I started writing this column just short of a year ago, and during this time, I’ve been witness to an amazing transformation: The lowly geekwho has maintained a constant presence in campus computer labs and mainframe rooms over the past 40 yearsis no longer lowly. He has become, in a word, chic.
Geeks have always been a subculture, something most parents have been afraid to discuss. The fact that little Johnny spent more time on his computer than outside his own home was a real frustration for some moms and dadsbut no more. The words “He spent all day on that computer,” once spoken with an indignant air, are now spoken with something approaching pride. And it’s all because of the transformation of the modern geek.
The first level of this transformation went almost unnoticed. Geekspeak became part of ordinary conversation with such speed, few dictionaries could keep current. The birth of the prefix “cyber-” gave rise to such everyday terms as “cyberspace,” “cybercafe” and the plain-vanilla “cyberstuff” (as in “I don’t know what all this cyberstuff does, but at least it works!”). Terms like “virtual reality” now have a high recognition value these days, as do obscure acronyms like “ROM,” “RAM” and “SIMM.”
The common use of such words was only the first step, however. Geek conversation in the office picked up and moved from the computer room to the water cooler. Coworkers now find it easy to discuss the latest online service or the new part they bought to expand their home PC. (Have you ever heard an office conversation between workers regarding what they’ve their computers? I have, and it’s something I expect to hear again soon.) Corporate CEOs even speak geek occasionally, if only when they’re describing their computer problems. But, hey, everyone has to start somewhere.
The geek of today is even poised to be thrust into the limelight. Gone are the days when movies like defined geek culture. Now, according to Hollywood, geek heroes are headstrong, bold and beautiful: Sandra Bullock played one in The Net, and newcomer Jonny Lee Miller brought a cleft chin and a strong jawline to his role in And these movies were released in just the past few months!
Yet the true joining of geekdom and Hollywood magic didn’t take place on a soundstageit took place under a huge blue-and-white-striped tent in Washington state. It was there, in August, that a bespectacled, oxford-shirted geek joined a well-known talking head not as a guest but as a cohost: Working together as straight man and comedian, Bill Gates and Jay Leno debuted the Microsoft corporation’s Windows 95 software. Underneath that tent, the meek geek truly inherited the world.
Since then, geekspeak has literally run rampant. A flip of the television dial on any given night turns up fascinating geek viewing. Tom Snyderwhom many have suspected of being a geek for yearswas seen a few weeks ago discussing his love of computers with such luminaries as Dennis Miller and Helen Hunt. What’s more, these people were expressing love of computers and techie toys as well. At one point, Snyder even revealed Merv Griffin’s computer obsession.
It seemed almost a cleansing step, a time for geeks to say, “Hey, America, we’re out of the closet.” And they wereout of the computer room closet, at least.
So it came as no surprise to me when, during the World Series last week, I spotted not one, not two, not three, but advertisements sporting the familiar colon-slash-slash indicative of a World Wide Web address on the Internet. From car companies to banks, geek chic has suddenly become consumer culture. Geeks have become both fashionable and a key demographic.
Now parents with children who spend long hours in front of the computer don’t have to make up excuses about why little Johnny or Mary doesn’t play sports. There won’t be any embarrassing pauses when the parents of other kids ask about extracurricular activities. Now they can calmly look anyone in the eye and acknowledge, bravely and forthrightly, that their child is a geek.
Hey, we’ve come a long way, baby.
Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.