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GARTH SUNDEM is the bestselling author of Geek Logik: 50 Foolproof Equations for Everyday Life. He and his wife live in California with their two kids and a large Labrador.
Welcome to my GEEK brain.
It has exactly 314.15 information slots. While I wish there were more slots, alas, there are not. And while I wish these slots were packed with things like mathematical proofs of Millennium Prize problems, the mechanics of teleportation using Einstein- Podolsky- Rosen entanglement, and the physics behind NASA’s new plasma propulsion engine, this is not the case either. Instead, elbowing out useful, enriching, or scientific facts are folding instructions for a jumping origami frog, lists of English words you can spell on a basic calculator, and haikus written in praise of SPAM (the pork product of questionable lineage), all of which threaten at any second to burst through my facade of normalcy like parasitic aliens from John Hurt’s chest. Geek attack: Picture it. It’s not pretty.
And, for better or for worse, I’m not alone.
Today’s ubiquitous geek is like a massive musical mixing board, with
various geeks turning up or turning down different dials, boosting–for
example–80s pop arcana or programming languages or fantasy football
Stats or behavioral economics or quotes from This Is Spinal Tap (the last
Of which have the relevant dial turned up to 11). We don’t all boost the
same dials and we certainly don’t appreciate being defined; however,
there is one constant that applies to all brands of geek–in all of us, these
dials are turned way up. In fact, our geek informational dials are turned
up to the point that they sometimes drown out our ability to function
smoothly in the social world; in other words, with our geek specialty of
choice thumping away inside our brains at maximum decibels, things
like social niceties, our wardrobes, our anniversaries, and our ability to
contribute to dinner conversation without injecting weird factoids from
The mating strategies of clownfish can be effectively silenced.
Take heart, dear geek: With the world evolving toward ever- higher
Levels of required specialization, more and more people are turning up
Their information dials to the point of usurping their ability to function
Normally. In short, more people are becoming geeks.
To illustrate this geekification of modern society, imagine–if you
will–a middle- school rocket club. One kid follows the directions, carefully
penciling in exact fin placement and then, after allowing the required
drying time, painstakingly sanding, painting, and applying decals
until the finished rocket is a mere blip in a wind tunnel. All another kid
wants to do is send a live payload as high as possible–into the clear
plastic cockpit of a three- stage D- engine rocket, he packs intrepid (and
potentially ill- fated) caterpillars, each with a name like Buzz or Chuck
or Neil. A third kid has a vision: a center fuselage flanked by auxiliary
tubes, each with a separate nose cone, the whole contraption having the
potential to arc gracefully skyward or, three feet off the launch pole, to
start spinning wildly, explode spectacularly, and negatively affect hearing
in the faculty adviser’s left ear.
Yes, I knew these kids. (Today, the first is in the Stats department
at Oxford, the second is an entomologist specializing in system change
due to catastrophic events, and the third is an environmental architect.)
OK, I was one of them–I oscillated between keeping a meticulous flight
log and pirating the rocket engine gunpowder for use in more terrestrial
pyrotechnic experiments. Thanks in part to genetics–my dad is a former
president of the American Accounting Association–I also programmed
choose- your- own- adventure stories in BASIC, circa 1987, eagerly anticipated the logic puzzles in the next installment of Games magazine, and
designed multilevel dungeons on graph paper. In an especially cruel
twist, my mother is a psychoanalyst, so I was especially aware how
these pursuits were likely to affect my social and emotional development
Back to geekification:
In the sepia tones of yesteryear, we rocketeers remained geek kings
and queens of only the rocket club (and–in the spirit of full disclosure–
later the jazz band and the math and chess clubs. Wow, this is actually
rather cathartic). Today, with highly specialized knowledge of all sorts
driving the world, it is as if more and more people are clamoring for
inclusion in these clubs. Everyone now wants and needs information,
leading to a much wider pool of adoration for the alpha geeks in each
It may be no revelation that yesterday’s geeks rule today’s world.
A quote widely misattributed to Bill Gates: “Don’t make fun of geeks
because one day you will end up working for one.” But with most of
society now acting as phytoplankton at the base of the ecosystems in
which geeks are alpha predators, we are not only driving the traditional
geek fields, but we’re starting to drive cool as well.
For example, imagine a twenty- four- year- old dude with an uneven
peach- fuzz beard, wearing a green foam E = mc2 hat, a red Che Guevara
shirt, and Converse All Stars, and listening to an iPod while riding a longboard to his job as a Web designer. By any definition, this person is a
geek. This person is also very, very cool. He probably owns an island in
Second Life and has an algorithmic tattoo, too. Women want him, and
men want to be him. (We assume he dates a girl with piercings.) And with
this shift in cool, we see that instead of struggling to join society at large
as we have always done in the past, now society at large is joining us.
OK, now that you are versed in hypothetical, external geekification,
it’s time for a bit of self- examination (no, you needn’t undress). Does
what you know affect how you act? In light conversation, do you unintentionally inject your personal geekery? Does this make things a little
awkward? Last Friday, instead of trudging through another of these
awkward conversations, did you decide to order Chinese again (and eat
it while watching Red Dwarf reruns and/or blogging about it)? Do your
friends and family buy you books with “geek” in the title?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re a geek. Go
ahead and skip to this book’s first entry. Go on, you know you want to.
But maybe you thought, Oh shit! After reflection I’m not a geek and will thus be relegated to a lifetime of groveling at the feet of my great geek overlords. Oh how I wish I could be a geek too! Or you might’ve answered, Oh shit! I used to be a geek but have spent the last f fifteen years perfecting a veneer of social competence in order to pimp real estate and have thus let my geek credentials lapse. Whatever shall I do?
Never fear: you hold in your hands the secrets you need to function–
again or for the first time–as a geek. In fact, if you read and enjoy this
book, you will necessarily be transformed into a geek by the simple act
of partaking in the geekiest of geek activities: the enjoyment of knowledge
for its own sake (Descartes: “I think, therefore I am [a geek]”). With
this book, you, too, can gain the cultural knowledge necessary to peek
behind the Wizard’s curtain–to glimpse the Matrix–and can thus join
in the experience of total world domination. Think of this book like a benevolent werewolf, ready to give you a friendly nip in the jugular; come
next full moon, you’ll be howling too.
And then, during the geek uprising, when your IT guy rediscovers
his Klingon spirit and the Web- widgets girl down the hall goes Xena:
Warrior Princess, you will be able, when the pogrom reaches your cubicle, to demonstrate complex handmade shadow puppets against the
whiteboard and recite pi to at least the fifth digit, thus proving your allegiance and claiming your rightful spot in the coming Geek World Order.
(Which, you have to admit, is worth the price of a book.)