The original geeks were sideshow performers who did disgusting things like disembowelling a chicken and eating it raw. They often had mental issues and lived in squalid conditions, maybe even cages. They might be billed as “a savage from the depths of darkest Africa” or some such nonsense but more likely they were just people who had sunk to the bottom of society and had fallen in with the carnival. Alcoholics who would work for a bottle of moonshine would reputedly sometimes act the wild man for the carnival.
The film “Nightmare Alley” tells the story of one such geek, from his start as a sane and relatively normal person, who joins a carnival and works his way up to fame and fortune, only for his world to collapse around him, to his final fate as the alcoholic carnival geek.
The word “geek” (together with the similar word “gook”) has been used as a derogatory term for Asian people by Americans and others during war time. Troops were supposedly encouraged to use such terms in order to “dehumanize” the people of the countries which were being fought in or over. Hence the connotations of dislike that comes with the word.
The word “geek” meaning a clever person may possibly have its origins in the United Kingdom. It’s possible that its use in this sense may have arisen when the word which had been used to target overseas people was instead used to target unlikeable people much closer to home! The person who top scored in all tests and had no social graces became known as a “geek”. Of course, in some cases the so-called “geek” eventually by virtue of his smartness became the employer of those who belittled him at school.
In the highly technical world that we live in, the “geek” naturally became a wanted person and while the term is still often used in the derogatory sense, it can be a term of back-handed admiration, and the term is often proudly asserted by the geeks themselves. Indeed, having worked in Computers and Information Technology for all of my working life, I somewhat proudly consider myself to be a “geek”.
The techno-heroes of the current day are the likes of Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne of Apple, and Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard of Hewlett Packard. There is a sort of sense of awe that these geeks have achieved so much.
Latter day geeks have had films made about them. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zucherberg has been portrayed in a film, in a not so flattering light, I understand, not having seen the film. The school geek appears late on in the film “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” to whisk the eponymous heroines off in his helicopter.
“Geeks”, “boffins”, “back room boys” have existed in every era of history, no doubt. They are relied upon to produce the technical goods while being regarded both as humorous and not quite normal. However their status has risen of late, driven by the vast technological boom that pretty much started during the Second World War. The Dambusters, the Enigma machine and the atomic bomb all came from that era and after the war the boom exploded.
Geeks and computers go together. In the beginning, in the late 1940s, large machines started to appear in back rooms, tended by men and some women in white coats. These mysterious machines performed strange calculations and the geeks in control were treated like high priests of some mystery cult.
At this time a relatively new company called IBM rose to prominence and dominated the new field of computing. Mainframe computers as they were called swiftly spread to many companies, and special rooms were built to house the multitude of beige cabinets that formed a mainframe computer system. By the 1980s there were many computers performing many different tasks and companies began to depend on them.
However there were smaller, simpler computers starting to appear. Many households of that era would have had a Sinclair or Commodore or Atari computer on which to play games. IBM introduced a computer of this size, the IBM Personal Computer, but then they dropped the ball. While IBM is still one of the biggest companies in the world, they did not really embrace this technology, allowing the rise of the PC.
One company did embrace the technology and realised that the way to make the big money was not to provide the hardware, but to provide the software that ran on it and Microsoft became its rise to prominence, like IBM before it, and the Microsoft Operating System became dominant, and is still dominant today.
So what has this got to do with Grandad? Well, the current generation wonders whether the older generations will “get” the new technology. Consider though. Grandad will be 60-ish, right? That will mean that he would have been born in the early 1950s or late 1960s. In the 1980s he will have been around 20 and just the right age to take part in the spread of computing around the globe. He may have had a Commodore or an Atari at home.
In his thirties he will have seen the rise of DOS and Windows and he may even have had a 386 machine at home. Possibly he became proficient in DOS and the early Windows being what it was he probably was proficient obtaining and loading “drivers” for his machine.
It is likely that he has experienced the joys of persuading a modem to connect to a bulletin board, or through a fledgling ISP to this new thing, the Internet. He may have spent hours downloading a blocky, slow game to display on his CGA-capable monitor, transferring it down the telephone lines at the rate of a few bytes a second. A megabyte download might have taken half an hour or more.
As the Internet grew he would have switched to the Netscape browser and accessed the Internet at 2400bps, then 4800bps, then a massive 9600bps and on to an astronomical 56kbps! Doubtless these days he uses some form of broadband or cable connection.
Today’s geeks believe that because they have grown up with the technology that Grandad (even Dad) will not be able to cope with it. They conveniently forget that while they may have grown up with the Internet and the technology, the Internet and technology have grown up with Grandad!