If you’ve turned 30 in 2014, you’ve never known a world without Internet. If you’re only 20, you’ve always known the World Wide Web even though your parents only heard about it around 1997.
A few weeks ago, I was looking at my kids playing on the iPad. The first one was born after domestic broadband, the second one after the iPhone, and the last one after the iPad, during the touch revolution. They’ve never known that great switch we can compare to what happened after Gutenberg invented the printing press.
These technologies are not new. It took decades and lots of failure to move from the laboratory to your home. 1969 ARPANET was for long a university toy until someone found a domestic application. The first mobile Web experience was around 2000, Apple’s Newtown) from 1994.
I spent most of my early school years haunting the computer room of the French School in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We used to learn BASIC thank to a passionate teacher, and I remember writing some utilities to help other children learn French grammar. We didn’t disrupt anything, but in 1984, it was not bad for a 7 years old kid. I remember how I felt back then, facing a fascinating new and hostile world.
I kept the passion year after year. I met other computer geeks during my college and high school years. We were the easy to spot guys: often alone, speaking a language no one else understood, definitely the popular girl’s choice. Even our physic teachers did not understand what it was about. We were sailing to the new world.
When I finished high school, most French home had a personal computer running Microsoft Works, Encarta, and some games traded during lunch break. An important part of them had an Internet access using a pay per minute RTC plan and an email address hosted at their ISP they never used. Then came the first unlimited RTC plans – OneTel, World Online and AOL – before my parents took a cable subscription so they didn’t have to pay my gigantic Internet bills.
We were living a revolution, talking about the Cyberspace (thank you so much William Gibson), cyber culture, getting in internet cafes. And we were still socially unadapted. That’s where I was first called a computer geek by an American guy I was talking with on already aging IRC.
I won’t discuss the frequent confusion made between geek and nerd, that’s not my point and the Web is full of it. But during about 10 years, I’ve been calling myself a geek, both socially and intellectually.
What did that mean?
It was very important for us. There was a tech revolution happening and we didn’t want to be overwhelmed by it like our parents or people around us.
These technologies were not ready for the general public, and the general public was not ready for them either. They didn’t have the shining aspect they have today. They were more like raw UNIX command line, bare electronic components far. They were raw and savage, and we were trying to tame them night after night, day after day.
We were facing an endless cliff we were trying to climb, centimeter after centimeter despite the lack of resources and documentation. Sometimes, one of us was leaving for a few days, a few weeks or forever, either because he was tired of experimenting or because he had found what he was looking for. Looking behind me, I’ve the feeling I’ve been doing this all my life.
For many people, that geek word was pejorative. It was about that fat, bearded, dirty computer engineer alway wearing some cryptic used t-shirt who never left home but to attend the next Star Trek convention. It implied being socially inept, studying obscure topics or trying to make something work against the odd for fun (and profit).
Then, a new generation came. Call it Gen Y if you want. It discovered that geek word, they took it for itself, making it lose all its meaning. For this generation, a geek is someone who spends lots of time on Facebook and plays World of Warcraft. Roughly.
This generation has not crossed that technological revolution. It was born after it. It has always known home broadband, cheap cellphones, and the way it has adopted these techs is fascinating.
This new generation doesn’t use technology anymore, it lives with the technology in an over connected universe where the smallest piece of human knowledge is just one click away, and where people from the other side of the globe are more familiar than their own family.
Ironically, this generation calls itself geek to break from the previous one. They’re far from the pre connected generation, having an innate and massive use of the Internet. It’s a transition generation, close to Vernor Vinge Singularity, and my parent’s friend often see the world that way.
Because it was born in a world that had adopted these technologies, this new generation that called itself geek didn’t have to search and fight to understand and conquer it. For that reason, please never call me a geek anymore.