Here’s what the Daily Fail have as their headline story, at time of going to press:
The full article, if you really want to read it, is here.
Let’s leave aside the sneering undertones of the article and the hypocrites who choose to comment (Mail commenters, by and large, really are the scum of the earth, even worse than the idiots who post on YouTube videos). Let’s ignore all the morons who tell the iPhone addicts to “get out into the real world” within the confines of an online newspaper’s comment box. You can’t stop these people: they simply don’t listen. Besides, it’s only a matter of time before they run the next Facebook article and that’ll give the whingers something else to complain about.
Let’s instead look at that headline. As someone points out, “real nerds wouldn’t choose Apple products anyway”. But that’s not the thing here – instead it’s that ‘nerd’. I take issue with ‘nerd’. I always have. It’s Douglas Coupland’s fault; back in the mid-1990s he chose to differentiate between ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ and the difference between the two. It may be a small point, but it’s an important one, and everyone ought to know how you tell the two apart. And ever since Microserfs, I’ve made it my duty to see that this happens.
I’m a remorseless pedant – I always have been – and this is the second time this week I’ve taken umbrage at the Mail’s use of what might be deemed inappropriate language, if you like. But people in positions of journalistic responsibility (i.e. a highly influential newspaper that’s read by millions, as opposed to a humble blog that hardly anyone reads at all) really ought to get their facts straight, as the Mail should have done a few weeks ago when they said that the bad weather threatened racing at Cheltenham the weekend the racecourse was due to hold a festival. To expand on the geek / nerd thing, I am copy-and-pasting an old blog entry from several years ago, and it goes like this. Cue swirly flashback effects…
Picture the scene. It’s about nine thirty on a warm, early summer’s morning, and I’m in a Mercedes bound for Heathrow. Jenny and Glyn are my travelling companions, which is nice, although I have to keep twisting around in my seat to talk to them, and the belt is cutting into my ribcage.
I can’t remember how we got onto the subject, but in the absence of any plausible explanation let’s come up with something. Let’s say, in fact, that I’ve given the two of them some sort of obscure fact about nothing that’s particularly relevant, as I am wont to do in production meetings, manager’s meetings, lunches out and the little impromptu gatherings we sometimes have in Matt’s office. The two of them nod and smile, apparently impressed, but I can tell what’s going on under the surface, so I get it out in the open by voicing it aloud.
“I know,” I say. “I’m such a geek. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“No?” says Jenny.
“No! I’m proud of my geekdom. At least I’m not a nerd.”
“Is there a difference, then?” asks Glyn, and that’s how it starts.
I’m making this up, but it’s quite feasible that the conversation could have gone that way, because The Difference Between Geeks And Nerds is something that I like talking about. Working in publishing – particularly in an area like ours that involves copious proofreading – makes you awfully pedantic about things. I have taken to carrying around a red pen, for example, so that I can make corrections to spelling errors and misplaced apostrophes on posters and signs and restaurant menus. (This works fine unless they’re laminated, in which case you tend to wind up with a big smeary mess that looks like you had a nosebleed while you were sitting at your table.)
I don’t know about you, but I’m proud of being a pedant. Terminology is one area in particular in which I’m notoriously fussy, and if there’s one thing that I won’t abide it’s having the word ‘geek’ used in a derogatory manner. The fact that it’s now an acceptable way in which to describe a person first came to my attention a little over ten years ago, when I was reading Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, which remains one of my favourite books and which is well worth a look if you ever feel your life is lacking direction. There’s a scene in which the narrator – a former programmer for Microsoft – is describing his team leader as a ‘true techie geek’, before countering his mother’s disapproving look with “You can say geeks now, Mom.”
Let’s back up a little, and define our terms. A geek is defined in Merriam-Webster as “a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, gaming etc.” That’s the contemporary translation: it may surprise you to learn that it formerly referred to “a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken, bat, snake or bugs”. I know of no freak-shows round here (unless you go to Newbury) so we will stick, for the sake of the argument, with the modern definition.
So what (or rather, who) is a geek? Broadly speaking, it’s someone who has an enormous love for one thing or another, to the point where they obsess over it. A geek will spend a disproportionate amount of their lives working on / enjoying said thing. However, being a geek is not the same as being a fanatic. Look for the details – because the geek will know stuff. You can be football-obsessed, for example, and follow the teams and have the posters and screensavers go to the matches and presumably beat up the opposition’s fans on your way home from the local derby. You can live, breathe and sleep football, but that doesn’t make you a geek. However, if you know that one of West Ham’s highest away Premiership defeats was their six-nil thrashing at Reading in January 2007, then that makes you a geek. This is stuff that you’re not expected to know, but you know it anyway, simply because you want to.
Everybody following me? Liking Bill Murray doesn’t make you a film geek, even if you’ve seen Groundhog Day twenty-seven times (on the same day, endlessly repeated…). Knowing that his part in Ghostbusters was originally written for John Belushi (and that Eddie Murphy was originally slated to get the Ernie Hudson role) probably does. Liking ‘Hey Jude’ doesn’t make you a music geek, but knowing that McCartney hired a 36-piece orchestra and then asked them to sing along and clap their hands in the final coda – only to have one of the players decline on principle – probably does. The devil’s in the details.
