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The Fun of Understanding

September 12, 2010

My son likes watching me play Scrabble on iPad. At some point between waking up and finishing breakfast every morning he says, “Let’s see what’s going on with Words with Friends,” which is the name of the Scrabble app. (He knows my opponents by their screennames.) The other day, he opened up the app and saw I’d played GEEK (on a double-word score for 20 points!) and asked me what it meant.

It took a moment. Geek is a semantic challenge, a modern word with multiple meanings. Here’s where I landed:

“A geek is a person with a strong interest in science and technology,” knowing that the word geek can be used in many other contexts, but I thought it was a reasonable starting point. The rest of the conversation may not be so interesting to you, but I record it here for posterity.

“I like science!” Harry has They Might Be Giants’ Here Comes Science album and listens to it religiously. He truly does love science. “I’m a geek… What’s technology?”

“Technology are things like computers and iPads.”

“I like technology, too! I’m a geek.” You are, son, and were the day you were born.

That’s just it, Harry was born into geekiness, which I realized as soon as he claimed his own geekhood. I also realized that the definition was much more subtle. So, I did what any geek would do and posted the following on Twitter:

HB wants to know the definition of geek. Your preschool-appropriate response?

The responses ran the gamut, and were perhaps a lesson in parenting style more than in the definition of geek. A couple guys (@daveixd and @yoni) provided dictionary definitions, which involves some kind of circus freak. Here were some of the more relevant ones:

@paintingblue: someone who presses lots of buttons and sits in a dark little cave happily drinking coffee. that is what i tell my 3 yr old
@vanderwal A person who pays attention finer points of interest and has incredible focus on a subject – could be a shark geek
@angelacolter I would say, “a very smart person who is good with computers.”
@nwhysel A tech geek can do weird, techy things and they temselves are odd and difficult to understand.
@willsansbury “People like daddy?” :)
@uxcrank Sandbox definition of Geek: “Someone who cares way more than you do about a thing or a kind of things.”

I love all of these definitions, but my favorite by far was fellow dad and author Gavin Bell:

@zzgavin someone who enjoys understanding how things work and how to change them, sometimes just for the fun of the understanding

That phrase, “the fun of understanding,” resonated with me. It’s the thread of what my group of friends have in common. It’s what drives much of our business strategy at EightShapes. It’s what helps me be a better parent.

It also extends the definition beyond science and technology. At lunch, I brought up the topic and my wife used “football geek” as an example. This isn’t a nonsense phrase: it’s a meaningful combination of words. Gavin’s definition fits nicely (except the part about “changing how things work”) because football geeks want to get inside the inner workings of the game, and they do so by studying every aspect. They do so because they enjoy it, but understanding the game in greater detail is, for them, fun.

Wikipedia’s entry on geek (perhaps I should have turned there first, instead of Twitter) elaborates on these ideas, and, of course, describes various controversies associated with the term. They talk about how a pejorative has been appropriated for self-identification, and how the term remains distinct from nerd and other similar words.

Anyway, during lunch, as my family reflected on the term, I couldn’t help but consider geekery in the larger context of America. The observable anti-intellectual trend runs counter to “the fun of understanding.” Is this what it means to live in a post-9/11 world? Is this the inevitable consequence of a two-party system? Does politics have to polarize the mere pursuit of knowledge, too?

A couple years ago, the Washington Post ran an article called the Dumbing of America, by Susan Jacoby. For people who make their living on technology, who were intellectually gestated in liberal arts academia, and who face the modern challenges of parenting, the first half of this article is an incredibly disappointing diatribe against technology. Pointing a finger at “video culture” as the cornerstone of anti-intellectualism in America is like blaming the automobile for the widespread obesity. One of the conclusions she draws, however, is interesting. America faces not only anti-intellectualism, but anti-rationalism: there emerges an “arrogance about that lack of knowledge”. More scary than what Americans do not know is that many have “smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place”.

Arrogance knows no boundaries. Does geekiness also include an intellectual arrogance? Does the emergent “geek chic” style point to something beyond self-identity, toward self-importance? Is this the connotation encoded in the politically charged word “elite”? I hope not.

I hope Americans who embrace intellectual pursuits see it as separate from a culture or style. I hope they see it as a responsibility to themselves, their country, and their children. I hope they understand it as their contribution to society, on par and just as meaningful as other contributions, and not something that elevates them above others.

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