It's not a topic I'd have imagined myself wanting to weigh in on – nor would have I previously considered it for the maiden voyage of this blog – but today I have been thinking about the distinction between geeks and hipsters, and whether there's something useful to be drawn from the internet ink being spilled. To skip to the end: yes! I think so. You might not.
This train of thought starts with Kieron Gillen's blog and passes through Joel Johnson's article on Gizmodo before getting here, and I'd advise anyone with an interest in the topic to read them first.
What strikes me while reading both pieces is that, while I respect their intentions, I can't agree with the supposition that this is purely a pedantic argument about differing-though-overlapping taste sets. Joel Johnson toys with distinguishing geeks and hipsters on the basis of attitude but ultimately accuses both sides of exclusionary prickliness, which would be fine were it not established at the top of the article that “to be hipster is to hate”. This is, whether we like it or not, an argument about attitudes towards art as represented by competing subcultures. There are no paragons here, and that means that there will always be hipster-geeks and geek-hipsters: but as long as that's kept in mind it's perfectly reasonable to take a side. Calls for peace that simply accuse one side of being like the other are shallow short of disingenuous.
In short, it seems like the argument has been lost in semantics to the extent those arguing for moderation are erecting strawmen to do so. The answer to this is probably not to revisit what I believe 'geek' and 'hipster' to actually mean, but, hey – I'm writing this with words, not painting it in light with absolutist thought-rays, so bear with me.
Given that we have a finite amount of attention and time to spend on the world, a geek is distinguished by an obsessive focus outwards: a tendency to invest a great deal in ideas beyond themselves. A geek's physical person is a tool to be used in the pursuit of this or that interest, which can sometimes come at the expense of personal health and hygiene and the neglect of personal relationships. There are legitimate reasons to question this lifestyle, certainly, but it is on a fundamental level grounded in an involved, creative relationship with the world.
A hipster, by contrast, directs energy inwards, at the self. Rather than reaching out to the world to study and extend, the hipster limits, reduces, attaching the detritus of what remains to their person as if to symbolise the total sublimation of other people's ideas into their own identity. It's all acquisition and no contribution, a petulant theory of self-construction making claims for the importance of the individual while denying the creative primacy of anyone other than the hipster themselves. It's a capacity to follow and adopt drawing attention away from another's capacity to watch and create, and I can absolutely understand the backlash against it.
A geek wears glasses to see; a hipster wears glasses to be seen.
Having set up my strawmen, then, there's only one side to take: I'm with the quixotic dreamers and thinkers, thanks, not the mean people with functionless mustaches that do nothing to advance our collective understanding of the world. I do a little bit of reshuffling and, voila – the Babycastle folks are just geeks that look like hipsters and Johnson's posturing hobbyists are just hipsters that look like geeks. Job done. Cue comments thread.
But that's not the point I'd like to make. What really interests me about this is that, as much as both Kieron Gillen and Joel Johnson ostensibly straddle the hipster/geek divide, they each advance theories that could only come from the latter perspective. Reaching out and attempting to understand another on their own terms; considering an idea as an external object without looking for one's own reflection in it: these are geek tendencies. The best geek tendencies, perhaps, but geek tendencies nontheless.
They are creating the hipster in order to defend the hipster, and in the process reveal how we created the hipster to attack the hipster. This argument is not 'Geeks Versus Hipsters'; it's geeks versus themselves. Actual hipsters – the ones who don't care – are entirely absent, acting simply as the glass darkly in which a culture is suddenly forced to reassess itself. It wasn't until that element of modern culture which has long existed – the poser, the scene-kid, the fauxhemian – started to adopt nerd paraphernalia that any of this mattered to the geek-mind at all.
By constructing a versus situation – even one where geeks are in the wrong – we avoid having to really deal with some unanswerable questions about how the geek psyche works and how the culture is changing. We hate hipsters because they claim to like retro gaming without possessing the legitimacy that comes with years of bullying, study, obsession, collection; yet as ugly as this fixation with authenticity can be it comes from the same place as everything that is good about geekdom: the searching curiosity, the desire to understand and validate the full range of the human creative life. To admit at this late stage that it doesn't really matter who wears a Megaman t-shirt or “gets” Scott Pilgrim is to deny that games really matter as much as we believe, and without that belief there is no geekdom, no joy in immaterial things: only sobriety, maturity, balance. Who wants that?
I agree with others when they say that the conduct of certain vocal elements in geek culture needs to change, but in my case this is less because such conduct is hypocritical and more that it represents a tragic waste of energy. This hipster issue is making people even more circumspect and awkward in their chosen passions than they were before. That's the real danger: the ranting and snark is just smoke.
The answer, rather than moderation, is deeper understanding. If tearing the geek psyche apart is going to reveal anything then it should be that what defines geek culture is not taste, but outlook – and the appropriation of 8-bit chic in the mainstream is not going to change that. This opening-up is an opportunity for that passion and enthusiasm to extend beyond the traditional avenues of interest; to find more reasons to care, however obsessively, about the things people create. As far as manifest destinies go, we could do worse.