Geekdom shares a delicate, occasionally strained courtship with science fiction. Don’t ask me why, but a lot of people who follow Star Wars, Star Trek and other such space sagas won’t stop with collecting the box sets and listening to the occasional commentary. It’s got to be all or nothing, and so out come the comic books, the role playing games, the radio dramas – and, of course, the die cast John-Pertwee’s-Doctor-and-Bessie set. The conventions are fantastic, but never, ever go to an advance Star Wars screening, because the people who camp out there are just plain weird. This was referenced in a wonderful Conan O’Brien clip where Triumph the Insult Dog attended one such screening for Attack of the Clones, and proceeded to harass the costumed audience (”So this button controls your breathing….and which one is to call your mother to come pick you up?”).
The terminology has shifted somewhat over the last couple of decades, because as recent as twenty years ago the word meant something quite different. I remember spending an evening watching Flight of the Navigator with my other half (a film that is actually very, very funny after half a bottle of gin) and as the purple-haired 1980s punks roar away in their convertible, understandably freaked out by the sight of a huge silver alien spacecraft which had stopped to ask for directions, the animatronic head turns to Joey Cramer and says “Were those geeks, David?” – to which David nods and replies “Yes, Max. Those were geeks.” I’ll concede that this may have been true at the time, but not anymore.
Let’s leave the geek in their parents’ basement for a moment so that we can concentrate momentarily on the nerd. At first glance, the nerd is similar to the geek in that both of them hold a similar obsession with the details. However – and here’s the crunch point, folks – the geek is able to hold a normal conversation with people who are not geeks. The nerd finds it singularly difficult, if not impossible, to do this. Both geeks and nerds are able to relate particularly well with people who hold similar interests to their own, and share and swap information. However, the geek could also put the obsessive parts of their personality on the back burner long enough to have conversations and even relationships with people who don’t share their interests, and to chat to them about the weather, instead of the socio-political implications of the seating arrangements on Friends.
By this rationale, the two are theoretically interchangeable. A nerd who suddenly finds himself in a situation where he is forced to regularly hang out with and communicate with non-geeky people could possibly learn to function normally and thus become a geek. Conversely, a geek who suddenly finds himself bereft of non-geeky people may lose some of his social skills and become more nerd-like. That said, while this may be true on paper I’ve seldom seen it in practice, because the differences between geeks and nerds are generally rooted deep within their personality, rather than a result of any sociological conditioning. Old habits die hard – if you’re a natural-born nerd, you’re probably always going to find it difficult to relate to people.
Most of my friends are geeks. It goes with the territory: when you meet your other half on a bulletin board you find out that the friends you inherit from each other have suitably techy interests. However, most of them can hold sensible conversations with my parents, who are about as far away from being geeks as New Labour was from being socialism. If I’d chosen to hang out with nerds instead then my mother and father would stay away from our parties, because they wouldn’t be able to cope. It would be wall to wall prime numbers and Doctor Who. But with geeks it’s different, because when there’s a gathering of geeks (as opposed to a gethering of nerds) the dynamic is different. They still talk about whether Kirk was a better captain than Picard, but there’s a greater sense of inclusivity, and a non-geek could feasibly walk in without necessarily finding themselves out of their depth. Later in Microserfs, one of Coupland’s other characters goes on to say “People who don’t have lives hang out with other people who don’t have lives. Thus, they form lives.” There’s a common bond, but if you want to come and play there’s plenty of room in the sandpit.
So you see, I’m proud of being a geek, because with that label comes the unspoken addendum that I do, at least, possess some social skills. And I refuse to accept that the useless bank of trivia that I’ve accumulated over the years (often at the expense of stuff that I really ought to be able to remember, which gets pushed out of my brain, Homer Simpson style) is always going to be fundamentally useless. It’s great at parties when you can make an obscure reference to 24 that makes everyone laugh, because while they’ve all seen the show, only you can remember that particular line that turns out to be so relevant to the conversation you’re having – but which everyone remembers as soon as it rolls off your tongue. And I’m also convinced that holding onto extraneous information will one day be worth its weight in gold. This is why I love Galaxy Quest (if you’ve not seen it, think The Three Amigos in space), because while Tim Allen does discover his inner hero, it’s ultimately the specialist knowledge of the geeks that saves the day.
I’m also quite pleased, in a way, that my children seem to be following in their father’s footsteps: Joshua (who is not yet three) stared at the skeleton of an elephant boy at a chamber of horrors last week, gazing at the long, trunk-like protrusion that sat where the nose should have been, before declaring in a loud voice “It looks like an Ood!”. A few days later he was examining a Woolworths display of toys from a programme that we don’t let him watch, and then a few seconds later he was tugging at my trouser leg and saying “Look, Daddy! It’s Dalek Sec”. I swear he only saw those fridge magnets for a few seconds, but he seems to have inherited my ability to memorise useless information more or less on sight. And that’s a good thing, because the importance of said information – even if it doesn’t one day save the world – is not to be underestimated. It demonstrates a passion, a desire to better yourself and learn stuff and actually fill up your brain instead of just letting it rot under the cultural cesspit that forms much of the superficial, celebrity-obsessed so-called entertainment we have to put up with in this country. Collecting Battlestar Galactica bubblegum cards isn’t going to stop global warming, but it does mean that you are prepared to invest your time in something rather than just sitting and waiting to be entertained, and at least it shows you care about something besides the saga of Ashley and Cheryl.
Anyway, I must go. I’m working on a new way to catalogue my CD collection: alphabetically, but by cover artist. Stanley Donwood’s Radiohead stuff goes in the ‘D’ section, while Storm Thorgerson’s work for Pink Floyd goes near the back. My wife has barely spoken to me for a week and a half, but it’s going to look sooooo hot when it’s done – particularly when I’ve finished working on the Klingon version.