In Neal Stephenson’s rightly-beloved masterpiece Snow Crash, there are a few memorable moments of scorn in the story—which I’ve always thought, sidebar, to be slyly narrated by one of the characters, in an unbreaking deadpan manipulation of the fourth wall—for what their near-future society terms “gargoyles.”
These are people who, unsatisfied with the seamlessness of human-use technology, strap video cameras and tape recorders to their bodies, in order to more fully embody surveillance culture (couture, if you like). Of all the mystifyingly accurate parts of the satire/prophecy the book contains, that one always stuck with me. I liked to imagine them, steampunky almost, uploading their experiences at baud rates, one photo and soundbite at a time.
Of course the real future—us—is a much different situation, and we’re engaged right now in a cluster storm of debates about privacy, technology, even the very basics of how to accomplish capitalism in a world where information is literally free, because the real future takes its form from continuity. It’s a rare technology that survives without fitting seamlessly into daily life, which is why the few evolutionary jumps that actually change the way we operate ourselves—the PC, the Smartphone—do such big things to our economy.
Generally, when we say “early adopter” we mean physical technology, hardware. But there’s a rumbling undercurrent over the past few years that I think applies a new meaning to the word, and it has to do with the acquisition of IP. And it has to do also with being a dick.
Used to be, you’d save your money and walk down to the comic book store and load up on Sandman, or New Mutants—dating myself there!—and then you’d have those objects. And you’d know when you met someone else in a Sandman t-shirt, or carrying a trade paperback, that you had at least a few things in common. They were intellectual, but too—what’s the word?—they had to do with a kind of reaching out, a science-fiction fan’s sense of wonder and imagination. You had more than just an interest in common, you had a worldview.
But you had something else, too, which we don’t ever talk about: You had the money to acquire these objects. Geek interests, like any other interest, are also secretly an indication of socioeconomic level. Outliers—I myself would forego lunch sometimes—might make sacrifices to acquire those resources, sure. But they’re still an indication of class, cultural capital.
Add the education necessary to enjoy comics, a household that favored reading, the cash for those t-shirts and comics (and Star Wars toys, or pulp memorabilia), and it represents a cultural gatekeeping, with the result being a fairly standard “geek” demographic that has hardened into stereotype.
Which is where, I think, the trouble starts. Remember that “geek”—in this connotation, specifically; I’m not talking about model-trains or sports facts, just genre-interested geeks—only sprung into existence as a cultural idea somewhere around the late 70s. And since then, even today, we have an image of The Geek that usually includes us. You might not be overweight or have acne, or whatever the going joke is, but you know a geek when you see him: One of us.
Depending on your definition of Us.
So what happens in the delirious future we’ve colonized, whereby the internet and multi-player gaming has brought down those walls? If you’re buying into that part of geek life that says nobody likes you, you’re too special for normal people, girls don’t get it, you’re in the Friend Zone, I’d imagine it feels a lot like being invaded.
Patton Oswalt has of late engaged in some pretty heightened rhetoric about this modern lament: How hard it is, to be a Geek, to be authentic, to be special and above the mainstream, when the mainstream is coming for you. When I asked on Facebook what I should write about today, one sweet guy—a longterm FB buddy—wrote, “...Man, it’s not safe to be a geek anymore. Too many fauxsers. In a world (!) where Thrones and Hobbit are everywhere, where is REAL Geekdom. Geekdom has become like Williamsburg.”
Points for cleverness, but I did have to tell him whatever I ended up writing would be the precise opposite of that. Because I don’t buy it. Yes, there’s a feedback loop in play, and if you’re denied approval in one area of life and consistently rewarded in another, you’re at no fault if you decide to live there permanently.
But wasn’t the endgame supposed to be that the geeks would inherit? Didn’t we want a science-fiction world? Didn’t we want to proudly wear our Superboy Prime red-on-black t-shirts and talk about Sandman at parties? God, didn’t we want to talk to girls about Sandman? Wasn’t that the entire point?
We look at nightmarish representations like Big Bang Theory, see Twilight girls flooding into our Comic-Cons, and we react with the dogged immune response we always have: Not one of us. Young women, having bypassed those old gatekeepers, no longer having to deal with comic bookstore sexual disasters, buying so much manga that it shoves American comics off the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble....
It’s a changing landscape, for sure. And there are downsides to every revolution. But the fact is that you got what you wanted, and any old genie can tell you that you never like the shape your next granted wish will assume.
One of the smartest documents I have ever read is the oft-discussed (and of course -remixed) list of Geek Social Fallacies, which I’ve always found mind-blowing not just in its perspicacity, but the way it’s accepted as the universal fact it is, rather than ticking people off. I admit I needed it explained to me: That ostracizing even the most malicious, depressing, toxic and angry-by-turns geek jerk would be worse, because ostracizing is worse than misbehaving.
