On the Genealogy of Geeks


I consider myself something of a geek (well, a lot of a geek) and as a result I'm interested in the classification geeks and the history of geekdom. Where did we come from? Where are we going? These are the questions that pound through my brain when I ought to be studying. Like now!

Let's start by defining terms. I think of a geek as somebody who has at least one hobby with which they have become unreasonably obsessed. This hobby should either be 1. well outside the mainstream, or 2. an unusual variant on a mainstream activity. The hallmarks of a geekly activity are that it should be introverted and easily susceptible to obsessive-compulsive behavior. You might discuss your hobby with fellow geeks, but the majority of the effort you put into the hobby is done by yourself. The obsessive-compulsive aspect can be satisfied in a number of ways, but generally through either an emphasis on collection and preservation or on the keeping of arcane statistics.

It's often tempting, when looking at a social phenomenon, to assume that it is some sort of novelty. Every generation thinks that they invented sex, and every generation thinks that they were the first geeks, which is why it's always surprising to read about people engaging in what can only be called geeky behavior fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago. What did geeks do before mass-market geek culture, before computers, video games, comic books, and action figures? Lots of things, just things you might not have made the geek connection to.

I think the best example of a pre-computer geek hobby is stamp collecting. It involves sitting quietly away from anyone else, it emphasizes maintaining a complete and ever-expanding collection, and it encourages meticulous preservation. I always had a tough time figuring out what could possibly interest anyone in stamp collecting. It's so boring and there's no apparent reward. But then I realized that the appeal is the same as that of Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic cards, the obsessive need to collect something, regardless of what it is. This is what people collected before there were comic books or action figures. When you read about some historical figure who enjoyed collecting stamps, you can say to yourself "Ah-ha! One of history's many geeks!" (Side note: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a stamp collector; Teddy Roosevelt wasn't. This fits pretty well into our images of the two; TR the extroverted, outdoorsy hunter, going on safaris on the savanah. He had a life! He had the great outdoors! While FDR, stricken with polio and confined to a wheel-chair, cultivated an interest in boring things like stamp collecting and statistics.) It's hard to understand the existence of the National Postal Museum until you see it as a memorial to geekdom past.

Another interesting geekly activity: Baseball statistics. One day in middle school my gym teacher took the class out to the field and taught us how to mark down a baseball game. If you've never done this, you get a sheet that you fill out with the batting roster for the two teams. Next to the roster are a series of boxes. Each time a player comes up to bat, you fill out the box next to his name to indicated what happened, for instance a k denotes a strike out. At the time I had no idea why we were learning this. None of our other sports involved any record-keeping component beyond scoring, but here we were detailing every aspect of the game without doing it in an interesting narrative way.

The answer is that a culture built up around baseball stats in a bygone era, leading to a well-developed system of tracking baseball stats. You use those sheets to record field data, then add it to your collection to crunch out statistics for players like batting average and runs batted in. The coach taught us this because he was, himself, an old geek, but one who's geeky hobby was perhaps no longer recognized as such. With professional league statisticians tracking all the games and computers to crunch the numbers, there's just no need for amateur record-keeping anymore. That doesn't mean he or the other old baseball statistics geeks are going to stop, it just means that the whole hobby has acquired an air of "what's the point, exactly?" which makes it hard to pass on to another generation.

And I have to say, baseball statistics is a classic geek hobby. It takes an activity that is outdoorsy, social, and fun, going to a baseball game, then impedes the social aspect (it's harder to chat when you have to make sure you catch all the plays to record them) moves the majority of the fun indoors (when you compile your numbers later) and transforms the fun from the visceral thrill of watching a sport being played to the subdued, abstract thrill of translating human actions into numbers and playing around with them, perhaps making a graph if you're so inclined. And baseball statistics lends itself to the primary extroverted aspect of geekdom: Arguing with other geeks about the minutiae of the hobby. Is RBI a valuable statistic, or is it really just a reflection of management decisions? How good a measure of batting ability is the batting average? Is a player with a better On Base Percentage a better batter than one with a higher batting average? Mantle vs. DiMaggio was an earlier generation's Kirk vs. Picard.

So, any other candidates for geekdoms past? Other activities that make no sense today but suddenly do when obsessive collecting/compilation is seen as an end in and of itself? I'm interested to hear your thoughts.


You'll be happy to know that Grandpa Sharpe was a geek. Everytime we went to Pittsburgh Pirate games, we'd get a program, and we'd keep score together. It wasn't to the detail that you could go into, but he usually had us mark down who batted, and the result of his at bat (strikeout, single, fly out, etc...) but not the detail as in a 4-6-3 double play. That fell by the wayside as we got older and talked more strategy of the game, especially High School ball, but it was a good time.

I'm going to separate my responses to this into two parts. Part One, on definitions of geekery, is attached hereto. Part Two, answering your actual question, will follow.

