When a magazine like Wired publishes the results of a reader poll for the Sexiest Geeks of 2008, most of us sit up and take notice – especially the geeks among us. Wired has been around in various formats since March 1993 and has a solid reputation in the technology community. It survived the dot com crash, it’s grown, it’s changed and has in many ways become a major commentator not only on technology but on the effects of scientific advancement on our lives and culture. Of course, all the people who appear on the list will gain massive amounts of publicity by being there.
This year’s results leave me somewhat mystified, though. Has the definition of a geek really changed so drastically over the last few years or am I just being stubbornly literal? Let’s start at the beginning. A definition of a geek is “a person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept” (from dictionary.com). Now, with so many television series and films depicting their versions of geeks, the part about social ineptitude has become less important than it was at the time of, say, Revenge of the Nerds. People in general are more socially competent these days, so the criterion has been relaxed. That leaves the part about scientific or technical pursuits.
Stepping back in time to 2001, Ellen Spertus was named as the Sexiest Geek Alive at a pageant in San Jose, California. She turned up wearing a slide rule holstered on her leg, a bodice with a circuit board print and cited her best moment as taking a spammer to the small claims court and winning. This is the epitome of geekdom: she still maintains a FAQ page here. The most important factors in her win were that she is very intelligent and that she lives and breathes computer science. More modern geekdom has extended from just computer work, of course, but this is a good base from which to start.
Looking at the top ten list on Wired‘s Sexiest Geeks of 2008 list, I see only four out of ten individuals who can be classed as geeks. For starters, the winner – Philip DeFranco – is a comedian, satirist and so on. How is that geeky? Well, he started on YouTube. Sorry, but just because you can use a webcam doesn’t make you a geek in my book. Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t see how he’s a geek.
Second-placed Marina Orlova at least has the qualifications – she’s a philologist (primarily an etymologist for her role on Hot For Words) and therefore has an unusual interest – as does fourth-placed Jade Raymond, who’s lead producer in Ubisoft’s gaming division. A woman with that much love for video games is by definition a geek. Between them lies Kari Byron, another person for whom I fail to see the geekiness – being an artist and sculptor almost immediately removes all possibility of geekiness and the mere fact of being on the Myth Busters show is not enough: playing a geek doesn’t mean you are one.
Possibly the hardest entrants to find any geekiness in are the actresses: Mila Kunis, Zooey Deschanel, Danica McKellar and Alyson Hannigan. Kunis plays World of Warcraft: that’s pretty cool, but not really geeky. Deschanel and Hannigan are both objects of geek passion (read “obsession”) for the roles they have played, but once again playing a role doesn’t make you that person. The exception here is Mckellar who is not only a lover of mathematics but also one of the few actors around who has an Erdõs number – definitely geeky (Natalie Portman has one of those, too).
This leaves Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert on the list of Sexiest Geeks of 2008. Despite being strikingly intelligent and having a biting, vibrant wit, Fey is a writer and comedian: there’s nothing scientific or technical about that, in the geek sense. She says she was never a part of the “in crowd” during her education – but that would simply add some nerdiness, not geekdom. Colbert has shown that he’s a huge fan of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, among other geek interests, so he’s near the border for me: it’s again more of a nerd thing than a true geekiness.
There’s no doubt that intelligence is very sexy. If you happen to be attractive – or at least have charm to make up for any slight lack in that department – then that’s a real bonus. Being a geek, though, is a different matter. Geeks are the techies, the odd people who are so intensely concentrated on their subject (scientific or technical, remember) that they are not like normal people. There’s a big difference between that and just being smart.
Personally, I think they need to change the name for next year’s competition. Sexiest Geeks of 2009? No. Sexiest Smart People of 2009? Maybe.