2008: The Year the Geeks Took Over
The Geek shall inherit the earth.
Is there any arguing it? You guys who are technology and gadget-obsessed, who have a huge capacity for memorizing bits of information and an infinite hunger for the Next Cool Thing... it's looking like the future will fit you like a glove. One that shoots lasers.
Wait, did we say "the future"? Because looking back on 2008, it seems like that geek-dominated future is already here. Consider...
The Internet Subculture Oozed Into the Real World
How many of you had a secret club when you were in school? Maybe you didn't have an actual tree house to meet in or a secret handshake, but at the very least you had a series of inside jokes and references that absolutely nobody else would get in a thousand years. But what if one day you heard the football team borrowing those jokes? Or worse, the teachers? What would that say about your club?
Now imagine what the first few message board friends who started "Rickrolling" each other a couple of years ago must have felt like when they saw Rick Astley interrupt the 2008 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with "Never Gonna Give You Up"...
... to universal laughter and applause by the crowd. "Ah, yes," said countless middle aged housewives and Armani-wearing stockbrokers, "I do believe we have been Rickrolled!"
It was just the latest in a long line of the Internet subculture's invasions into the mainstream. The guys who remember that thread on Something Awful a few years ago, where everybody chipped in wacky facts about Vin Diesel (and later, Chuck Norris) saw that inside forum joke get mentioned in the 2008 presidential campaign. Oh and you can buy the bound version of it in book stores. While you're there, pick up the LOLcats hardback.
Then we have the Anonymous protests against Scientology, where members of the 4chan boards and others formed the world's largest flash mob to take on the cult while wearing V for Vendetta masks, making international news in the process.
Many thought this would stand as their largest accomplishment, but it turned out to be a distant second. The first was when, after invading her message boards, they induced Oprah Winfrey to repeat about three different 4chan memes at once on national television, culminating with the phrase "over 9000 penises."
We guess you have to take the good with the bad from Anonymous. And to be honest we're not even sure which one that was.
Your Grandma Became a Gamer
For the first 20 years or so of video gaming, it was a kid's pastime. Then, starting in the mid-90s, it branched into a geek pastime.
That was the perception, anyway. As recently as a few years ago, if you saw a grown-up in a movie playing video games, it was the filmmaker's way of signaling that he was an immature man-child (in The 40 Year Old Virgin they demonstrate Steve Carell's lack of a love life via his elaborate gaming setup; in The Break-Up Vince Vaughn's video game addiction proves to his girl he's not ready for an adult relationship).
It was either "video games" or "put him in a diaper."
But Nintendo had an idea. They'd make the control pad for their new machine look like something every non-gamer is familiar with: a TV remote. They'd build a nonthreatening, cheap little console that looked like a device almost every non-gamer owns: an iPod. They'd ship it with games that would be utterly familiar even to someone who had never seen a video game in their life: boxing, tennis, baseball.
In Wii Sports you find no aliens, no blood and guts, no bald-headed space marines, no cutscenes with androgynous heroes casting magic spells. Simple games, with tutorials that would walk you through the even simpler controls.
The result? In 2008, we found rooms full of elderly types playing video games. As we watched them flail around with their Wiimotes, we realized this was gaming doing what gaming does best: taking our minds off of the encroaching black maw of death.
On gaming message boards, the hardcore gamers screamed about how the Wii had ruined their hobby, as if the oldsters and soccer moms had crashed the video game party, clearing out the bongs to put down a shuffleboard court. But it was the opposite. Gaming had finally broken out of the niche, its sprawling roots finally invading every last demographic.
Yes, the Wii is a toy, but don't underestimate gaming's role in the future of the culture. Playing is the brain's way of training itself, and what you are seeing up there are the last non-geek holdouts learning to function in a digital, virtual world, in a way that will define how humans interact with computers in the future. First the Wii, then World of Warcraft, then the neural implants. Right on schedule.
The Final Geekification of the Music Industry
The music industry has been clashing with Internet culture for about as long as the latter has existed. The feud started when the industry heads turned their backs on the geeks years ago by not capitalizing on file-sharing super site Napster.
