When I was young, “geek” was not cool. Neither was “nerd.” Working on cars was cool as was logging and shooting Bambi’s uncles with high-powered rifles, at least where I came. On the other hand, every little town had a Radio Shack where you could buy tubes, transistors, ICs and other assorted electronic components. You don’t see that so much anymore. Grocery stores sold publications like Byte Magazine, 101 Electronics Projects and Radio Electronics. Those magazines were about building things. People who read and wrote those and others like them created an industry in their garages, basements and bedrooms. They started a new Industrial Revolution.
Still, back then, tech folks were more likely thought of as mad monks and strange people like Eddie Deezen as “Mr. Potato Head” (Malvin) in the 1983 movie War Games. You didn’t want to be one. I like to think that attitudes have changed over the years, and I think the signs are there.
The FIRST Lego league with its robotics tournaments has created a legitimate “sports like” atmosphere for geek-types in school. 50,000 plus Arduinos being sold shows that the electronics hobbyist world is moving again like it did in the 80s. The maker and bender communities illustrated by Hackaday, Makezine and supported by companies like Adafruit and SparkFun show that creating with chips is as alive as it was in the late 70’s and 80’s. TV shows like Mythbusters, Jimmy Neutron and Prototype This have glorified the geek.
And why do we care? Because the more engineers we build out of the masses, the better we can design and build our economy. The more mainstream and acceptably technology is, the more educators will work to encourage and foster the environment and attitudes that allowed Apple, Dell, Google and SparkFun to thrive. We need that. We need robotics competitions to be as socially acceptable as football games.
The rooms were so much colder then
Your blog really made me think of my brother when we were growing up — complete with the duct-taped glasses, a briefcase for school (no one carried one of those!), his weekly forays to Radio Shack, his little soldering iron that was often used for tortue on sisters — and his after school and summer job working in a TV/radio repair shop. Of course, he was the one who then went on to Georgia Tech, left our small hometown and secured some pretty good jobs in the high tech/electronics industry. And, he was the one who encouraged me to go to work for PC FAB magazine some 30 odd years ago. (“I don’t know anything about printed circuit boards…” “Oh, you can learn it…even liberal arts majors have a chance!”)
Great points you are making here that these sorts of interests need to be made more mainstream and acceptable . The geekly nerds who ran the AV Club in high school grow up and make all sorts of contributions to our society. (Even if it’s just steering a wayward sister into the industry.)