The geeks will save us all: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the "Big Bang Theory-fication" of everything

Sheldon Cooper has inherited the earth. Now we all want to be him, work with him -- or sleep with him

By Mark Roeder
Published January 1, 2015 8:00PM (EST)
"The Big Bang Theory"     (CBS/Greg Gayne)
"The Big Bang Theory" (CBS/Greg Gayne)

Excerpted from "Unnatural Selection: Why the Geeks Will Inherit the Earth"

During the nineteenth century in America, a “geek” was a carnival performer or wild man who would bite the head off a live chicken or snake—and swallow it. His job was to warm up the audience for the main show that followed. It drew on a similar act performed a century earlier by circuses in Austria-Hungary, where people called gecken—or “freaks”—were used as attention-getters. The word survives today in the Dutch language as gecken meaning “crazy.”

It wasn’t until 1952, with the publication of Robert Heinlein’s short story “The Year of the Jackpot,” that the word “geek” became associated with technology. This curious tale features a middle-aged man named Potiphar Breen, who is a statistician working for insurance companies, and who buries himself in journals about astrophysics during his spare time. At one point during the story, he is concerned about the fate of a Russian cosmologist who has written about the stability of G-type stars, and appears to have been liquidated by the authorities.

“The poor geek,” Breen laments. And in uttering those words he gives birth to a new genre of character—the technocentric being.

Over the years, the term “geek” has evolved considerably, and is now used to describe a person who is very knowledgeable about a particular subject. Such people tend to be intellectual, intense and passionate about their field of interest—so much so that their behavior often verges on the obsessive. They may not be the snake-biting madmen of old—although some may disagree with this—but they do tend to be non-neurotypical in a psychological sense.

Most geeks share a deep connection with the digital-scape of the Anthropocene, and spend much of their time online in pursuit of their interests. Within their virtual cocoon they can become cut off from their physical-world lives, much to the dismay of their family and friends. The novelist Julie Smith once described a geek as:

“[A] bright young man turned inward, poorly socialized, who felt so little kinship with his own planet that he routinely travelled to the ones invented by his favorite authors, who thought of that secret, dreamy place his computer took him to as cyberspace—somewhere exciting, a place more real than his own life, a land he could conquer, not a drab teenager’s room in his parents’ house.”

This is a harsh characterization, but it does highlight an almost universal truth about geeks—they seek a world they can control—even if it is in their own imagination. This is what distinguishes them from their cerebral brethren such as nerds, dorks, dweebs, noobs, gimps, spods and gumps. A geek doesn’t seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake—like a nerd does—he wants to actually apply this knowledge to make changes, to bring forth “a land he can conquer,” as Smith wrote. This bias for action is what makes geeks so powerful in the world. As Richard Clarke once explained during an interview on The Colbert Report, the difference between a nerd and a geek is that “geeks get it done.”

For this reason, geeks are often associated with pragmatic, real-world disciplines, which define their identities. So we have, for example, engineering geeks, mathematics geeks, computer geeks, science geeks, financial geeks, astrophysics geeks, entrepreneurial geeks, technology geeks and so on. They like to apply themselves, not just cogitate. So a mathematics geek, for instance, might use a multivariate calculus to determine how to optimize the dimensions of a pan to bake a loaf of bread. Or an astrophysicist geek may be inclined to ditch the sat-nav and plot her course by the stars—just for the heck of it—and because she can.

The other thing about geeks is that they tend to exhibit an almost childlike curiosity and playfulness, no matter how old they are. Like a bespectacled version of Peter Pan they never lose their sense of wonder. This characteristic of retaining childlike characteristics in a mature member of a species is known as neoteny. Unlike other species, which lose their playfulness on maturity, most humans retain the capacity for childlike behavior as they get older. But geeks seem to have an extra-strength version of neoteny, which endows them with an eternal sense of starry-eyed wonder and playfulness, and helps them to remain more flexible and receptive to new information.

