i dream of being possible

the curious contradictions of the poor social skills of the boy geek

I’ve been thinking about a recent article in Model View Culture, “Making it Past the Lobby of the Meritocracy”. The article focuses somewhat more on the myth that networking spaces are open or neutral, but I’m interested in the contradiction (irony, in the author’s words) highlighted in the opening paragraph:

Geeks and coders are stereotyped routinely inside and outside of the tech world for their lack of social skills. It is profoundly ironic, given how much ‘success’ in the tech industry depends on in-person, real time socialization at industry gatherings. (Please read the entire article ‘cause the rest is sooo worth it)

I’m inclined to think that interpreting this situation as ‘ironic’ is probably the most charitable approach, since it implies that this inherent contradiction is accidental or unintentional. The interpretation that feels more right to me is that this contradiction is a feature of tech culture, rather than a bug.

In other words, it is one of the mechanisms by which the tech/geek community (as defined by being white and a man) maintains hegemonic control over its borders and membership. And, of course, as the anon author of the above notes, the claim that these spaces for socializing/networking/schmoozing are neutral and open is a major rhetorical strategy for disguising this mechanism, a way of rendering it invisible (and, thus, highly resistant to critique and change).

The first question that arises, in my mind, about the poor and/or lack of social skills of the boy geek is: socializing with whom?

The stereotype of boy geeks being unable to socializing appropriately is necessarily framed as such: boy geeks cannot socialize with ‘normal’ ‘regular’ non-geeks. This is why it becomes one of the markers of geekiness, as well as one of the golden tickets to admission within geek culture (again, we are working with a definition of ‘geek’ that is necessarily white and a man).

But this stereotype says nothing about how geeks socialize with each other, it is only about how geeks socialize with non-geeks. We can see from the emphasis on schmoozing/networking within tech culture for being successful, that it is obvious that there is a normative style of socializing and set of social skills that geeks must necessarily possess in order to be successful within tech. So… for geeks who are successful withing this normative social context, how coherent is it to assert that they have ‘poor’ social skills? Or that these skills are ‘lacking’? Yes, these same people might (might) have some hiccups or problems socializing with non-geeks, but this isn’t really relevant at a point in time where the CEO of a large tech company (fb) can regularly show up at important business meetings in a hoodie. Indeed, these stereotypes have become so normalized that they are expected1.

Viewed in this light, it becomes obvious why Asian men have been the only non-white men who are readily allowed to participate within geek culture. The article, “Postmodern geekdom as simulated ethnicity”, notes:

we can place the white male geek on a racial and gendered continuum that situates him between, on the one hand, male jocks and black males, who are stereotypically considered more embodied, sexual, and animalistic, and, on the other, Asian male geeks, who are stereotypically considered even more rational and less sexual than white male geeks.

Since Asian men do not challenge the hegemoney of white men within geek culture. They are non-threatening additions that allow tech/geek culture to duck some criticisms concerning diversity, but also provide a less-cool foil for the white geek. Asian geek boys represent the true embodiment of the non-social geek, since they cannot successfully socialize with anyone including other geeks because they are basically organic computers (this is why there aren’t very many Asian geek men who are ‘tech rock stars’).

And these normative standards of socialization must be reproduced and maintain in order to, yes, keep women out. Since it has been noted that geek culture’s emphasis on “a rigid and argumentative discursive style” is a significant barrier for the participation of women in tech culture. But here we see another contradiction in the ‘poor social skills’ stereotype: this type of behaviour isn’t even remotely unique to geek and/or tech communities.

A rigid, argumentative discursive style is pretty much how many white men engage in public life. Having my fair share of experience within philosophy (and other types of humanity) environments with academics and students, these discriptions of ‘tech culture’ largely describe my experience with philosophy (another field largely dominated by white men). You can also see the truth of this if you look towards politics (inclusive of politicians themselves, pundits, airchair commentators, etc.).

In turn, we stumble into the double standards of online discourse, wherein normalized, expected behaviour of men within public/social spaces is punished when embodied by a marginalized person.2 Or, indeed, similar behaviour and discursive expectations are punished when other communities have remotely similar expectations (see any given social justice oriented community, or even just the ways that various marginalized groups talking amongst ourselves is considered ‘toxic’).

And I’m left with the question: are geeks really that bad at socializing? Are their social skills really that poorly developed?

It seems strange to answer ‘yes’ to this question when the above (and many other articles) make it fairly clear that, as a group, they quite adroitly manage to mobilize various kinds of institutional oppression to maintain hegemonic control over a culture and group that has become financially lucrative and, to an extent, culturally popular? Further, answering ‘yes’ to this question, when it becomes increasingly clear that their discursive style really isn’t unique or defining of the geek community or culture, leaves one wondering what social behaviours, exactly, are geeks actually deficient in?

I know one argument might be hygiene, clothing, and such. But… as noted above, when we’ve reached a point where a CEO of a largely billion dollar tech company can do business in a hoodie, we also must realize that by virtue of their privilege as white men, they’ve simply re-defined or expanded the boundaries of acceptable professional presentation to include them (and only them).

Of course, this stereotype will persist. And the (now) mythologized awkward geek will continue to play a critical role in how the community organizes itself, since (as above) this myth is necessary to disguise and obfuscate the mechanisms involved in having a group of white men do as white men have done for centuries (exist at the top of an oppressive social, political, and economic hierarchy) while having the added bonus of being perceived as sympathetic victims. As underdogs we cheer for.

  1. At this point, particularly if we are talking venture capital, it is much more likely that a white guy in a hoodie would get funding over a Black man in a business suit. A stricking juxtaposition when we know that a Black teen can get murdered for wearing a hoodie and his killer exonerated for the extra-judicial killing (RIP Trayvon Martin). 

  2. Look at the tone-policing in @shanley’s twitter feed on any given day for an example how behaviours valorized and celebrated when enacted by white men is punished and shamed when embodied by anyone not a white man.