Napster exploded onto the scene before any other major file-sharing source and said, "Look, this is how we're going to do things from now on." They even offered a piece of the action to all of the major labels (the way the TV networks now have deals with Hulu). They could have gotten on board with Napster, to at least keep all of the file-sharing in one place, before all of the imitators emerged and spread P2P filesharing like wildfire. Of course, that would require the music industry to look ahead instead of clinging for dear life to the old way that bought them those mountains of cocaine and bling.
Jay-Z lives here </[>
So the music industry plugged its fingers into its ears and said "Blah blah blah, I can't hear you, blah blah blah." Instead of figuring out how to make money off file sharing, they invested their time and money into suing Napster and, worse, the downloaders themselves. Did it stop illegal file trading? Ask pretty much all of the music on your iPod.
And now, we have Girl Talk (aka, Greg Gillis), the guy who symbolizes the Wild West that is copyright in the file sharing era. He released Feed the Animals, which is a 55-minute remix/mashup of over 300 pirated tracks that spans decades as well as genres. Listen to a track to hear Lil' Wayne, Cheap Trick, Eminem and Yail Naim all cleverly broken down and mashed together into a stew. Of all of the songs he's sampled, he hasn't asked for permission to use a single one and, somewhat miraculously, hasn't been sued yet.
Then, Gillis released Animals on his label's website on a pay-what-you-want basis, even if what you want to pay happens to be nothing. And it worked.
Sure, Radiohead pulled the same pay-what-you-want stunt last year, but they're Radiohead. They have contracts, the support of a label, a team of lawyers and a loyal fan base they've built over years and years. In Girl Talk we have a guy building a career with pirated music, free downloads and live shows that basically involve him on stage with a series of computers. Look up "geek music" on Wikipedia and it should redirect you to Girl Talk.
But it's the way he's burst out of the geek pigeonhole that earns him a spot in this article. Google "Top Albums of 2008," and no matter what article you find, Girl Talk's Animals will almost definitely be on there, whether it's Pitchfork, RollingStone, Stephen King, or Time Magazine.
Seriously, look at the guy.
Thanks to the spread of Internet and Geek culture, a barely-known artist like Gillis, on a small, obscure label like IllegalArt can explode onto the scene and reach every single top ten list of note, while Guns n' Roses' thirteen-year-in-the-making Chinese Democracy can come out and no one will give a shit.
That was always the true promise of Napster: Instead of being a method of stealing a product, it could circumvent the corporations that stand between the artists and the fans. Direct digital distribution, done in a way that the artist can still make a living off of. The geeks didn't kill the music industry in 2008. They just cut out the middleman.
A Comic Movie Got Serious Oscar Consideration
To the untrained (read "non-geek") eye, comic books, and the movies based off of them, are loud, brightly-colored, fun bits of eye candy; a temporary distraction from real movies that are somber and serious, movies that talk about big issues and feature Meryl Streep.
The popular comic movies of the last decade or so have done very little to argue this idea: The Spider-man franchise was bright and exciting, Superman Returns was colorful and old fashioned, and Fantastic Four was childlike and retarded.
"I dare you to make the sequel even worse. I fucking dare you."
They all had respectable box offices, (Spider-man I and II each broke opening day records), but no notable critic ever included any of them in serious Oscar conversations because they were, after all, just superhero movies. It's the same stigma that keeps out even the most excellent of porn films.
Then along came The Dark Knight, a record-breaking, critically and commercially successful, bona fide phenomenon. If you didn't see it opening weekend, you were most likely in the minority of your office. If you didn't see it by the next weekend, everyone in your office hated you.
It was directed by a real director and written by a real writer (both had Academy Award nominations to their name). Gone were the bright colors and goofy villains, replaced by moral ambiguity and the startling death of a major character. We watched a tense interrogation between a guy in clown makeup and another guy in a bat-themed costume complete with cape, and it didn't come off as frivolous or childish.
For the first time, the creators acted like they weren't ashamed of the material. They didn't make it campy or self-referential, to let their cool friends know they were above it all. For once, they were treating the material as seriously as the fans did.
The result was a comic book movie that will get serious Oscar consideration, and we're not just talking about the geeks campaigning for it on the Internet. Already there are two Golden Globe nominations for Heath Ledger, to go with nominations for awards from the Screen Actors Guild, and both the Chicago and LA Film Critics.
As with video games, it wasn't five years ago that both comics and the movies based on them were aimed strictly at teenagers with the understanding that adult fans embodied the Simpsons Comic Book Guy stereotype and lived in their parents' basements. Now a comic book movie might be placed, rightfully so, among the year's best in motion picture achievement. Five years from now, could we wind up with a video game movie up there?
