I spent a couple weekends ago with a wonderful group of entrepreneurs, technologists and artists at something called The Gathering. While the name conjures imagines of Crop Circles in my mind, in reality it is a geek confab. This years Gathering took place at the mansion of Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque Du Soleil. His home was intensely cool (right down to the swimming pool in the living room) and we all pretended that we were the embodiment of that coolness. Alas, as cool as the house was, we remained geeks.
Don't get me wrong. I love geeks. In my world geeks are cool. But my world is the world of high tech startups and it is ruled by geeks, so geeks get to write the definitions (I'm pretty sure that's the advent of the WikiPedia -- only geeks would create their own encyclopedia so that they could literally write the definition of cool). In the words of my wife, Silicon Valley is all about "geek chic" -- so far as I can tell, geek chic is best defined by those squarish nerd glasses that once were a source of ridicule but in Silicon Valley are a source of admiration. That's Silicon Valley. In the rest of the world, geeks are geeks and cool is cool and never the twain shall meet. But that didn't stop us from brief delusions of coolness at The Gathering. In the comfort and support of other geeks, the geek is king. Like girls at an all-girls school or Jewish "athletes" at the Jewish Olympics, geeks thrive at Mac World, the Math Decathlon and The Gathering.
At this point I should apologize to those representing the arts at The Gathering. The artists and musicians were not geeks. They were artists and musicians and, thus, were inherently cool. Unfortunately, while coolness will not rub off on geeks, geekiness will unquestionably rub off on cool people. It seemed (and still seems) completely incomprehensible that the fabulous Christina Courtin and her ultra-cool compatriots Kyle Sanna and Johnny Gandelsman would drive up from New York City, the land of cool, to hang out with a bunch of aging nerds. In reality, they wouldn't. But they had no idea what they were getting into. Frankly, they were duped into joining us. They were invited to The Gathering by the very coolest among us -- Juliette (a former VJ, one time Miss Canada, and now all-powerful media guru with more style in her little pinky than the rest of us could muster in our entire bodies with the help of even the most talented personal shopper). We used Juliette like a fishing lure -- these cooler-than-cool musicians drove up to Montreal expecting a room full of fashionistas like Juliette and found a room full of fashionleastas like me. You could see the fear in their eyes when they arrived at dinner after a long day of driving, looked around at this dubious crew of hacks and hackers and thought to themselves, "holy crap, what have we gotten ourselves into?" But there was no turning back towards NYC so late at night. So they did the only thing they could possibly do under the circumstance -- they began drinking heavily. And continued drinking heavily throughout the weekend. Because only through that alcohol induced haze could they forgive Juliette (who had betrayed the cool team and turned double agent for the geeks) and make the best of a weekend with the nerd squad.
Despite all this talk of the dichotomy between geek and cool, if it isn't already abundantly clear, let me say this -- I do not use the term geek pejoratively. I use it descriptively. There's a difference. A geek is a geek. Nothing wrong with that. Shoot. I'm a geek. And ghastly proud of it. (I was recently chatting with the creator of AdultFriendFinder (the leading online dating site for "swingers") and made the mistake of using the term "porn" to describe his website. He got surprisingly defensive and pointed out that he doesn't use the "P word" but rather likes to refer to it as the "adult industry." I tried to explain to him that I had by no means meant the "P word" pejoratively, merely descriptively, but he took little comfort from my admonition.) To my mind a geek is someone who zealously pursues the study and furtherment of technology. What's not to like about that. Without geeks there would be no car, no TV, no electricity, no cell phone, no Tivo, no iPod, no AdultFriendFinder, no airplane, no camera and no Roomba the robotic vacuum cleaner. Geeks make the world better for all of us. In geeks I trust.
The nice thing about a weekend with geeks is that, despite popular belief, geek conversations are by no means limited to discussion of math and science. Quite to the contrary. My experience is that geeks feel fully qualified to opine on anything and everything. It reminds me a bit of my childhood. My mother thought that it was boring to ever say "I don't know" when asked a question and, thus, when faced with a question to which she had no answer she would simply make something plausible up. My childhood became a bit like that game on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" in which a contestant has to guess which of the three definitions for a term is the actual definition and which two are made up. Sometime my mother would admit her ruse after learning the actual answer. Other times my brother, sister and I were left to discover the misinformation in less advantageous ways -- "what do you mean the back scratcher wasn't a tribal instrument first used in East African rituals during the dry season?" (It turns out that the ability to not only sniff out a plausible but technically inaccurate statement but also come up with one should the need arise is a pretty valuable skill when practicing law.) This is not to say that we spent the weekend making stuff up. We simply spent the weekend opining on things on which we were not necessarily qualified to opine. As a result, we had some really interesting conversations that made me think instead of just talk.
Among the topics of conversation at The Gathering were evolution (as reflected in the eyes -- and behaviors -- of one of the cutest little Gerber babies you've ever seen), sexuality and submission under repressive regimes (as embodied by Tweetie Bird thong underwear haggled over by women in Berkas), the power of "and" over "but" (as demonstrated in improvisational theater games and extreme programming), the future of politics (does technology make it possible to move past partisanship?), the future of education (what will inspire girls to pursue technical careers?), the future of movie making (is that background real or is it a 3D matte painting?), the future of medicine (the age old question of socialized medicine with a technology twist -- will body monitoring cure all woes?), not to mention some of my favorite everyday geek conversations about things like RSS, cell phones, PDAs, thin clients vs. thick clients, Web 2.0, the commercializability of nanotechnology, recreational space travel and the list goes on. To my mind these were some seriously cool conversations and while they may not have made us cool in the pages of Style Magazine, there is no one cooler in my eyes than a room full of geeks who are willing to listen, open up and share. I'm counting the days until next year's Gathering.