Part I: Geeks
God bless Silicon Valley. It’s the new epicenter of the American dream, having allowed the kid everyone picked on in grade school (And high school. And college. And grad school.) to get rich. Really rich. And with that wealth comes, at last, his opportunity for social influence. That’s right, where alpha male financiers fund New York and studio execs bankroll LA, San Francisco’s social vibe feeds on Geek Values.
Before we go forward, I need to make an important distinction between Geeks and Nerds.
A nerd is an individual who is intellectually captivated by some niche subject on a cerebral level, and applies his above-average intelligence to understanding the intricacies of that subject because there is something so compelling about it that he simply can’t not think about it. The nerd has a tendency to become an outsider because his obsession with said intellectual pursuit makes him look at the world differently from others, causing him to have trouble connecting to them, or to forego time spent on “normal” endeavors (like proper grooming) to instead maintain focus on his singular intellectual pursuit. Nerds are relatively ambivalent to the fact that they sit outside the mainstream, and, regardless of their wealth, are mainly irrelevant to this argument, in the same way Warren Buffet is a very successful financier who’s irrelevant to the NY social scene.
A geek, on the other hand, is an outsider who adopts nerd qualities in order to have an excuse for being socially inept. This is the guy who, for whatever reason, never really fit in with his peers, and ended up getting left behind. He turned the time others spent developing social skills to video games or computers, which allowed him a safe haven from the social interactions at which he was so naturally unskilled. A geek doesn’t necessarily have above-average intelligence, but he’s spent an above average amount of time on his craft and is therefore good at it in an above-average way. Unlike the nerd, the geek’s outsider status comes first, and he’s fiercely conscious of it.
So back to San Francisco:
Facebook’s IPO just minted over 200 new millionaires. Amongst them, a number of nerds, a handful of alpha male investors, a graffiti artist and a whole lot of geeks. It’s not just the early employees who benefit, though; the starting package for a just-out-of-undergrad Facebook engineer is around $2 million over four years. And that doesn’t take into account the fact that all meals, medical care, gym membership, transportation to the office, and massage therapy are covered as company “perks.”
No matter how much money is generated in other industries in San Francisco, the tech and biomed companies that succeed dominate the money pool, and geeks make up the vast majority of that pool’s beneficiaries. To be clear, geek is not synonymous with computer programmer: there are plenty of geek VCs, product sales guys, and “serial entrepreneurs.” However, the vast majority are men.
On the surface, this is all satisfyingly poetic: the guy who always got picked on in high school finally gets his revenge. He makes his millions and gains his social status. Which leads to one of two possibilities:
In the first instance, the Geek brings his social activities to the rest of the world. It’s hard to relate to, but it’s also kind of endearing. Examples:
- A high-profile benefit themed “Science of Cocktails” in which patrons paid $200 a ticket to line up at stations where suspenders-clad mixologists served alcoholic lab experiments off Bunsen burners. They tasted terrible, but came with take-home cards explaining their internal chemistry;
- A private party that rented out the De Young Museum in order to host a PhD-level scavenger hunt whose clues were written in computer programming code;
- A Giants game attended with a friend who had company-sponsored seats; she was supposed to bring clients, but one had turned her down for his standing Thursday “Game Night” (Poker? She’d asked. No: Anagram Magic); the other was in the middle of a Starcraft tournament and couldn’t leave his computer.
In the second instance, the Geek adopts the social activities of the rest of the world. This alternative is far more aggravating. Why? Because you go to a bar in SF and the décor is great and the DJ’s music selection is right and the cocktails are delicious, and the crowd is totally awkward. Remember that anxious energy that used to exist at middle school dances? That’s what SOMA bars are like. Except instead of being able to escape into the silent comfort of a “Come on Ride that Train” dance line, you get stuck in conversations about the latest “disruptive technology” with the start-up junkie or suffer through the philosophical position on C++ of a computer programmer whose adolescent grin makes you uncomfortably aware he’s got a boner (whether for you or the subject on which he’s speaking is unclear).
