Who is a geek, really?

A recent incident at home set me thinking and gave me some disturbing insight into the true nature of geekiness.

We have a carpenter who has built quite a bit of the furniture of our place. He is honest and painstaking to a fault, and has done a lot of work for us over the last decade and more. I recently asked him to replace the doors to both the bathrooms at our place — the original doors were flimsy and were beginning to show their age. The door frames needed replacing too.

This man got to work. He prepared the doors and door frames — his work is always of excellent quality — and when all were done, he removed the existing doors and frames, fit the new frames, and left them there. The frames had to set in concrete before they could be drilled to fit the doors. So, when I returned from work, I discovered that I had a house where both bathrooms were door-less. And they would remain door-less for 48 hours till the frames set solidly in concrete.

It took me several minutes to grapple with the reality of what this man had done. He had left me a home with a wife, a kid, and a live-in full-time maid, where no one could use any bathroom for ablutions, for lack of privacy. My carpenter had not thought about the human consequences of his technical work.

Thirty years of exposure to the world of software developers then hit me like a sledgehammer. My carpenter was a geek. He was technically competent — his carpentry was truly excellent. But he did not understand even the basics of how humans live in the real world. He did not see the real world as worth taking into consideration for his work.

I then realised that a geek is crippled in his mind. He does not have some of the mental muscles which make all of us understand and fit into the real world at some instinctive level. He is mentally challenged in a very unique way. His technical skills make him a very productive money earner, and the modern world loves the ability to earn money. If this technical skill is in coding instead of carpentry, then all the better — add some whipped-cream Silicon Valley glamour on top. But it doesn’t take away from the fundamental nature of a geek’s brain: he is mentally crippled.

People associate geekiness with intelligence. I think they haven’t understood the precise nature of geeks at all. The stereotype of the socially inept techie we like to make fun of in popular media (as I write this in 2015, Sheldon Cooper of “Big Bang Theory” is walking away with the top honours) is not merely intelligent. Ravindranath, Ramanujan, Bohr, Beethoven, Einstein, Aryabhata, John McCarthy — I think we can safely say that we have seen enough brilliance in known human history to know what brilliance looks like. John McCarthy’s Turing Award acceptance speech shows why he is so much more than a geek. Brilliance doth not a geek make. A geek is a geek because of what he cannot be, not because of any exceptional intelligence. The geeky aspect of a person is completely independent of his intelligence level.

People also associate geekiness with social awkwardness. They believe that a geek is someone who can’t approach a girl for a date, can’t go drinking with his buddies. He is a loner, and has exactly two and a half friends, all of them geeks too, all of whom teamed up for a super-complex science project while in school. In my view, social awkwardness often accompanies geekiness, but the two are not the same. People can be socially awkward and still have a very good instinctive sense to relate to other people. There are plenty of shy, introverted, even clumsy people who are perfectly comfortable with other people at heart — they can understand how others feel and think. Geekiness is something else.

Since this realisation hit me, I’ve been watching the software techies who work around me, both brilliant and not so brilliant, and this realisation has grown stronger. Geekiness is a quality we will be happier to do without. At best, it is an inseparable part of an otherwise valuable person. We take the package deal because there is a lot else in the person which we value.

The thought still disturbs me, but I can’t escape it.

We have lovely doors for our washrooms at home now, by the way.