Monday, March 07, 2011

Very Late To The Party: Patton Oswalt In Wired About The Necessary Death Of Geek Culture

Back in December, comedian Patton Oswalt wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay for Wired basically decrying both the convenience and increasing ubiquity of geek culture as part of pop culture as a whole.

And I am calling shenanigans on that notion.

Let's begin with the idea that all of geekdom has been exposed to the light of popular culture (Oswalt used an archeological/geologic analogy of exposing the strata of geek culture to the wider world).

But there are still depths to explore, still artifacts to unearth to use his analogy. Just because there are elements of so-called geek culture (I mean, Star Wars had a lot of crossover appeal and Lord Of The Rings was a best seller even before the movies) that have crossed over doesn't expose the entire strata that is geek culture.

What has really happened is the geek culture of our childhoods have become popular culture because the people who were geeks back then have the power to make decisions and push that knowledge out into the wider culture.

That leads into the next point. Oswalt complains that everyone is otaku (having obsessive, minute interests) now.

My problem with this part of the essay is it implies that there was a time when this wasn't the case. Everyone always had a fixation or two, those things that they were fiercely devoted to. It was just in the past, there were things which were culturally acceptable to be interested in and things that weren't whereas in the present day, there are a lot of geekish pursuits that have gained respectability in the wider world.

For instance, sports fans have always been geeks... but they were never acknowledged as such because that obsession was more culturally accepted. If you doubt me about this, think about of the people you've known in life who followed a particular team, especially in baseball, who can tell you the batting average of every player for every year of their childhood and have discussions with other people who can do the same about how two players from different eras compare based on an arcane set of references.

I've seen those discussions turn into something that was as passionately argued as the various Kirk/Picard debates that almost inevitably break out when Star Trek fans congregate. (OK, maybe that doesn't pop up every time you get Trekkers together, but I think you understand what I mean).

But the insular geek culture that we had as children doesn't exist in the same way anymore, and that is a good thing.

If I like something, I don't care if millions of other people do too or if it is just me and one or two other people. It doesn't diminish my love for that thing. It just means that I have more like-minded people to talk about them with. And I want to talk about, oh, how I want to talk about those things which I am obsessed with. Why is this a bad thing?

The final straw for me was his lamenting about the increasing availability of the materials to become otaku.

I am about 8 years younger than Oswalt, but I remember the utter suckage of being a geek when I was a kid because I had a ravenous appetite for information about the things I was completely into, but my options were limited by geography and the quality of my library system. The gaming magazines filled with titles that as a child I would never get the chance to play because my local stores would never get because they wouldn't be big sellers. I coveted things I would never own, not because I didn't have the resources to acquire them, but because they were not available for me to buy or to see. If you have an intense interest in something, what is the thing that is going to blunt your passion for it. In my case, it is not being able to experience in a timely manner, that feeling of being frustrated, because before I would have the desire to produce something new in the area of my minute and intense interest, I have to reach a point of at least partial satiation... I would have to become genre savvy.

I remember loving a particular series of books and having to rely on the vagaries of my local bookstore to get parts of the back catalog that I needed to read to get caught up. Oswalt acts like this is a wonderful state of being, because it made you have to savor the little bits you could get your hands on all the more.

But if you were starving, what would be more satisfying: eating a few scraps of bread that you scrounged up or being able to get a full banquet with all the fixings? I vote for the latter. Because you aren't going to gorge yourself every day if you have the option, but it is nice for it to be a possibility. It would be something you could do every so often, and it was there if you wanted it, but you wouldn't make a habit of it.

Put it this way. If I want something, I can have it, I can read it, watch it, play it. When I was a kid, my thought palace was a rickety barn. As an adult, I can build a towering edifice to my geekdom because I can literally fill it with as much information as I need to build it. And because I have as much information as I need to do so, I can also make connections between my various geekish fixations which gives me a much broader knowledge base across the things I love, so one helps shore up a new wing as it is being built.

For instance, for about 15 years, I have been sticking my toe into calm waters of soccer, and in the past few months, I have been becoming more and more geekish about it. Because of my educational background, my previously established geekdom with NFL/NCAA Football, military tactics and strategy and a lot of other subjects, there is a structure that already exists for digesting all this new information and putting it into a context which fits with everything I know. It all contextualizes itself into a huge, grand narrative of geekdom in my head.

And I believe in getting a broad picture of things from as many different angles and sources as I can. I have a history degree, and my theory of that discipline's pedagogy is that you start off with the broadest survey of the subject and then fill in details as a student closes in on a particular segment of that narrative so that they have a context for the events they are examining.

If you knew nothing about history and I tried to teach you a course over 13 weeks about World War II and just the raw events of that war, without establishing the reasons for those events or teaching you the aftermath, I am pretty sure you would be lost because the context matters, the why and how is as important and the who, what and when in those kinds of conversations.

With the internet, I can get that context. I can get a breadth of knowledge about a subject while still revering specific items within that branch of geekdom. I can find out what the broad strokes I should perhaps look at first before specializing in the aspect which pleases me the most.

Oswalt then goes on to discuss having to wait for the next issue of Watchmen to come out to find out what happens next? We still have to do that. The internet, both as a means of disseminating information and a place which facilitates commerce, can't bring you things which do not exist yet. I get the sense that in this argument he is making, even those who went to the comic book store and bought all the back issues of Watchmen or bought an anthology of it isn't a true geek either, since they didn't have to wait and savor each issue. I disagree with that.

I think in the end, my conception of what geekdom is differs greatly from Patton Oswalt, and that's ok. I still like him as a comedian, but I disagree with his humorous take on our collective community.

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