Geeks in Philadelphia make their mark.
Malone is enthusiastic about the idea that fabbers "could help impoverished areas bootstrap themselves out of poverty." And he says that could work just as well in Philly as in the developing world.
There's another fabber in the Hacktory--the nonprofit workspace that's yet another nexus in Philly's constantly growing geek network. And there are plans to start both a real-space FabLab in Philly in 2009 and an open-source project that lets anybody put together a 3-D printer.
All you'd need then, says Malone, is a "a syringe and some goop."
This would be perfect for the House of the Future, whose residents would be happy to take advantage of technology to make change. Sassaman says she was politicized by the Republican National Convention in 2000, where she witnessed cops beating up cyclists "and the chief of police waling on a young dude." She was called as a witness when she was spotted in the background of a video.
As a result, she got involved in various independent media projects, including the community radio project Radio Prometheus. In fact, as she talks about the RNC, housemate Josh Marcus is upstairs engaged in an online "barnraising"--the term used to describe people all over the world pitching in to set up a radio station via the Internet.
Given work like this, the denizens of the House of the Future are proud to call themselves geeks. Some of them were involved in Philly's almost legendary Geek Nights--workshops in which skills were shared so that work on Prometheus wouldn't be monopolized by hardcore radio geeks--who, says Sassaman, "tend to be dudes." The Geek Nights also took the pressure off those techies who were "so fucking pissed-off with constantly being asked to fix stuff that either everybody was going to learn those skills or they were going to burn out and fucking kill everyone," says Sassaman.
But that was back before the Philly geek explosion, back when the city's geeks were still on the margins. Today the calendar creaks under the weight of fun geek events.
For instance, last October in Washington Square Park, there were two guys in giant cartoon-cat costumes extolling the virtues of punk physics, "which is basically the creation of energy by getting really angry about stuff."
The cats were an entry in Philly's premier geek-art event, the Art Buggy Derby. They'd built a rotating wheel with handles they called "Kat Klix's Feline Fun Factory." A Barbie doll, a plastic shark and dice were covered in glue and placed in the cat-hair-filled drum and, after the cats raced around the park against their deadly rival--a bespectacled teenage boy called the Crayonator, who used an adapted manual lawn mower to "color outside the lines"--the doll, shark and dice emerged "furred."
The panel of judges narrowly awarded the $500 first prize to crowd favorite Crayonator, provoking one of the cats to howl (in the best cartoon villain tradition) that next year revenge would be theirs because "engineers are going down to punk physics."
"The inspiration for the event was basically to bring the left- and right-brain folks together," says race organizer Harris Romanoff. Romanoff is also one of the brains behind Make: Philly--a regular event that describes itself as "a collaboration of artists and engineers; DIYers and DIY wannabes; geeks and visionaries" and might best be described as Robot Wars meets Project Runway.
A typical Make: Philly event: In a room at the University of the Arts on Broad Street, around 60 real-life MacGyver "deeks" (DIY geeks) listen to a lecture about research into snakelike self-reassembling robots from Penn professor Mark Yim. Then a deek takes the stage to show off his own borderline-insane invention: a body board nailed to an office chair.
Next the audience splits into random teams that grab handfuls of technical junk and race each other to build a robot that can draw. The results are amazing.
But it's not all fun and games. Alongside the tech geeks, the agit-geeks, the art-geeks and the sci-fi geeks are the entrepreneurial geeks (not that these are mutually exclusive categories).
"Philly's tech industry is growing like crazy. We have cheap rent and it makes it easier to do a bootstrapped startup," says 32-year-old Sol Young, "software development sherpa" and founder of the Philly Geek Dinner, during which the city's tech eggheads meet at the grooviest restaurants. Young moved to Philly from Silicon Valley when the dotcom bubble burst in 2001.
"We are a nutrient-rich technology startup location," says Young. "Philadelphia is in a state of rapid geek emergence and we all feel like we're building something wonderful."
Philadelphia is home to a Dorkbot chapter, a blogging convention, a thriving Harry Potter community, the annual Beer Geek competition, the Book Geek website and geekadelphia.com--the website that gleefully celebrates both the dafter excesses of geek-driven pop culture and the hardcore grit of Philly's DIY tech scene.
On TV the pop geek and the tech geek are still shown as two distinct types: the unwashed, unshaven, totally out-of-date D&D/SF-obsessed pop-geek bears on The Sarah Silverman Show vs. the awesomely socially unskilled and possibly Asperger's-stricken computer genius Chloe O'Brian from 24.
In reality, says geekadelphia.com's Eric Smith, the tech geek and the pop geek are often one and the same. He reckons there's a 65 percent crossover. Other Philly geeks put the percentage way higher.
The word "geek"--originally meaning a circus freak that bit the head off chickens--is now a badge of cool, so much so that there are dark mutterings about dilution, about faux-geeks who hover on the fringes of the scene, leaching credibility.
Our friend and colleague Steven Wells died two years ago today of the cancer he had documented so well in two cover stories for Philadelphia Weekly. On June 14, he submitted this column.