The essence of a Geek

A general rise in technical literacy driven by gadgets such as the iPod could be evidence that 'geekery' as a personality trait is becoming more pervasive.

When the dot-com bubble burst in late 2000 a lot of amateur and professional investors lost their shirts. It was a pretty embarrassing time for the financial markets and a time that a lot of people would choose to forget — but not everyone.

For a few years, an interest in computers and technology became inextricably linked with wealth and power — geek became chic. Technology companies suddenly became the focus of the kind of attention that had been reserved for the music or fashion industries. In the UK, TV makers even went so far as to create a hip series, Attachments, based around the antics of a tech start-up.

True, much of this temporary kudos enjoyed by technologists was obliterated in the dot-com mushroom cloud, but not all. On some level, technology and technologists were permanently lifted a couple notches up the cool-o-meter. And that process, kick-started by the dot-com gold rush, has accelerated recently — motivated by a different and altogether more pervasive force. A plethora of seductive technologies typified by the Motorola V3 family or the iPod, combined with success of online services offered by Google and eBay, have slowly invaded the wider consciousness — inspiring a kind of techno-lust in the general public.

We're all geeks
IT industry analyst James Governor of RedMonk claims that while it may not yet be cool or trendy to admit, a degree of technical sophistication has become expected. He claims that increasingly, "we're all geeks" — even if a lot of people don't care to admit it.

To illustrate his point, Governor recalls a recent conversation involving his wife and some of her friends — mostly women who would probably describe themselves as non-techies. One of the women pulled out a new Windows Mobile smartphone while protesting that she wasn't "a geek". Governor then politely enquired whether she had her email sychronised to the device — she did. This then initiated a conversation about mobile phone design — the last thing the technical analyst was expecting given the company. 

While some of Governor's comments illustrate the idea that a certain level of technical sophistication is increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception. In fact, if the levels of female interest in tech can be counted as some kind of barometer for a general geekiness pervading society then there seems to be some truth in the Governor's assertion that increasingly we are all nerds to some degree.

Technical sophistication
A recent survey by the Sci-Fi channel discovered that an increasing number of women could be included in the ranks of a new demographic it nick-named "New Geek". The research revealed that a third of the UK's total of 6.9 million geeks were actually female. "Whereas once geeks were seen as solitary, embarrassing and uncool, the statistics show that New Geek is chic, popular and hugely influential," the researchers claimed.

"New Geeks", as described by the channel's research, are relatively young (83 percent are under 44) and well-off (21 percent have family income of more than £50,000) and are 125 percent more likely to visit pubs, clubs and bars than the average person.

However, while some commentators would admit that levels of technical literacy may indeed be on the rise, they disagree that this translates into an increase in the number of hardcore techies in existence. The defenders of geek — IT professionals on the whole — maintain that there is a definite dividing line between geeks and non-geeks; one has the interest and skills to actually make things, while the other merely uses them.

Shakespeare's geek
All this begs the question, what exactly is a geek and what sets them apart? Historically, the word was associated with oddness. Possible predecessors include...

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...the medieval dialect words geck, from Low German, and gek, from Middle Low German, meaning "fool"; Shakespeare used the word "geck" in this sense in several plays. (For instance, from Cymbeline: "Why did you suffer Iachimo, slight thing of Italy, to taint his nobler heart and brain with needless jealousy; and to become the geck and scorn o' the other's villany?")

The modern word surfaced in American slang in the early 20th Century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and continued to refer to various kinds of oddballs. The OED records this example from the 1916 Wells Fargo Messenger: "A new Wells agent struck our town the other week, and say you never saw a more enthusiastic geek!" By the 1950s Webster's dictionary recorded that the word referred to a carnival sideshow weirdo "whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake".

At some point, the word began to be used to refer to people with an interest so obsessive that it puts them outside the mainstream — as it still is used to talk about people with an inordinate knowledge of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, its most immediate association is now with technology, and particularly with people who actually make technology work.

Too much Buffy
Somewhere along the line, geek also seems to have lost most of its negative connotations — unlike nerd and anorak, which still tend to be used as insults. The word's reclamation was probably a more or less deliberate effort on the part of geeky technology types who began using it to refer to themselves, say some. "It's a taking-back-the-language thing," says Jez Higgins, a freelance developer.

To some degree "geek" overlaps with "hacker", a word used as a badge of honour to mean a particularly adept programmer, though "hacker" has some extra moral implications that "geek" lacks. Most would agree that Bill Gates is a geek, but few would class him as a hacker, due to the perecieved quality of his company's technology and his taste for world domination. "He doesn't have the hacker's ethos," Higgins says.

