Geek As Citizen: What Is A Geek?

As I mentioned last week, I’m going to be exploring the role of geeks as citizen. What is our place in a functional society? Where do we belong? Where are we needed? I think a lot of us kind of have an idea, but it’s worth exploring in an age where, almost accidentally, we kind of created modern society and to a lesser extent run it.

I’m not sure we intended to do this, but there you go. Me, I’d want better environmental policies and a reduction in stupid reality shows. But that’s for another time.

In order to actually ask “what is the ideal role of a citizen geek” we kind of have to define geek. I’ve taken a stab at it – many have taken a stab at it – and doubtlessly we’ll be arguing about it for years to come. But I’m going to make an effort (again) to try and do it at least to solidify my recent insights and give us a working theory.

Let me note that my definition is designed to be descriptive and not exclusionary.  I have no interest in promoting geek exclusion or exclusivity, there’s enough “not geek enough” garbage out there.  Instead I’m interested in it as a kind of demographic description – pretty much a case of “you are one if you think you’re one and identify as one.”

Now I base my concept on the broadest idea of geek, and one that seems at the same time to have maximum coherence. I’d rather make it a bit too broad than too narrow and miss something. However, the more I analyze it, I find geeks have a remarkably tight set of traits:

  • Passionate about a subject or subjects. Geeks are seriously into something or into several things at a deep level. This is not about casual interest.
  • The passion and interest is personal. This passion is part of the geek’s identity and self-concept, and what drives them has a good amount of intrinsic motivation.
  • The geek applies their subject of interest to doing things. A critical point here, but geeks are people who do things. It can range from questionable fanfic to elaborate conventions, from indie games to crazy filk, but their deep and personal passions are involved in creative and productive endeavors.
  • This creative application does not always have a monetary reward, and in all cases the geek’s activity would be done for reasons other than financial gain. Even people who do things they make for a living for fun are not entirely in it for the money. Again, it’s personal.
  • That being said, there’s often a blurred line between career and hobby for geeks, or the hope for career and hobby to merge.
  • This application of knowledge and passion usually leverages technologies, and geeks embrace the tools and technologies to meet their goals. Geeks may not always be technical per se, but they inevitably are somewhat technical because it’s about doing things.
  • The geek’s interests,being part of identity, activity, and at times profession, also are part of their social patterns. They may, in fact, define most of their social patterns.
  • * The geek’s interests sometimes involve popular culture and shared culture, especially that created for or by their demographic.
  • * The geek is usually part of a larger social/economic/technical gestalt which I call “The Geekonomy.” Yes, I used the word gestalt, and I meant it.

So my definition of geek (OK, latest definition) is someone passionate about a subject or subjects on a personal level and whose life is often defined by the application and interest in these passions and the tools that those passions involve. This would encompass sci-fi fans, gamers, Maker culture, some political wonks, the convention scene, and a disturbingly large amount of people in places like Silicon Valley and Toronto.

Now this being said, I think geek culture (the sci-fi/comics/game/anime/convention scene) culture we usually think about is a subset of the larger geek population and a place of heavily self-identified geeks. Geek culture, as it stands now, does not fully encompass everyone I’d consider geek – though I’d add “yet” to that as Maker culture seems to be merging with it, cosplay culture expands, etc. I expect geek culture will embrace more over the years if only because the larger “geek” population, highly interlinked, is emerging as a cultural and economic force.

(As for the historical origins of geeks, that’s entirely another subject.)

Having defined geek, I want to note a few things are not definitive of geeks, in my analysis:

  • It is not defined by race, gender, or economic class. However it seems geekery evolves well when there’s some disposable income.
  • It is not dependent on quality of experience – it is defined by passion and application.
  • It is not defined by training or education. However many geeks seek to expand skills and knowledge.
  • It is not defined by profession, but some professions are geekier than others and attract certain types.
  • It is not defined by geography.

Geek is actually a pretty inclusive definition when considered – passion and involvement are first. That’s not to say members of the geek population and parts of geek culture can’t be terribly exclusive, but when you can just give up on one group of jerks and find someone else, it may matter. The intolerance seen in some geeks is an odd, silly thing to many of us.

Having presented my definition of geeks and what they are and are not, I do think there are a few populations that are close to being geeks but aren’t quite (or are distinct from geeks and people may be in both due to similarities):

  • Academics – Academics are people limited to academic study and institutions. A person may be both an academic and a geek, however.
  • Enthusiasts – Are those that are into something but don’t do much with it.
  • Professionals – As noted, geeks may do what they love for a living, however if the passion doesn’t carry over beyond work the person may be a Professional. It’s also possible a person is a Professional in one Sphere – and a geek in another.
  • Creative Class – Richard Florida’s loosely-defined idea is one that geeks intersect with, but the creative class is a very general term and often seems bound to a subset of professions and locations (media/technology in big cities and cultured area).  Oddly I think my description of geek is similar in that it’s a description that’s more a tool than something you can break into hard numbers.

So there’s my take on what geeks are, what they aren’t, and where the lines cross or get fuzzy. With that definition out of the way, let’s start asking just what the role of geeks in a civil society is.

We’re people at the crossroads of passion and interest, knowledge and application, profession and hobby. So when you start thinking about it, it gets rather interesting . . . but that’s for next week.

– Steven Savage