Geek As Citizen: Deep Geeks

Pit Hole Ladder

One of the things that has troubled me about geek culture is that there’s parts of it that seem strangely alien and disconnected. I’m not talking the stereotype of the guy living in his mom’s basement (he’s probably busy with a startup these days). I’m talking the fact that a set of geeks can be both socially engaged, yet shockingly and even brutally clueless and insensitive.

It’s reading about women’s experience among Bitcoin enthusiasts or ignorant bro-geek activity at Dropbox. It’s wondering how people can spin weird techno-utopian political fantasies with no grounding in logic – because you’ve got the brains to at least spin these fantasies.  It’s every time someone in Silicon Valley says something clueless about the homeless and gentrification and I wonder if they even read the paper or watch the news.

And yet, some of the people I’m discussing seem to be more extraverted and socially engaged. We meet geeks who when they are insensitive, or bigoted, or clueless shock us because they’re the kind of people we don’t expect to be that way. How can someone be so smart and so bright and even social and yet still seem to live in their own world?

I’ve covered my suspicions that marketing has affected bigotry in geekdom. And I still stand by my theory geekdom in general is far more tolerant than its parent culture – but the depths can be just as bad as said parent culture. I just want to know why.

After some analysis, I’d like to propose there’s a subpopulation of geeks, mostly in the technology, media, and gaming sector that I call Deep Geeks. Read on.  I got a rabbit hole to show you.

The Core Theory

My core Theory of Deep Geek is this:

“There is a subpopulation of geek culture that is social, engaged, and often professional, but as they exist in new social structures that evolved around their interests, they are actually isolated from larger culture and often parts of geek culture.”

To explain:

  1. This is the age of Geek, an age of technology, media, and even the traditional geek properties being famous.
  2. Many people, especially in tech and media,have developed successful careers and social connections.
  3. Because of these successes, and a lot of money sloshing around, there are new social structures and economic groups of geeks.
  4. Some geeks are so deep inside these new structures they are isolated, and i some ways more isolated than the stereotypical geek-in-basement (without a startup).

Think about the geeks you meet who don’t seem to get why they offended someone, or understand how the world works, or make bigoted comments – but are just not the stereotype of a bigot or the lifeless geek. They’re friendly, affable, engaging, and you wonder how they can be so clueless or insensitive. Or the people who are so damn smart and professional, and whose political pronouncements seem to come from a kind of sociopolitical Tourette’s syndrome. Or the guy who is really convinced this mobile app will save the world because coffee is the right of all sentient species.

Yet at times, you also know geeks who are smart, engaged, sensitive, aware, and savvy. They’re not biased, bigoted, or figuring they can save the world with n App that makes it easier to order socks.

From a distance, these two populations can look a lot alike  . . . until they open their mouths (or refuse to shut them).

That’s because some people are caught in Deep Geek. They’re in the social and economic structures that have grown up in an age of high technology, the internet, gaming, and mass media. They’re down the rabbit hole and don’t know it because when you work with and/o rplay with all the cool, amazing stuff that is big in the world, you may not know how far you’re gone.

Just because the walls seem transparent doesn’t mean you’re not trapped.  Just because the castle is pretty doesn’t mean it’s not a prison.

Further Analysis of Repercussions of Deep Geeks

So basically, my take is that there’s an identifiable geek population, the Deep Geeks, who are isolated in their own subculture and experience, but don’t realize it. Of course, any form of isolation is bad because that ends up in a kind of monoculture, and you get some inbred thinking.

It’s easy these days, when you can use that great liberator, the Internet, to find only people who agree with you and think like you.  Enough said.

I think this basic idea, of an identifiable subpopulation, helps explain the bizarrely divergent experiences people I know have with we geeks in general, and technology and media geeks in particular. Some of the people they meet are in an isolated world that’s not apparent to them (or those they interact with), and some aren’t. A geek and a Deep Geek may work together tat the same company, play games together, and never realize how different they are until they talk about some subjects.

Also I think the Deep Geek population is rather socially defined as it’s tech heavy – usually white males with an engineering background and probably from relatively limited geographic regions. Their experience is very bounded, especially if they’re among a lot of Deep Geeks. This can lead to racism, sexism, geographic biases, and just plain cluelessness – or reinforce the same.

(And yes, I’m about as straight white male engineering background as you can get, so I know this doesn’t apply to all of us.)

Wither Deep Geeks?

Let’s say I’m right and not just blowing smoke here. SO what does it mean?

  1. We geeks need to be aware that we’ve got another form of social isolation to deal with as opposed to the assumed ones.
  2. We can use this theory to figure out when we’re dealing with Deep Geeks and adjust behavior accordingly. It may help us in dealing with at times confusing individuals.
  3. We should redouble our efforts to ensure geekery and associated professions are property diverse and respectful – but also be realizing that we’re dealing with a social isolation that doesn’t look like one.
  4. We should realize bias in geekery has multiple sources and not act like they’re all the same.
  5. Don’t assume we’ve truly “arrived” in the case of being super socially responsible. It may be the Age of Geek, but it’s apparent theres still growing up to do. One may note other parts of our culture need to grow up (and do), but this is us – and we’re kinda responsible for a lot.
  6. The continuing confrontation of cultural issues in geekery, from social responsibility to misogyny and racism, is going to be long-term and probably longer than we want to admit as we have these new entrenched social structures to deal with.
  7. Some leadership figures in geekery may help but they need to take a stand.  Also there’s a chance leaders may be partially or totally caught in Deep Geek states.
  8. Sadly, I think that there are economic and cultural sectors of geekery that are Deep Geek enough that their cluelessness will be a problem culturally end economically. I may go more into this specifically in time.

#5 is one of the things that concerns me the most – and one I address here. Yes, we’re now cool and everyone watched Marvel movies and has a smartphone. But we can’t assume that we geeks are also as socially evolved as we’d like to think we are (me included).

But we are damned good at doing things, so we can see what we can do here.


So there you have it, my theory to explain some weird divisions in geekdom. basically there’s a subpopulation of us who appear socially and personally engaged, but are in fact socially and culturally isolated in very homogenized groups. We’re going to have to admit and face this.

Am I positive . . . well mostly. But as I analyze this I confess it’s a tad disheartening and humbling. It makes me wonder what else I’ve missed and others have missed in our culture. It makes me wonder what more barriers are up against us and good citizenship in a world that really does kinda need us.

Then I remember how we’re people that do stuff and fix stuff. And I get positive again – partially as the other option is despair, and I’m not good at that.

– Steven Savage