Culture : Where have all the geekers gone?

peteI’m a geek. There I said it, happy now? I enjoy fiddling with technology and making computers DO things. Chances are, most of you reading this are geeks too, so some of this article may seem like I’m preaching to the choir, but please bear with me as I have a point to make. When I was 10, I started programming in QBASIC. Whilst at college I studied Maths, Higher Maths, Computing, Electronics and Physics. When I reached university I moved into Acoustical Engineering, studying Fluid Dynamics, Vibration, Acoustics, Computing, DSP and much much more. I am a geek. Probably the point that defines this more than anything else is the fact that I loved studying all those things and that today I miss the shear volume of learning that I was doing during my education.

Like most, I faced some stigma for being a “geek”. Friends used to constantly rib me about being clever and it became rather annoying. Whilst at college I was actually in a punk band with the same set of friends, so it wasn’t as if I was just sat in front of a computer, or in front of books studying all the live long day. When exam time beckoned, there would occasionally be an exam that I was rather concerned about. Voicing this concern to my peers was pointless as I would be told to shut up and to stop worrying. Obviously, I’d “be fine”. I was “clever”. So when I got the most terrible mark of 4/150 on one of my papers for further maths, I was actually quite pleased. It was a chance for me to show them that I was really human, that I wasn’t someone who didn’t have feelings or concerns about exams and work. I’ve learnt to have a fairly thick skin, I had very ginger hair and was considered a “boffin”. As you can imagine, the two do not generally go very well together. Or maybe the problem was that they went too well together. It makes no difference now.

“when I got the most terrible mark of 4/150 on one of my papers for further maths, I was actually quite pleased„

Most of you reading this will have probably faced something very similar and I don’t want to dwell on my past experiences too much, as it’s what fueled the stigma that I’m more interested in. There is probably some truth to the fact that jealousy played a part. Anyone who can do something easier than someone else, be it studying, exams or skateboarding is going to be envied by the “weaker” party. However I feel that society in general is leaning further and further towards the notion of being clever as a negative attribute and to be honest it scares me and is the main motivation behind writing this article.

I remember an advert for a cereal a while ago which sported the tag line, “too tasty for geeks.” At the time it didn’t bother me much, but thinking back on it now I realise how much it embodies the current social trend of shunning the “clever ones.” The advert went on to show two brothers, one of whom was listening to a ghetto blaster, the other was, I believe, trying to study or something. The upshot being that the geek was not allowed to eat that particular cereal. What kind of message does that give to young people? I’m not bitter about this personally, far from it, I’ve not really cared much about what people thought about me since leaving school; a product of the light bullying I received. I am concerned however, about it’s effect on the younger generation. Kids are no longer interested in being astronauts or rocket scientists, they’re interested in being football players and pop stars. I’ve nothing wrong with their aspirations, but I think that their root drive is misguided. They want to become famous. Rich and famous. Never mind all the bad press that celebrities often gather, people seem to want nothing more than to be those very people. It seems to be a culture of, “find something you may be good at” and apply it to a celebrity, and off you go.

“Kids are no longer interested in being astronauts or rocket scientists, they’re interested in being football players and pop stars„

The drive for personal excellence and pushing yourself forward seems to have all but dropped off to nothing. I’ve spent some time working in a school, three years in fact, and I can safely say that the “standard of pupil” has decreased significantly. Now on the whole, that seems like a rather harsh statement to make. Am I really saying that I am superior to the younger generation? Not at all, the potential is there inside each and everyone of them. Everyone has the potential to do great things, the problem is most don’t even have the potential to want to. What I’m more saying is that these young people are not being driven and encouraged to think outside the box. If you give someone a goal, a goal that they want to achieve, they will strive to reach it, often overcoming sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Stimulate them too little and you find the complete opposite, people become very de-motivated, introverted and selfish.

This can be borne out in the exams results each year, which always seem to attract much media attention. I’m a firm believer that exams are indeed getting easier. I remember my father describing to me about learning calculus at secondary school, when now it seems most young people struggle to find the area of a circle. “Miss, what’s a Sackumfrance?” “Oh dear, I think you mean circumference” “Well wot eva it is, Jim just said my mum had a huge Sackumfrance……Can I hit ‘im”. I’m far from being able to give a definitive answer as to why we are forced to lower standards year in year out, but as well as distractions, it seems that gaining knowledge is just too cool for society.

Society currently seems only concerned with one thing, themselves. Talking to people these days can be an extremely dull and boring occurrence, unless you hit upon something that means something to them. I know we’re all like it to some degree, but when I meet someone new, I ask them about their hobbies or interests, mainly so that I can gain an insight into a world in which I do not live. I want to further my knowledge. This isn’t the same for most of society these days. “What do you do for a living?” “I am a network administrator for a large ISP” “Sounds boring?” “No it’s actually pretty interesting” “So what do you actually do?” “I work on network switches making sure that traffic for the Internet is running at maximum efficiency” “So you make twitter work?” “Well I guess in some senses….” “Can you get me a job there so I can make loads of money?” Fail!

“Everyone has the potential to do great things, the problem is most don’t even have the potential to want to„

Modern society is far too focused on how things look, how much they cost, and who else has got one, rather than other very important factors. I was in a discussion with Mark the other day, who stated that he’d never buy an iPhone simply because people only want them for their status symbol. As we discussed further I made the remark that I think that, as well as clever advertising, the success of the iPhone/iPod has been largely due to the way society has embraced them. Most people don’t even know, to the fullest extent anyway, what an iPhone actually does, but yet everybody knows about them and everybody wants one. If you put two products side by side, one being an iPhone, and one being another device that outperformed the iPhone in every way, 99% of people would still go for the iPhone. Why? Because it’s not longer a functional piece of machinery, it’s just a fashion accessory.

