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The root of all things geek

By Annalee Newitz

I'm writing this column from Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford, England, where the yellowed stone of 17th- and 18th-century college buildings is criss-crossed by electrical wires, and medieval archways yawn over shiny new signs that say "CCTV in use." I spent the first several days of my vacation--and my first-ever journey outside North America--in London, where similarly weird juxtapositions of high tech and history are everywhere.

I was surprised to discover that the texture of London has been altered by the dotcom boom in the same way San Francisco and the Silicon Valley have. It's not just that people here are employed in the IT industry but that the idea of the web has permeated London's everyday culture. Comedians on Channel 4 satirize politicians who urge British citizens to "become high tech." The old-fashioned shapes of London taxis are painted over in ads for Oracle, Yell.com (a sort of Yellow Pages portal), and lastminute.com (a British travel service). Nobody here seems to use the nationally specific "co.uk" suffix for British websites; instead everything concludes with the bland, American/global "com." There are dot-economy apocalypse jokes in billboard ads, such as one from Hyundai, plastered all over the Underground stations, which read, "Disappear faster than a dotcom company." Charles even discovered a depressingly dull-seeming anthology of Brit literary short stories called The New English Library Book of Internet Stories, whose introduction is titled (most inauspiciously) "Imagination Dot Com."

The American vices of an accelerated dotcom lifestyle have--unsurprisingly --come to England as well. When Charles and I went to a tiny art-house cinema in London, we were amused to discover that the flick was preceded by several ads, two of which were for Starbucks, whose British slogan is "Your home away from home." The next day, I hung out for a couple of hours on the second floor of a triple-decker Starbucks, fiddling with my laptop and enjoying a terrific view of the crowds below. They were all seething around a roped-off underground station, which had been shut down due to bomb threats. At least there are still distinctly English forms of terrorism.

Perhaps Internet culture has taken off so pyrotechnically because England is a nation of nerds. After all, the Brits did bring us both Dr. Who and Space 1999. In fact, I had an utterly transformative experience when Charles took me to Forbidden Planet, a British chain store devoted entirely to science fiction fandom. The London branch is huge, two vast floors of comics, novels, T-shirts and action figures divided up into enticing sections like "Cult," "Star Trek," "Dr. Who," "Anime," and, most excitingly, "Buffy." Although Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an inarguably successful show in the U.S., it's a gigantic phenomenon here--everyone we've talked to watches it regularly (albeit satirically), and Forbidden Planet boasted a wide array of Buffiana I've never seen in the U.S.: mugs, dolls, a board game, magnets, coasters, keychains, postcards and, of course, the entire first four seasons on videotape. Sadly, British videos don't work on American VCRs, or I'd be lugging a load of cult tapes home with me. I almost wept with frustrated consumer desire when I discovered the pilots for both Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were on sale for £8. Why do the British get access to so many great pieces of American trash, when we don't?

I think it's because British nerds are more socially integrated than American ones--they have taste, class, and a kind of cultural acceptability that American Trekkers or Buffy fans simply never achieve. When I walked into Forbidden Planet, I was expecting to find a store full of the SF fans and geeks I'm used to in America--awkward, shy types whose backs have developed a protective slouch from years of being picked on in school. Full of unsocialized fire, the American geek has a wild, unpolluted imagination that can only come from being an outcast.

But here in England, the people browsing the Michael Moorcock aisle and checking out the latest dorky Star Trek novels looked like suburban dads and mums. A CD from Los Angeles rock band Sublime was playing over the store speakers while the kinds of hip teens who beat up my sci-fi-obsessed friends in elementary school perused books about robots. Where are the real geeks? I wondered.

I guess in a nation whose medieval history has spawned countless cheesy American fantasy novels, the nerd is an ordinary citizen. I still can't decide whether that's a good or a bad thing.


Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who hasn't had nearly enough bangers and mash. She can be found at suttonhoo@techsploitation.com.

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From the April 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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