I think I have a very different definition of geekdom than you do. Mine doesn't require either collection or the hobby nature of the activity, but classifies a person's interests as more or less geeky based on how technical the subject is and how much the person is specifically into those technical details. Jacob's interest in protein crystallography, which is his work not only in grad school but for the foreseeable future of his career? GEEKY. I get these periodic lessons on primases, diffraction patterns, biological motors, and reciprocal space that are so involved that they generally fly utterly over my head on the first run-through. It's much like your (occasionally very useful) lectures on the most detailed workings of the library, which, though they're not really a hobby, I must emphatically classify as geeky.

I tend to classify myself as a geek as well even though I rarely obsess over any given hobby for more than a couple of months. My hobbies are crushes rather than lifelong loves, but my geekiness, I argue, remains. For instance, I recently bored my sister to tears on the phone by explaining to her how pollen samples can be used to infer the presence of dense chestnut forests which, being insect-dispersed rather than wind-dispersed, can make up a significant portion of the pollen record only if present in tremendous numbers, and how if one combines that with microscopic analysis of charcoal remains from a site in the area posited to have been chestnut forest one can conclude that the inhabitants were or were not engaging in large-scale use of chestnut wood and, accordingly, observed decreases in chestnut forest habitat can or cannot be attributed in part to anthropogenesis, that is, lasting human impact on the natural environment. Paleoethnobotany is neither a lifelong interest nor a hobby; it's something I'm getting a big dose of in my hunter-gatherer archaeology class right now. But there is a common thread in my enthusiasm for Sanskrit, building codes, secondary burials in Mesopotamia, desire lines, and every other fucking thing I've gone through, and that common thread is an interest which is too intense and technical to appeal to society in general.

Part Two, on geeky pursuits according to your definition:

How about essentially pragmatic things pursued in non-pragmatic ways by scholarly shut-ins? Like cartography! Sure, people doing very ungeeky things need to know how to get from point A to point B. But making minutely detailed maps of the world in the 15th century was probably not a practical pursuit; it was the collection and curation of arcane geographical knowledge for the sake of collecting and curating it. Geeky.

Ted: That sounds fun. I'm actually not that surprised that Pop was into baseball statistics. I remember he spoke approvingly of coin collecting to me once, as a worthwhile hobby to get into. I also remember that he was very encouraging about my Magic: The Gathering habit. He seemed to feel that collecting things in general was a good hobby for a kid to have.

Of course, that leads me to baseball cards, sort of the Magic before there was Magic. And more obscure, and yet more fascinating: Strat-O-Matic. Strat-O-Matic was first released in 1962. It was a pen-and-paper baseball game simulator that used dice to determine random outcomes. It came with sheets of statistics for all the players and it had an elaborate system for comparing pitchers to batters and fielders to determine the result of each at-bat. You could draft players from the stats they gave you, create a team, and play a whole season with your friends. It's like fantasy baseball and video game baseball combined.

More to the point, Strat-O-Matic, and others of its ilk (there were a bunch of different pen-and-paper baseball games, each of which determined outcomes and crunched numbers in a different way), were essentially the pre-cursor to Dungeons and Dragons. Only the high concept changed; Are you rolling the die to determine whether your bat hits the ball, and if you do hit how many bases you take and whether it's a home run, or are you rolling the die to determine whether your broadsword hits the kobold, and if you do hit how much damage you deal and whether it's a critical hit or not?

It's interesting; it seems like Baseball is the Rosetta Stone of geekdom. You want obsession with minutiae? Look at the baseball statistics. You want collection? Baseball cards. Highly abstract simulations of physical activity? Strat-O-Matic. If you're being coy, you can even call The Natural/Field of Dreams/Pride of the Yankees/Whatever a species of elaborate fan fiction. The one constant, if you'll excuse the choice of phrase, is baseball. Over time the subject matter has changed, but the essential forms of geekitude have remained the same.

Dianna: Hum. I don't want to create the impression that I'm laying down a canonical "All who are A are Geeks, all who are Not A are Not Geeks" type definition. Looking back, you're right about the hobbyist/non-hobbyist distinction being silly and useless. I should have gone with a different word there. Pursuit? Avocation? By saying Hobby I implied "Thing you do in your free time for fun," when what I more nearly meant to say was "Thing with which you are unreasonably obsessed." But I already used the word "obsessed" too many times in that post, so I ended up with a less-than-accurate word. Using Hobby implied that you can't be a geek in whatever your job is, and of course some of the biggest geeks in the world are professionals and specialists in various fields.

Having said that, I don't think the field itself needs to lend itself to geekery. That is, I agree that obsession with fiddling technical details is a major aspect of geekdom, but I'm not sure the level of technicality of a given obsession bears on the essential geekiness of those who are obsessed with it. God is in the details, and if God did not exist, humans would have to invent Him, therefore if details do not exist, Geeks have to invent them. You can find geeks who geek out over just about any subject on earth, no matter how seemingly simplistic, and you will be astounded at the level of detail and nuance they can find in their chosen pursuit.

Nonetheless, I agree with you that obsession with technical details lies at the core of geekdom. I would also argue, though, that collecting is another major aspect, as well as a proclivity for abstracting physical activities into the mental realm (turning a landscape into a map, turning a television show into a comprehensive FAQ listing every time the turbolift doors failed to close properly on the Enterprise, etc.).

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on April 2, 2006 12:59 PM.

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