The Triumph of the Geek: The Evolution of Tech-Obsessed Nerds Through Time
No so long ago, the computer geek (origin: Dorkus IBM-us) was confined to the back rooms and basements of companies everywhere. White dress shirts (sleeves optional), thin black ties and horn-rimmed glasses were standard issue. Mainstream social acceptance? Not so much.
Over each succeeding decade, however, geeks have crept out of their shells, changed their look and gained more acceptance in business and in society. The results of which can be seen today: Geeks and their much-loved tech have thoroughly invaded the mainstream.
Let's take a tour through the ages, shall we?
Republished with permission from CIO (view original version)
The IBM Era
The era that ushered in what we consider the modern-day IT department started off like this: On the left is the 1940's NIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer), weighing in at 30 tons with more than 19,000 vacuum tubes burning. On the right is the IBM System 360 mainframe, Model 50. At the controls were computer technicians and early programmers, the dressed-for-success geek of the day.
Pirates of Silicon Valley
The buttoned-up IBM look eventually gave way to the hippie programmer: Coders, pirates and anarchists whose entrepreneurial zeal challenged the IBM dogma of the day. "Hippie programmers have long hair and deliberately, even pridefully, ignore the seasons in their choice of clothing. They wear shorts and sandals in the winter and T-shirts all the time," notes tech author Robert X. Cringely. Showing off the look: on the left, Apple's Jobs and Woz; on the right, Richard Stallman, software freedom activist.
Gamers in Training
Once the bright minds at Atari, Nintendo and ColecoVision found ways to bring the arcade into the living room, the 1970s and '80s witnessed the birth of a new kind of geek: the gamer. Shunning outdoor activity for the thrill of previously unseen digital worlds, gamers blasted asteroids and saved Lady from Donkey Kong - all with the flick of the wrist and tap of their fingers.
Geeks Land in Pop Culture
The 1980s marked a shift in geek culture. That's was when super-smart - if socially awkward - folks stepped into the spotlight by landing starring roles in movies and TV shows. It would be a while, however, before "geek" actually became cool. But geeks did win a place in America's heart thanks to likeable incarnations such as Louis, Gilbert and Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds; Doogie Howser, M.D.; Steve Urkel; Screech from Saved by the Bell; and Anthony Michael Hall as "The Geek" in Sixteen Candles.
The King of the Geeks
Um...yeah. This photo actually might have set the mainstream geek movement back a couple of years.
From Slumdog to Dotcom Millionaires
Purists would say that the tech appearance declined in the 1990s - where did the bow ties and suspenders go? But so did the standards for why VCs would fork over millions to nearly anyone with a dotcom-related "business plan" ("Got a PowerPoint deck, elevator pitch or words scribbled on napkin? You do. Great!"). No matter, the '90s geek flourished with a new, casual look that screamed: "I know technology, I'll be working here for three months tops, and you need to pay me truckloads of money."
But not every dotcom IPO ended as ingloriously as many ventures did in the 1990s. There was that search engine named Google, created by Stanford nerds Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Page and Brin became the poster boys for Internet-era success, and their mission to provide access to the world's information (and "Don't be evil" mantra) not only humanized the geek but enabled average people to get geeky with their data desires, too.
Geeks Get Their Own Squad
Yet there still have been tech ventures with retro nods to past geek lore. Take, for instance, the Geek Squad agents, who became ubiquitous in the 1990s for their 1950s look, glasses, door-to-door tech service and distinctive VW Bug vehicles.
And lots of other people still love the classic nerd look: Dressing up like good ol' Poindexter just never seems to get old.
IT Still at Work
Just like their 1940s and '50s IBM predecessors, today's IT geeks have got the mental goods to oversee complicated, bleeding-edge technology. And although the hardware has gotten smaller, geeks must now deal with global infrastructure headaches, constant security threats and tech-savvy (a.k.a. "know it all") users.
The Tech Geek Inside Us All
The new millennium may have come in with a Y2K non-event and financial thud, but the geek exuberance has grown only stronger since. Geekiness has gone mainstream! According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 96 percent of those who work use the Internet, e-mail or have a cell phone for some purpose in their lives, almost 40 percent of Americans have a wireless handheld such as a BlackBerry, and nearly 25 percent use social-networking websites like Twitter or Facebook.
From Gates to Zuckerberg
The face of the new corporate nerd - now that Gates has retired from Microsoft - is another Harvard dropout who looks something like this: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. There's no suit, no tie, no slacks. Just a lot of youthful energy and cocksure bravado - and lots and lots of hype. But the hype for Facebook and other social networks like Twitter, plus everyday folks' dependency on tech, has created "The Golden Age of the Geek."