I just read Patton Oswalt’s Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die, which I enjoyed, and I’ve got something to say. Several somethings, in fact. As I set out, I’m not entirely certain what those somethings are, but I’m sure we’ll have some fun finding out.
I’m a little uncomfortable with it as a semi-serious piece of word stuff, and with the inevitable ensuing Metafilter thread. Underlying everything is an assumption that goes for the most part unquestioned: that nerds, or geeks (or otaku, but to hell with that, William Gibsonisms notwithstanding
The otaku, the passionate obsessive, the information age’s embodiment of the connoisseur, more concerned with the accumulation of data than of objects, seems a natural crossover figure in today’s interface of British and Japanese cultures. I see it in the eyes of the Portobello dealers, and in the eyes of the Japanese collectors: a perfectly calm train-spotter frenzy, murderous and sublime. Understanding otaku-hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of the web. There is something profoundly post-national about it, extra-geographic. We are all curators, in the post-modern world, whether we want to be or not.
because I’m weary so weary of the appropriation and repurposing of poorly-understood Japanese words) are to be defined by the cultural products they (possibly obsessively) consume. It’s the common usage, sure — we talk about star wars nerds and comics nerds, about gaming geeks and movie geeks. We’ve wired into our brains a default mode where a nerd is someone who nerds out over some New Bauble, and a geek geeks out about their Precious Thing. We’re a little too accustomed to defining ourselves by what we consume, which is just what The Business of Entertainment wanted. Except for that whole part where we can get almost anything made of information these days without really trying. Or paying.
Patton frames it as the end of cultural scarcity, of that which was hidden being revealed, of the death of a certain degree of cultural outsider self-worth being eroded by the internet. When it was harder to get to those obscure bands and movies and comics and all the rest, the idea is, the honest work of digging down to those rich veins of geek gold was something in which pride could be taken. Now, when the nuggets just litter the digital ground for anybody to pick up, the noble labor doesn’t seem so noble. Or at least not as laborious. A fundamental compensator for the social downsides of geekery has been knocked out of play at the same time as the tribes of the ’80s suddenly became nations.
Defining the geek or the nerd through the obscurity or scarcity of the cultural detritus they cherish doesn’t work very well when, like Patton, it’s Star Wars merch and mythos they loved, either. There wasn’t much more ubiquitous and mainstream than Star Wars in the late 70s and early 80s, even in my frontier village. Hell, George Lucas practically invented the crass movie-merch tie in. Then again, he’s right about comics back in the day — the trip to the corner shop every few weeks to check for new comics when I was 10 or 12, turning that metal rack and wondering how many my mom would let me buy was a cherished and exciting ritual. And music — well, let’s just say that the one store that stocked records in my hometown, the K-Mart, didn’t stock a lot of The Clash, let alone more obscure stuff. Without radio other than CBC, the world of new music was entirely closed off, and when a friend lent me a vinyl copy of London Calling that he’d gotten in Vancouver, back when I was 16, I almost exploded with the love of it.
The K-Mart did have Monty Python records, though. I didn’t realize that there even was a television program, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I’d seen all the episodes. And there were bookstores in Prince George, a couple of hours away, where I could and did buy science fiction novels by the dozen, until I was 15 or so.
So there’s that. There is truth to the idea that back in the days of the turn of the ’80s (now nearly as far in the past as the end of WWII was to me then, a realization that makes my heart thud for a few seconds like it’s pumping crude oil), especially if you didn’t live in a city, even more so if, like me, you lived far far off in the hinterlands, the very scarcity of music that wasn’t disco, of movies that weren’t mainstream, of pretty much anything that you couldn’t find in the tiny book corner of the Hudson’s Bay, well, it made all those things more precious, in part because it took work to get them. And that work set you apart, gave some measure of pride and feeling of superiority, and inclined you to try and find other people to share those precious artifacts with.
My experience may have been different, because there just weren’t enough kids at a given age in my hometown for ironbound cliques and subcultures to accrete. With 50 kids in my class, and so maybe a total in the entire town of 150 or so with a three-year age span, almost everyone was a little from column A, a little from column B, and a little from all the rest.
