Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#26 The Employees of Silicon Valley

In mainstream movies, as often as not, the technical genius, the brainiac who saves/redeems humanity by calculating an impossibly complex set of mathematical/programming proofs/codes, is Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe or Val Kilmer. God knows why movie goers accept this conceit since in real life techies are about as glamorous as a kid brother with a club foot. Even that annoying hipsterish guy from Mac commercials is a rosy delusion. In real life the tech genius is Paul Giamatti, but more depressed.

And yet: movie goers like Paul Giamatti. He’s smart. He’s funny. He’d be a winning dinner or road-trip companion. Sure he’s dyspeptic, incorrigibly introverted and self-loathing but he’s real. He’s true. He’s interesting. He’s us. Maybe we’re not AS geeky as Paul Giamatti we all have an inner geek that can relate to him. No one sees the Wolverine or Jim Morrison on screen and thinks “That’s me!” but we all sort of feel, on some level, like the unwanted, unconfident wine-geek doofus who can’t get laid to save his life in Sideways.

In San Francisco, of course, it’s not a metaphor. We literally ARE that guy. We work at Google, HP, Facebook, Genetech and so on. We’re engineers, patent attorneys, CTOs, lab technicians and quality control officers. We grew up on a diet of online war games, academic decathlons, socially mandated celibacy and noogies. Our geekness is not some secret, inner sense of self-regard but prevailing public opinion - which is pretty much all that counts.

Whether this fact should be celebrated or bemoaned has traditionally depended on ideology: either you thought that human advancement was about intelligence and thus geeks were good or you thought it was about being cool (i.e., socially influential) and geeks were scourge. It was just assumed that girls, along with Republicans, third grade bullies, people from L.A. and basically anybody psychologists considered half-way normal, were blood-sworn believers in the latter.

But by now - post youtube and twitter and the rest - the ideological debate isn't really relevant, because now the geek drives a better car than you do. As social developments go, this is total revolution, this is like the lowliest cave-man discovering fire, and everyone sort of acknowledges it by reading fluff pieces on "geek chic" and watching Judd Apatow films but, at the same time, no one believes it matters. The basic propositional attitude that the geek is a social liability has not changed at all. People just take it for granted that there’s a billion geeks in the SF Bay Area and that girls hate geeks and that’s just the way it is.

This, given conventional wisdom and a mountain of cross-cultural statistical evidence, seems pretty f*cking improbable. People vaguely suppose that somehow female superficiality explains it. The idea is that girls either begrudge geeks for being a) too intellectual or b) too ugly. The former is a male anxiety derived from high school but that was never actually ever true and the latter is a canard aggressively promoted by soap operas, Seventeen and Cosmopolitan and falsified by the lifestyles of Mick Jagger, Donald Trump, and every man alive in the UAE.

What everyone knows at least subconsciously but is probably too guilty to point out is that while there is no valid ideological or a superficial reason to reject the geek, there is still a reasonable one: the geek's personality.

The geek's big secret is that at his core, behind the awkwardness and Return of the Jedi underpants, is a whole lot of repressed negativity. Day to day reality hates on him and he hates on it.

He hates the bullies and the insults and the atomic wedgies and he hates his peers’ lack of imagination, the pabulum that comprises most people’s brains, the hackneyed behavior and the inane status mongering, and the idiots in high school who thought it was cool to shotgun Coors at the rope swing on Fridays or lunch at Taco Bell and then carry their Taco Bell soda canisters to Spanish class as undeniable emblems of their superiority.

Supposedly. We guess.

So the geek makes the most rational move available to a higher minded human. He gets out. He withdraws to a wholly fantastically universe, a make-believe existence constructed not with money or power or sex or cats or any of the other bullsh*t things that usually attract female attention but instead with Proust novels or Mac OS code or the periodic table or off-shoots of George Lucas’ imagination. That’s the definition of the geek: someone who finds his happiness in a place where real people don't exist.

The irony here, and why geek abuse makes us feel so conflicted, is that the facts that make the geek pathetic also make him heroic. He’s unhappy and bullied but he persists. He fights the long hard fight. He is scarred but not vanquished and this makes him profoundly human or at least human in the most interesting way, not just because he is the underdog but because the scars of humanity are far more compelling than its unblemished forms, which is why the Oscar never goes to The Mexican or Point Break but instead to films about brilliant but geeky Jews or gays being killed.

But life involves a lot more than the pursuit of extraordinary meaning and knowledge, or, for that matter, the inexorable tragedy of that pursuit. In fact life, and the relationships that comprise it, even the ones we really, really care about, are mostly made up of totally uninspired, unexceptional and benign routine. And that’s the way we like it. We like our quotidian latte at Starbucks and casual, effortless break-room chatter and impromptu jaunts to the lake for summer skinny-dipping. If you’re whole life, or at least a major chunk of it, was a movie, you’d rather be slapsticking about the Hamptons with a grinning Andrew McCarthy than wasting away in a concentration camp with a starving concert pianist. Everyone feels that way, including girls, except for Ashley Olsen, who is very serious.

The fact the geek is both content is his alternative universe and intriguing in a situationally specific way in this one, doesn’t, on a relationship level, matter much. And the fact that SF guys are often reformed geeks, or at least self-identified reformed geeks, attempting to morph into normal members of society, capable of playing by conventional rules of hierarchy with new found money or occupational prestige, doesn't go much further. It helps but like a fine Italian suit on a two-headed circus freak. In the most routine and intimate of human things, such as pillow talk, shared silence and extra-marital nooners, the geek forever feels like he did when he was 15 and being shoved up against a locker: angry and bored and (as Rilke says to us (when we’re in the mood for deep, deep, really special wistfulness (like maybe just after we’ve seen Lost in Translation)), unutterably alone.

It's a wierd, unforgiving thing to say someone is beneath us romantically. We do it all the time but it's still weird and mean and based on almost nothing, just a vague psycho-societal composite of the sexual ideal that is highly situational (even though we act as if it's not) and probably in the end makes us feel more heartbroken than loved.

But the geek actually IS beneath us romantically. He's intriquing, so people want to see him on display for amusement, and he's symbolic, so people want to know he exists for the same reasons they want polar bears to exist, but in the day to day trenches of every day existence he's unbelievably annoying, so people don't want him for
him. And somehow his new-found wealth and influence makes his core personality that much more insufferable. And though this in some small way legitimizes our discrimination and exculpates us morally, it also makes San Francisco the loneliest place in the world to wear Return of the Jedi underpants.


  1. Awesome post.
    I am struck visiting other places how much more stereotypically alpha-male and generally attractive (in shape) the men are. And I do think this drives down the number of attractive women in the city, because they just move away or visit but never relocate.

  2. your entire website is undermined by the simple fact that, actually, there are lots of women in SF, however, unfortunately they are unattractive and look like men.