Free the geeks

By | 2011/06/29

Periodically I see indignant comments from IT people decrying non-IT people describing themselves as geeks. Hell, even Esquire commented on the growing trend of people to call themselves X geeks – most notably, a Miss USA entrant describing herself as a history geek. (“Since when are we all such geeks?”)

I don’t see what the kerfuffle is all about, personally. It’s not as if it’s the situation where random people give themselves the appellation of “Doctor” without having earned it. In fact, a friend who can legitimately use this title only recently mentioned it as a real bugbear for him. To paraphrase, it means that real doctors – fully trained people in the medical profession, and even people who have fully earned PHDs, are forced to qualify just how much they really are a doctor, when the term should have no ambiguity to it at all. It also dilutes the achievements and knowledge they’ve attained.

But there’s no University degree for geek. I studied and completed a Bachelor of Computer Science, not a Bachelor of Geekery. You might think there’s a one to one correlation, but I can honestly say there were people in my course who were most definitely not geeks, and those people completed their degrees. I could, if I really wanted to, have “(B. Comp Sc)” following my name, on my business cards – not “(B. Geek)”.

I think IT people sometimes get too precious about the word “geek”. Indeed, they perhaps should go have a look at Wikipedia’s entry for “geek” before jumping up and down too much. Interestingly (no, I didn’t provide any input), one of its points sums up almost exactly what I’ve been saying for years:

A more recent school of thought sees nerd as being a derogatory phrase, while geek is simply a description. It is taken to be someone who is an enthusiast, often in things outside of the mainstream spectrum. It may also describe immersion in a particular mainstream interest to an extreme that is beyond normalcy (e.g. sports geek)[citation needed]. Of note is that in this definition, there is no reference to being socially inept in the slightest.

That’s my view of a Geek. Like it or not, IT people, but so long as she actually can claim a knowledge and passion for history, there’s nothing wrong with a Miss USA entrant describing herself as a “history geek”.

In some circles, “geek” is actually something people find attractive. Dating sites routinely list “geek” along with “reader”, “movie buff”, “hairy”, “thin”, “large” or a plethora of other body and personality types as things people can state they’re attracted to.

So what is a geek? For me there’s two key requirements:

  • A desire to learn;
  • A passion for a subject (or subjects).

Past that, if you have those two traits, you’re a geek about something – be that a history geek, an IT geek, a philosophy geek, an English literature geek, etc.

Geek has gone mainstream. Trying to keep it in an IT cage is not only counter productive, but actually goes against the core meaning of geek – having a delight for unfettered knowledge.