Tag Archives: geekery

The Geek Niche (Draft)

As explained before, I am not a “visual” thinker. Unlike some other people, I don’t draw witty charts all the time. However, I do occasionally think visually. In this case, I do “see” Venn diagrams and other cutesy graphics. What I’m seeing is the proportion of “geeks” in the world. And, to be honest, it’s relatively clear for me. I may be completely off, but I still see it clearly.

Of course, much of it is about specifying what we mean by “geek.” Which isn’t easy for someone used to looking at culture’s near-chaotic intricacy and intricacies. At this point, I’m reluctant to define too clearly what I mean by “geek” because some people (self-professed geeks, especially) are such quick nitpickers that anything I say about the term is countered by more authorized definitions. I even expect comments to this blog entry to focus on how inaccurate my perception of geeks is, regardless of any other point I make.

Ah, well…

My intention isn’t to stereotype a group of people. And I don’t want to generalize. I just try to describe a specific situation which I find very interesting. In and of itself, the term “geek” carries a lot of baggage, much of which is problematic for anyone who is trying to understand an important part of the world in which we all live. But the term is remarkably useful as a way to package an ethos, a style, a perspective, an approach, a worldview, a personality type. Among those who could be called “geeks” are very diverse people. There might not even a single set of criteria to define who should legitimately be called a “geek.” But “geekness” is now a reference for some actions, behaviors, markets, and even language varieties. Describing “geeks” as a group makes some sense, even if some people get very sensitive about the ways geeks are described.

For the record, I don’t really consider myself a geek. At the same time, I do enjoy geekness and I consider myself geek-friendly. It’s just that I’m not an actual insider to the geek coterie.

Thinking demographically has some advantages in terms of simplification. Simple is reassuring, especially in geek culture. So, looking at geek demographics on a broad scale…

First, the upper demographic limit for geekery. At the extreme, the Whole Wide World. What’s geeky about The World?

Number of things, actually. Especially in terms of some key technologies. Those technologies some people call “the tech world.” Consumer electronics, digital gadgets, computers…

An obvious tech factor for the upper limit of geekness is the ‘Net. The Internet is now mainstream. Not that everyone, everywhere truly lives online but the ‘Net is having a tremendous impact on the world as a whole. And Internet penetration is shaping up, in diverse parts of the world. This type of effect goes well with a certain type of “low-level geekness.” Along with widespread online communication, a certain approach to the world has become more prominent. A techno-enthusiastic and troubleshooting approach I often associate with engineering. Not that all engineers uses this type of approach or that everyone who uses this type of approach is an engineer. But, in my mind, it’s an “engineering worldview” similar to an updated set of mechanistic metaphors.

Another obvious example of widespread geek-friendly technology is the cellphone. Obvious because extremely widespread (apparently, close to half of the human population of the planet is cellphoned). Yet, cellphones are the geekiest technology item available. What makes them geeky, in my eyes, is the way they’re embedded in a specific social dynamic emphasizing efficiency, mobility, and “always-on connectivity” along with work/life, group/individual, and public/private dichotomies.

The world’s geekiness can also be observed through other lenses, more concerned with the politic and the social drive of human behavior. Meritocracies, relatively non-judgemental ethics, post-national democracies, neo-liberal libertarianism, neo-Darwinian progress-mindedness, networked identities… Figures on populations “affected” by these geeky dimensions of socio-political life are hard to come by and it’s difficult to tell apart these elements from simple “Westernization.” But it’s easy to conceive of a geeky version of the world in which all of these elements are linked. In a way, it’s as if the world were dominated by geekdom.

Which brings me to the lower demographic limit for geekiness: How many “true geeks” are there? What’ are the figures for the “alpha geek” population?

My honest guesstimate? Five to ten million worldwide, concentrated in a relatively small number of urban areas in North America and Eurasia. I base this range on a number of hunches I got throughout the years. In fact, my impression is that there are about two million people in (or “oriented toward”) the United States who come close enough to the geek stereotype to qualify as “alpha geeks.” Haven’t looked at academic literature on the subject but judging from numbers of early adopters in “geeky tech,” looking at FLOSS movements, thinking about desktop Linux, listening to the “tech news” I don’t think this figure is so far off. On top of these U.S. geeks are “worldwide geeks” who are much harder to count. Especially since geekness itself is a culture-specific concept. But, for some reason, I get the impression that those outside the United States who would be prototypical geeks number something like five million people, plus or minus two million.

All this surely sounds specious. In fact, I’m so not a quant dude, I really don’t care about the exact figure. But my feeling, here, is that this ultra-geeky population is probably comparable to a large metropolitan area.

Of course, geeks are dispersed throughout the world. Though there are “geek meccas” like Bangalore and the San Francisco Bay Area, geeks are often modern cosmopolitans. They are typically not “of a place” and they navigate through technology institutions rather than through native locales. Thanks to telecommuting, some geeks adopt a glocal lifestyle making connections outside of their local spheres yet constructing local realities, at least in their minds. In some cases, übergeeks are resolute loners who consciously try to avoid being tied to local circles.

