Several years ago, Patton Oswalt wrote what is essentially a manifesto on the death of geek culture for Wired. I adore Oswalt, and equally loved the article. Although I’m more than a decade his junior, I identify with his feelings of being slighted by mainstream culture’s ability to usurp and sully the idea of otaku.
Otaku is a Japanese word that refers to a person who has a very deep and tedious knowledge of a specific subject, often referring to something like anime or video games. In American culture, we have appropriated the term to be a more positive word synonymous with ‘geek’ or ‘nerd.’ It’s almost a badge of honor to have otaku level knowledge on something you care about.
As a kid, I could tell you just about everything about the X-Men and Spawn. I learned all of this by reading silly amounts of comics and hanging out in dusty comic stores. The internet existed at that time, but I had yet to even hear about it, so it took time and dedication to amass this (completely useless) knowledge.
I have also wasted considerable amounts of cognitive energy learning about guitar effects pedals, but acknowledge how much easier this pursuit was simply because the internet existed. I just log onto forums and read up on the latest and greatest from my preferred builders. There was no urgency or excitement about gathering this information. Finding a burgeoning effects company that was in line with my musical ideals brought no more excitement than seeing that there was a new episode of some show on Hulu.
The internet allows anyone to seem otaku about any given subject in a matter of hours. This diminishes the experience because it removes much of the work and anticipation in becoming an expert about something. It is frustrating to see people doing this and regurgitating bits of trivia they found online instead of knowing a subject well enough to form their own opinions.
I’m sure Patton was frustrated by this as well, since it retroactively diminishes his accomplishment, but that wasn’t the real point of his article. He contends that this stifles creativity and development of (pop) culture because nobody really knows enough to build upon existing ideas. I mean, why would we bother to learn about something, when we can just rehash shit found online in seconds?
I’ve been screaming about the link between instantaneous gratification and self-esteem for quite some time now. Because we can easily appear to be an expert, there is no real incentive to actually become an expert.
The impact this shift on geek culture has on self-esteem is three-fold.
People who are experts no longer enjoy the boost in self-worth that accompanies being an expert about one of their passions. Nihilism seeps into this when you see how easily people can learn factoids and take ownership of theories found online about Jon Snow’s lineage. I suppose this speaks to our penchant for demanding self-esteem from external forces instead of being validated by the effort it took to achieve this knowledge. It feels pointless because everyone else can know the same things in minutes.
The opposite may also be true. If I spend my days operating under the guise of being an expert, at some point I’m probably going to feel like I’m full of shit and wonder why I’m trying to impress people with my alleged dorkery. Existential crisis ensues, as well it should.
Worst of all is the main point that Oswalt is making in his article. Our impulsivity and need to be special, right, smart, an expert, or whatever else has stymied our potential for innovation. Creativity is potentially mired in endless remakes and reboots and reimaginings that all rehash tired old formulas. Most of our expertise is posturing, which means that fewer people have the ability to innovate than they actually should.
Before any feathers get ruffled and people start pointing fingers, just be aware that I am absolutely including myself in this argument. I could have spent months or years researching self-esteem and patterns of cultural norms and written a real book, but I used my preexisting knowledge and wrote an overly sarcastic book of opinions.
I didn’t innovate or do anything actually progressive, because I didn’t have the capacity to do so. What I did have was the ability to write essays and present opinions (and even that is arguable) so I did that instead because it was easier and allowed me to adopt the role of expert. You can tell me my opinions are wrong, and you might be right, but you can’t tell me I’m not the foremost expert on my opinions.
By succumbing to our need for instant gratification, we are reducing the number of people who are actually an expert in something by choosing flash over substance, and also sullying the experience of those that do want to become an otaku.
I’ve said it before – I’d much rather be something than spend my time pretending to be any number of other things just to boost my sense of pseudo-self-worth.