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badgerbag ([personal profile] badgerbag) wrote2009-09-27 22:54

what is geek

What is geekiness, anyway? What do we mean by it? Kids or teenagers say "Wow, you're such a geek". They mean it either cruelly or half-admiring, but always with the sense that "you're an alien, with alien thought patterns." It took me a while to recognize what those things were likely to be, how to mask them sometimes in order to pass, and how to relate to other people. Actually, it took smoking some pot and realizing that when people "hung out" and chatted, there was a subtext and it was not all just completely boring time wasting when we could have been DOING SOMETHING or MAKING SOMETHING. That drive to do and make and learn every second -- that was geeky thought.

It would make me geeky to communicate some of the thoughts that went through my head just now as I washed out my handkerchiefs. I like handkerchiefs lately and have fancy flowered ones my sister made me out of very fine fabric. The handkerchiefs were dry and clean-ish, but when they got wet in the sink I could feel all kind of slimy mucus on there. What makes mucus do that? How can it dry and then re-wet? What, chemically, is going on there? Is there some scale of measurement to describe snot's ability to dry up and re-slime itself? Note to self to look it up and think about sliminess, rehydration, viscosity, and solvents. This thought came back around to my thought of the day about the definition of geekiness. I realized this entire thought train about mucus was geeky. I imagined saying it to this girl Susan I knew in middle school. Susan used to come to my birthday parties and sometimes spend the night, though we didn't have anything in common. I imagined her response to my rambling thoughts on mucus. I could totally hear her sighing and explaining what a geek I was. She would say I was "like a boy". Or not like a boy, but not a proper girl, either. It astonished and embarrassed her.

Today I spent hours reading about soil science because of some random thoughts about gardening and soil and zond7's mention of Kevin Kelly's mention of a service to send off a soil sample for analysis. That led me to giant government web sites, maps, explanations of whether the soil in our map selection was firm enough for tanks to cross, or soft enough for mass burials of large animals in pits. I absorbed the beautiful jargon of the taxonomy of soil. Now I'm burning to read a basic soil science college textbook. Though this has has nothing to do with computers or electronics, it expresses a geeky trait - just being interested in some random thing, and then wanting to find out all about it, and its classification systems and language and data and maps. Geeks are the people I know who have this trait. They could happily spend several days (or their education, or a life or career) fooling about with all the details of something - anything - and who just *think things are neat*. It's about enthusiasm and passion for detail.

I thought as I have before (slowly but relentlessly) about the moment at BlogHer 05 (or 6?) when Mena Trott stood up and started babbling about knitting blogs and I freaked out along with half the room. I say babbling intentionally. She wasn't, but I was perceiving it that way! My internalized misogyny and my ignorance from 2005, let me show you it.

I was like, OMG, CNN is here, and I thought you were going to be my blogging coder rock star and're talking about knitting! That's so embarrassing! We were finally getting noticed as women doing stuff on the web not just literarily but as programmers and... knitting?!!!

I'm pretty sure I had the decency not to say that on blog because I sensed I didn't know what she meant, and that she was so passionate there must be a there there, beyond what I could imagine which was: "Well, women do knitting I guess, and, women talking to each other on the Internet is inherently good, so, I guess it's good they find each other there and talk about what they like, which is this trivial, embarrassing, girly thing unfortunately, that I'm sure is a skill but I don't want to talk about doing that, it might as well be talking about painting our nails." OH HOW WRONG I WAS.

I could also see she was pained as she gave the talk, that she knew very well she was being misunderstood by the room and CNN was going to mangle her ass. Her face was sort of all scrunchy and red like she was going to scream, out of the frustration of not getting across to us and the media... Which was also embarrassing, but made me respect her and know I was wrong. I'm so sorry for my thoughts and my ignorance and lack of insight. And failure to see and jump in and support what was amazing. I cringed for a year, I swear.

Years later: my attitude now is that knitting a sock is this amazing thing like building a suspension bridge, a feat of engineering, and is like code in that it is ... code.... but made out of physical stuff.... I'm in awe of it, I wish I could do it, I see people have the vocabulary to talk with each other about the deep technics of it and the level they have to go into each others' minds and knowledge to convey information - the amount of knowledge and skill (techne!) they have as a background to read patterns, reverse engineer something already made, and so on. I'm a knitting groupie. I signed up on Ravelry, which is the most amazing piece of social software and community in practice I've ever seen, not because I want to knit anything, but just to gawk and admire at the textile rock stars.

