Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Do we really love the geeks?

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about "geek is chic."  Comic book movies are coming out at least once a year, shows like Dr. Who and the Big Bang Theory have sizeable followings, and computers are as much a part of life as televisions once were.  Geek culture appears to be in.
But what of the geeks themselves?
Being a geek has never been about specific fandoms or about black-rimmed glasses.  Star Wars may have been a geek obsession as a sci-fi movie, but it was also the highest-grossing film for its time.  I doubt it was because a handful of kids in glasses and calculator watches saw it over and over again.  True geekery is about single-minded drive.  It's about latching onto something and pursuing for its own sake.  And that drive is something that our culture doesn't always appreciate.
As an example, let's look at a subject that is poorly understood and somewhat maligned--mathematics.  Since I started studying mathematics, I've noticed that the response I get from non-math people when I bring up what I'm studying is similar to the response I would get from introducing a two-headed garden snake--revulsion mingled with awe that I would even go near such a thing.  Sad, really.  Hidden Figures may have been nominated for Best Picture, but I doubt that enrollment in math departments and calculus classes will go up as a result.  (The class I took with the highest attrition rate was Calculus 2).  Similarly, with computer programming.  Last semester, I took an intro course in computer programming.  Out of a class of 30, maybe half turned up for the final.  Most people dropped out because it was "too hard."
Our culture loves the end result of geekery more than the geeks themselves.  We love programmers for giving us apps and games for our phones.  Does that mean that we would want to talk to an actual programmer about languages and debugging techniques?  Sheldon Cooper is abrasive and obnoxious.  He's also a Caltech engineer who makes a buttload of money.  How many of my readers laugh at his antics?  How many of us want a real Sheldon Cooper in our lives?  We love us some Game of Thrones, but we also call George R. R. Martin a "fat fuck" when he can't get the next volume out fast enough to satisfy our curiosity.  (And let's be honest here.  How many Game of Thrones fans actually heard of A Song of Ice and Fire before the show came out?)
What we love about "geek culture" is when something is so well done that it goes mainstream.  Because with it comes status and money--the two things geeks don't really care about when choosing an interest.  Sure, we may want our manga to sell.  Internet videographers would love to be the next Nostalgia Critic.  But only so that we can support ourselves doing what we love.  Anyone who pursues a field solely to "get rich" with find the work a disappointing slog.  And those who have been successful only were because their passion made the product special enough to be appreciated.  And that passion may create some of the greatest works and theories in history, but it doesn't make for scintillating coffee klatch conversation.

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