Back in 2006 I wrote an essay about the origins of girl geekdom in my life and how influential my mother had been in my eventually going into technology. It was later published in the spring 2007 issue of Shameless. It’s a goofy piece, and a little nostalgic now looking back at it through the lens of the recent amazing leaps forward with programs like Girls Who Code, Girls in STEM, and Women 2.0. You were ahead of the curve, Mom — as usual. Happy Mother’s Day.
The Geek in Disguise
Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to present to you one of the most powerful hidden forces of our time. I speak of a silent sisterhood, an ineffable affinity, a culture shrouded in a mystery wrapped in an enigma, so secret that the members themselves may not be aware of what they are. I speak, of course, of the camouflaged chix0r, the masked mechanatrix — the geek in disguise.
Oh yes, verily I tell you, they are all around us, and always have been. Adelaide Cabete, doctor, activist, and first ordained female Freemason? Total geek. And let us not forget that the programmer of the first computer was not a man, but the vaunted Ada Lovelace. Searching through history, the inquisitive mind finds them everywhere: What about Rosalind Franklin, who decided to become a scientist at fifteen (despite her father’s desire for her to be a social worker), wrote a university thesis on “The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal and related materials”, and later went on to provide critical photographic evidence on the structure of DNA? And Mary Anning, discoverer of ichthyosaurs? Even the enigmatic Emily Dickinson, with her inexhaustible obsession with words and penchant for dreams, has the traces of it; when the geek is in you, it is inescapable.
As I write this, I am on an airplane to California, traveling with my boss — video game developer, CEO, mother, geek par excellence — to pitch a new project to three Los Angeles publishers. I am a game designer, a career some would find at the very fiery heart of geekdom; just to the right of Dungeons & Dragons(tm), slightly left of Linux administration, poised at the apex of toy and tech — there lies my profession. When I was a kid my friends used to mock my obsession with the Commodore 64, but now I fix their PCs, and tolerant sighs have turned to envy.
In our current age a woman can wear her flash drive on her sleeve and win social capital, but it wasn’t always so. Before it was culturally acceptable for a girl to debug C++, pioneer geek women asserted their right to ones and zeroes all in a row. My mother, now a senior manager for Computer Sciences Corporation, brought home a 286 when the only other kids in my class to have computers in the home were a couple of comfortably outcast Trekkies. And it was from her influence, not my father’s, that the term ‘defrag’ entered my vocabulary before I was ten years old.
Yet even for my mother, the heart of her geekiness lies in a tireless pursuit for a better way to do things, a sense of eternally young idealism, not merely a lust for high tech toys. Her love of gadgetry is a love of efficiency, of building tools that allow us to do more, experience more, and accomplish more with this brief mayfly’s season that we spend on Earth. From my father I learned scholarship and a fascination with the sciences, but not a week went by in my childhood when my mother didn’t have another idea for a great invention or a better way to do things.
I was thirteen years old when she took my grandparents, my brother, and me to Disneyworld. We purchased one of those ticket package deals — the type where one ticket gets you into three or four parks. We all went to Epcot, but my grandparents stayed behind for a couple of trips to the other parks, and this created a desynch when we all went to the Magic Kingdom; we were two tickets short, even though my grandparents still had many entrance tokens on their tickets. Mom to the rescue! Rather than purchasing extra tickets, she shunted my brother and I through with my grandparents’ tickets, got a hand stamp, then went back outside and escorted my grandparents back in with a second run on their tickets. At the time I thought of it as merely clever (a classic sort of logic puzzle) and perhaps a bit mischievous, but I recognize it now for what it was: the relentless pursuit of efficiency. My mother was defragging Disneyworld admissions.
Yet geekhood is not about technology alone. It has its roots in something truer, deeper, and more complex — the vision that we can make the world a better place, and the passion to pursue that vision with vigor and clarity of purpose. For what is ‘geek’ if not an unquenchable thirst for perfection? What is a gadget, or even a computer, if not a shortcut on the path toward fast accomplishment? At the end of this road is a world where there is no hunger, no thirst, no privation, and no disease; a world where we find balance with nature and time to pursue the mystic higher reaches of our minds’ potential. The eyes of a geek are locked on this world.
To be a true geek is also therefore to have a dauntless idealism. There is another American subculture famous for this, and similarly not always well regarded — the hippies of the 1960s. To this day, though she might not easily admit it, my mother owns a pair of beaded leather moccasins, and for a time was as hippie as they come — with an attitude that shaped the person that I would become in adulthood.
There is a kinship between geeks and hippies that often goes unrecognized. Once while walking to class with my college boyfriend (local alpha geek), I was stopped by a puzzlingly exuberant security guard who swore that my companion and I were the spitting image of Janis Joplin and Paul McCartney. (Aside from our long hair [mine has not been cut above my waist in years] and my green peasant shirt, we weren’t — and were quite confused, touched also with the mild effrontery that comes from being socially assigned to the wrong subculture. Don’t get me wrong, I love hippies — but I owned a Starbucks Visa at the time, an act that probably forever disqualified me from true hippiedom.)
If you asked the average geek, you would probably find that my experience was not uncommon, especially for the bearded and longhaired male set. In this transition period where geeks have not yet established visual recognition in the social sphere (most normals probably picture actors from The Matrix when you mention the word ‘geek’, but no geek I know is so obsessive about their wardrobe or appearance; leather trenchcoats are great and all, but who can justify the expense when the World of Warcraft expansion is so shortly forthcoming?), the mistake is easy to make. And not just on the street. Ask them, and you will find that most geeks cherish the environment, resent the Establishment, and boast eclectic tastes in music. In the great social taxonomy, geeks and hippies are common descendants, for they share a philosophical vision. And vision — an unflinching dream of excellence — is what ‘geek’ is all about. No wonder, when she did enter the corporate domain, my mother gravitated toward technology — the thing that, if anything does, will deliver our dreams of utopia. In her path she has been a pioneer; professional, visionary, technophile — mother, daughter, and friend.
And so here I close, with the parting suggestion that there is a little geek in all of us, and women over time continue to shed their camouflage. Deeper within the realms of gadgetry and efficiency, previously perceived to be the domain of the masculine, we see a higher ideal: elegance; symmetry; intricacy. And these could not be more female; ‘geek’ is sleek and sexy in our present age, and thus we will see more women, as Nietzsche may have put it, becoming who they are, led by pioneers who expressed these aspects of their personality bravely when society found them distasteful. As with all such things, they did so because they knew it was right, and of late the world agrees. Onward, good companions, to a bright future!