Geeks are a nice species of creature. Cutely dressed, delicate, fragile, softly spoken to the point of mutism. Yet, they have managed to colonize the collective imagination of an entire generation. This generation. But who are the geeks? And how could this species of shy elves take over the innermost sanctums of the western cultural environment?
Until a few years ago, geeks didn’t exist. From the 1970s (some claim even since the 1950s) to the end of the 1990s, socially and physically awkward, yet often very intelligent people used to fall in the popular category denominated ‘nerds’. Nerds used to be featured as caricatures in American films and TV series, usually depicted as young white males with large glasses, braces, acne, trousers hitched up, a borderline autistic attitude towards specialist fields such as mathematics, physics or IT, as well as an insatiable passion for role games, computer games, fantasy or science-fiction. Until the early 1990s, nerds were little more than a mask of the contemporary, American Commedia dell’Arte. Then, with the advent of the internet, when it became evident how the technical abilities of IT nerds could be useful to global companies, this previously outcasted cultural category started to find a bit of social acceptance. Nerds changed their dress-code, swapped the braces for baseball hats, changed their names into online nicknames and turned into invaluable assets for the global market. They even had their first well-respected magazine, Wired, and they started to be closely wooed by Silicon Valley corporations. Still awkward and socially inadequate, nerds started making money. But what is more, the world around them started to change as well. In the face of both the rapid desegregation of the forms of sociality created during the 1960s and 1970s, and the epidemic of metropolitan alienation, the awkwardness of nerds started to be seen under a different light. How could they still be considered losers, if most people around them where at least as socially disconnected as they were, and probably earning far less money?
Then, the dot com bubble burst. At the beginning of the new millennium, the jungle of IT startups that had been growing savagely in the previous years fell under the wildfire of financial speculation. Once again, nerds became unpopular. But something of their culture had remained in the collective imagination of the West. On the one hand, people had started feeling a growing sense of proximity to that type of social awkwardness that had been, so far, the distinctive mark of shame for nerds, and with their desire to escape in to fantastic, childish dreamscapes. On the other, corporations had learnt how convenient and productive it was to employ highly specialized and highly isolated workers. Creativity without socialization had become the new fuel of the global productive system. But, the times had changed, and it was too late to bring nerds back from the dead. Also, nerds were an American subculture, fairly limited and still highly unfashionable. It was time to find a new name, a new label, a new slogan. It was time for the global rise of the geeks.
If nerds were the prototype, geeks were their updated, improved version. The stereotypical nerd of the 1990s had unwashed hair, was overweight and was physically repulsive. Maybe a genius, but not someone you would like to sit next to at dinner. Also, they used to have an innate rebelliousness, which was born of a desire for revenge against their condition as outcasts. Geeks are slim, clean, cute. Unthreatening and self-satisfied. They are not necessarily into IT. They might love cinema, comics, photography, naive graphic design, obscure music and everything ‘retro’. All that counts, is that they are really into their specific field of interest. They ‘love’ it with a greedy love, one that does not share. The love of only children for their toys, mixed with the replica of the desperation of abused teenagers for their imaginary oases of peace in the midst of a desolate life. Their life, in fact, is often a desert. The indifference that once was reserved only for nerds and outcasts is now a common patrimony, a rain that falls equally on the inhabitants of global megalopolises and on the workers of global corporations. The diffidence that nerds used to oppose to a hostile environment is now the very air we can breathe on subway trains and in airport waiting rooms. Against this landscape, geeks no longer stand out. They ceased to be misunderstood geniuses, and they blended into the fragile social tissue of contemporary life. Even more so, if we consider that their love for their field of interest is often just the representation of love. On the one hand, it is a passive love, as it involves consumption rather than creative production: film geeks watch, don’t make independent films; book geeks read, don’t write alternative books… On the other, it is often just a pretense: most films geeks don’t even watch films, they pretend to have watched them, most book geeks don’t even read books, they pretend to have read them. The geek attitude is essentially a moment in which contemporary western culture represents itself stereotypically, or rather bares its essence as a culture that is only an empty representation of itself.
Fashion magazines haven’t missed out on this trend. In the increasingly tight paradox of contemporary representation, fashion is taking over the role that once was supposed to belong to public opinion, at the same time mirroring and shaping the collective imagination of society. In the brief lapse of a few years, geek has turned ‘geek chic’. The pandemic of social retardation of the new generation found its celestial double in fashion magazines and in the heaven of celebrities, where the cute and shy look of awkward teenagers quickly became a must. The geek style was everywhere, overflowing from magazines and filling the contemporary art world, contemporary design and everyday style. But was it just a matter of style and fashion?
Like technology and codes of law, style also (both in its fashion and cultural acceptations) embodies the history of the conflicts and of the systems of power that constituted the environment where it appeared. Looked under this perspective, the geek style appears less as a cultural element, but more as the symbolic and psychic recomposition of economic and power structures. The geek style features a strong disciplinary element. As if restrained by internal barriers, geeks’ voices are softer than average, their eyes point downwards, their shoulders are bent forward, their general body language exudes docility and defenselessness. There is for them no other form of rebellion than self-harm or the descent into autism.
These elements acquire an interesting light, if we consider the social and economic environment where geeks live. Often young and highly educated inhabitants of global metropolises, people that behave like geeks are a large proportion of a new class of workers which is defined as ‘cognitariat’, both because of its similarity with the position of the proletariat within the productive system and of its role in their employment in the information-based economy. Similarly to the expectations that 20th Century factory owners used to have on their workers, contemporary corporations value above all things the docility of their employees and their inability to socialize with each other in an autonomous and satisfying way.
Despite the claims of encouraging creativity, the contemporary productive system encourages gradual improvements rather than ground-breaking innovation able to change the entire cultural and social paradigm. The element of ‘excess’ has been taken away from the innovation process: similar to the changes happening in politics, where the concept of governance as administration has replaced that of government as utopian practice, the process of innovation has increasingly become a standardized administration of functions of ‘research and development’. Within this system, workers are supposed to perform specific tasks, which imply creativity only insofar as it is a tamed representation of the authentic, ‘excessive’ creative process. Geeks are perfect for this type of task. The element of ‘excess’, which is at the essence of eroticism, is almost entirely removed from the docile body of the geek, whose desiring machines have been tuned into a loop which results in the stereotypical representation of themselves.
Once their will and desire is turned into an autistic disorder, geeks are ready to become the most effective accomplices of the very system that enslaves them. They are the cutest zombies ever to have appeared on webcam. And, like zombies, shooting them will not stop the virus that infected their bodies. It is not a matter of judging them guilty of docile complicity and of executing them for their crime. Rather, the challenge for us and for the people that behave like geeks, is to discover the social and economic origin of this virus and to neutralize it. It is a process of therapy that necessarily turns into politics. The search for the creative ‘excess’ within the human mind goes hand in hand with the search for the economic and democratic excess that is withheld from the people on a global level. The liberation of economic wealth from the safe boxes of banks, will open new possibilities of re-interpreting the very conception of wealth as shared availability of free time and sociality. The liberation of knowledge from the tight grip of private property and capitalist exploitation, will allow new spaces for a truly ‘excessive’ and therefore full-rounded creativity. The liberation of workers from the submissive environment of employment will enable new perceptions of one’s own body and activity as an autonomous landscape of possibilities. In other words, if the sexual revolution of the 1960s saw the eroticization of bodies as an act with political consequences, today the reverse is true. Today, in the night of the living geeks, only effective political acts, that is, radical democratic acts, can have strong erotic consequences on the frozen collective body of the geeky ‘cognitariat’.