Thanks in part to the “tech industry” connections of geek society, geek-friendly regions compete with one another on the world stage.

Scattered geeks have an impact on local communities and this impact can be disproportionately large in comparison to the size of the geek population.

Started this post last week, after listening to Leo Laporte’s  TWiT “netcast.” 

The TWiT Netcast Network with Leo Laporte

 …

I wanted to finish this post but never got a round tuit. I wanted to connect this post with a few things about the connection between “geek culture” in the computer/tech industry and the “craft beer” and “coffee geek” movements. There was also the obvious personal connection to the subject. I’m now a decent ethnographic insider-outsider to geek culture. Despite (thanks to) the fact that, as a comment-spammer was just saying, I’m such a n00b.

Not to mention that I wanted to expand upon JoCo‘s career, attitude, and character (discussed during the TWiT podcast). And that was before I learned that JoCo himself was coming to Austin during but not through the expensive South by Southwest film/music/interactive festivals.

If I don’t stop myself, I even get the urge to talk about the politics of geek groups, especially in terms of idealism

This thoughtful blogpost questioning the usefulness of the TED conference makes me want to push the “publish” button, even though this post isn’t ready. My comments about TED aren’t too dissimilar to many of the things which have appeared in the past couple of days. But I was going to focus on the groupthink, post-Weberian neo-liberalism, Well/Wired/GBN links, techy humanitarianism, etc.

 

Ah, well… 

Guess I should just RERO it and hope for the best. Maybe I’ll be able to leave those topics behind. RSN

TBC

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Social Beer

As a reply to Liz Losh’s generous blogpost on my passion for beer and coffee culture(s).

virtualpolitik: Strange Brew

My tone is clearly much less formal than Losh’s. Hope it still fits and doesn’t bring down the quality standards expected from her blog.

Quoth Losh’s post:

Doesn’t consigning brewing of coffee and beer in private homes eliminate third spaces for social interactions with a cross-section of people and opportunities for discussions and debates? Isn’t it like putting yourself in a cul-de-sac with a garage door facing the street in that you aren’t participating with neighborhood businesses? Enkerli strongly disagreed, since beer-making involves large quantities, parties, and collective beer making sessions. He thought that it was a powerfully social activity and one that was often situated in specific neighborhoods.

Probably overstated my disagreement about eliminating third spaces. Was mostly trying to describe what I had observed from the beer and coffee world(s). Basically, wanted to emphasise that making coffee or beer at home is just one of several activities done by members of those networks. And those activities often push people to go and consume beer or coffee outside the home.

Actually, discussing this is helpful to me because it reinforces the point that what I’m observing has more to do with “craft beer culture” (or “culinary coffee culture”) than with homebrewing (or making coffee at home).

Haven’t tried to find out whether or not homebrewing and home coffee making might prevent meaningful interactions between coffee/beer geeks and “the rest of the (local) community.” Really, that’s not my type of work. My impression is that those DIY activities might have those “decreased participation” effects in some contexts but such effects haven’t been apparent to me on any occasion during the last few years of observing and participating in beer and coffee geekery.

To be clearer, and specifically focusing on (beer) homebrewers. Making beer at home has become a fairly common activity in North America since the 1980s (when the legal status of homebrewing in the United States was finally cleared up). But my focus isn’t beer making as an activity. It’s a social network which revolves around “handcrafted” beer. This is one network I have been connecting with for several years, now. And, IMHO, it’s the core of the so-called “craft beer revolution.”

Many people brew beer at home for purely financial reasons. While these are technically “home brewers,” they are not taking part in the social and cultural dynamics that I aim to eventually describe academically. In fact, while those “thrifty brewers” are known to the “beergeek” crowd, they are considered as complete outsiders to the “craft beer revolution.” Typically, those who brew for financial reasons use cans of hopped malt extract and dextrose powder to make beer. On the homebrewing side of the craft beer movement, all-grain brewing (making beer from scratch, with the malted barley, hops, yeast, and water) is the normative method.

I guess we could use terms like “casual,” “dedicated,” “careless,” “serious,” “extract,” and “advanced” to make distinctions between those types of “homebrewers.” But we’re talking about such different worlds here that emphasising these distinctions seems irrelevant. So, when I talk about “homebrewers,” I almost always mean “serious, dedicated, advanced brewers who care more about beer quality than about costs.”

(It’s quite interesting that, in OZ, the term “homebrewer” refers to people who make beer at home to save money while “craftbrewer” refers specifically to people who brew beer for “serious” reasons.)

The homebrewers I tend to talk about aren’t casual brewers, they often spend rather large amounts of money on beer and brewing equipment, they frequently send their beers to large competitions, and typically belong to brewing associations (“brewclubs”). In the United States, many of them are card-carrying members of the American Homebrewers Association. AHA membership gives them access to a rather “serious” technical magazine on brewing techniques (Zymurgy) and discounts at local brewpubs all over the United States (and some parts of Canada).

