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A brief history of geeks

Before smartphones, social networks, and other must-have tech, it wasn't a badge of honor to be called a geek. Here's a look back at the evolution of the nerds.

  • IT Still at Work



    Just like their 1940s and '50s IBM predecessors, today's IT geeks have got the mental goods to oversee complicated, bleeding-edge technology. And although the hardware has gotten smaller, geeks must now deal with global infrastructure headaches, constant security threats and tech-savvy (a.k.a. "know it all") users. [Image credit: Getty Images]
  • History of Geekdom



    No so long ago, [[xref:http://www.pcworld.com/article/164194/the_geek_chic_checklist_22_sure_signs_youre_a_geek.html?tk=rel_news|the computer geek|The Geek Chic Checklist -- 22 Sure Signs You're a Geek]] (origin: Dorkus IBM-us) was confined to the back rooms and basements of companies everywhere. White dress shirts (sleeves optional), thin black ties and horn-rimmed glasses were standard issue. Mainstream social acceptance? Not so much. Over each succeeding decade, however, geeks have crept out of their shells, changed their look and gained more acceptance in business and in society. The results of which can be seen today: Geeks and their much-loved tech have thoroughly invaded the mainstream. Let's take a tour through the ages, shall we? [Image credits: (left to right) Windowtowallstree.com; Getty Images (2)]
  • The King of the Geeks



    Um…yeah. This photo actually might have set the mainstream geek movement back a couple of years. [Image credit: Macobserver.com]
  • Geeks Land in Pop Culture



    The 1980s marked a shift in geek culture. That's was when super-smart—if socially awkward—folks stepped into the spotlight by landing starring roles in movies and TV shows. It would be a while, however, before "geek" actually became cool. But geeks did win a place in America's heart thanks to likeable incarnations such as Louis, Gilbert and Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds; Doogie Howser, M.D.; Steve Urkel; Screech from Saved by the Bell; and Anthony Michael Hall as "The Geek" in Sixteen Candles. [Image credits: Copyright 20th Century Fox via Hulu.com (top); Wikipedia (below)]
  • Pirates of Silicon Valley



    The buttoned-up IBM look eventually gave way to the hippie programmer: Coders, pirates and anarchists whose entrepreneurial zeal challenged the IBM dogma of the day. "Hippie programmers have long hair and deliberately, even pridefully, ignore the seasons in their choice of clothing. They wear shorts and sandals in the winter and T-shirts all the time," [[xref:http://perforce.com/newsletters/2008/summer/lumpenprogrammers.html|notes|The Head Division]] tech author Robert X. Cringely. Showing off the look: on the left, Apple's Jobs and Woz; on the right, [[xref:http://www.stallman.org/|Richard Stallman,| Richard Stallman's Personal Home Page]] software freedom activist. [Image credits: Windowtowallstree.com (left); Stallman.org]
  • Google Guys



    But not every dotcom IPO ended as ingloriously as many ventures did in the 1990s. There was that search engine named Google, created by Stanford nerds Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Page and Brin became the poster boys for Internet-era success, and their mission to provide access to the world's information (and [[xref:http://investor.google.com/conduct.html|"Don't be evil" mantra)|Google Code of Conduct]] not only humanized the geek but enabled average people to get geeky with their data desires, too. [Image credit: IDG News Service]
  • The IBM Era



    The era that ushered in what we consider the modern-day IT department started off like this: On the left is the 1940's [[xref:http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/ENIAC.Richey.HTML|ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer),|The ENIAC]] weighing in at 30 tons with more than 19,000 vacuum tubes burning. On the right is the IBM System 360 mainframe, Model 50. At the controls were computer technicians and early programmers, the dressed-for-success geek of the day. [Image credit: IDG News Service]
  • Gamers in Training



    Once the bright minds at Atari, Nintendo and ColecoVision found ways to bring the arcade into the living room, the 1970s and '80s witnessed the birth of a new kind of geek: [[xref:http://www.pcworld.com/article/158850/the_ten_greatest_pc_games_ever.html?tk=rel_news|the gamer.|The Ten Greatest PC Games Ever]] Shunning outdoor activity for the thrill of previously unseen digital worlds, gamers blasted asteroids and saved Lady from Donkey Kong—all with the flick of the wrist and tap of their fingers. [Image credit: IDG News Service]
  • From Slumdog to Dotcom Millionaires



    Purists would say that the tech appearance declined in the 1990s—where did the bow ties and suspenders go? But so did the standards for why VCs would fork over millions to nearly anyone with a dotcom-related "business plan" ("Got a PowerPoint deck, elevator pitch or words scribbled on napkin? You do. Great!"). No matter, the '90s geek flourished with a new, casual look that screamed: "I know technology, I'll be working here for three months tops, and you need to pay me truckloads of money." [Image credit: Getty Images]
  • Nerds!



    And lots of other people still love the classic nerd look: Dressing up like good ol' Poindexter just never seems to get old. [Image credit: flickr]
  • The Tech Geek Inside Us All



    The new millennium may have come in with a Y2K non-event and financial thud, but the geek exuberance has grown only stronger since. Geekiness has gone mainstream! According to the [[xref:http://www.pewinternet.org/Press-Releases/2008/Most-working-Americans-now-use-the-internet-or-email-at-their-jobs.aspx|Pew Internet & American Life Project,|Most working Americans now use the internet or email at their jobs]] 96 percent of those who work use the Internet, e-mail or have a cell phone for some purpose in their lives, almost 40 percent of Americans have a wireless handheld such as a BlackBerry, and nearly 25 percent use social-networking websites like Twitter or Facebook. [Image credit: Getty Images]
  • Geeks Get Their Own Squad



    Yet there still have been tech ventures with retro nods to past geek lore. Take, for instance, the [[xref:http://www.geeksquad.com/|Geek Squad|Geek Squad]] agents, who became ubiquitous in the 1990s for their 1950s look, glasses, door-to-door tech service and distinctive VW Bug vehicles. [Image credit: flickr]
  • From Gates to Zuckerberg



    The face of the new corporate nerd—now that Gates has retired from Microsoft—is another Harvard dropout who looks something like this: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. There's no suit, no tie, no slacks. Just a lot of youthful energy and cocksure bravado—and lots and lots of hype. But the hype for Facebook and other social networks like Twitter, plus everyday folks' dependency on tech, has created "The Golden Age of the Geek." [Image credit: IDG News Service]
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