Professional comedian Patton Oswalt has a new book out this week titled Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (and it happens to be really, really good). To commemorate its release, he published an essay that ruffled feathers in the geek community. In it he argues that geek culture is dying; that the once coveted and prized specialist knowledge of the geek subculture has not only been co-opted by the mainstream, but that the instant, limitless knowledge available at your fingertips has made the knowledge of the old guard irrelevant. When anyone, he argues, has access to limitless entertainment and limitless information about said entertainment, both become devalued as they are no longer exclusive to a small number of people. Certified geek elite and Web pioneer Harry Knowles immediately fired back, arguing that geek culture was alive and well and that we'd always need guides to find our way through it all.
And as much as I love Harry -- who is one of my close, dear friends -- I think he's way off on this one. Patton's right. The culture is dying.
What once was a flourishing subculture of shared experiences is becoming less and less of a community and more like everything else. When the Internet first fired up the geek masses in the '90s, it was a place where suddenly we didn't feel so alone anymore. It flipped the dynamic on the rest of the world. The Internet was a place where you had no appearance, wealth, strength, size or speed. You couldn't be bullied in the normal manner, and thus a new hierarchy evolved -- one in which the smartest, most articulate and knowledgeable found status as the new alpha dogs, while those who could barely work a keyboard or randomly quote Star Wars were nobodies. Knowledge was power, and people like Harry used that knowledge to shore up their powerbases and become Internet celebrities.
But IMDb.com came along and made the perfect recall of films and their casts obsolete; Wikipedia came along and put every bit of generalist knowledge together in one place; and Google came along, linking every last bit of data in the world to every other bit of data in the world. All of a sudden anyone could know anything; given the time and patience, anyone could sound like an expert. The value of academic research and prior knowledge became entirely devalued. And in response, geekdom stopped being the kids they once were and slowly became their parents -- every bit as materialistic as the generation before us. But instead of "keeping up with the Joneses" it became "keeping up with the Knowles." It wasn't enough to simply love movies and have watched them by the thousands; you needed to be able to answer the question, "Hey, have you ever seen that movie where..." by reaching to your shelf and producing it. On Blu-ray.
Harry himself, in his blistering critique of Patton's doom saying, showed proof that geek culture was still alive by stating that he still pined for a super limited edition Inframan action figure -- of which only 101 were ever made. He presented, as evidence, the fact that the super limited edition item could prove his geekiness, and his desire for it kept geekdom alive. And sadly, that's what it has become -- us going to greater and greater lengths to prove we're still worthy of being atop an ever growing pile. Earlier this year, thousands of Lord of the Rings fans flipped out over New Line's decision to release the theatrical of the films on Blu-ray first, because a) they were tired of waiting for the Extended Editions on Blu-ray (which are considered by many to be superior) and b) because many felt that the company was double dipping, forcing them to buy two versions. Forcing. Them. Not my words, but rather those of many of the fans who screamed and shouted and bombed the Amazon review page with over 2,300 negative reviews before a single one of them even had a chance to see the product for themselves.
This is what geekdom is becoming. And Patton is right: as a culture, it is dying. Breaking down. Subcompartmentalizing. Geeks are splitting off into their own factions, becoming hyper-focused upon their own passions while simultaneously discounting the rest. Comic books have become a limping, lifeless husk, banging on death's door -- the best-selling book of last year selling roughly 1/40th the number of copies as the best-selling book in the '90s. Science-fiction and fantasy films are all over the place, but sadly are mostly dumbed down to be sold to the hungry masses that once made fun of such films; where once geeks celebrated the making of a Transformers film, the success of its far-too-accessible franchise has earned more ire from the community than anything resembling appreciation. Hell, even soccer moms and grandparents play video games now. And when something both intelligent and successful that appeals to the community does come along -- like Inception -- the otaku fans become so rabid and so defensive that they lash out against any and all criticism of it, turning off the rest off the community to it, who in no way want to be associated with such bitter madness.
While I disagree with Patton's assertion that the notion of being otaku is going away -- as there will always be the obsessive among us - his description and subsequent satire about the death of the community and the embracing of that passion is spot-on. What was once a brotherhood is slowly disintegrating, and the genres we held as our own are being absorbed. An entire generation of children grew up reading Harry Potter and watching Star Wars. It's not just the purview of the uncool kids anymore. Those days are gone. And the culture that once held us together and made us feel special will do so no longer.
We had a good run, but sometimes success can kill a good thing.