You can often see this trait in middle-aged scientists and technologists who are barely able to contain their enthusiasm for their subject. This behavior was on graphic display during the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in Lucerne, Switzerland, on July 4, 2012, when an entire auditorium of scientific geeks—many of them quite advanced in years—erupted in squeals of childlike delight. You would never see a room full of bankers act this way, no matter how high the interest rates soared. Geeks also have a habit of redefining language on their own terms, particularly in their use of superlatives. One of Steve Jobs’s favorite expressions, for example, was “insanely great.”

The phenomenal success of people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others has enabled geeks everywhere to become more self-confident about their identity and status in society. They no longer hide their geekiness. Indeed, for many of them it is a badge of honor, as is reflected by events like Geek Pride Day, which is held in Spain on May 25 each year, and the numerous geek-related sites that have sprung up on the web, where a Google search of the word “geek” will reveal about 220,000 results. They also appear in their own television shows such as Big Bang Theory, which tracks the chaotically humorous lives of some intellectual twenty-somethings. There are also geek dating sites for people who place a high value on cerebral intercourse. Geekness is no longer a predominantly male domain either, as more females gravitate toward high-tech jobs and adopt geek habits and lifestyles.

The fashion industry, too, has embraced the geek look. When Russell Westbrook, the American basketball superstar, started turning up at press conferences wearing thick spectacles with horn-rimmed frames without lenses, it caused quite a stir in NBA (National Basketball Association) circles. Westbrook had long been known for his wildly colored and patterned shirts, but the geek glasses were a step in a different direction.

The rise of “geek chic”—as exemplified by the glasses—also signals a shift in young people’s attitudes to education and learning. NBA star Dwayne Wade told American Public Media’s Marketplace, “the glasses end up sending the message that ‘it’s cool to be smart, it’s cool to be educated.’” Indeed, in US high schools, the sports “jock” is no longer the top of the pecking order—the geek is. A recent survey conducted by Modis recruitment agency showed that a clear majority of young Americans say they would rather be called a geek than a jock, because they are seen as more intelligent. Amanda David, nineteen, who is studying management and architecture at MIT (a cerebral hot spot), was quoted in USA Today by journalist Haya El Nasser saying students are now much more well-rounded. “Now, at MIT, the captain of the crew team might be the best at programming,” she said, “the stereotype is certainly being challenged . . . Students can make all these things that society values. That, right there, is making the typical geek cool.”

Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, also believes there has been a fundamental change in the way geeks are perceived in recent years. “We’re all techies now. We’re dependent on these people, so there’s a power shift, a new kind of respect,” she told El Nasser. Turkle cited the example of the Genius Bars at the Apple stores, where people come to have their technical problems solved by the geeks who work there. Customers are often desperate to have their email or Facebook working again. “They’re close to hysterical,” she said. “They’re quite dependent on these geniuses to help them, and those geniuses do. Those young men and women [who were once derided as nerds] are not objects of derision.”

Turkle’s view is shared by Jack Cullen, President of Modis, an IT recruitment company, who said, “Being a geek has gone mainstream. It may be because of Americans’ increasing dependence on, and comfort with, technology. Or the prevalent images of former geeks who now successfully lead multi-billion dollar technology companies.”

A telling example of this reputational transformation can be seen in the recent James Bond film, Skyfall, in which the character named “Q”—who provides 007 with his gadgets—is no longer a geek to be ridiculed. He is someone to be reckoned with, and in many ways, is a match for Bond himself. As the Guardian’s James Ball wrote, “For decades, Q represented the most traditional British form of geekdom: the boffin—a middle-aged man obsessed with slightly naff gadgets, working from the hi-tech equivalent of a shed, an exasperated comic foil to our suave protagonist.” But now Q has returned in the latest Bond film as, “the kind of geek Apple design supremo Jonathan Ive would create: a Zen-like twenty-something in an on-trend chunky knit cardigan and fashionable specs. Gone are the naff gadgets, in favour of a couple of immaculately designed tools (and an incidental cyberwar). Most thrillingly for geeks, the modern Q can hold his own when verbally sparring with our action hero—a delightful payoff for millions who dreamed of exactly that during tougher times at school and beyond. Geeks have hit the cultural, technological and economic mainstream. Heck, just take a look at real-life MI6 job adverts (they exist) and you’ll see far more looking for CVs like Q’s than Bond’s—the main challenge is simply whether they can pay enough.”

