How Being a Geek Became Synonymous with the Mainstream

Afisha.Daily found out how St. Pete's students came up with the idea and why Russia’s future depends on geeks rather than politicians

The St. Petersburg Geek Picnic has found a new home in Moscow. It also held its first event in Jerusalem in April.

The ‘geek’ trend is no longer a subcultural phenomenon, it’s become the norm. What in the 90s was the specialist interest of a small group of people, has now become mainstream. The internet, previously the domain of only IT specialists, is now ubiquitous; comics and TV series are transforming into global blockbusters; space-age technology has become commonplace. Afisha.Daily visited Geek Picnic in Jerusalem and spoke about the festival with its co-founder.

Nikolay Gorely, Co-founder of Geek Picnic festival

Subcultures Ceased to Evolve Around Genres of Music

“Music now doesn’t set the stage as it used to in the 1970s-1980s. People used to flock to concerts and were divided into rappers, ravers and headbangers, but now the majority recognise music as a lesser element of someone's character. New values are defined by learning through edutainment, video games and good humour. This is a huge new world, which stemmed from a tiny circle and spread out.

F80c222011d4414daecb5fd63ba97d5d

Of course we shouldn’t discount the Soviet tradition, with its science fan clubs, technical schools, and universities. But modern geek culture is much bigger. Let’s say in the 1960s-1970s there were 20-30 thousand nerds: now we are talking about millions. All thanks to apps, instant messengers, broadband internet, all of which made ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and the Discovery Channel possible.

Rammstein sang “We’re all living in America.” Today, American culture shapes cultural values: perhaps if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War, the world would have watched Russian programs. I was born in 1989, and, instead of Soviet science fiction, I took in Batman and Superman comics with my mother's milk.”

The Roots of Geek Picnic

“In 2011, Yuri Livshits, an internet entrepreneur and former Yahoo! Labs employee, returned to St. Petersburg from America and organized an event, Geek Picnic, with lectures on IT and programming. About 1,000 people came to listen. Later, Yuri got involved in creating the first co-working space in Russia, and passed the project on to me. I was in my final year of university at the time and ran IT job fairs with some friends. In 2012, 7,000 people came along to our first Geek Picnic. It was free entry and we lost $16,000 on it. The failure only motivated us to go forward.

During one summer evening in 2013 we decided to set up “the biggest European festival of technology, science and arts”. We had never been to any festivals before, but it didn’t stop us from making a pledge. We thought about what sparked our curiosity: I cared about space, Tikhodeev was obsessed with the evolution of mankind in the future, and Zheka was more into jokes and games. In fact, that year we were all inspired by 3D printers and drones. At the Global Future 2045 Conference in New York I met Nigel Ekland, the ‘first cyborg in the world’ who kindly accepted my invitation. In the end, 13,000 people showed up. One of the guest lecturers Lev Lurie, a historian from St. Petersburg, wrote that the era of summer music festivals is being surpassed by geeks.

25bf0600a37d4aa0b7adf5140b9ff85c

Inspired by our success, we set our sights on a winter festival in Moscow. But it didn’t go as planned. You can still find a VKontakte group “Geek Picnic, gimme my money back”. There were problems with both the place we hired and our own other failings. Financially, it was a triumph, but our reputation was tarnished: we had visits to prosecutor's office, angry letters and paid out refunds. But we entirely recovered our losses in 2014 in St. Petersburg and made our money back threefold.

In 2015 the festival was held under the banner “Cybernization”. It sounded cool, but we also gave it a practical spin: “Can technology in the future empower people with disabilities?” We invited people with bionic prostheses and integrated chips. They help us to perceive the world of tomorrow: what is now considered questionable will become mainstream in the coming years. If today someone with wiring in their head or a magnet in their hand looks funny, tomorrow it will be perfectly acceptable, people will be willing to redesign themselves with the aid of implantable devices.”

Geek Picnic 2016 in Moscow and Saint Petersburg

Just a few years ago, 3D-printers were capturing our imagination, but now we're used to them. Today everyone gets a kick from virtual reality, but strapping a phone to your head isn't how I want to do it. In 10 years time, we’ll be used to these technologies and will be wearing comfortable devices. We're the people showcasing the ‘wow!’ effect and looking to the future.

