because cool kids are boring

A question of definitions

with 3 comments

I’ve been pretty much out of the loop recently. A combination of work and family things has kept me away from the general goings on of the internet over the past couple of weeks. Because of this, it was not until reading a post at Wil Wheaton’s blog that I even became aware of something called, The Society For Geek Advancement and their I Am A Geek video that, I guess, has frazzled some folks. While I haven’t dug to deep into the whole thing (basically, I’ve read Wil’s post and poked around the site a little bit) it does kind of jive with some ideas that have been bubbling in my head for the past six months, and since I’m obviously not writing anything else here right now, I figured I’d just use this as an excuse to dump some of these ideas.

Specifically, I’m wondering if what we’re seeing these days is standard cultural apropriation. This is a pretty common occurrence, with one culture appropriating elements of another culture, mutating them into something that is their own, and then, usually, passing them on to another culture. While at its worst, cultural appropriation can sometimes leave some folks with a bad taste in their mouth (I imagine there are still folks who froth at the mere mention of World Music), it can generally be a fairly healthy and good thing for all involved. As long as those in the group who are being appropriated from don’t get to hung up on how the group that is doing the appropriating mutate the pieces of culture that they grab.

Probably one of the most famous examples of how this can be done well is the early history of rock and roll. Originally involving the “white mainstream” (that isn’t really the term I want, but I can’t think of anything better) appropriating the blues and r&b of black jook joints to create early rock and roll; with folks like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, and a host of others. The Brits then latched onto both those same roots and those early rock and roll groups. They took those sounds and mutated them into something that was uniquely their own; with folks like the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, and others. From that the Americans took the ball back, launching the garage rock rebellion which quickly evolved into the early psych scene. The Brits were feeding off those same sounds as well, and came back with a psych scene all of their own. Leading to the American and Brit pop music scenes just feeding off each other for years and creating some wonderful music. And lest you think those early jook joint players were left completely out of in the cold, the Blues was not only able to use this new feeding frenzy to get some recognition, but also did a little appropriating of their own. And Jazz, of course, walked out of the deal with Fusion, a blatant appropriation of rock and funk.

In the mid 90s, the geek world took possibly its greatest creation, the internet, and injected it into western society. (Obviously, it wasn’t just western society, but that seems to be the scope of this discussion). From there the mainstream, underground, and geek worlds have been constantly mutating and evolving this creation to the point that no one really even knows what the hell it is anymore. One of the most profound effects it has had on all cultures though, is its ability to lower barriers of entry until they are all but nonexistent. Pick the most obscure fringe culture you can think of, and they are now only a (im)properly worded google search away from being found. For many people this is an incredibly intoxicating idea to contemplate. At least until the masses of unwashed show up on your doorstep and start appropriating and mutating things that have genuine meaning for you.

Long seen as social pariahs who were largely ignored by western society. Geeks have little experience in the giving side of cultural appropriation. In the past, if we have been acknowledged by other elements of our society, it has typically been as comedic stereotypes with little depth. Over the past fifteen years those this situation has begun to shift. We are still largely the primary tool builders and early adopters on the internet. Given that the internet is quickly becoming the primary backbone of communication in western society, it seems only natural that we would suddenly find ourselves in a much more integral role in the shaping of that society. In short, long ignored, we have now found ourselves the center of attention, and as such are ripe for cultural appropriation.

Most of us typically view various cultures as discreet entities that evolve internally. In fact this is not how cultures exist at all. Most cultures will have a center, which is the most dense and uniform and around which the rest of the culture revolves. But it also has fringes, and through these fringes new ideas and concepts are introduced to the culture. It is these new ideas which cause the culture to evolve and grow. Out on the far fringe of any culture there is a grey area, where it becomes difficult to separate one culture from another. It is this far fringe where evolution first begins.

Basically, it goes down like this. Someone existing out in this grey area comes across an idea or concept that’s floating around one culture. They take this idea and share it with someone who is a little closer to the center of another culture. This person then shares it with someone who’s a little close to the center of that same culture. So on and so forth, the eventual outcome is that this new idea or concept works its way into the center and causes the culture to either evolve or breakdown, depending on whether or not it can handle this new idea or concept. (most of the time, they do just fine) The thing is that by the time this idea or concept has made its way to the center, it has evolved and mutated into something that, while possibly similar in some respects to its original, is unique to this culture. Kind of like a weird ass game of telephone.

This is what we are dealing with here, in my opinion. After being largely ignored, thanks to our creation of the internet, our ideas and concepts are working their ways towards the centers of other cultures. As they do so, they are mutating and changing. For instance, one person may dig the “new media” angle of the whole thing, but have certain hang ups about D&D or Magic The Gathering. And so, their definition of geek evolves into this thing where that isn’t part of the equation and it is even OK to look down on ‘those types’ of people. Others may view being a geek as being able to pronounce words like ‘meme’ properly, and so they create a definition where it is OK to ridicule those folks who do not. All of this is part of the process. An outside example of what I’m talking about would be what happened to the punk underground after Nirvana broke and the definition of what it meant to be a punk suddenly began the rapidly mutate.

So, the question becomes, how do we go forward from here. History shows us that cultures/movements which become hung up on how other cultures appropriate their ideas, quickly become stagnant and whither. On the other hand, cultures/movements which either ignore it or go tit for tat and start doing some appropriation of their own, typically can thrive in this environment and find their cultural stock increases exponentially over time. Japan for instance, was in some ways totally stagnant during its years of cultural isolation, but after it began appropriating the crap out of the American culture in the post-WWII era, it turned itself into a cultural juggernaut.

Bottom line, it was our invention of the internet which created this mess. We can either piss and moan about whether this person is or is not a geek. Or debate endlessly about what a “real” geek is. Or, we can do what we do best and give with one hand, while appropriating everything in sight with the other.

Of course, there’s another angle to all of this. As more and more of our ideas are soaked up by other cultures, especially the mainstream, it gives our younger brothers and sisters more leverage with which to navigate the trials which typically befall us as we grow up. So ask yourself, is spending your time dictating how your more of a geek then Shaq (psst, he doesn’t know who the fuck you are) more important then cutting down on the number of times the next generation gets shoved into a locker?

And just for the record, this message is being beamed to you straight from a location with in the grey zone. Centers are boring.

Written by Matt

May 12th, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized