Revenge of the nerds

    Once upon a time, "geek" was the ultimate insult. No one wanted to be called one. To be a geek was to be branded an outcast, a social pariah who sat with the other rejects and losers at that table in the high school cafeteria. A geek was a person who wore glasses that were taped together and had lenses as thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, had too many freckles, and would die without ever dating a member of the opposite sex. Geeks were the butt of the cruelest jokes, weaklings who weren’t made for the harsh realities of the world, and who, in the animal world to which we humans are so fond of drawing comparisons, would most likely be consigned to evolutionary euthanasia. They spent their days in little rooms with black curtains over the windows, huddled over a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Manual with a bevy of their milquetoast buddies, eschewing sunlight and society in favor of dragons and daydreams. Basically, "geeky" was the antonym of "cool." Who, before the early ’90s, could have imagined the Geek Revolution that was just around the corner?

    With the dawn of the internet age, and the resulting elevation of the computer geek to the level of cultural (anti)hero, that’s all changed. It’s a lot harder to laugh at someone when they make more in a year than you’ll make during the course of your entire adult life. Two words: Bill Gates. In terms of cultural impact, Gates was far more of a revolutionary in the ’90s than that guy who wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit." (Gates’ estimated net worth as of this year, according to Forbes magazine: $50 billion.) But just as Nirvana’s success had its antecedents in ’80s bands like the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and The Jesus and Mary Chain, the Geek Revolution of the ’90s had precursors, like the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds. One year before that, here in Portland, Katherine Dunne published her novel Geek Love which made waves across the nation, although Dunne’s usage of "geek" harks back to its original valence as a synonym of "circus freak" rather than to its most common modern definition of "a person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept."

    The increasing association of "geek" with computers that has taken place over the last couple decades is only the latest mutation of a highly mutable word, however. Wikipedia states "the definition of geek has changed considerably over time, and there is no definite meaning." Today there are more types of geeks than there are colors in the rainbow, and the extent to which they’ve permeated popular culture represents the gradual stripping away of the derogatory connotation of the word.

    Here in Portland in 2006, geek is more a badge of pride than a pejorative. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) now has an entry for geek chic: "a glamorization of the culture and appearance of geeks." The idea of a glamorous geek is as far removed as possible from the socially inept dork the word once conjured. To the extent that people in general in today’s world, and college students in particular, can embrace their geekiness with pride, a cultural revolution has occurred. Here in Portland, a geek haven if ever there was one, many different species of the geek genus flourish besides the already-identified computer geek.

    The self-publishing geek: Just last month the sixth annual Portland Zine Symposium convened in the Smith Memorial Ballroom right here on campus, drawing zinesters and DIY-culture enthusiasts not just from all corners of Portland, but from all over the United States and beyond. Powell’s has a large section devoted to "small press publications," while stores like Reading Frenzy and organizations like the Independent Publishing Resource Center specialize in them. A cavernous ballroom swarming with kids who make, trade and sell their own little books and magazines may or may not be your cup of tea, but the fact remains that there is a thriving subculture based around them, and Portland is one of its focal points. There is a zine symposium student group here on campus, which is in the process of becoming more active. (Check for info.)

    The politics geek: In Portland, politics are hip! Even that noxiously self-conscious hipster rag, the Mercury, covers them in their so-called news section. People here dissect the interactions of our City Council members with the same obsessive detail that sports commentators use to help an audience visualize the play-by-play of a baseball or football game.

    The music geek: You saw this one coming. This is the type of guy immortalized on celluloid by John Cusack in High Fidelity, or more pathetically, Steve Buscemi in Ghost World. The record geek is the geekiest of all music geeks, since as we all know, records would have gone the way of 8-track tapes long ago if not for the record geeks who continue to cherish them and keep them in style. Incidentally, isn’t it interesting that music geeks, like D&D gamers and readers of fantasy literature, are overwhelmingly male? Is geekiness genetic?

The sports geek: This may be a bit unexpected. After all, jocks are generally considered the natural enemy of the geek, in high school and beyond. But think about it: sports fans cluster around their television sets and obsess over the scores and plays of their games with the same intensity as any role-playing gamer, and speak and write a jargon which no one else understands. Sounds kinda geeky, doesn’t it?

    The list could be extended, but before I run out of room, I wanted to touch on the real question on everyone’s minds: What, if any, is the difference between a geek and a nerd? Here again, the experts are split. According to Wikipedia, "pundits and observers dispute the relationship of the terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ to one another." It goes on to suggest that nerds like books while geeks are more into computers and videogames; that nerds are more likely to study mathematics or science, while geeks gravitate to art, film and music; that geeks in general are more drawn to the counterculture, and may have more social success than nerds. Basically, a geek is a cool nerd.

    So being a geek is no longer a life sentence as a reject. We may laugh at Napoleon Dynamite, but it isn’t the mean-spirited laughter it may once have been. Underneath the laughter, we’re pulling for him. Napoleon Dynamite is the incarnation of the modern-day geek: awkward, dorky, yet oddly likable and populist. To paraphrase an old saying, all that was uncool is cool again.