The new age of freaks and geeks
Talkin' bout my generation gap
I was talking to a teacher yesterday about "kids these days" — that is, the youth of the immediate present versus those of, say, ten or fifteen years ago when I was growing up. They confirmed their observation of a hypothesis I've had for a while now: kids these days are more passionate. We mock "helicopter parents" and talk about how today's youth are overindulged, but there's a flip side to this: when you're encouraged, you learn that it's acceptable to care about things.

I don't mean high level "caring," like about Haiti or the environment or global warming. I'm talking about cultivating a genuine, passionate, unironic appreciation of something, be it lacrosse or LARPing. My generation was a race of cynics, who can't abide earnestness. They view it, I think, as a sign of weakness — we were raised by punks to be critical of "the system"; being "in to" something is suspect, because it suggests that one is being taken advantage of, or has been suckered in some way.

Thusly is everything done ironically — for the twenty-somethings defining the Internet zeitgeist at the moment, it's better to do something "for the lulz" than it is for genuine enjoyment, and it's easier to tear down than to build up — watch the vitriol levelled in technology, at Microsoft's Zune or Apple's iPad, for example. Or watch political entertainment, where the thought leaders all seem to be either bombastic iconoclasts — like thump-thump-thump Limbaugh or "how dare you" Olbermann — or smug cynics like Jon Stewart.

Our parents and role models were detached, critical, and wary — Sherlock Holmes–types. Today, parents are expected to support the endeavours of their children — supposed to go to every recital, supposed to engage with them in their hobbies and support them in their various trials and tribulations less as detached outsiders and more as mentors. For a generation of latchkey kids this parenting-by-Gilmore Girls looks like coddling.

But, as I said, it encourages people to want to be involved, and to demonstrate a legitimate interest in something whatever that interest is. Be it the World Cup or World of Warcraft, kids are allowed to become obsessed about things, dedicated, curious, and productive.

Nominally, we're now entering the Age of the Geek.

Of course, it's taking some time for people to catch up. Places like 4chan and Something Awful respond to the excesses of the Internet and the elements of humanity it brought to light in the same way that new artists responded to the aftermath of World War One — treating it as an absurdist drama, devoid of sincerity or objective meaning. Other websites, like People of Walmart, Fail Blog, Go Fug Yourself and Cake Wrecks elevate mockery to an art form.

Outside the Internet, there have been a few news reports exposing "Dungeons and Dragons," for instance — a well of folk-devils most of us thought had been drained many, many years ago. Other Internet commentators have rightly skewered this overwrought nonsense — but the fact is that nominally-reputable journalists are still willing to write these stories (or about video games, or whatever).

The Lawrence Hall of Science out here has been running advertisements on the public trains to try and, one presumes, get people to actually go to their exhibit — what it is exactly goes un-named, except that the exhibition is described as a "geek out". The first ads showed stereotypical nerds — geeky to the point of being unattractive, with thick glasses and sweater-vests, and a man leaning to get away from an equally-nerdy woman.

They're not running those anymore; I don't know if anybody complained, but the new ads show an attractive, if still studious-looking, woman holding a snake. On their website, this image is paired with the phrase "So many nucleotide sequences, so little time". Their new ads eschew people altogether, using a QR code — both less stereotypical, and more interesting.

So perhaps we're moving in the right direction?

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