And so Geek Pride Day rolls round again, and I guess the key question, to me, is whether or not 2012 is the year the geeks triumphed… Or whether the nerd renaissance of the last few years is wobblier than we thought.
I mean, you’d think that geek culture was pretty healthy. The Avengers has made more money than the wildest dreams of Scrooge McDuck, and it did that partly by importing a shared comic book universe onto the big screen. Sure there have been successful superhero movies before, but this was the first one that really ran with the conceit, with five other blockbusters acting as its foundation. Comic book fans are used to this; it’s not really been done in the cinema before.
And this is before The Dark Knight Rises comes out, which is also likely to make a shedload of money. Same goes for The Amazing Spider-Man.
Meanwhile, Facebook has over 900 million active users. That’s a not insubstantial chunk of the world’s population. Google still does big business, so does Apple, so do other companies that wear their geek credentials on their sleeve.
But here’s the thing: all of the above represent a mainstreaming of geek culture. Coming from that culture myself, I have no problem with that, but I don’t think it represents the triumph of the nerds. Because geek culture has traditionally been at right angles to the mainstream.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining that suddenly ‘my’ pop culture preferences are being liked by other people; I’m terrified that Doctor Who will stop having healthy audiences and get cancelled again. But not everyone who likes Doctor Who can be called a geek, can they? The Avengers didn’t make a gazillion dollars simply by appealing to the 66,000 people who bought the comic in April.
But then that’s always been the case. Star Wars is a geek shibboleth, but it didn’t get to be one of the biggest franchises in cinema history by only appealing to people who can quote Isaac Asimov – there’s probably an argument to suggest that, despite the robots, those are two distinct constituencies anyway. And that’s at the root of this disconnect – there’s a difference between geek culture and the geek spirit.
I guess you’d define the geek spirit as a passionate enthusiasm for a particular subject, specifically those subjects outside the mainstream. I know plenty of people who can recite football statistics going back before they were born, but that’s not considered geeky, even if it seems to be accessing traits that would be considered geeky. Wear a football shirt and no-one blinks. Wear a Star Trek uniform…
There’s an interplay between culture and attitude that results in true geekiness, and so, while geek culture has gone mainstream (which is cool), geek attitude hasn’t. Maybe it can’t, but that would be a loss. After all, in the midst of geekery being everywhere you turn, it’s of concern that science seems to be taking a pounding (ie, climate change denial), and that something fundamentally nerdy like Doctor Who is being criticised for getting too complicated. This isn’t an elitism thing – why should the majority of people sacrifice their time to obsess over the minutae of a TV series? – but there are implications for science, computing and education if the current vogue for geek culture is taken as an endorsement of geek spirit. Because I’m not convinced that’s the case.
So on this Geek Pride Day, let’s celebrate the spirit of geekiness – learning, figuring stuff out, passion, enthusiasm – as well as comic books and sci-fi. The world will be better for it…