But I’m not sure that any of that has more than just a degree of overlap with geekery or nerddom. Patton talks about Geek Culture as if it were a thing that existed in the 1980s and has mutated into something new now, and I reckon (perhaps because of my isolation, I admit) that we’re talking about two different things Then and Now. Was there an actual geek subculture back then? There were geeky and nerdy individuals, yes, small tribes, sure, even larger collectives (I remember when my mom took me and a buddy to my first science fiction convention, when I was 13 or so, I think), in the larger cities, all collecting around different emergent cultural nodes.
I think that an enormous range of personality types, from the obsessive and borderline autistic all the way to the hypersocial, nonconformist artsy type got shovelled into a huge pile under the geek/nerd rubrics, because they were, basically, different, not just in the things that amused them, but the way they related to those things, and the ways they interacted with the Great Everyone Else. There was a wild spectrum of subcultures, and the cost of entry to each in the unwired world was high enough that it was hard to partake in more than a couple of overlaps. There were weird hybrid metalhead D&D players, or stoner AV Club members, but not as many as there might have been. Subcultures were siloed.
What about today?
We’ve lived through a few decades in which popular culture has been infantilized, because that’s where the money was. It led, until the early part of the 2000s perhaps, to a cultural hell from which some are now emerging, wiping the ichor from our foreheads, but in which most folks are still eyeballs deep. But now, because it’s all free, and if not always legal, at least available, and it’s the young people who have the skills to get to it… well, there’s not as much money there. The entertainment economy is a sinking Titanic for an increasingly large segment of the population, and it’s just these days tipping to the vertical — the air pockets will blast out through the stern, and it’ll sink faster than we can imagine. But that’s just fine, because those of us who know how (yes, the geeks and nerds of old, at least the ones who emerged from the chrysalis of the last 20 years) will find a vast, rich field of flotsam, and we’ll build rafts, and it’ll be better than before.
I think we’ve been duped, to be honest. Several different things have been happening at the same time over the past few decades, and at the same time as the world is completely different, it’s just the same, and will ever be, for most. I think that part of Patton’s problem (which, I’m sure, he’s mostly joking about) is mostly that, like me, he’s a bit old now, and it’s hard to view the way of things through new eyes.
So what’s happened? Well, the Business of Selling Entertainment Products has gotten bigger, meaner, and more sophisticated. Cool-hunters track down the latest youth trends and their corporate masters commoditize them as quickly as they can. Advertising has become a terrifyingly exact science, and arrows in to tickle our lizard brains with ever-increasing accuracy. We are at the same time more sophisticated in understanding how the marketers manipulate us, and less resistant to being manipulated, because most of us have given up. The price of etc etc is eternal vigilance, after all, and that’s hard work. We know that television news has become a business more than a service, that advertising pays for it, that viewers are needed for higher ad sales rates, that conflict and drama, manufactured or otherwise, brings viewers, and so the news transforms into formalized drama and artificial conflict pumping, and we don’t really care.
We talk unironically about how clever or amusing or just plain wonderful the latest TV ad is, we scarcely notice, and even applaud, when a much-loved song is bought and used as the soundtrack, which was a shock and affront back in the day. Suggestions that ubiquitous advertising can be a pernicious influence are regularly met with derision by otherwise smart people who argue that ads are somehow a service that support precious freedom of choice, and drive product innovation and improvement. We watch democracy become a contest between which candidate can muster the bigger war chest and spend the most on advertising and image management. We accept that lobby groups and corporate campaign donors have more influence on our elected representatives than the citizenry does.
Form has taken precedence over function. The ritual of consumption, the kabuki drama of news telecasts, the hollow ceremony of democratic participation; we focus on appearance over result, we put our feet onto the dance-school-floor outlines over and over again, believing that the result has to be different this time, and it almost never is.
