Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Of Mice and Geeks

In the past 5 years or so, simultaneously with the emergence of smartphones, a surprising phenomenon happened: the idea of geeks became popular.

So, what are geeks anyway? Well... that's the thing! the definition of geeks itself has changed as the idea of geek was popularized. So let's go back in time and see how things were and how they evolved!

At least 100 years ago, the word "geek" derived from the Dutch "gek", which means crazy and it was first used to describe the village's idiot and such people whose weirdness didn't allow them to fit in the social order.

As time went by, the word spread and was used in particular in schools as a defaming word to peek on those who didn't fit in the social mass. The "outcasts" are both those at the top (intellectuals) and those at the bottom, but the usage of the word geek became specific to those at the top. I would surmise, without evidence however, that it so happened due to the sense of weirdness coming from the intellectual children since the mass could not understand them. By contrast, the kids at the bottom were easily understood (and suffered different forms of abuse) and inspired scorn rather than weirdness.

By extension of this 2nd meaning emerged a 3rd meaning. Among the intellectual children who were peeked on at school, a majority grew into normal, socially apt citizens while others retained some of their weirdness. Examples would certainly include the likes of Nikola Tesla, whose technical accomplishments did not leave any room for a relationship. If you follow the link and read his story, he did actually die a virgin at the age of 86 having totally changed the world and invented almost everything that we know about electricity. For some reason which I won't try to fathom, the people fitting the bill of this 3rd meaning of "geek" have a strong tendency to be attracted to science and highly imaginative fields. So, you're more likely to find geeks of the third kind in an engineering lab or rummaging through a library's science-fiction books than writing romantic poetry, plays, or knitting scarves as a pastime while waiting for customers in an antiques shop. This 3rd kind of geeks:

  • plays Lego Technic, Rubik's cube, role-playing games
  • reads science-fiction, fantasy, scientific and technical documents
  • reads mangas and watches Japanese anime
  • watches cult movies and series: Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Quantum Leap, V, Ringu, Buffy the vampire slayer, The Big Bang Theory
  • understands most jokes in The Big Bang Theory (now THAT is scary!)
  • learns how to program calculators and computers
  • buys the parts and builds his computer all by himself.
  • fixes the computer problems of neighbors, friends and family and prepares reminder cards for parents and grandparents so they know how to use the TV, VCR, DVD player, etc.
  • listens to science-related audiobooks and podcasts
  • watches documentaries
  • Subscribes to the RSS and Atom feeds (there's 1 on this blog) of bloggers and podcasters
  • learns about academic subjects by watching the filmed classes uploaded on Youtube by Stanford University, Yale and the MIT.
  • does a great many things listed on the Geek Test (just you try and compete with my 38.25% score of 2006!)
And then came the (current) 4th generation of geeks. It is impossible to assign a single cause to this new shift. Instead, it is probably the conjunction of smartphones, usable wireless Internet through 3G (as opposed to the lame WAP of the late 90's), affordable mobile phones offered to teenagers by parents, Facebook, Twitter... these all contributed to some people stepping up to the task of "using functionalities" earlier than other people. Within the technology-aware communities, these people are called "early adopters". Some of them have a sincere drive to discover new things, while others are only rich folks eager to get the latest gadget and look "hip"... which led to some degree of convergence between the words "geek" and "hipster". So, the 4th generation geek is more of a fashion victim who wants the glory of the 3rd generation... looking smart... without the pain of reading through 1000 pages of technical documents.

While old executives working for conventional media (TV, radio, newspaper) lagged behind and tried to make sense of the digital era, their confusion contributed to blur the borders between all archetypes of geeks, hipsters, early adopters, and more groups of technology-aware people like video games players (themselves being part of a mutating world recruiting casual players and giving rise to hardcore gamers and e-sport players). What I mean is: the media communicated wrongly, therefore media-consumers understood wrongly, and then some of these consumers became the wrong sort of geek, bringing about the 4th meaning of the word.

As a result, there is a disconnect between the 3rd generation of geeks and the 4th generation. I am part of the 3rd generation (remember the geek test?) and even though I understand intellectually that the word means different things in different times, my gut tells me that the word "geek" is inappropriate in its 4th generation. I have a particular love for what my geekiness means, like the persistence and dedication to acquiring knowledge and understanding when this very activity alienates me in the eyes of the rest of society. I see it as a form of sincere commitment to the standards of which 4th generation geeks don't live up, since their geekiness is more about owning expensive objects and looking fashionable. At some point, even France's prime minister claimed he was a geek because he owned an iPhone, surfed the web early, and used RSS feeds.


Does this article un-geek the modern 4th generation geeks? No, of course not. The television calls them geeks. They call themselves geeks. They're just not to be confused with my kind of geeks. My hope is that it puts things in (a credible) context and conveys the awesomeness of 3rd generation geeks. If I were to make predictions (hey! that's my blog so I can and I will), I would predict that this 4th generation of geeks will dwindle and give rise to an entirely different 5th generation of geeks who will be something different, while the 3rd generation is not going anywhere and will become the standard again.

Last notes:

  • If you do take the full Geek Test, I would guesstimate that you're geekish from around 15% and that you are a geek from 20% up.
  • If you still haven't read the story of Nikola Tesla, do it! NOW!


  1. im wondering ..those 4th type, do they realized being considered “hipsters” by Geekier society?.. BTW this is the first time ive ever heard of this word Hipster. well ..i don’t belong to the Geekdom (i personally like this word :P)

    from your article.. Geekdom have evolved from misfits to ppl that are smart and weird in some particular ways.. so it’s not too surprising the last kind is not the ideal stereotype by older Geeks standard .. any cults evolve.. who knows.. one day they might grow so big and take over the majority of the Geek society.. must sounds like a crime to you :P

    In a way,.. it can also means that being a Geek nowadays is a cool thing... so Chin up!! thanks to the 4th kind .. :P

  2. First of all, I don't believe there is a "geekier society". Geeks may associate 1-to-1 or in small groups but I don't think there is a society of geeks. Not even Mensa.

    But no, I don't believe hipsters realize that they are hipsters. As I mentioned near the end of my article and in the conclusion: the media have given a mistaken image of geeks. And hipsters now match this mistaken image. And they call themselves geeks.

    The irony of this is that 3Geeks (3rd generation) were outcasts. They were NOT COOL. But because they had 1 quality (intelligence or dedication), the cool guys wanted to pretend that they also had this quality... but still remain cool and fashionable, while fashion is the opposite of 3Geek.

    Geek is not a cult! And even though there's no geek society, the 4Geeks (4th generation) have already taken over the dominant position in the media. As I've said, I believe that it is a fashion that will come to pass and make room for 3Geeks to reclaim the word "geek" for themselves. In a way, I guess that 3Geeks are now confined to being called nerds.

    Regarding your last sentence, I strongly disagree. Geek nowadays is a cool thing... thanks to 3Geeks who did all the geek work, who created all the technology, and who earned the admiration of society through putting hard work. But then came the cool guys, the commercial and social type of people (rather than technical), who did nothing and claimed the credit just because they bought an iPhone and installed 5 apps. Somehow, the cool guys of yesterday are still the cool guys today and they still "get the girlz" while real geeks still don't. But there's some sense of injustice since the word "geek" was hijacked and that 3Geeks may have the illusion (i guess it really IS an illusion) that THEY did the work and that THEY should "get the girlz".


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