On Saturday, I went to hear Patton Oswalt speak. If you don’t know who he is, Patton Oswalt was one of the friends on King of Queens and also the voice of Remy on Ratatouille.
His first book has just come out and it’s called Zombies, Spaceships, and Wastelands. Incidentally, these are all things I enjoy very much, although I am much more partial to zombies and wastelands. I could probably do without spaceships except they are often instrumental in transporting people to wastelands. In case you’re curious, though, the crux of the book lies in the theory that all creative teens gravitate toward three subjects for their early stories: zombies, spaceships, and wastelands.
But what I want to talk about isn’t his book, but his recent article that appeared in Wired. I mentioned “Wake Up, Greek Culture. Time to Die” briefly in my Friday Five last week. In fact, the article was the main reason I wanted to see Oswalt in the first place and, thankfully, he did end up touching on it. The thesis of the article goes something like this:
Geek culture is dying because it’s altogether too easy to become a geek. Oswalt writes:
“The problem with the internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku* about anything instantly. In the ’80s, you couldn’t get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend. You had to wait, month to month, for the issues of Watchmen to come out.”
Oswalt seems to think that this ability to become an instantaneous geek hurts the quality of geek and that ultimately affects downstream creativity.
“Everything we have today that’s cool comes from someone wanting more of something they loved in the past…Now with everyone more or less otaku and everything immediately awesome…the old inner longing for more or better that made our present pop culture so amazing is dwindling.”
So cut to the Q&A portion of the talk and someone asked Oswalt if he was surprised at the reaction to his Wired article. Thoughtfully, Oswalt replied that he was pleased with the reaction because his article inspired analytical debate. But, then he added–and this is where he lost me–that he believed the response to his article actually proved his point because of the mushrooming effect of the internet.
Now, hold the phone, Patton. That’s a logical leap if I’ve ever heard one.
Why exactly does the fact that many people were able to respond quickly and meaningfully to an article about geek culture prove that geek culture is dying? It is unclear to me why the vehicle now used to show enthusiasm for a certain subject or a certain creative work has any effect whatsoever on the quality of Geekdom.
It seems just as likely to me that Patton’s setup cuts the other way. The ability to access all sorts of things related to whatever one is otaku about may actually create better geeks. They know more. They can read the thoughts of others. They can listen to podcasts. They can contribute to debate–as happened with Oswalt’s article. Geeks are perhaps even more apt to interact with other geeks, which in turn could just as easily create a more rich “thought palace.” Why not?
Yes, Oswalt expounds on the importance of having time in between receiving issues of Watchmen and how that lets the readers sit and ponder and think. How is that any different than Hunger Games fans having to wait for Mockingjay to come out? The internet does not change the fact that Suzanne Collins has not yet written the book. And sure, someone can hop on the internet and look up theories aplenty as to what will happen in the last installment, but I’m not sure that stops the reader from analyzing whether he or she agrees or disagrees with those theories.
Here’s the thing: I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Oswalt’s conclusion, but what I’m saying is that he missed a step. He failed to fill the gap of why one conclusion works better than the other, why X over Y, why worse geeks as opposed to better. And until that is clear to me, I’ll continue to think that I’m a pretty darn good geek.
*Otaku – The Japanese word used by Oswalt referring to people who have obsessive, minute interests–especially in things like anime and videogames.