They're here, they're square, they occasionally look like Brian Cox: Alice Bell and Adam Corner on the new-found cool of the science-minded, big-brained, increasingly self-confident geeks

August 25, 2011

Unless you've been buried under a pile of sensible jumpers for the past few years, you can't have failed to notice the rise of "geek chic".

Rewind a few years, and the only "I love Nerds" T-shirts on display were the ones sported by evacuees during fire drills at university libraries. Now you can spot them in your local gym. High street fashion shops are filled with thick-rimmed specs (prescription-free, naturally). When Brian Cox, particle physicist at the University of Manchester, does a book signing, there are queues to rival those at the launch of a footballer's autobiography. Reframed as plucky outsiders with more depth than their superficial peers, nerds in films are now just as likely to be the hero of the hour as they are to be the butt of the joke.

So are we witnessing the dawn of a society rediscovering its love of knowledge, study and evidence? Or, for all the serious expressions behind the thick-rimmed spectacles, is it just a passing trend? Beyond questions about style over substance, are geeks really a once-disenfranchised group that the "rise of the nerd" narrative suggests? Moreover, might the growing level of ostentatious "geek pride" simply entrench divisions between those with access to the various benefits the ivory towers bring and those who feel geeky culture is not for people like them?

For Tom Crick, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, the social acceptability of the geek has changed dramatically since he was a child in the 1980s. "Geek chic is just as pervasive (and fashionable) as the technology we all depend on for everyday tasks," he says.

"The 1980s image of the geek has been discarded, transformed by the 2000s and the dot-com era. Geeks became cool because they were the people developing the cool-looking technologies that changed the way we interact. They were developing fashion accessories."

He believes that this apparent cultural shift - whether or not we call it geek chic - is helping to boost recruitment to computer science degrees, even if some students incorrectly assume that it is a path to Mark Zuckerberg-style riches. He also perceives an impact on public engagement: people want to know about how these technologies work.

However, Steve Cross, head of public engagement at University College London, is sceptical about such claims.

"The new geek culture is people who are already interested in science getting together and celebrating it. This is distinct from public engagement involving scientists connecting with people from beyond academia and science, listening to them and talking to them."

Cross hastens to add that this does not mean that one activity is more important than another - merely that we shouldn't confuse them. The real challenge is to find ways to reach beyond the usual suspects.

It could be argued that there is a political dimension in geeks celebrating geek culture and talking to each other. Next year will see the publication of a book titled The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson, science editor of The Times. As Henderson sees it, self-confessed geeks are no longer apologising for their obsessions, and he hopes his book will help them to put themselves and their abilities more firmly on the political radar. Nerds, it seems, are now a political force to be reckoned with. As Nick Cohen wrote in The Observer in April 2010, reflecting on activism around the libel reform movement: "The nerds are on the march. I wouldn't like to be the one standing in their way."

The idea of "nerds on the march" might seem slightly threatening. Indeed, some worry that geek chic is becoming a "geek clique" - a way of keeping others out. But Henderson is reasonably optimistic: "If so, I think it's a relatively porous clique (and much more porous than many others). If you contribute interesting things, you can be a part of it. Geeks like to learn from each other."

There is, within this emerging culture, "an openness to good new ideas, wherever they might come from", Henderson argues. If anything, the term geek "brings more people in than it excludes".

A computing geek is rather different from a film nerd or a policy wonk, a lit-crit dork, a history buff or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer superfan. They all have their own specific communities, knowledge and languages, but all might be seen as geeky, and all may use the term positively about themselves while finding it hard to explain their enthusiasms to others. The optimistic enthusiasm of much contemporary geek culture is perhaps less self- consciously exclusive than the cliched idea of a sad social outsider finding refuge in knowledge.

Alom Shaha, a London-based schoolteacher, film-maker and writer, says he's glad in many ways that a "geek scene" exists. But, he adds, "I don't want people to mindlessly buy into that scene in the same way that they might have bought into the alternative-lifestyle scene." A connection to science may offer a sense of secular self-identity or the promise of certainty in a complex and uncertain world, but for Shaha, the most important thing is to understand why science is so special and to appreciate what cleverness means (and doesn't), rather than replicating their symbols.

The notion of geek chic as simply a catchy slogan may be especially troubling for a movement that in many respects defines itself as valuing content over style. The rise of nerdishness could be a welcome antidote to a society in thrall to showbiz culture, and a release from the increasingly superficial level of non-news that comprises the daily flow of information through so many mass communication channels.

However, it might equally be seen as a marketing ploy that parallels the "science bit" in shampoo adverts, rather than bringing any real engagement with knowledge, skills, evidence and ideas. A society in love with science is a society that is serious about understanding the world - about getting good answers, not easy ones.

So, although recruitment for computer science courses seems healthy, Crick worries that many young people fail to engage with the realities of the topic because they have been fed a diet of ICT that merely "teaches kids how to use Office apps - they are consumers of technology, but with no deeper conceptual understanding".

"Perhaps the one big downside is that because a lot of technology is accessible to all, it may give people the wrong perception of how hard it is to create and truly innovate. They may think that being a geek is easy. It's not. Superficial understanding of how things work is not a foundation for anything," he insists.

