Thursday, January 06, 2011

Culture Shock 01.06.11: Being a geek isn't just about being obscure

Geeks worldwide hammered away at their keyboards last week. Something terrible had happened, and a response was mandatory. To quote a punch line from the webcomic "xkcd," someone was wrong on the Internet.

That someone was comedian Patton Oswalt, who unleashed a manifesto at entitled, "Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die."

The title is a movie reference. If you don't know the movie, you're not a geek. But if you're not a geek, you're not Oswalt's target.

For nearly 3,000 words, Oswalt complains that geek culture has become diluted. With DVDs and the Internet, it's too easy to become a geek. And that, he says, is bad. It breeds what he calls "weak otakus," using the Japanese term for obsessive fans.

"I'm not a nerd," he begins, using the terms nerd and geek interchangeably, which alone is enough to drive some geeks crazy. "I used to be one, back 30 years ago when nerd meant something."

Now, he says, it doesn't, because anyone can become a geek with little effort. It used to take long, hard work, back when you couldn't just look something up on Wikipedia or rent geek-favorite movies from Netflix.

"Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun," he continues. " ‘The Lord of the Rings' used to be ours and only ours because of the sheer ... thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling."

So, Oswalt calls for a cleansing. Away with the old geek obsessions and on to new ones, more obscure ones, ones most people have never heard of and which can't be digested by going to the movies or using Google.

"Dark Shadows" and "Dungeons & Dragons" are no longer nerdy enough. They, like so much of geek culture since the dawn of the 21st century, got — gasp! — popular.

But since many geeks have invested countless hours and spent the equivalent of a small country's Gross Domestic Product on favorites like "Star Trek" and the works of H.P. Lovecraft, not everyone took Oswalt's declaration well.

To me his essay seems all too familiar. It's like what I hear from hipsters who get upset when their favorite musicians become too popular. And Oswalt's call for geeks to delve into ever more inaccessible realms of pop culture reminds me of a hipster joke: "I don't listen to albums, only demo tapes." It's obscurity for the sake of being obscure.

Maybe Oswalt never was a geek — or nerd or otaku. He misses the real point of geekdom, which isn't about being obscure. That many geek obsessions were once obscure but are now popular is an accident of history. Being a geek is nothing more than not being ashamed of the things you love.

In the past, that meant defending yourself from jocks, who, paradoxically, never have had to justify their obsessive love of sports. Now it means defending yourself against Patton Oswalt, a comedian who probably benefits from the mainstreaming of geek culture. His routine includes lots of geek humor, and I'm sure he appreciates an audience getting his jokes.

Ray Bradbury, the science fiction and fantasy author and a godfather to all geeks, spoke at the University of North Alabama in 2000. His advice to us in the audience was to never give up the things we love.

That sounds a lot better than Oswalt's broadside.

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