, psychological, and intellectual effects of science on us all.

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and The Boston Book Review. His interview with Richard Powers appeared in Atlantic Unbound last month.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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