"The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived"

Curator's Note

In 2012 internet comic writer, entrepreneur and self-styled geek Matthew Inman launched an extremely successful campaign on his website The Oatmeal to save what he felt was a priceless piece of history. Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe laboratory was the site of perhaps his most mythical project: a machine which captures free electricity from the atmosphere. Tesla’s incomplete project is a popular subject for many of the pop culture representations of him which have emerged over the past decade. Recent examples include the Tesla character in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (played by David Bowie), an episode of Drunk History starring Crispin Glover and John C. Reilly, and a vignette starring The White Stripes in Jim Jarmusch’s Omnibus film Coffee and Cigarettes. But what is the reason for this oft-overlooked inventor’s recent renaissance?

Inman paints a melodramatic image of Tesla as a tragic romantic who “died broke and alone in a NYC hotel room” because he cared more about creating than about making money. Tesla was a creative independent and a champion of technology. For an independent internet comic writer who relies on his ethos as a geek, one can see why Tesla makes for attractive subject matter. Inman is constantly threatened by his own financial success and popularity. If Inman's identity as a humble geek were to be threatened, he would be immediately condemned as an opportunist and a "sellout." Indeed many critics have questioned Inman’s sincerity in the past, accusing him of “gaming” social media and duplicitously pandering to a geeky audience.

This ethic of geekiness embodied by Tesla paradoxically facilitates internet economics though. Internet users are constantly being encouraged to create for the joy of it, supplying free content for media platforms. The “free labour” supplied by users, bloggers and moderators lead Tiziana Terranova to conclude that “the Internet is always and simultaneously a gift economy and an advanced capitalist economy.”  It should come as little surprise that a recent kick-starter initiative raised more than enough funds to build a statue of Tesla in Silicon Valley. The hottest new electric car company, headed by PayPal inventor Elon Musk and backed by Silicon Valley capital, bears Tesla’s name as well. Tesla seems to represent a new way of doing business which obfuscates the role of capital beneath enthusiasm for technology and creativity. He is a hero for a labour culture that venerates entrepreneurs and runs on free labour.  


Fascinating post, especially for someone who reads the occasional forwarded Oatmeal comic but isn't a regular reader. I like the connections you draw between Tesla's image and the expectations Imman has to navigate, particularly in regards to how even as Imman trades on Tesla's cultural cachet, Tesma's image (via geek ethics) functions to discipline Imman's career - or indeed anyone attempting to make a living out of the content production we're supposed to do out of passion and enjoyment. Interesting, too, how enthusiastically Oatmeal readers defended Imman in the comments of the buzzfeed article - again, engaging in free labor that produces value for others.

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