In case the thrust of what I’m saying here has gotten obscured: many dollars are spent by increasingly effective advertisers, marketers and public relations shills, by companies and governments and every other entity who wants something from us, whose ability to finger the proper chords in our brains have spiralled skyward to keep pace with our collective ability to resist them. I don’t think this is a good thing.
That’s the first thing that’s been happening. Some days it seems like most people in the developed world don’t know, don’t care, can’t be fucking bothered that the process, deliberate or otherwise, of herding us into positions of collective consumerist impotence is nearly complete. It’s too much work not to trust what The Famous and Powerful and The Companies tell us. Just getting by is hard enough these days. The news fails to explain why that is and how to avoid getting trapped into debt slavery, and all the while the credit card ads pander to our cupidity, the latest gadget tempts, and the politicians further marginalize anyone who isn’t rich enough to buy their way clear. News outlets get consolidated into megacorps, opinion becomes fact, and we’re talking about whether the latest coked-out starlet is going to jail or not. The media, the entertainment industry, has been complicit. No conspiracies, just the eternal chase for the almighty payoff.
People outside the developed world have more important things to worry about, of course.
But there’s been a countering trend of a sort, a backlash that would have been impossible without another large and important thing that has happened. That’s your swell pal the internet, and the internet has, of course, changed everything. Patton’s Everything That Ever Was — Available Forever is coming. It’s almost here. I can smell it, and it smells like hot plastic. And it’ll be great, at least until there’s a bout of solar turbulence or the magnetic poles of the Earth flip again or something, and the world’s magnetic media gets wiped.
We’ve all had enough of the utopian internet-will-fix-everything wanking that almost exclusively occurs — surprise — on the internet, from me and from everyone else. I won’t bother; either you’re with me that having information access to Everything Everywhere Always is a good thing (with many possible unforeseeable consequences for us as a species), or not. But I do think that the new skills that we’re developing, even us old bastards, the ones that wired youth take for granted, have changed the landscape.
And a new kind of schism has developed to replace the simple geeknerd/normal polarity switch from the 1980s and earlier.
There are still a lot of people out there who belly up to their media buffet, who suck down the advertising blandishments, who consume their culture in much the same way as most people did 20 or 30 years ago. It’s just more-ish, and spicier. And the factories that pack the feed pipes are happy to keep the sluices running, as long as there are dollars to be made. For lots of folks, digestion generally happens without an excess of critical thought, without worrying too much about the why or how of it: with an underlying assumption that because it’s there, somebody must have decided that it must not be bad for us. I understand the impulse: who doesn’t want to switch of their brain sometimes and just coo and nurse from the Ellisonian glass teat? I don’t begrudge most folks their habitual blitheness; I envy it. It’s what we miss from when we were children, when we believed we could trust and accept everything our parents told us as unalloyed truth, because unalloyed truth is a comforting thing. It’s the impulse that leads many to religion. It is human nature.
It is also one of the reasons for the spectacular crash of the housing industry in America, and the global economic tremors and aftershocks that continue, four years later: Americans believed that they were being told true things when their president trumpeted the ‘ownership society’, when the TV told them housing prices always go up, when their bank or mortgage company said that a zero-down ARM was a safe thing to do, that interest rates would stay low forever, and so on.
It’s sharks all the way down, and once we start, we are doomed to endlessly jumping them. The lies are fractal, they’re self-similar at all scales; perception beats reality, spin über alles. Unless you read even a few Important Internet Opinions to try and triangulate the truth.
There is a smaller group who have learned to be suspicious of ads, suspicious of corporations, or banks, of governments, of anyone trying to sell them something, who have met the increasing sophistication of the Marketing Mind Worms with their own more sophisticated defenses. These people have always been with us, but they are increasingly marginalized as out of touch, soft-headed crypto-hippies, or co-opted by batshit insane groups like the Tea Party in America (who at least ask some of the right questions, like how and why a bailout of the banks benefits ordinary people, but come up with wildly wrong answers, because the few voices they choose to trust have themselved been co-opted by oligarchs and liars).
