Counterpoint: Patton Oswalt And The Death of Geek Culture, Part 1


Patton OswaltComedian Patton Oswalt has a new book coming out next week titled Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (and it is quite good, actually – I think you should buy it). As a result he has been making the rounds online to help promote it. This led to a rather brutal (and funny) editorial foretelling of the death of geek culture at the hands of the internet it once so exalted. This WIRED piece touched a nerve in the community – as no one likes it when the harbinger of death shows up to spoil the party – and a few have taken to rebutting his assertions. You can find the piece here – it is one of this week’s MUST READS. Over here you can find my close friend Harry Knowles’ rebuttal. They’re both right. And they’re both wrong.

Geek culture, as we know it, is getting old. I myself am among the youngest of the old guard, meaning that I’m old enough to have seen Star Wars in a theater, but young enough that it was the first movie I ever saw. The generation that Patton, Harry and I belong to pre-dates the internet. We hail from a time that when you were sent to your room, all you had to do there was entertain yourself with whatever physical media you had there. Kids in my day didn’t have televisions in their rooms. There were no cell phones. The luckiest and richest kids had computers, but they weren’t hooked up to anything to get outside information. No, if you went to your room, you read, you listened to music or you stared at the wall thinking about shit. That was it – those were the choices.

We also hail from an era in which Blockbuster video was just beginning to expand and had yet to reach most shores. Your selection of film watching was limited to what the local family video store (or convenience store – remember that? When 7-11 had 50 video tapes that they rented out?) had on hand supplemented by what HBO was cycling through at the moment. There were 12 Channels, one of them pay cable. If it was on, you watched it. If you didn’t like it, you found something else to do. Like read. Or listen to music. Or stare at the wall. If you were lucky, you had a collection of movies taped off of HBO for the lean times.

Our choices were limited, and thus our experiences shared. If you were a geek in the 80’s, you watched the same movies that I did, read the same books that I did, found enlightenment in the same music as I did. And they were not those things that were all necessarily popular. To many, they were decidedly unpopular. And since many of us were equally as unpopular, we found a certain kinship with being among the few who appreciated such things and took solace with those that appreciated our love of such them.

Star Wars Poster

In 2004, just before the Austin premiere of Shaun of the Dead, I found myself standing in the dark corner of a video store with Simon Pegg. He’d overheard my wife discussing my upcoming birthday and the plans to have a cake decorated with the poster art for Battle Byond the Stars. He turned to me. “Does she mean the Roger Corman film?” I nodded. “Yeah, it’s one of my favorites.” His eyes lit up. It was one of his favorites too. We spent five minutes trading lines and talking about our favorite parts – sharing trivia and delighting that we’d found someone else who appreciated the same, obscure little turkey – all while others looked on without anything to add, because many of them weren’t old enough to remember a time when HBO and the local TV affiliates programmed it as their Sunday Afternoon Matinee seemingly every week.

Patton Oswalt is right; that culture is dying. When kids get sent to their rooms, they have computers, and on those computers they have access to tens of thousands of movies, millions of books, an almost limitless supply of music – but more importantly, all the social contact they can stand. Type something you like into Google and you’ll find a place where people are talking about it. Type it into Youtube and you’ll find videos about it. You are no longer alone, and as a result, people who appreciate the same things as you are no longer nearly as special – and thus you don’t quite appreciate them the same way we did back our day. Instead, the culture is less about finding a connection and trying to stand out in the herd – something that Patton so eloquently points out is becoming harder and harder to do as the limitless stream of information becomes easier and easier to access.

There is a shared culture now – but it is a very different, writhing beast unlike that which we sprung from. But that, true believers, is for next week’s column.

Here’s my review of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. Seriously, this guy is one hell of a talented writer.