[28 August 2011]
There’s a triumphant feel to the jacket cover of Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture: “The Geeks have inherited the Earth. Computer nerds are our titans of industry; comic-book superheroes are Hollywood idols; the Internet is our night on the town.” The book, edited by Hugo award-winning writer Stephen H. Segal, is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek attempt to analyze the underlying philosophy behind “nerd culture” and what its ascendancy means for society at large.
The book’s five contributors, all well versed in science fiction and fantasy writing, tackle the broader meaning of 200 geek-friendly quotes and sayings (“with great power comes great responsibility”, etc.). While many come from science-fiction and fantasy classics like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, the book’s length allows for some unlikely sources, as well; decades old children’s cartoons and books to internet memes and video games.
In the introduction, Segal boils down the essential principle of “geek culture” into one phrase: “don’t be an a**hole”. Reading like a day-by-day calendar, each page features one quote and an explanation of its context and message. With no acknowledgement of who wrote what, there are occasionally jarring shifts in tone, but on the whole, Geek Wisdom follows Segal’s premise.
The Goonies is ultimately a message about the importance of inclusiveness and working together. Clerks is a paean to personal responsibility. Optimus Prime’s motto (“transform and roll out”) is actually a restatement of one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sayings.
The authors take pop culture seriously, even if they don’t always take themselves the same way. The rise of “nerd culture” over the last generation has coincided with the increasingly central role technology plays in our lives, a development with the potential for serious societal change. For the authors, geeks’ wholehearted embrace of technology’s potential stands in sharp contrast to religious fundamentalists and other more conservative voices.
They credit much of their philosophy to the works of Carl Sagan, the famous agnostic and scientist. In the ‘80s, his widely watched PBS miniseries The Cosmos popularized a more open-minded way to understanding the mysteries of the universe that science was beginning to unravel: “[Sagan] almost single handedly fought off religious efforts to downplay science, by offering a competing and equally powerful spiritualism—the conscious awareness of our place in the physical universe ... Sagan was the only priest whose catechisms made sense, and his temple—the vault of the heavens itself—became the only church worthy of worship.”
In this post-modern view of the world, religion is mainly a societal construction “that attempts to guide us toward maturity by helping us ask the big, cosmic questions about existence.” The Bible becomes a longer and more in-depth telling of Aesop’s Fables: important not because of what it says about the nature of the universe, but for its message on how people should live and function in society.
Any good story, religious or not, can be deconstructed to find an underlying message. That’s the unifying theme of Geek Wisdom, which treats pop culture as a form of secular religion, delivering insights on life from talking robots, flying dragons and everything in between.
It’s a conceit that stretches thin over 200 pages, as many quotes seem repetitive, added simply to pad the book’s length. However, its hopeful take on the progression of pop culture is a welcome change from the all-too-familiar refrain that modern culture is destroying society.