Our language is desparately lacking an alternative to the term geek. The epithet, in both the archaic and modern sense, simply doesn't account for the droves of people I've met in my life with extreme technical skill that also:

In other words, they completely contravene the geek stereotype, and this contravention continues past the superficial. These people are dedicated professionals who are deeply interested in the societal impact of the outcomes to which they contribute. They spend copious time perfecting their craft for that purpose. A geek, on the other hand, obsesses over some object or other for its own sake.

The geek's quintessential object of obsession is technology. This time around, it's computers. Fifty years ago it was anything with an engine. A century, it would have been electricity or radio. The next target will probably be bio. This should not be a surprise. Technology is nothing but the systematic treatment of method. As it matures, we cease to recognize it as such, even though technological intervention surrounds us completely and even defines our humanity. Technology too mundane for geek worship is called culture. When the geek constituency exhausts a particular technological province, it nonchalantly colonizes the next.

The technology surrounding the computer is peculiar. When compared to other technologies, it is long past due its turn to sink into the substrate of society. This, I believe, is because it is the technology of language and meaning itself. It is a chameleon, able to mimic technologies that came before it. It is the difference between doing work, and doing work that does work. It is thought reified and transmuted into action. This peculiarity has enabled the computer to be suspended, by vested interests, from sliding into a culture that everybody understands. It therefore must be buried, by the conscious actions of conscientious actors.

Geekhood as Priesthood

The historical record demonstrates that when you're too weak to survive as a warrior, you become a priest. Analogously, those who lack the temerity to take risks out in the world retreat into the shelter of familiar circumstances, where they have an easier time claiming power. A priest derives his political and economic power by possessing knowledge valuable to those from whom it is kept secret. But this power comes at the price of being beholden to the layperson who is dependent for all things that knowledge entails, no matter how trivial. For the contemporary geek, this spans creating essential business infrastructure to fixing email and setting up home theatres.

The currency of the geekhood is techne, the formal knowledge of how. The ecclesiastical pecking order is set in terms of what one can do that another can't. The principal strategy of internecine conflict is showing that the knowledge and skill of the other is inferior. The formal nature of the subjects of debate demands such tremendous study that it is far easier to attack a person's character, physical attributes, even gender. Rampant misogyny in the geekhood, thus, while obviously deplorable, is not really all that startling.

Finance, an uncannily similar priesthood to which the geekhood subordinates itself, is the closest to money, and thus shapes their system, largely unconsciously, to capture most of it. Likewise, the geekhood is the closest to meaning and method—the true lifeblood of the computer—and similarly grooms the computational landscape in the interests of its enclave. Pathological thoughts transmute into pathological actions, which the computer dutifully amplifies.


If you can describe a process with enough precision, you can manifest that process as a machine. A computer is a machine which executes descriptions of machines, effectively becoming the machine so described. This cuts the cost of building said machine to zero. In some ways it's astounding that more people don't take an interest in this capability, until we remember that the way into it is an overgrown thicket of obscurantism and dissimulation, untended for decades.

Despite wielding this awesome power, the geek's enthusiasm and often eccentric behaviour prevents him from being taken seriously as an economic actor. And perhaps rightly so, as a true geek wouldn't care if he was working on a missile guidance system or a solitaire game. His motivation is not the value of the outcome, but the intellectual challenge of making it work. This will cause him to seize on any interesting-sounding problem for nothing more in return than the opportunity to solve it.

Of course, the impression this leaves on the outside world is that this person is a patsy, somebody to be taken advantage of. Just keep the fridge stocked with Red Bull and he'll work around the clock. Contrast that with, say, a lawyer, who charges fifty dollars to use the photocopier and three hundred to answer an email. Why? Because the lawyer knows that her clients know that they are getting something of value for her time, enough to pay for it.

Find a New Name

What I am suggesting is that a geek is neither an advantageous, nor especially honourable thing to be. It's still okay to know things and be interested in them, even fastidiously so. That's how you get good at them. Geeks made knowledge cool, but it's important to recognize that having knowledge and skill doesn't necessarily entail that you have to be one.

So if you're somebody who reluctantly took on the title, I recommend politely correcting the people you encounter who ascribe it to you. Tell them a geek is a person who has no compass, and that isn't me. Tell them about the outcomes you create, not the tools you use to create them. And hopefully, in time, a more appropriate designation will emerge.