I'm old enough to recall a time when being obsessed with things like movies, science fiction, games, and comic books was enough to get a kid bullied at school. At the tail end of the 1970's and early 1980's the most acceptable outlet for "popular" boys was sports, and anyone over the age of 12 or so was expected to abandon their action figures (or "dolls" as my dad often called them) for the more serious quest for things that might actually make a boy popular with girls his age, and lead to an active dating life. I find it fascinating that there is now an entire multi-billion dollar culture in modern America where geekishness is a virtue. Those of us who once kept our love for warp speed and mutant powers safely out of view are seeing a culture now where Disney pays four billion dollars for the rights to continue the Star Wars story (essentially, to produce high-quality fan fiction) and surprisingly the first film they create with that license nets almost two billion dollars in under a year. A young geek can walk into a bar and find super attractive and popular people with fashion that celebrates video games or cartoons or comics. Beautiful young people are sporting tattoos of their favorite geek properties and rather than fearing reprisal from society, they're meeting one another and building romantic relationships founded on a mutual love for art and fiction. In fact, in the news this week the so called "Chewbacca mom," (who posted a video of herself on Facebook wearing a Chewbacca mask and laughing uncontrollably) found the viral popularity of her geek joy was enough to earn her invitations to talk shows, and gifts from the store where she bought the mask.
Given how quickly things seem to have changed, this shift in our cultural values begs the question, "When did being a geek become a virtue?"
- The birth of the internet/the first tech bubble- During the mid 1990's a young company called AOL began to flood our mailboxes with hundreds of disks that would allow us the ability to sit in chat rooms with thousands of other people who, like us, had been hiding our love for geeky things for many years. The conversations being had over the internet about japanese animation and esoteric Star Trek languages and X-Files erotica created a safe environment for many geeks that had never existed before. For the first time, attending a convention dressed as one's favorite character seemed less like giving up and more like an attempt to find other folks in similar costumes. Likewise, the news was full of stories about new companies dipping their toes into the technological arms race, and reaping incredible financial rewards. Not only was being a geek less scary than ever, but the rockstar-like promise of wealth suddenly made being a geek almost sexy.
- Famous geeks- The new wave of independant cinema that hit in the 1990's included works by directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and dozens of other voices working to make waves in the world of film. One ubiquitous quality of all of these directors that became evident when they were interviewed about hit films like Pulp Fiction or Desperado or Chasing Amy was that these directors were film geeks. Tarantino made no effort to hide his influences from relatively unknown foreign films, blaxploitation cinema, or grindhouse productions. Suddenly, infotainment shows like Entertainment Tonight were broadcasting the knowledge of Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks or spaghetti westerns into suburban American living rooms, and the youth of America were willing to hunt down faded copies of those films in order to get a glimpse at something loved by an edgy film director.
- The birth of the blogosphere- Not only were geeks chatting with their peers for the first time in the 1990's, but suddenly a chorus of voices arose that began to authoratatively comment on culture and art. Websites that could open the door for the discovery of other worthy books, games, and movies became incredibly popular not just because of the content they offered, but because of the quirky voices of their writers. Big digital personalities, like Harry Knowles from Ain't it Cool News began to gather a following of fellow geeks who celebrated their geek status. These writers not only celebrated but shaped geek culture, encouraging mass support for "risky" films like the gamble New Line took in creating a nearly three hour epic centered around J. R. R. Tolkein's The Fellowship of the Ring. Geeks bought tickets to see those films 5 or 6 times, and helped turn them into incredible financial success stories that led to other film studios looking to gamble on things like the X-Men films and The Matrix. When the Star Wars prequels dissappointed, geeks still put massive quantities of money behind the property, making a non-George Lucas Star Wars film in 2016 possible.
- Wearable technology- When the first iPod ads hit television in the early 2000s, no one really knew anything about the specs or capabilities of the device. All they knew was that it was "cool," a status symbol and a form of social proofing tied to the ownership of a new piece of technology. Without a doubt, the modern technological ecology of smartphones and apps would not exist if it hadn't been for the mass adoption of the iPod and its emphasis of wearing technology as a statement of "cool." Now, the drive to have phones powerful enough to allow us to chat, post pictures, and find potential dates drives a signifigant part of the global economy and employs millions of technical and non-technical workers throughout the world. While the global economy bets on which technology will be the new "must own" to integrate into our social and professional lives, geeks are working hard behind the scenes to conceive and produce a device as groundbreaking for the next decade as the iPod was in 2004.
There may be dozens of other social and historical events that occurred in the past two decades to cause society to change from scorning geekish behavior and begin to embrace geeks. I've recounted a few that I felt were obvious, and in doing so I believe I have found a common thread woven through them. The moment something became not just positive, but "sexy" it became widely embraced. The idea that loving esoteric films could translate to having sex with beautiful women hit home when people saw Quentin Tarantino on the "red carpet" for Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown surroundeded by beautiful Hollywood royalty. When we saw the palatial homes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who could afford them because of popular digital products, being able to write computer code suddenly became as sexy as being able to play electric guitar or hit a home run. The moment something increased our collective ability to start families and earn solid wages, it became socially valued.
Looking back on history one might wonder if other social change like the Civil Rights movement or the abolition of slavery or the right of women to vote were tied to a similar change in perception. At some point, attending KKK meetings to network for one's career became more of a liability than a boon. Self interest and self preservation made certain social behaviors distasteful, and other behaviors became very valuable.
And what of the big issues facing us in the next few decades like climate change, dwindling fossil fuels, overpopulation, and so on? Will humanity as a whole find a way to make caring for the environment sexy and appealing? Will finding or using alternative energy sources become the "rockstar" thing to do? Perhaps never, or perhaps society is merely waiting for the next Harry Knowles or Quentin Tarantino or Steve Jobs to lead the way.