That's my rant. The thoughts that go with it are about men who were with their friend in middle school, their equivalent of my not-quite-friend Susan who sighed and told them they were geeks, or punched them and taunted them and called them geeks. And I was thinking that being a geek, oddly, for them, would have been hauntingly similar to being called girly, being called gay and being taunted or punched and called alien, that girliness you'd have to desperately avoid to survive, or suffer terribly from; that that misogyny, as a punishment, was called out against them sometimes partly because of their geekiness, which must underlie some of the fierce defense of the masculinity of their geekiness. That is their investment, it is not about jobs, it is about the early challenge to machisimo, to their boy and manhood because they were geeky in their thoughts, they were alien (and what is alien, will be beaten up and associated with all that is other. ) So they have tried to make a new geek macho that insists on their heterosexuality and manliness and that defines girls as a thing apart - and claims geekiness for manhood. Right down to saying it is in our brains and hormones that we can't THINK in the right way, or concentrate, or plan or have vision to dive into and create complexities. It is a desperate pushing away and a demand that there be something, someone, that is that. For boys to go outside their gender role, they have the option to redefine that thing they do as macho anew. How is it, then, that when I was geeky, and talked about mucus chemistry, or computer programs, I also wasn't being a girl correctly? The ways men are to each other - their homosocialities - the ways they pay attention and size each other up - are certainly alien to me and I find them instructive to study on the street, their evaluations of each other - and then extrapolating back in time to what that equivalent would have been in school when we learned a lot of socialization... What you do to be not a geek is to not care, to be cool, to brush it off, not to get too excited, to read those social subtexts I couldn't see at all without smoking a few bong hits in college to quiet my mind the fuck down instead of telling some hapless fool all about Herodotus...

Then as I thought about gf and open letter & giant reactions to it by various hosebags all over the net, I thought about the awesome relief of translating deep into a poem with Kragen, which just cleared my mind completely! That, also, was massively geeky!

It's what you pay attention to
It's about a stance towards knowledge and doing
It's about communicating about knowledge. how deep do you go, into a realm of knowledge, with another person witnessing or participating?
Certain areas are permissible - dancing, music, being in a band (obviously still geeky)
Others are geeky with pejorative meaning attached. Why should that be?

Further thoughts on string:

I first learned cat’s cradle from other little kids on the playground in kindergarten. Through elementary school, yarn and string fads would sweep the playground. We’d do cat’s cradle, finger crochet, or string figures. Some other kid in Detroit taught me four-finger knitting.

Like hand-clapping games and jumprope rhymes, string figures are passed from young girl to young girl over decades and centuries. Older women teach these games too and of course also teach knitting, weaving, and other textile crafts. But think about how great it is that kids teach each other this complicated, geeky skill.

At some point I realized that most guys didn’t even know how to make a braid, much less the complicated ways to do fingerloop braiding, and that most women, and most girls, in the U.S. of my generation, could braid, single crochet, and do particular string figures. That seemed quite odd, since U.S. society hasn’t depended on women doing textile work by hand for many years. Yet it’s still ingrained very deep that it’s something we teach each other.

It strikes me we could learn something crucial, as geeky feminists, from the pattern of how knowledge is passed on between young girls, and how that is presented to them and by them as gendered knowledge – as something “girls know how to do”.

Single crochet is just making a loop with your fingers and thumb, and tying the same sliding knot over and over. It teaches the skill of maintaining tension on a strand. It’s easy enough to teach to a very small child, and it’s useful skill for life to make a weak cord into a stronger, thicker one.

Four-finger knitting seems a bit more rare in the world of playground games with yarn. I remember being absolutely fascinated with the way it worked, how the structure would evolve as it got longer, falling from the back of my hand like the rib cage and spine of a very long dinosaur, then would magically change to a knitted tube once I’d finish it and pull it taut.

Cat’s cradle I learned very early, maybe around 4 years old. Later, around 5th grade, I tried to make drawings of the possible configurations; the cradle, the manger, the candles, the diamonds, cat’s eye, and the other ones I didn’t have names for, and charts of how they connected to each other. It was hard to graph out, and now in poking around on the net, I don’t see any such graph. Let me know if you make one or find one! It is also interesting to find how-tos that try to develop a vocabulary like that of knitting to describe the actions and name the sections of the bits of string as they change.

I learned everything I knew about string from other girls. Though I didn't realize it, that was my introduction into geek sisterhood.