Geekophobia Left the Last Generation Confused and Frightened
In 2008, two books were published within five months of each other about how geek culture was going to destroy the world. Susan Jacoby was inspired to write The Age of American Unreason after spending the night in a modern college dorm. Not because somebody drew a dick on her face while she was sleeping, but because she thought the dorm was too quiet.
The students chatted online with headphones stuffed in their ears instead of actually interacting with one another. Could it be that they were being quiet because they were creeped out by the 63 year-old lady sitting on their bunk bed taking notes? Jacoby quickly told the boring (rational) part of her brain to shut the fuck up, and started looking for a more interesting explanation. She ultimately decided that the students had wrapped themselves in an "iPod coccoon" that was responsible for "a new species of semi-conscious anti-rationalism."
The book immediately became a bestseller. At first, this must have looked like a problem to yet another writer (Mark Baurlein) who was about to publish a book that basically said the same thing.
But he soon realized there was room for improvement, as she had failed to explicitly call an entire group of people retarded in the title. So in July he published The Dumbest Generation, which used a barrage of startling claims and an absurdly long subtitle to explain (deep breath) How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).
(Title continued on back.)
Anti-tech manifestoes were no longer being mailed out by bearded recluses with a complimentary pipe bomb. Mark Bauerlein was a respected English professor and the book got a favorable review in the Los Angeles Times (it's called a newspaper. More on these later). Ted Kazinsky had gone mainstream.
But there were a few problems with Jacoby and Baurline's theory. A Newsweek review of The Dumbest Generation pointed out that cognitive scientists believe information technology is making us smarter, not dumber. It also pointed out that IQ scores have been on the rise since the 1930s, meaning the pod creatures Jacoby observed were on average the smartest generation to ever pass through that college dorm. So how did two of the most talked about books of the year both come to the conclusion that information technology had created a force field of stupid around us?
Geek apologists pointed out that academics have a long proud history of freaking the fuck out in the face of progress. Sir Isaac Newton's laws of mechanics was called "a rape manual" by the academics of his day. But Baurlein isn't some kooky old physicist who thinks gravity wants to have nonconsensual sex with his wife. He's something far more dangerous (and far less awesome): a teacher.
That means that right now, twenty of the brightest young men and women in Atlanta are enrolled in a class taught by a man who filled 272 pages complaining about how retarded they are. And what about students whose geek phobic teachers weren't publicly handed their asses in a major magazine? For instance, the high school teacher who provides most of the claims at the heart of The San Francisco Chronicle article "American Kids, Dumber Than Dirt: The next generation might just be the biggest pile of idiots in U.S. history." (Seriously, who's writing these fucking subtitles?)
It's like that story about how Einstein's elementary school teachers thought he was retarded because they didn't understand him. Only it's not an urban legend and it's happening to an entire generation.
Geekophobia Also Seized the Old Media
The mainstream media is flooded with eulogies for the newspaper (a bunch of sheets of low grade wood pulp that used to give people their information--think the Drudge Report, but slower and without flashing graphics that told you which story was actually important).
About 15 years ago, most people realized that the whole wood-pulpy mess would become unnecessary as soon as the newspapers figured out how to use the Internet. That never happened.
As Rupert Murdoch put it, the newspapers spent the ensuing years "remarkably, unaccountably complacent . . . quietly hoping that this thing called the digital revolution would just limp along." In other words, they called the digital revolution's bluff, a ballsy maneuver which went approximately as well as it did for Mr. Takagi in Die Hard.
"Well Hans, I guess you'll just have to kill me then."
As publishers went bankrupt and newspapers across the country died, the mainstream media consulted the five steps of grieving and, seeing that anger comes after denial, they got pissed. The year's greatest old-media hissy fit came to us live on the HBO show Costas Now, when sports writer Buzz Bissinger unleashed a crass, obscenity laced rant about how crass and obscenity laced blogs are. But maybe the most telling moment came later when the blogger they'd brought on to ambush was criticized ... for something that was written in the comment section of the blog ... by someone else.
"Now, you write the Internet, correct? Is that how this works?"