Many people are drawn to the geek identity precisely because they enjoy inhabiting a niche "outsider" role. It's a way of eschewing the mainstream. As geekiness becomes part of broader culture, then for some, it loses its appeal. We might compare this to other "alternative" identities that are seemingly co-opted by the very mainstream they claim to stand against. In fact, this is nothing new - nor is it unique to "geeks". Sarah Thornton, a sociologist of culture, wrote about such a sense of "subcultural capital" and the complex hierarchies of hipness and authenticity in her 1995 book, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital.

There is also the simple danger of investing too much hope for long-term social change in what may be only a fashion trend. Hayley Birch, a Bristol-based science writer who also runs the Geek Pop music festival, observes: "What goes up must come down, and fashions change so quickly that I think it will probably come down rather rapidly. When the fall of geek chic comes, those who bought a pair of geek specs for a student 'Geeks vs Chavs' night will probably toss them aside without a second thought."

Her reference to "chavs" illustrates another stumbling block for those seeking a simple celebration of the rise of the geek: it is a rather middle-class movement, reflecting the privileges that allow a specialist education. It could be argued that geek culture is rather male, too, and not as ethnically diverse as it could be. So is geek chic less of a celebration of the underdog and more simply a way of those traditionally in power finding new ways to assert themselves?

Tom Lean, an expert in the history of UK computing who is currently working on the British Library's Oral History of British Science project, observes: "The term 'geek' is often used by geeks themselves with a degree of pride, and by those around them as a light-hearted term of deference to that expertise. Thus, it's possible for someone to point out some helpful pedantic little point, only to see it taken up with, instead of thanks, the smiled words: 'You geek!'?" This kind of accuracy is undoubtedly something to celebrate, but there are politics intertwined with it, too. Referring to oneself as a geek can seem smug, arrogant or even condescending; a way of expressing cultural difference, even cultural superiority.

Researchers have long examined the identity choices on offer to young people. A number of influential sociology of education papers have focused on such tribes as "cool guys, swots and wimps"; "macho lads and academic achievers"; and "nerds and scruffs". Such work stresses the importance of class and gender. Being a swot might get sand kicked in your face in some contexts, but it can be quite desirable (or at least acknowledged as advantageous) in others.

"For men, 'geek' has always been portrayed as, if not chic, then at least adorable, admirable and in some contexts even desirable," says Heather Mendick, reader in education at Brunel University. "The heroic images of male mathematicians in films such as Enigma, Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind provide examples of this trend - in particular, the ways that these men's abilities in and fascination with maths is portrayed as evoking female desire."

Both Mendick and Becky Francis, director of education at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, stress the importance of age and community alongside gender and class in negotiating both the negative and potentially positive aspects of a nerdish social label.

For example, they note that when young people leave post-compulsory education, there can be more opportunities to embrace - and even go out of the way to perform and find comfort in - the role of the geek.

Meanwhile, Angela Saini, author of Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World (2011), worries that the high-fashion version of geek chic reinforces stereotypes about how geeks should look.

"I don't always wear glasses or baggy sweaters, and I love short skirts and cute dresses, but that doesn't make me any less of a geek inside. And at the same time, putting on a big pair of specs doesn't automatically make someone more geeky," she says.

If geek chic is to become more than just a passing fad, the current enthusiasm for all things geeky will need to translate into socially valuable outcomes. The challenge for the geek community will be to ensure that their movement is not co-opted by hipsters, and that it is open to more than just white middle-class men. In the end, the responsibility to ensure that geek chic is an inclusive and meaningful movement rather than a superficial or sanctimonious club rests with the nerds themselves.

Be there and be square

Following the success of his variety evening Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People - a "yuletide rationalist romp" renamed Nerdstock when broadcast last year by BBC Four - comedian Robin Ince is leading a national tour of a new production, with the help of physicist Brian Cox (left) and science writers Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh.

Uncaged Monkeys promises "intelligent comedy and comedic intelligence, lots of science and tales of awe-inspiring wonders". The show will be on the road for five nights in December, with events in Manchester, Plymouth and London.


Also coming up is the Festival of the Spoken Nerd. It features standup, science and music, and promises "a celebration of science, comedy and unashamed geekiness, with live experiments, audience participation and specially selected guest scientists and comedy headliners".


Geek Pop, with its tagline "Be there and be square", is an annual online music festival featuring artists inspired by science. The Guerilla (sic) Science team, meanwhile, takes science-themed debates, demonstrations, experiments, games and talks to music festivals and arts events across the country.



The Bright Club, which bills itself as "the thinking person's variety night" and is run by University College London's Public Engagement Unit, is slightly different. Its founder, Steve Cross, head of public engagement at UCL, sees it as existing alongside, rather than inside, the rise of geek culture, and "closer to boutique comedy nights" than anything else.

"We don't hide the fact that our performers are clever - that's our USP over other comedy nights," he says. "But I hope that people leave thinking that our presenters, who are active researchers, are genuinely engaging and funny, rather than being impressed with their cleverness."


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.