Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of Geek Culture

GIT/M/MU/P/S/SS/O d-- s-: a C++ UL++>$ P++>$ L++>$ E---
W++ w+ PS++ PE++ GPG++ t-- X R* !tv b++++ G-e+++
h+ r

I've had a number of discussions over the past few weeks with different people about geeks and geek culture. I'm ambivalent toward geek culture. Many geeks I meet seem clueless about basic aspects of political and social relations that other educated people seem to take for granted. Nevertheless, going by the Wikipedia definition of the word—"One who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc."—I am a geek. The contents of this blog are more than enough testament to that.

Yet it's one thing to have geeky interests and another to be part of a geek subculture. If by "geek" we mean an intense interest in the technical details of some particular subject, to the point of making us lose peripheral vision at times of things outside that subject, then there's an argument to be made (which Neal Stephenson does make) that we're all geeks now. That would owe to the technocratic shape society has taken since the 50s and to the explosion of the internet and IT after the mid-90s. Geekdom then is an epiphenomenon of the intellectual and technical division of labor in the information society.

As one's position in the hierarchy of division of labor in industrial capitalism tended to incline one toward certain social identifications and political positions, it seems one can also make meaningful generalities about geek subcultures and the political views held by their members and adherents. The problem is that this subculture has become much more complex since the explosion of the Internet and IT in the mid-90s. Before then, but roughly from the late 60s/early 70s onward, to be a geek was largely synonymous with being a tech geek or hacker: the programmer subculture that originated at MIT. In the days before the Macintosh—and for a period of time after—to know that someone was into computers usually meant also knowing, with a high degree of probability, that they were socially awkward, into tabletop roleplaying games, libertarian, had a junk food diet, didn't know when and when not to correct an error in conversation, and were probably annoying to be around.

But the geek landscape has become more complex and multidimensional since the mid-90s. People from all walks of life have been drawn into information technology, because IT has become such an integral part of the production process. With this influx of people with such vastly different intellectual and personal backgrounds, the political and cultural flavor of IT has changed drastically. While Silicon Valley CEOs were by and large in favor of Ron Paul, white collar IT workers in general were pro-Obama. Obama appealed to them because he's part of their generation, and because he's sharp and tech-savvy. They didn't vote for Obama because he's black. I don't think geeks in general would do something like this. They voted for him because they thought he represented their interests and deserved to be President. (This is why Hillary Clinton had to start doing shots of whiskey in PA to get votes. Both candidates were equally centrist, but Obama appealed to an entirely different, ascendant portion of the capitalist class system in the U.S.)

The phenomenon is further complicated by the fact that there's more than one way to be a geek now. There aren't just tech geeks. There are arts geeks, punk geeks, metal geeks, history geeks, comics geeks, horror geeks—almost any kind of geek you can imagine. Again, I think this is because of the way capitalist society has become an information capitalist society. Yet it's not simply the case that to know something means to be part of a subculture. This was the case with the original geek culture of the 70s and 80s, but it's not so anymore. And this is what makes analyzing geek culture difficult. It's one thing to be intensely interested in subject x but it's another thing to be part of the subculture. These were almost identical in early geek subculture, probably because there were so few people who had the knowledge in the first place. It was concentrated in university CS and AI labs.

Now the situation is very different. People can collect interests and hobbies without having to deal directly with another person at all. They can simply spend hours a day researching it on the Internet. Nevertheless, one can draw probabilistic inferences. That I'm a Linux enthusiast doesn't tell you a whole lot, since almost anyone can and does get into Linux. If I tell you I'm into Linux and collecting firearms, well, now you might start to form a picture in your mind. If I tell you that, in addition to firearms and Linux, I'm also passionate about German Idealist philosophy, that's going to mean something very different from if I tell you I'm also into roleplaying games or Joss Whedon or genre fiction or whatever.

The political and social character of geek subcultures has changed drastically since their explosion 15 years ago. One can't simply take it for granted that because a person is a geek, they're libertarian or aren't able to recognize the nuances of gender or race relations. The "Racefail" fiasco of last year illustrates this, as does the 2008 Presidential election. To be a geek doesn't just mean coming from a science/tech background. It could also mean coming from a humanities background, since so many people who major in humanities go on to have IT jobs. Of course people are dense almost no matter where you go, but your odds of encountering politically enlightened individuals jumps drastically as soon as you enter a geek field as opposed to if you work in a place where everyone has business or accounting degrees. I don't have numbers on this, but I'm guessing information workers are generally more progressive than those people who don't work with information. (This doesn't mean we don't all have a long way to go before we're where we should be.)

There's a lot I haven't deal with here. I only mentioned non-IT geek subcultures in passing. I've hardly touched on the gender composition of these subcultures (some geek subcultures are predominantly composed of women) and the attendant differences in political perspective. There's also a lot more to say about the complex interaction between being interested in a subject and being part of a subculture. I think there's also a lot to say about the role of the humanities in all of this, and what it means that so many people from the humanities are going on to get jobs in IT (rather than just CS majors). So accept this as an introductory post on the subject, something I'll hopefully add to later.

No comments: