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Geek Chic: Who was that masked mechanatrix?

May 1st, 2007     by Erin Hoffman     Issue 2: Issue 2: The Virginity issue     Comments

Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to present to you a powerful hidden force 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 who they are. I speak, of course, of the camouflaged chix0r, the masked mechanatrix — the geek in disguise.

Oh yes, they are all around us, and always have been. Searching through history, the inquisitive mind finds them everywhere. There’s Adelaide Cabete, doctor, activist and the first ordained female Freemason: total geek. And Rosalind Franklin, who decided to become a scientist at 15 (despite her father’s desire for her to be a social worker) and later went on to provide critical photographic evidence of the structure of DNA. There’s Mary Anning, who discovered ichthyosaurs, giant marine reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic era. And keep in mind that the programmer of the first computer was not a man, but the vaunted Ada Lovelace. Even the enigmatic Emily Dickinson, with her inexhaustible obsession with words and penchant for dreams, showed traces of it. When the geek is in you, it is inescapable.

As I write this, I am on an airplane heading to California, travelling 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 consider to be at the fiery heart of geekdom. My profession lies just to the right of Dungeons & Dragons, slightly left of Linux administration, poised at the apex of toy and tech. 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.

These days, 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 have their ones and zeros 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 who had computers in their homes 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 10 years old.

Yet my mother’s geekiness is not merely a lust for high-tech toys. It lies in a tireless pursuit for a better way to do things, a sense of eternally young idealism. Her love of gadgetry is a love of efficiency, of building tools that allow us to do more, experience more and accomplish more in the brief time we each have on earth. I learned scholarship and a fascination with the sciences from my father, 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 13 years old when she took my grandparents, my brother and me to Walt Disney World. We purchased one of those ticket package deals, the type where one ticket gets you into several theme parks. We all went to Epcot, but my grandparents skipped a couple of trips to the other parks, and this created a desynch when we went to the Magic Kingdom; we were two tickets short, but my grandparents had many entrance tokens left on their tickets. Mom to the rescue! Rather than purchasing extra tickets, she shunted me and my brother 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 Disney World admissions.

Thus, geekhood is not about technology alone. I like to think 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 vigour 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 accomplishment? If guided by goodwill and a sense of social justice rather than a drive for profit, this road could lead us to a world where there is less hunger, 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 subculture famous for this, one that is similarly mocked: the hippies of the 1960s (though she might not admit it, my mother still owns a pair of beaded leather moccasins).

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 we were the spitting image of Janis Joplin and Paul McCartney. Aside from our long hair and my green peasant shirt, we weren’t, and were quite confused, touched also with the irritation that comes from being assigned to the wrong subculture. (Don’t get me wrong, I love hippies, but I owned a Starbucks Visa at the time, a fact that probably forever disqualified me from true hippiedom.)

If you ask the average geek, you’ll probably find that my experience was not uncommon, especially for the bearded and long-haired male set. See, geeks haven’t really established visual recognition in the social sphere. (Most normals probably picture characters from The Matrix at the mention of the word geek, but no geek I know is so obsessive about their wardrobe or appearance; leather trench coats are great and all, but who can justify the expense when the World of Warcraft expansion is so shortly forthcoming?) It’s easy to mistake geeks for hippies — and not just on the street.

Ask them, and you’ll 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 is what geekdom is all about. No wonder that, when she did enter the corporate domain, my mother gravitated toward technology, which she believed would deliver our dreams of utopia. In her path, she has been a pioneer: professional, visionary, technophile, as well as mother, daughter and friend.

And so I close with the suggestion that there is a little geek in all of us, and women should proudly shed their camouflage. Deeper within the realms of gadgetry and efficiency, previously perceived to be the domain of masculinity, we can aim for a higher ideal: elegance, symmetry, intricacy. Geek is sleek and sexy in our present age, and thus we will see more women, as Nietzsche might say, 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. Onward, good companions, to a bright future!

Erin Hoffman is a freelance author and video game designer. She lives in Troy, New York, with a small cadre of parrots, surreptitiously plotting world domination. Her work has appeared in print anthologies and online with The Escapist, Gamasutra and others. Visit her website at www.gryphonflight.com.

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