The typical brewclub has monthly meetings as well as a number of beer-related events. In large urban areas, brewclubs can have a very elaborate structure, with annual fees, bulk purchasing accounts, etc.

The keen observer with an eye toward folklore might notice that these sound like the “quilting bees” which were served as a way for North American women to unite and eventually form “grassroots movements.” Given Losh’s political bent, I feel compelled to note this similarity, even though I care fairly little about political involvement on the part of homebrewers.

Interesting that Losh should say that I teach “folklore and ethnomusicology” at Concordia. While I do teach a course in the anthropology of music which is, in fact, labeled “ethnomusicology,” the courses I’ve been teaching at different institutions in the past five years were all in anthropology. However, I did serve as an associate instructor for a large course in folkloristics at Indiana University for three semesters during part of my Ph.D. coursework at that institution. And I do consider “folklore” to be among my fields of specialisation.  Of course, Losh probably got her notion about my teaching from the fact that I’m finishing a Ph.D. at Indiana University’s Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. 😉

Anyhoo…

Some brewclubs also serve as “beer appreciation” groups, similar to wine-tasting (and emphasizing the fact that beer is chemically more complex than wine). While beer-tasting can be a solitary activity, sampling beer with fellow homebrewers (and beergeeks) is common practise for serious beer-lovers. Perhaps more importantly, homebrewers frequently use a set of guidelines while tasting beer. These guidelines, from the Beer Judge Certification Program, often serve as a shared knowledge base for “beer literacy.” The BJCP’s main purpose is to train judges for homebrewing competitions. When I eventually do publish some academic work on craft beer culture, I’ll need to have a rather large section on the BJCP, competitions, and so on. Among homebrewers, I’m known as a vocal opponent to the BJCP guidelines. I do recognise, however, that they serve important functions in the context. (I simply happen to think that there is more to beer than evaluating it through set standards and I see the effects of the BJCP guidelines as broadening the gap between actual beer appreciation and the general public.)

One thing which was already clear to me when I gave a talk on craft beer culture at an surprisingly pleasant food and culture conference,  is that craft beer culture is geek culture. As geek ethnographer Jenny Cool was present during the conversation which triggered Losh’s reaction (Cool and Losh are friends), I actually wanted to steer the conversation toward the issue of geek sociability, using homebrewers as an example.

Homebrewing is social because geeking out is social

(To simplify things a whole lot, someone could say that “geeks” are something of the “somewhat sociable” equivalent of “nerds.” To caricature, the type of sociability involved is that of the stereotypical “basement hacker.” Some of “them” might in fact be antisocial human beings. But “they” become less unfriendly with like-minded people. Especially when “they” feel there is “smartness parity” in terms of intellectual prowess. Going on a limb, someone could say that what has been happening in the last thirty years, thanks to computer-mediated communication, is a steady increase in the opportunities for “basement hacker-type nerds” to interact with one another. These interactions might occasionally lead to meaningful social relationships. In the context of increased social capital given to computer-savvy people, geekness becomes almost cool and geeks are “more social” (according to a broader social group) than the “nerds” who had been stigmatised for so long.)

Homebrewing as an activity was facilitated by changes in its legal status (and by the alcohol regulations in general). Beer geekery is embedded in the increased prominence of online communication. Pre-Internet beer people were pretty much just “beer nerds.” Today’s beergeeks are almost all Internet-savvy and many beer-related activities happen through mailing-lists and websites. (Usenet newsgroups used to be fairly important but, since 1994 or so, mailing-lists and websites have pretty much taken over.)

As is the case with many other groups, online interactions give way to face-to-face interactions, friendships, and elaborate support systems. Meeting at brewpubs to sample beer and “talk shop,” beergeeks are bonding. And this type of bonding often creates strong… bonds. I personally have a large number of anecdotes which reveal the strength of the bonds among beergeeks. And, as a social scientist, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon.

Going back to Losh’s points(!), I might say that beergeeks are connecting more with broader social groups than the homebrewers she seems to have had in mind. Using the “think global, drink local” motto, beergeeks (including homebrewers) are situating themselves in complex social systems. They/we talk about important social and political issue.

And we do drink good beer.


Sniff It!

It’s probably the most distinctive sign of the beverage geek: the attentive sniff.

When you see someone taking a long sniff of a beverage (say, a cup of coffee, a pint of beer, or even a glass of milk), you just know that this person is an avid enthusiast of the sensory exploration that drinking can be. Of course, that person may also be wondering about some strange odour coming from that drink. But even that may be a step in the direction of beverage hedonism.  If the sniffer also looks intently at the beverage and takes a long time to concentrate on every sip, you know this person is a true geek. If that person also takes notes or even listens to the beverage, the geek meter should go off the charts.

Sure, much of it sounds really funny. And there’s often social pressure against this type of enjoyment, especially in cultural contexts linked with Calvinism or Puritanism.  Yet, there’s a lot to be said about experiencing a good beverage. Continue reading