Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Myth of Geek Culture: Part 1

The internet is convinced.  The geeks have won.  They have won popular approval within the mainstream and the acceptance of their own legitimacy as an influential subculture.  They have won, after decades of nerd caricatures and marginalization, the ability to not just add to mainstream culture, but dictate the direction of its ideas and representations.

Source: Lorimar, Urkel 

In March of 2012, Paul Barter of the Huffington Post quoted his colleague Geoff Flood’s assertion that geeks are those who, “really do believe…that we can change the world."  On IFC.com in November of 2011, Ron Mwangaghuhunga elucidated the new information economy, praising the “new-found respect for people like Steve Jobs, who made it cool to be creative, and Bill Gates, who makes it cool to save the world." 

Michael Poh, of geek and tech blog hongkiat.com, regularly espouses the virtues of geeks’ cultural ascendancy  “Geeks Against the World,” he frames it, praising Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, who “followed their hearts” to success, going “against social norms and establishments to stand up for (their) passion and values.”  In the now defunct blog “geeks will save the world”, multiple examples are given as to how information technology and innovative technology has been and could be applied to toppling problems ranging from Middle Eastern despotism to global warming.

Source: Lionsgate  

Why does this idea of world saving crop up so frequently?  More importantly, what are the inherent value assumptions made by thinking in these terms?  What is “the world” and what does it need to be saved from?

Consensus seems to have been achieved.  Wealthy entrepreneurs as the new paragon of geek success.  Zuckerberg and Gates, once the outcasts, now determine the culture itself.  Their kind has opened the doors so wide that the mainstream that once shunned them is now left with no other option but to accept their influence. 

Source: Reuters 

These praises are not referencing geek culture (which, for lack of a more nuanced definition, we will simply call the culture of the analytic outsider) at all.   They are referencing the cultural values of free market capitalism, in which success is measured through wealth and identity is measured through consumption.  To say that Zuckerberg and Gates “went against social norms” is correct in one sense, as the ability to innovate technologically does require the ability to see beyond what exists and apply new models to societal interaction and communication.  However, for these two men, as well as all of the other members of the new tech-ocracy, the passions being followed were no more personal than that of an eighteenth century railroad tycoon; profit and accumulation.  As recently at the 2012 World Economic Forum, Gates described Capitalism as, "phenomenal system", one that has improved humanity more than any other system."  I don't seek to make a value judgement on capitalism here, only to reinforce how connected these so called "outsiders' are, and have always been, connected to the most systemic aspect of our culture. 

Source: Reuters 

When Albert Sabin developed the polio vaccine, he released it for free with no intent to patent or profit.  This was a response to a tangible world problem that rebuked the temptations of capitalism and chose an open source, free to all mentality that truly did “go against social norms.”  When Mark Zuckerberg chose to take Facebook public, he engineered a nefarious dance of tax avoidance measures to ensure he never paid taxes on his wealth.  To achieve the same ends, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his US citizenship.  This is not saving the world.  The only value being stood up for here is that of undeterred wealth accumulation.

Source: Unknown

The world that so many bloggers are talking about, then, is the popular consciousness of the United States as interpreted through the narrow lens of people writing articles on the internet.  The social change, this new mass acceptance being so celebrated, is a phenomenon I don’t believe is occurring at all.  It is an assertion I will be seeking to prove through a continuing discussion of these values, and how they clash with the true values of outsider culture.   As good as it feels to finally be allowed to sit at the grownup table, one thing stands out as undeniable.  The geeks didn't win.  They just got consumed.

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