Stereotypes: Geeks Vs. ArtistsGeeks, like other identifiable groups, tend to be schizophrenic. This is not because of any inherent quality of geekness, but results from the pressures other groups exert. Most identifiable groups probably demonstrate some schizophrenia. For example, I am the only technically trained person sitting on the Arts Commission of our town. This is an official branch of the local government. The other commissioners are all either professional artists or somehow connected to the greater arts community. My closest approach to being an artist is teaching graphics construction using Inkscape. How I behave with artists is different from how I behave at a computer club — not a lot different, and maybe you would not notice the subtle changes of behavior depending on the venue, but I can catch myself doing it. In fact, my desire to associate with people of differing backgrounds got me on the commission.

Not all of us can be professional artists, but all of us can become knowledgeable art lovers. As an art lover, I sought and won my commissioner’s status. An unexpected reward of this activity has been to see how the stereotypes we all use as labor (or thought) saving techniques come into play. The artists have a stereotype of how I, a self-admitted rocket scientist and general techie, should behave. If the artists have a pre-manufactured pigeonhole labeled “geek” to shove me into, they save mental effort. More shockingly, I discovered that I harbor prejudices about artists. If I can take the tremendous diversity of humanity that is called artists and shove them into a single category without considering the vast differences between them, then I have saved energy at the cost of lack of understanding. Sadly, these inadequate stereotypes have value, otherwise they would fade away under the grim pressure of Darwinian evolution.

If you hold a stereotype, your behavior is changed, but the insidious thing about stereotypes is what they do to the person being typed. If a group of your peers act as though you should act in a certain way, it takes an extremely strong (or dense) person to resist taking on aspects of the expected persona. If the artists expect me to behave the way they think geeks behave, then I am given positive feedback whenever I meet their expectations, and wondering looks when I act in a way that they label “normal.” We all experienced peer pressure when we were teenagers. Whatever made you think it would go away just because you matured?

So without thinking about it, we take on different mannerisms in different situations. Not different enough to shock anyone. We are not all Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but we do bow to the expectations of the crowd. The most obvious difference is the use of specialized languages. In a computer club, jargon is freely thrown around with the understanding that everyone knows what a FPGA or a Linux distro is. Neither of those term would be understandable to my artists friends — and they are neither stupid nor uneducated. They just speak a different language, and some of the terms they use would be obvious to you. Do you really know what post-modernism is?

We can excuse language differences because the specialized needs of various activities naturally call for specialized language for efficiency. “App” and “distro” are not attempts to erect barriers to outsiders; they are simply abbreviations for efficiency. This is in contrast to the various species of gang talk in which a specialized language develops specifically to help distinguish between insiders and the enemy.

But the geek/artist schizophrenia goes beyond adopting appropriate language to adopting different modes of dress and behavior. All this is a stereotype, of course, but my observation is that artists are more social and gracious than geeks in spite of the legend of the lonely artist starving in a garret. If I go to an art reception, I am warmly greeted and easily join in conversations. At technical shows, few, if any, of the other participants will engage in casual conversation unless I have a prior relationship or if they are selling something. While standing in line at a buffet, I will try to engage fellow techies in conversation, but with mixed results. The problem is that I am acting like an artist in a geek situation.

So how prevalent is this taking on of imposed personae? Do you find that you are behaving differently in non-geek environments than when surrounded by a group checking out the newest way to jail-break an iPhone? Has your Prius been modified to allow watching video while you drive? Do you own any original art that does not have a sci-fi or fantasy twinge? What other categories do you find that people are trying to put you into?