But more than that, it’s feeling like a jerk when he touches your back and you instinctively pull away because how dare this guy think he can do that? Because you know he knows you’ve let other men put their arms around you in bars after less conversation, but how are you to explain that you were just being nice, that you were just attempting to make a genuine effort to give it a chance and be open-minded because all your non-single friends say you’re too picky? How do you explain without sounding mean that there is simply nothing remotely sexual about this exchange? And are you going to be denigrated as more of a bitch for not accepting his advances than you would have if you’d blown him off from the get go?
Before I get criticized for being mean (perhaps too late), I want to consider sociability objectively. Social aptitude takes practice. For some it takes more than others, but for everyone, being around people, learning how to have conversations, and understanding social cues requires experiencing social situations and learning from them. Asperger’s aside, if someone wants to be good at engaging with others, they can learn. That’s not to say everyone does want to learn, just like not everyone wants to devote the necessary time to learning how to code or get good at tennis, but the process of becoming socially mature and aware takes practice.
In other words, it’s not that these geeks are bad guys or hopelessly handicapped. It’s that they’re socially immature because they haven’t put any time into their social development. They’ve hidden themselves behind computer screens since they were ten years old, limiting their interactions to people who were like them. And their parents and teachers allowed it because they felt sorry for them, wanted to shelter them from the rejection that came whenever they engaged with peers. Who could have predicted that all that programming would make them millionaires whose success would give them the power to influence a city’s social trajectory?
Given all that, why can’t I, too, let the poor geeks off the hook?
Because they’re arrogant. That’s right. Geeks in San Francisco are arrogant and rude. And maybe the arrogance is derived from self consciousness and maybe the rudeness is derived from lack of social practice, but if they’re going to operate in a grown up social world, neither is an excuse.
Four examples on common themes, all in the past week.
- Unintentional Criticism: At a cocktail party where an exuberant engineer with bad posture, a potbelly and a habit of sniffing loudly every three or four sentences explained to me that “The problem with women in San Francisco is that they’re not nearly good looking enough to justify what snobs they are.” He did realize I was a woman in San Francisco, right? Was a polite ‘present company excluded’ really too much to ask? He had recently moved to Hong Kong and explained how much better it was there because really “hot women” were always available to him: much hotter than the women who used to blow him off in SF bars. I restrained myself from an expose on neo-colonialism, or pointing out that most of those hot women probably don’t speak English [He got my number from someone at the party and has sent three texts, none to which I’ve responded.]
- Uninvited Feedback: At a coffee shop, working, when a computer programmer I’d met at a conference passed and sat down to join me (failing to pick up on cue that I was in the middle of something). After a few minutes of awkward conversation in which I asked questions and he answered (geeks never reciprocate questions), I said I was sorry, but I was really not feeling super social – I hadn’t gotten much sleep and needed to finish this project. He said, “Yeah, you look it. I mean, you look pretty awful today.” Those actual words: You. Look. Pretty. Awful. Today. From a guy who wears pleated khakis and socks with his Birkenstocks. What the fuck?
- Intentional Criticism: At a club in SOMA, where I went to get a drink. A tall, wire-y engineer stood near me while I was waiting and stared – literally stared – at me while I nudged up to the bar. I politely avoided eye contact until he pushed his way beside me and offered to buy me a drink. “That’s okay,” I smiled and gestured to indicate I’d already ordered. “You don’t have to be such a bitch,” he snapped, loudly enough for everyone around him to turn, “No wonder you’re still single.” How do you even respond?
- Uninformed Know-it-All-ness: At a made-to-order salad/sandwich place. The geek former classmate I had met for lunch stood next to me while I ordered a spinach salad with oranges, chicken, beets and carrots, no dressing. He ordered a ham and cheese on focaccia with mayonnaise. When we sat down he gestured to my salad: “Did you know a lot of people get really fat from eating salad? Like women think they’re being so healthy by ordering salad, when really their salads have way more calories than normal food [gesturing to his sandwich]. It’s all female vanity.” Three thoughts: 1) That fact is so six years ago; 2) His waist has about 13 inches on mine; 3) Is this really my new dating pool?
In short, no amount of Facebook stock will justify the pairing of a geek with a socially-adjusted woman in San Francisco. To put it in geek terms, it would be like a lead programmer at Google partnering with a kid in CS 101 to start a company. It’s a flawed match. It’s a gap that frustrates both the men and the women, and I write this to both note it and to refute the notion that it’s somehow the woman’s fault for not being open to dating the non-quarterback.