Soul of a New Machine
The traditional idea of the geek (as opposed to the New Geek) seems to originate from the world of the sciences and the oddballs they tend to attract — people like Albert Einstein, who had a wardrobe full of identical clothing and saw nothing wrong with smoking cigarette butts collected off the street. Once computers started to become an important force in society, non-fiction accounts such as Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine,  Steven Levy's Hackers  and Robert X. Cringely's Accidental Empires  familiarised the public at large with the people behind the scenes — the nerdy, obsessive, and strangely heroic computer types who created modern computing in the 1970s and 1980s and commercialised the Internet in the 1990s.

More recently, figures from the world of open source or free software have come more into the public eye. Specifically, you have programmers such as Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel; Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software movement; and Eric Raymond, author of the influential open source manifesto The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Some of these figures fulfil the public's image of the geek as a bit peculiar — reclusive, having difficulties with social behaviour and the rest of it.

Stallman, for example, had a very solitary childhood and has retained a reputation as an extremely uncompromising personality, as described by Sam Williams in a 2003 biography, Free as in Freedom.  "His rhetoric is very seductive, but he's also got a very repellent side of his personality. He's a control freak, he's very meticulous," Williams remarked in an interview at the time of the book's publication. Raymond is known for his efforts to build bridges between Stallman's world of free software and the compromised world of business through the open source movement. He is also a libertarian who, when...

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...given an award by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, responded with a note saying, "When I hear the words 'social responsibility,' I want to reach for my gun."

Autism = geek?
It has become commonplace to link typical programmer personality traits to Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and particularly to Asperger syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Wired Magazine even ran a lengthy investigation into a sharp rise in the number of autistic children born in the Silicon Valley area, though no conclusive link to the population of computer engineers there has ever been proven. While the relationship between Asperger-type personality traits and a talent for computer programming is difficult to pin down, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that one exists. As Hans Asperger himself wrote: "It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential."

To those who consider themselves true geeks, however, personality traits are beside the point — what's important about a geek is the passion to understand the way things work, to the point of being able to construct working systems yourself. Programmers are admired not because of their fame or social status, but for the quality of the code they write.

This appreciation even has an aesthetic side to it, something that non-programmers often find surprising, says developer Higgins. "When people talk about code and whether it's any good, the criterion that's most damning is that it's ugly," he says. "There's a simplicity and elegance in the expression that's appreciated." This aesthetic side is often missed by the outside world, but it is a recurrent theme. For example, Stallman, despite his apparently ascetic view of the world, is said to be something of an epicure who appreciates being taken out for a fine dining experience.

Social changes
It isn't just that the fame of geeks that has increased; society itself has changed dramatically. Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, a 1981 account of introverted young computer engineers working 24-hour shifts to create a minicomputer, seemed like bizarre science fiction at the time, but by the end of the 1990s it was another matter. In her 2003 novel The Bug, veteran programmer Ellen Ullman described how the developer's universe seems to have taken over the outside world:

"The workstation in a cubicle. The morning begun not with hello but with a system prompt. Everyone's day begins like that now, but on that morning of March 5, 1984, only programmers and testers lived that way. From log-in to log-out, email to email, mouse click to mouse click — we were just then starting to make computers 'friendly' for everyone, preparing the world for a programmer's life.''

Ullman's point is that while computers are making wonderful things possible, they are also recreating the world in their own image. "Computers abhor error... [and] abhorring error is not necessarily positive," she says in a 1990s Salon.com interview. "We learn through error... so it affects us to have more and more of our life involved with very authoritarian, error-unforgiving tools. I think the more time you spend around computers, the more you get impatient with other people, impatient with their errors, impatient with your own errors."

ADD?
Ever more pervasive technologies have only heightened the effect, to the point where it has become a cliché. "Sure, a lot of geeks tend to have ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], and we all have ADD now," says Governor. "I can't have a conversation with my mother for five minutes because I want to check IM. We are living these bizarre, mediated lives, and of course there are drawbacks."

This shift isn't a one-way street, however — we may be coming to resemble geeks a bit more, but through the growing importance of design, technology is also changing to be a bit more human. Strangely enough, many have found the emerging crop of digital video recorders, such as Sky+, far easier to use than the traditional VCR. Gadgets such as the iPod employ complex technology — it's even possible to install Linux on one — but they employ very simple interfaces.

The iPod's success was crowned at the end of last year with designer Jonathan Ive receiving a CBE, and many see such products as the direction geek culture will take next. A new crop of influential programmers, such as 37 Signals' David Heinemeier Hansson or Ubuntu Linux's Mark Shuttleworth, are not even particularly geeky.

"These kinds of people are where the next great successes are coming from, they're great designers and great coders, and also uber-communicators," says Governor. "Great design is a way to create huge new markets, and that is a lesson IT is learning."

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