Every social group has its rules, but that one was really tough for me: If we can’t kick him out, and we can’t confront him—God forbid—then we just sit here and listen to his creepy misogynist tirades, or socially awkward substitutions of “I like it” for “It is good,” or intense screaming about whether some dumb thing is better than some other dumb thing... Because it is the moral thing to do. We don’t turn that persecution back in among ourselves.
But what if he’s a girl? What if she doesn’t like the things you like, or in the right order? What if she hasn’t bought enough merchandise to qualify? What if she’s just getting interested in, say, the Green Lantern, and doesn’t yet know the difference between Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner? Well, that’s a different story. She’s clearly a fake; she’s infiltrating, she’s making a mockery. She probably watches Big Bang Theory, and thinks wearing glasses makes her something other than a hipster, etc.
I think the reaction to this comes out of the same circle-the-wagons feeling that means you don’t want to exclude a misfit, actually. I think it’s the other side of that coin. It’s weird to say that a policy of inclusion leads to exclusion, but only insofar as you’re forgetting the other half of the geek psychology in play, which is that You know a geek when you see one, and Everybody else is the enemy. How dare anybody waltz so carelessly into something that you’ve spent your life defending and being bullied and embattled about? Really, they’re just bringing the fight to you.
And this is leaving out the sex stuff for now, because that’s a whole other ball of wax, but it’s a big part too. There’s a now-classic joke meme about a guy complaining that you can’t talk to women, because they don’t like the things you like, and the second a “geek girl” brings up the things he likes, he attacks her for being a poseur. It’s a joke, but not a very funny one.
And the reasons for this have to do with sour grapes, they have to do with considering those girls’ opinions irrelevant in the first place: How could any person who didn’t grow up acquiring the same IP you did, defending it—often from imaginary judgments—like you did, possibly like it correctly, which is to say, in the same way?
Any static behavior, from self-harm to sexual manipulation, begins life as a solution to a problem. An injured animal strikes out at you because it doesn’t want to get hurt more. But the thing about solutions is, they don’t always go away once the problem’s solved. Your long-ago persecution means crafting a response that flips the binary: What makes you feel worthless, out there, becomes your value, in here. In the safe nerd space, among your friends.
But how long does that persist? Once we inherit the Earth, what do we do with it? And how long can we go on, as a culture, overlooking the fact that the mountain has come to Mohammad? Is it really an eternal fact that the loneliness of “niche” is better than connecting? Is it even possible to separate overarching misogynist tendencies from geek hierarchy from those burnt fingers and age-old hurt feelings?
The brave new world of the post-geek can look a lot like the same old world, if you hold onto that label for yourself. And because so many of these geek conversations are self-validating, those on the outside learn to mimic this behavior as a way of getting in. But however they do it, the point is to connect. This thing that made you feel worthless in the first place, being handed to you in a way that doesn’t seem legitimate? That’s the best that’s going to happen. And it’s pretty great.
I don’t think it’s a mistake that this latest geek backlash began right around the time Avengers hit it big. What Sandman was twenty years ago, Joss Whedon has become now: A gateway drug for geeks in training, for girls who thought all that stuff was silly, for jocks and jerks and those awful, terrible, normal people. The difference is that twenty years ago, there wasn’t a workable internet for them to crash your geek conversations, ruin everything, start shipping Hawkeye and the Hulk and writing little poems and making little gifs about it. You had somewhere to hide.
But think about it this way: Ask a geek what Snow Crash is about, he’ll tell you it’s about a pizza-delivering samurai. And he’s not wrong—the guy’s named “Hiro Protagonist,” for Pete’s sake—but that’s not the whole story. The secret of Snow Crash is that it’s a first-person narrative told, in a neatly subtle literary trick, from the perspective of one of the secondary characters, a teenage skater chick. It works because she’s invisible: She’s the narrator, but not the protagonist, because you are, in your heart of hearts, a pizza-delivery samurai.
There is a world out there which will always be a hassle, guaranteed. But it’s also one in which all that old identifying dross and semiotics are irrelevant: Not the way you got there, nor the money you used to acquire it, matter anymore. All you’re asked to do, in return for these infinite new possibilities of connection, is to take advantage. Stop being a gargoyle and take a look around.
It’s not about better or worse, bigger fan or wider knowledge base: It’s about the offer being made to you, that we will have something to talk about. This is the beginning of that story, and it’s only the beginning of that shift. Which is always the hardest part. But when they stop being invisible, you have two choices: You can get pissed, or you can make your peace with it and be grateful that you’re less alone.
Because you’re not wrong. The Twilight girls are taking over Comic-Con, and everywhere you look there’s Bronies, and your parents keep trying to connect with you by discussing TBBT, and everything is the worst.
They didn’t just welcome you into their world, they invaded yours, and made it mainstream, and stupid, and dumbed-down, and they watched the wrong TV shows so Firefly got cancelled and now, years later, they’re talking about how it’s their favorite show: Mainstreamers are, make no mistake, out to get you.
We just forgot to mention it’s a rescue mission.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Good Wife, Bates Motel, and Defiance for Television Without Pity.com. Check out jacobclifton.com, Twitter and Facebook.