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The unstoppable rise of geek culture

The cult of Elon Musk reveals some horrible truths about our non-virtual world

Elon Musk’s proposed purchase of Twitter has raised questions about his potential to mould the platform — and culture — in his image. How will things change when we all live in the virtual Musk-sphere? These concerns are at least a decade too late.

Musk is a symptom, not a cause, of our cultural malaise

Musk is a symptom, not a cause, of our cultural malaise. A juvenile billionaire with plans for colonising Mars and uploading brains into cyberspace, he is the epitome of a “geek” — a character which has undergone a rapid redemptive arc in recent history.

The geek was once a maligned figure signifying social incompetence, but today it would be hard to find anyone who didn’t indulge in at least one “geeky” interest — whether that is playing video games, participating in “fandoms”, or simply spending far too much time online.

Geeks love technology, fantasy and the promise of being liberated from horrible human realities (“meatspace”). The geek is an anti-sensualist, valuing virtualized spectacle over ugly, raw physicality. It is no surprise that Mark Zuckerberg’s latest dalliance is with the “metaverse”.

The rise of gaming, once a niche interest for those who couldn’t get a date, is a testament to the normalisation of geeky escapism. It’s estimated that nearly 40 per cent of the global population now regularly play video games. In the United States, this number is 65 per cent, with the average age of a self-described “gamer” being 33 years old.

The hero in geek fantasy is the “hacker”, a favourite in 90s and early 2000s cinema: a tech genius who smashes conventions and flips off authority.

“I wasn’t seeing the hard line between nerds and normals anymore,” complained comedian Patton Oswald in Wired back in 2010. Little did he know how mainstream geek culture would become.

We live in a time where grown adults openly debate the lore of the latest comic book film, talk about their Hogwarts house and spend their evenings living out grandiose fantasies through first-person shooters.

“Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to psychological problems”, wrote social critic Christopher Lasch to describe our so-called “culture of narcissism”. In the twenty-first century, a retreat into fantasy has never been easier — with escapist narratives becoming a thriving industry and a means of self-branding.

A fan of witty memes, political edginess and transhumanist utopias, Musk’s behaviour at fifty years old reflects the maturity of an adolescent nerd. He is both a victim as well as a key propagator of the rise of the geek, what researchers at the University of Georgia have called “the great fantasy migration”.

“Inflated self-esteem and narcissism — which have increased steadily over the past few generations —are being met with a harsh reality”, wrote researchers in a 2015 paper on the rise of geek chic. “One solution for resolving this dissonance is to migrate into a fantasy world via role playing games, fandoms and fantasy media”. We are all Musks now, and it’s not at all surprising that most of us are having a hard time with reality.

The rise of the geek is the denial of a world worth living

Prior to his business success Musk was an awkward child subject to frequent bullying from his peers, who grew up into a socially inept adult with thinning hair. It’s no wonder he has cultivated a brand full of escapist fantasies.

Philosopher Byung-Chul Han characterises our time as the rise of the “achievement-subject” — where individuals are burdened with the impetus to demonstrate their uniqueness from herd, placing them at risk of psychic burnout and self-exploitation.

Modern celebrities and industry heroes like Musk reflect a kind of adolescent zeal for being renegade and disruptive. They lure in followers with a promise that with a bit of brains and vision, you too can “hack” the system and become special.

As Peter Cullen Bryan documents, large geek-oriented media companies strategically cultivate “cult” followings despite widespread popularity by providing “easter eggs” for hardcore fans and rewarding in-depth knowledge of media properties. This is designed to make media consumers feel “unique” and more embedded into the fantasy world being created.

A similar model can be found in the cult of Musk, where fans believe they are charting a new future free of the stuffy institutions of the past and transcending physical and material limitations.

Musk’s image is exploiting a cultural wound, the disenchantment of the world following the decline of religion. Old myths, which provided a layer of meaning on top of the real world, no longer resonate, so the only solution is tech mediated make-believe.

The rise of the geek is the denial of a world worth living free of technology, virtualisation and ironic detachment. Escapism, in its denial of the physical in favour of the ego, retreats from the anxieties and disappointments of real life. In doing so, it denies us of the capacity to move beyond self-flattery.

It is possible to handle the difficult truths of being alive in the twenty-first century, to sublimate existential pain in the service of something higher. But first, one must be fully in the real world and not be distracted by the escapist spectacle of Musk and his fellow geeky elites.

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