From Freaks and Geeks to Weezer, we’ve finally arrived in the wonder years of geek chic.
In an episode of the tech-comedy Silicon Valley, Richard says, “For thousands of years, guys like us have gotten the shit kicked out of us. But now, for the first time, we’re living in an era when we can be in charge.” The “guys like us” are tech geeks and nerds, and it wasn’t that long ago that a reference to this type of entertainment would sneak under the radar, only reaching a segment of the population that personally identifies with the word geek. But today, in the era of geek chic, most of us are engaging in the consumption of nerd media and enjoying it.
Times change. That’s completely obvious and probably doesn’t even need to be stated. In some respects, interests are passed down from birth, encouraged in some instances. Unfortunately, broad societal outlooks on certain sectors and groups of the population are also passed down, conditioned to be a part of our working concept of mainstream culture. Stereotypes are damning and should be regarded as needless, but that’s a much lengthier discussion. Geek culture has always been a proud collective, but traditionally it has remained in the background. It has always had its place in modern society, from Star Wars enthusiasts to Star Trek buffs, but geek culture has never been as prevalent and dominant as it is now. The paradigm shift of geek culture entering the mainstream has transitioned from a number of different angles. Now it’s cultural mainstay.
The average social media user checks their various accounts over a dozen times per day. Smartphones are virtually extensions of our hands. Of course, it’s only natural that in the digital age, these tiny computers have become a necessary part of our existence, but think back just 20 years. The internet was in its infancy. Computers, for most, were used for word processing and playing solitaire. The individuals spending large intervals of time staring at CRT monitors were still in an ostracized bubble.
In the basic sense, our increasing dependence on technology has influenced the growing destigmatization of geek culture. But it runs deeper than the screens that we stare at for such lengths. The content we consume and interact with today is noticeably nerdier.
Take YouTube. The video-sharing website is so synonymous with entertainment today that the phrase “YouTube it” is part of the everyday lexicon. YouTubers, individuals who upload videos to their personal channels, are bona fide celebrities. And the number-one channel on the juggernaut site is Felix Kjelberg, better known as PewDiePie. With north of 40 million subscribers, the Pewds’ audience doubles that of the closest conventional celebrity, Justin Bieber. The kicker is that PewDiePie specializes in video games. He made a name for himself with “Let’s Plays,” a form of video content where gamers record themselves playing games and offering commentary. The vast majority of people play video games in some capacity. Eighty percent of US households have a device capable of playing games, and almost half of those have a dedicated gaming device. The history of video games is relatively brief when compared to other entertainment media, but gaming’s stranglehold on widespread attention is startling. And yes, this interactive art has even permeated into watchable entertainment. The definitive site for streaming live gameplay gets over 100 million viewers per month.
It’s not just new forms of entertainment like video games where nerd culture has entered the mainstream, though. The worldwide phenomenon Game of Thrones is the perfect example of nerd culture evolving into geek chic. Based on George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the HBO show has turned dragons and magic into one of the most sophisticated and intelligent long-form television dramas ever. The path was partially cleared by the reception of the adaptations of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Fantasy fiction has always been niche, besides seminal works by Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, but ever since J. K. Rowling introduced the world to “the boy who lived,” the appetite for magical stories has transcended age. Year after year, superhero movies continue to dominate the box office. In recent years DC and especially Marvel have flooded the market with fantastic heroes, both old and new. Some may argue that there is actually an overabundance of comic book movies, but it’s undeniable that there is a demand for stories in these universes.
Daenerys Targaryen and one of her three dragons in Game of Thrones. Image via Home Box Office.
One of the most intriguing developments of this topic is the attention given to not only popular products but the pioneers who create them. Steve Jobs has been the main character of two movies about his life (one great, the other not so great) in less than five years after his death. Mark Zuckerberg was contentiously displayed in The Social Network, a film that did incredibly well — especially considering that it revolved around a computer programmer. Audiences even relish the depictions of nerdy individuals themselves. The aforementioned Silicon Valley centers around a tech startup and is replete with jargon that appeals to computer scientists and techies in general. Mr. Robot was one of the hottest debuts last summer with a premise mainly focused on computer hacking and internet security. These types of heroes set a new precedent for who and what we consider interesting.
In the world of books, Ernest Cline is the poster boy for this movement. His debut novel, Ready Player One, was a runaway best seller. Virtual reality, ’80s pop culture and video games made this book emblematic of the times. His follow-up, Armada, was similar to his initial hit. Steven Spielberg is currently adapting Ready Player One, and Armada garnered Cline a seven-figure deal as well.
Ready Player One is slated for spring 2018. Image via Warner Bros.
Applying labels to who or what are cool is problematic for countless reasons. It’s subjective to say that any of these things are better than other entertainment. Yet it can be objectively stated that so-called nerd entertainment and popular figures are now swimming in the same mainstream ocean instead of floating in a tributary nearby. The rapid rise of the digital age and our underlying reliance on technology have opened the gates for broad acceptance of geek culture. The people who have contributed most to the proliferation of technology are the ones who have held lifelong ties to geek culture. With that, it’s not all too surprising that nerd culture has been elevated to the prominent and respected platform of geek chic in the public eye.
It may be a stretch to compare computer programmers to rock stars, professional gamers to athletes, or someone like Mark Zuckerberg to Taylor Swift, but there is at least room for argument. Geek culture began to slip through the cracks at the turn of the century, but now, less than two decades later, geek chic has broken down the walls entirely. We are all geeks now.