It’s these views which don’t bode well for the plight of the geek. We enjoy learning about new things, and firing off complex thought patterns. I’m in no way saying that you have to be a genius to be a geek. Being a geek is not about being clever, it’s purely about a certain state of mind. Geeks enjoy the world around them, they enjoy furthering themselves and mostly helping people out whilst they do it. Some receive financial compensation for the work they do, whilst others just give it away, “because we want to”. Which leads me to another question; just where have all the role models gone? I mean the really good ones, not the superheroes of today with their flashing lights and inhuman powers. When I was younger I used to watch MacGyver religiously. Angus MacGyver captured not only my imagination, but also my drive to better myself. That show was one of the main reasons I wanted to do so many subjects at college, so that I could solve real world problems with my brain. To a lesser extent The A-Team also played a role in this. It was the ingenuity, the knowledge in both that I admired and strived towards.

I urge those of you who are involved in education, or are a parent, auntie, uncle etc, spend time with the younger generation, inspire them to want to learn. Take time to answer all of their “Why?” questions. All children begin life with a zest for knowledge, yearning to learn how things work. Take the time to nurture that oh so precious gift. They are the future after all and it’s into their hands that we place this world when we leave. I for one would much rather it move forward than sit stagnant in the mess of today. Children need to understand that everything they do is a contribution to society, even doing nothing. We wouldn’t have the Internet, Mobile Phones or Video Games without the geeks that enjoyed tinkering with electronics, computing and programming. It’s time society remembered that, and unless we act now, we’re going to lose even more of our youth to a society that cares precious little for actually producing something.

    • Roland
    • June 13th, 2009

    I saw an article in the NewYorker magazine about how the problem with healthcare in the US is that too many MDs are businessmen first & physicians second. Investing in shopping malls &etc. And it’s not just MDs–it’s always about the money, for everyone. They don’t seem to realize money is a side-effect of personal effort. It’s become the end goal. I blame the rise of speculation in markets and in startups. Valuing everything on money terms is a dead end. I’s why patenting knowledge is now more important than sharing knowledge.

  1. this article is real man. young generation caught up in shallow things. am trying my best to help. trying to turn on my nephew to opensource and linux. i hope i succeed.

  2. 1. My girlfriend’s not just a “geek,” she’s autistic; and she and I are both of the opinion that there’s very little about modern-day society that’s all that motivating! I think people are starting to suspect it for being fake and irrelevant, especially the “geekier,” more excluded people. Perhaps something more real would motivate them?

    2. There is no phone that’s more powerful than the iPhone. The Palm Pre is the only one that’s even in the same league (or so I’ve heard).

    I also don’t think that preferring a “less powerful” device over a “more powerful” one is a sign that one has been duped by slick marketing. The people who buy Macs don’t go back, because they genuinely like their Macs better. Aesthetic appeal is only one reason, and even then, they buy them because they like them … not because they’re hoping to impress everyone with the shiny computer box on their desks.

    Obviously I can’t speak for everyone >.> but that’s the impression I get. There are a lot of Mac geeks, and they’re not “people who should know better” — it’s more like there are design criteria that are important to them, which are imperceptible to everyone else. They like cohesion and lack of friction more than trying to fuss with “more powerful” things. And lest you think there’s no demand for that sort of thing in the Linux world, the readership numbers on the two articles I’ve written (on how to make Linux more like a Mac) suggest otherwise!

  3. Hi Pete, you might remember me – I used to do some work on Ubuntu Studio (now, thanks to intensive schooling, I’ve little time for anything apart from maintaining the packages I have in Debian, mscore and fluid-soundfont). Anyway, here’s a thumbs-up for this post. I wrote a similar piece on my blog at There, I hypothesised that in the contemporary economy, there is no time to conform to social pressures, make a living, and better oneself. As they say, you have to choose two of work, play and sleep. I choose work and play.

    Interestingly, work as a result of pressure to earn, to be “always on”, has come to have negative connotations. People aren’t supposed to enjoy what they do. That’s weird. Consequently, people don’t talk about what they do (it’s dull, and other people will also find it dull), and it doesn’t boost any sort of morale.

    However, there is some hope. In my privileged circles, geekiness is lauded by general society. It is the greatest honour to get good grades and to have a good time at it, and that is well recognised. It’s clichéed but it’s true; we work hard, and we play hard. I guess that’s what comes from going to a grammar school.

    • It’s great to hear that you’re in a place where intelligence is both encouraged and praised and I totally agree with your statement about enjoying what you do. I’m so pleased I’m in a job where I can go to work and spend the day doing something I enjoy.

    • Toni
    • June 14th, 2009

    thumbs up.
    Almost nodded at every second sentence of this post. Parts of it definitely describe a big part of my life (some of my friends even think I am the most intelligent person they know) as I also have a job in the IT industry I enjoy every day. I also teach math for some of my younger friends or their kids and every year I get the impression that they learn fewer things than I 12-15 years ago.
    I’m impressed. Definitely on of the blog posts I read recently.

  4. Hello,

    I totally agree and I applaud your effort to get the word out and start people thinking again! I am writing on nerds on my blog I am posting a link to your blog. Thank you for speaking out.

  5. Hello Again,

    I forgot to mention. The blog is set to post tomorrow.


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