Anyone who understands blogs knows why that's not fair. It's like reading a book report on Old Man and the Sea, and criticizing Hemingway for claiming his book was "better than pizza." People who actually use blogs would have noticed that the commenter's name was Pipelayer and immediately realized he was a 12-year-old.
The mainstream media isn't wrong that the Internet emerged from the primordial soup looking all sorts of fucked up. They're just wrong about whose fault it is. They woke up to an online world that the average teenager understands better than them, and so they got mad at the teenager. Maybe it was time to take a look in the mirror, or at least another look at Rupert Murdoch. He told them they were out of touch three years ago and he's so old that his face appears to be made almost entirely of scrotum skin.
Seriously guy, get your head out of your ass.
At the other end of the getting it totally wrong spectrum, CNN launched i-Report which lets users create headlines. In effect, they created a news site that was one big comment section, where the Pipelayers of the world could make the news. It was like watching the old horse buggy driver finally break down and get a car, then getting confused as to how the horse was supposed to fit behind the wheel. The problem ain't the design of the car, Jebediah.
The Election of the First Black(berry) President
Cracked fans come from all ends of the political spectrum, so there was sharp disagreement between those who thought Sarah Palin was "fucking retarded" and those who thought she was merely retarded, her condition not rising to a level that would require the "fucking" modifier.
But that really missed the point. Yes, a lot of you perceived an infuriating "ignorant and damned proud of it!" attitude from Palin, as she smirked and winked and demonstrated what seemed to be a high schooler's grasp of politics. But what's important is that many, many American elections have been won with that shrugging, "aw shucks, I'm just common folk with no use for that high falutin' fancy book-learnin'" act. Not this time.
"Math is scary!"
In 2000, George W. Bush was the affable, goofy common man we'd all like to have at our barbecue. Al Gore was a robot, smart and unfeeling as HAL 9000 and just as likely to lock us all out of the bay doors because of some unfathomable calculation made in his computer brain. We went for Bush, and in fact we've been voting for the George W. Bush in that matchup for a couple of centuries, due to an odd misfire in the American brain that associates low intelligence with honesty.
In 2008, that same stage was set again. The white, elderly, self-effacing war hero who boasted that he finished at the bottom of his class in the Academy. The small town beauty queen. A ticket as American as a six shooter.
They were matched up against a young, not-white guy with a foreign name who did not run on his humble roots, could not boast that he was a war hero, who insisted on pronouncing "Pakistan" as "Pah-kis-stahn" and who, by all appearances, would go into a violent seizure if his cell phone or Blackberry were taken away.
Also, we think this is what The Matrix would look like if done with a black guy.
Then he threw the switch on an online fundraising machine that drowned the campaign in cash (or more accurately, drowned McCain's campaign with it) and mobilized a high-tech "ground game" that will be studied by every future campaign, volunteers dispatched by advanced databases that tracked every voter.
That's right: he simply out-geeked McCain.
McCain's campaign fought back with the most advanced tactics in its own arsenal: the "our opponent is a closet Commie" tactic that worked so well for Eisenhower.
They seemed shocked to find the world had changed in the last 56 years, and it was in the absolute ass-beating that occurred on election day we saw how stark was the divide between generations. McCain won exactly one age group: Those 65 and older. Everyone else went Obama by increasingly higher percentages as you get younger (he more than doubled McCain's margin among 18-29 year-olds, 66% to 32%).
McCain can't even raise his arms like that. Come on.
The ones who had the highest stake in the future--because they are still going to be alive to see it--overwhelmingly voted one way. And the future is what the Geek is all about. That's why we love technology and gadgets and sci-fi. It's about looking forward and embracing what's coming, unafraid.
This is a huge change; we grew up hearing grown-ups talk about the past in glowing terms, dreaming of returning to old-time values and an era when all was right with the world, when there was no crime or gays, when women knew their place and America dominated the globe.
The geek, on the other hand, looks back and sees a time when couples on TV couldn't be shown sleeping in the same bed, when calculations were done with pencil and paper and having a friend in Japan meant waiting eight weeks for a letter to arrive.
The Geek then says, "Fuck that" and goes online to shop for a 3G neural implant. The future can't get here soon enough.
Since this is our second to last article of the year, and because we're stupid for lists spread out over two pages, check out the 10th through 6th most popular articles of 2008:
Check the end of tomorrow's article for the five most popular articles of the year.