There is an even smaller group — but large, and growing — who have taken to the digital world like a wonderchicken to the bottle, who have meta’d themselves bootstrapwise into an entirely new kind of human. And they don’t give a damn where their Stuff comes from; if it’s quality it’s grist for the mill, even better if there’s some nerd cred to it, and they might drop some dollars on it. If not, who cares — it’s free, anyway, and mockery of the mainstream is good fun. Like the nerds and geeks and dorks and dweebs (and other highschool epithets from the 80s) they may have odd, arcane interests, they may be creative, they may have 1000 friends online and none, or 1000, in real life, they may be gamers, they may feel some compulsion to edit Wikipedia or, ahem, build websites, they may be porn-addicted or furries, they may be /b/tards DDOSing Mastercard, they may be your freaking grandma, but they are connected and less and less inclined to apologize for their little obsessions and passing fancies. They share entertainment interests with everyone else — they watched Avatar, they played Call of Duty, they get their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — but they’re as likely to give you a quick dissertation on Serbian film directors or the provenance of the 8-bit-inspired art design in Minecraft as an opinion about Glee.
There are growing numbers of people — some motivated by resentment at being manipulated, some by the media garbage that they are given to eat by the Big Producers, some by the new availability of everything, everywhere, legally or not, some by contrarianism and sheer cussedness, and some, sure, by a deep and abiding otakularity — who aren’t the good customers of the entertainment industry they once might have been. Their viability as ongoing revenue streams, to borrow the language of our corporate masters, has been compromised.
They aren’t, in other words, the Norm-Minus geeks of the 80s (no matter how much we want to romanticize nostalgically about it, the epithets meant just that), they are Norm-Plus. Sure, there are the basement-dwelling masturbators and the odd and halting and otherworldly, and there always will be. But who would have thought that the first real info-war of the 21st century would be launched by 4chan /b/tards against credit card companies over online release of ‘secret’ government documents? Not me, but I find it thrilling. Anonymous are, for better or worse, a vanguard of the new nerds, the geeks, and they are at one and the same time no different from grandpa geeks like me and an instantiation something entirely new that has supplanted the old categories.
Let me give you a little Bruce Sterling, from his recent piece on Julian Assange and the splendid Wikileaks saga:
While others stare in awe at Assange’s many otherworldly aspects — his hairstyle, his neatness, his too-precise speech, his post-national life out of a laptop bag — I can recognize him as pure triple-A outsider geek. Man, I know a thousand modern weirdos like that, and every single one of them seems to be on my Twitter stream screaming support for Assange because they can recognize him as a brother and a class ally. They are in holy awe of him because, for the first time, their mostly-imaginary and lastingly resentful underclass has landed a serious blow in a public arena. Julian Assange has hacked a superpower.
He didn’t just insult the captain of the global football team; he put spycams in the locker room. He showed the striped-pants set without their pants. This a massively embarrassing act of technical voyeurism. It’s like Monica and her stains and kneepads, only even more so.
Now, I wish I could say that I feel some human pity for Julian Assange, in the way I do for the hapless, one-shot Bradley Manning, but I can’t possibly say that. Pity is not the right response, because Assange has carefully built this role for himself. He did it with all the minute concentration of some geek assembling a Rubik’s Cube.
These are the new geeks, the new nerds, the empowered, the proud, the connected. The world has changed. And geeks and nerds are no longer merely about consumption and fetishization of obscure (or mainstream) cultural products. It’s not odd or geeky these days to be into Doctor Who, or to have an opinion on whether Han shot first. Pretty much everyone old enough does. It may have been a badge of subcultural achievement to be a role-playing gamer back in the day; now it’s just one of the things that people do. We identify with a spectrum of tribes, and we carve out our own identity in doing so.
There’s no need to kill Geek Culture — it barely exists as a thing anymore, and it’s dying of senescence at about the same rate that middle-aged guys like me and Patton are dying off. A new paradigm breaches the amniotic sac, lifts its bloody head, and wails. The new Gnerds arise!