7104428f0b1140009a8a8c1f195396eb

Organising an event like this costs thousands of dollars. Bringing an 8-foot robotic arm from New Mexico, for example, is more expensive than paying for a popular band. This year we booked Jamie Hyneman of “Mythbusters”, so the main theme will reflect that, with awesome activities on site, from flights in hot-air balloons, to the destruction of obsolete electronics using a magnetron.

International Success

“We’ve been organising Geek Picnic events in Israel since 2014 and I am very pleased with the results. There is a chance the festival can gain international acclaim and will encompass three-five cities in the near future.

The Israeli audience is different, but you see familiar characters – engineers, geeks, computer programmers. In our country, older folks shy away from these sorts of occasions, in Israel it’s quite the opposite. There, it’s more of a family event, packed with children. In Moscow and St. Petersburg we mostly see hipsters who think they're geeks.”

“I'm interested in robotics and video games, especially VR. At the festival, I feel like a fish in water, who knows what’s going on. I want to become part of the community and work with these technologies in the future.”

Eled Raven, Student, Geek Picnic visitor in Jerusalem

“I was impressed by the virtual reality and 3D printing. But I'm a little disappointed, I hoped to see more exciting things. I play Dota 2, a video game- this is what geeks need, but there's nothing like that here. The event isn't bad, but it's more for small children.”

Yuval, Schoolboy, Geek Picnic visitor in Jerusalem

“Geeks will rule in the future. We own the world! Think of Steve Jobs, look at Bill Gates – they are absolute geeks. And what’s happening with video games – it's a huge industry! The event was a bit boring for us though. They were mostly announcing the VR-glasses, but there were only two pairs. Actually, I wanted to check out the HTC Vive, but it wasn’t here. And the robohand isn't quick enough.”

Eli and Dan

“Racing drones are just fun. These races are held about once every two months. During the year we prepare for the main championship in the United States, but the qualifying matches take place here. Controlling a drone whilst wearing a VR-mask really gets your adrenaline going. You're so immersed in the process, that sometimes the virtual reality takes over. You can accelerate up to 100 km/h, so to make things more exciting we look for places with obstacles, trees etc... The festival itself looks great.”

Ruby, Geek Picnic racing drones member, co-founder of FPV Racing Israel team

“Geeks today are the new artists and creators. It's great to build something with your own hands. Emerging industries will soon become enormous: unmanned transportation, robots. They can't develop without geeks.”

Christophe Tirabi, Geek Picnic member, creator of ‘Robot Swim’ fish

7b2ff1efbdad40868de0aa4814b3ed76

How Geek Culture Became the Mainstream and Why Creativity Will Save Russia

In 2008 Trash-shapiteau KACH, a music band, released a track that summed up an era. There was a line: “Glamour is dead, now our narrative rules. Don’t be afraid of the haters.” About the same time a cultural vacuum appeared, which set two trends: patriotism and its counter-movement, internal emigration. In this sense, geek culture emerged as an escape, with its virtual worlds, fantasy, and engineering tricks. These two worlds – the state propaganda and geek world (the world of the creative class) – developed simultaneously. Internal emigration has intensified, we are witnessing the growth of exciting stories at VR conferences, food startups, micro-breweries: they are all created by geeks! And this beautiful world is expanding: it’s up to the creative class to rescue Russia.

Our creative potential is immense, but it’s untapped: either by state institutions or business. The quantity will sooner or later transform into quality. Russia is an experimental playground, often bloody and mad, enveloped in a cloak of uncertainty. In 1914 you had to cover up your religious icon before you could have sex in the same room with it, but by 1918 sex communes were springing up all over the place. It only took four years! The conservative 80s gave way to the insane 90s, then the pendulum swung back and we found ourselves in the 2000s. With our creative resources and global opposition we seek new markets, which are unattainable for countries with bureaucratic, ethical and other barriers.

Just imagine the headlines: “Russia: the hacker's sanctuary”. Not bad, right? “Russia introduces E-citizenship”; “Russia to allow mass cloning of humans”; “Russia gives green light to fresh GMO experiments”; “Russia accepts voluntary testing of new drugs”. Simply letting people do what they want will create a new kind of economy.”

Autor: Artyom Luchko

Photographer: Geek Picnic