Ball noted that it is a good time to be a geek, but stressed that we should not confuse the image with the substance. “The real shibboleth of geekdom,” he wrote, “is a deep, unabashed fascination with either one subject area or many: an obsession with detail, with exploration, and (frankly) with learning. This tends to trend in areas where there’s a lot to learn, a lot to discuss, and a lot of ways to show off.”

Being perceived as a geek can also significantly enhance a person’s employment prospects, which is why many people choose to wear glasses for job interviews. A study by the UK College of Optometrists in 2011—perhaps unsurprisingly—found that 40 percent of those with 20–20 vision would consider wearing clear lenses if it would improve their chances of getting a job. Another 6 percent would put on glasses to feel fashionable, and 9 percent think spectacles can make them look more attractive. Psychology professor Cary Cooper, from Lancaster University, said, “It is not surprising that businesses want to employ intelligent staff, but the idea that intelligent people wear glasses is an old stereotype that has not gone away.” The stereotype that has changed, however, is that of intelligent people being boring or less attractive than their more social or sporty peers. They are now seen as cool. They may wear these big dorky glasses and not be good at making eye contact, but as Robert Thompson, Trustee Professor of Popular Culture at Syracuse University, quipped, “If you’re worth $20 million, who needs eye contact?”

Geeks have certainly come a long way since the bad days of the gecken. They are no longer the warm-up act, they are the main act, and increasingly want to run things their way. Balaji Srinivasan, a Stanford University lecturer, told an audience of aspiring tech entrepreneurs in October 2013 that Silicon Valley should secede from the United States, and operate under its own laissez-faire rules. “The best part is this,” he said, “The people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology—they won’t follow you out there.”

The sheer audacity of the techno-elites has encouraged many non-geeks to cling to—and promote—the old geek stereotype of benign quirkiness. It makes them seem less threatening. It’s like calling a pit-bull terrier a poodle, or Mike Tyson, Maryanne. So no matter how rich or influential or powerful a geek becomes, it’s okay, because they are still just a geek at heart. It also helps that many geeks appear to be non-neurotypical, and may, for example, exhibit signs of ADHD or being on the autism spectrum.

“To some degree,” wrote Benjamin Wallace in New York, “the [autism] spectrum is our way of making sense of an upended social topography, a buckled landscape where nerd titans hold the high ground once occupied by square-jawed captains of industry, a befuddling digital world overrun with trolls and avatars and social-media ‘rock stars’ who are nothing like actual rock stars. It is, as the amateur presidential shrinks would have it, a handy phrase for the distant, cerebral men with the ambition and self-possession necessary to mount a serious run for the White House. When quants (financial geeks) and engineers are ascendant, when algorithms trump the liberal arts, when Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber tweet about the death of Steve Jobs, when the hyper-specialist has displaced the generalist and everyone is Matrix-ed into the Internet, it’s an Other-deriding tool to soothe our cultural anxiety about the ongoing power shift from humanists to technologists. As the coders inherit the Earth, saying someone’s on the [autism] spectrum is how English majors make themselves feel better.”

In effect, the term “geek”—and its connotations of nonneurotypical traits such as ADHD and autism—provides linguistic reassurance to non-geeks, who perhaps worry that they don’t have what it takes to compete on their terms.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume all geeks are the same. Although they do have much in common, there are fundamental differences in terms of their motivations, aspirations and how they relate to the Anthropocene. Like the orchids they often appear to emulate, geeks have evolved into a variety of different species—all of them fascinating, most of them brilliant, and some of them just plain scary. We have barely begun to comprehend their impact on society. One thing is certain, though; this innately disruptive force is revolutionizing our world—for better or worse.

Excerpted with permission from "Unnatural Selection: Why the Geeks Will Inherit the Earth" by Mark Roeder. Copyright 2014, Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

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