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Geek spotting: 3 ways to recognize a tech geek in the wild

Today's definition of "geek" is not the same as it was decades ago. Here’s how to identify a geek in 2019, just in time for Geek Pride Day.

You haven’t seen the latest "Avengers" movie? You’re two versions behind in updating your operating system? You don’t wear glasses?! Don’t worry. There’s no litmus test for being a geek. However, some details about the way you live signal to others that, yes, you are a geek.

In the mid-20th century, the term “geek” was a pejorative, illustrated by young men wearing heavy black glasses and high-water pants, sporting mechanical pencils in their pocket protectors and carrying a scientific calculator or slide rule. Think of the character George McFly in “Back to the Future.”

Fortunately, that image is long in the past. The modern-day meaning of “geek” lies at the intersection of “intelligence” and “obsession,” according to GeekInsider.com.

There’s even a day set aside for people to revel in their geekiness. First held in Spain in 2006, Geek Pride Day (a.k.a. Nerd Pride Day) is celebrated on May 25 each year, which coincides with the release date of the first "Star Wars" film.

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What’s the picture of a geek these days? We asked about 100 people “What makes someone a geek? How would you recognize one?” Most of the self-professed geeks, ranging in age from 20 to 70 years old, had strong opinions on the habits, gear, and general gestalt of today’s geek.

Geek pride

Being a geek is about having a deep interest in something and feeding that passion, says Angie Pedersen, editor of KCGeeks.com. It’s an abundant enthusiasm for the things geeks love.

That love is able to spread faster and wider because world culture and technology have changed. It’s easier to find people with shared interests, Pedersen says. “Geek pride is about not being afraid to show those interests. Something that used to be weird, now people aren’t ashamed of it.” And why should they be? “Are people ashamed of being football fans?” she adds.

Geek cool

Most of geek culture focuses on what people do, though it’s more about what they are. Geeks generally engage in scientific and esoteric behavior both professionally (e.g., as programmers) and as hobbies. But mostly, those behaviors are in the direction of creating something.

"There has never been a better time to be a geek," says Mess Wright, executive director at makerspace provider WorkChops. Wright suggests that “the maker movement is the truest, purest geek landscape.”

Women have always been a part of technology and geek culture, but the stereotypical geek image has been male. “I think we need to recognize how many women and young women are identifying as geeks,” says Genevieve Contey, an editor for science communications. “It is a way more diverse group than it ever used to be.”

Alan and the slide rule

Everyone needs to keep a slide rule handy. Image credit: Alan Zeichick

“It’s pretty cool to be a nerd today,” says Jake Goldman, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. “I have a ton of brainiac geeky friends that range from star athlete to star student. It’s pretty desirable to be a low-key geek—who doesn’t want to be super-sharp and a resource for others?!”

Geek spotting: The list

Geeks instinctively know how to recognize other geeks based on shared interests, such as TV shows like "Big Bang Theory," role-playing games, or Comic Con. But, in the way that old-school nerds could be recognized by their calculators and pocket protectors, today we can categorize geeks in three ways: by what they wear, the first-adopter technology they acquire, and the vintage technology they use until it dies.

Wearables

Clothes make the geek:

  • Cultural-reference T-shirts
  • Cosplay, meaning costumes downplayed for daily life or full-on for Comic Con and role-playing events
  • Clothing with pockets for every device and personal item
  • An extensive collection of high-end backpacks, adorned with vendor logos, cultural references, or tech fandom (e.g., Tux, the Linux penguin)

Telltale tech

It isn’t the specific item that matters most to geeks; it’s the fact that they are among the first to own it. It’s a mark of pride when strangers see them wearing a smart watch when nobody else has one (“Oh, is that one of those? Can I see it?”). Among the current signs of geek conspicuous consumption are:

  • A 3D printer
  • A mechanical keyboard, with keycaps they programmed themselves
  • Smart home IoT devices
  • Implantable chips 
  • Cord-cutting, eschewing cable
  • Multiple computer screens for a single computer
  • Spotify with a Sonos sound system
  • Raspberry Pi (especially if they have more than one board)

Some of these acquisitions indicate an excess of technology (having more than five unused domain names) or a preference for (perceived) excellence even if it requires more effort (running Linux as their primary OS).

Vintage tech

Many geeks are collectors who feel that collecting old tech is cooler than any modern stuff just anyone can buy. Among the crowdsourced geeks’ collections are:

  • A "Star Wars" bobblehead collection—or any kind of action figures or Funko Pops, in original packaging
  • Computers dating back to the '70s, kept in the basement “just in case”
  • Working Betamax and LaserDisc equipment
  • An original Model M IBM keyboard (and a general willingness to argue about keyboard superiority)
  • A throwback phone
  • A 300-CD changer
  • Working floppy drives
  • Soldered electronic components
  • Slide rules (plural)
  • Typewriters (plural)
  • "Dungeon & Dragons" first-edition books
  • First-edition science-fiction collections by Heinlein, Clarke, or Asimov
  • A CB radio

What would you include? Please let us know by tweet at @enterprisenxt.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.