The word "geek" was once hurled as an insult, but in some circles, being called one is now a compliment.

The word has had such a transformation that the business world has taken notice and is using it to market products and services. Best Buy has its Geek Squad, a crew of experts who will rush to the aid of customers struggling with their high-tech devices.

Here in Ashland, Martin Rush has named his computer repair and trouble-shooting company PureGeek. The business evolved from a Web site with that moniker that Rush started to entertain himself and his friends. With more companies latching onto "geek,"

Rush lucked out and was able to get the phone number 488-GEEK for his growing business.

PureGeek recently branched out and became the newest retailer of the city-owned Ashland Fiber Network's Internet services.

Rush said he has seen "geek" evolve as people with high-tech skills have gained earning power and job security.

"It's less that that term is less pejorative, but more that the people described by that term are more highly regarded," he said.

"Geek" transformed

One of the earliest uses of "geek" was to refer to a circus performer who would bite the head off a live chicken.

When technology developed that confused average people, the door opened for a new subculture to form. But "geek" was not immediately applied to the youngsters who toyed with and mastered new devices.

Computer pioneer and long-time Ashland resident Paul Mace, age 61, said that when he was in school, the boys who belonged to the audio-visual club would be today's equivalent of "geeks." When teachers were flustered about how to put film in a projector or hook up a television antenna, they called on the boys.

Those kids didn't envision parlaying their obsessions into lucrative professions.

"There was never a notion that if you knew how to thread film in a projector, you would get rich," Mace said. "The idea was that you would be the weirdo fixing appliances at a store."

All of that began to change about the time Mace's own kids were in middle school in the mid- to late 1980s. Teachers and administrators relied on computers to track grades and perform myriad other critical chores.

Yet adults were intimidated by the technology and relied on a new generation of boys to diagnose problems and build and take apart computers. then, those boys were being called "geeks," Mace recalled.

"Suddenly, you became not just the kid who could go get the projector, you knew how to keep the school administrative staff from committing suicide," he said.

Mace said it was members of that generation &

including several from Ashland schools &

who grew up to become millionaires, and in cases like Bill Gates, billionaires.

Mace employed many of the high-tech hot-shots at his company, Paul Mace Software. While they had been labeled as "geeks" in school, as young adults they appropriated the word and gave it a new spin.

"Young people who worked for me referred to themselves as computer geeks with pride. They were making an awful lot of money and had job security," he said.

"Geeks" vs. "users"

In a world where preschoolers play games on the Internet, teenagers regard cell phones and iPods as necessities and adults rely on computers at work, it's easy to imagine that we're all just a bunch of geeks.

But not so fast. Geeks are experts in the how-to of high-tech. The rest of us are just "users."

"There's a difference between an end-user and a geek," said Rush, the founder of PureGeek. "A user has to use a program to get the job done. But if the computer breaks down, a user has to call someone else."

Rush said he gets calls for help from all generations.

His senior citizen customers are remarkably proficient with computers considering that they grew up without the technology. The surprise has come with his younger customers.

"Younger people are less competent because to them, technology is just supposed to work &

like a toaster or a light switch. It's supposed to be that easy. They don't want to know why it's not working, and they don't have to know why," Rush said. "That's my job."

This may make technology-challenged people feel better: Rush said that there are so many different branches in the high-tech industry that no single person can become an expert in everything.

Some specialize in premium sound systems for gaming, others are masters of computer animation and graphics, and still others are experts on the Internet or Windows or Apple operating systems.

If Rush can't solve a customer's problem, he knows who to call.

"Even geeks have geeks," he said.

Jim Teece, co-founder of Project A in Ashland, said he also hears the term "users" applied to people who merely use technology without understanding it. He said adults and kids are immersed in a world of technology and gadgets &

with kids especially taking those innovations for granted.

Teece said he recently tried to explain to his kids what life was like before the advent of automatic teller machines, or ATMs. As each weekend drew near, he had to plan a special trip to the bank to draw out cash before it closed. That practice seemed archaic to his kids.

"It's not like I was talking about wagon wheels and cowboys and outhouses," Teece said. "It was 20 years ago."

Despite being surrounded by high-tech devices, he said most kids won't grow up to be bona fide "geeks." That term will still be applied to those who are testing and developing technology on the cutting edge, he said.

"A core group of them will constantly strive to get to the next level. They want to be pioneers and get the bragging points," Teece said.

"Geeks" go global

While most people will never earn the label "geek," Mace said there's no doubt that the number of geeks is growing around the world.

"It's a world-wide phenomenon. If you have an idea today for software or a Web site, there are 10 million people around the planet who are capable of doing what you're doing," he said. "At least 100 of them have already had the idea, and 10 others have actually done something with that idea."

Mace now works as a consultant for people who want to win money from venture capitalists to carry out their ideas. A regular part of that job is to, as he called it, "bash people's dreams."

Yet he said he thinks incredible opportunities still exist for "geeks."

In the early 1900s, that era's "geeks" were probably the kids who knew how to work on automobiles and made money fixing the mystifying new inventions. Yet knowing how to fix a car didn't mean a person could become an automobile manufacturer, Mace said.

With a computer, a skilled person can make software or create a Web site that draws customers from all over the globe, he said.

"You have a software factory sitting on your desk top.

That's the difference between all those other incarnations of technical geeks," Mace said.

Staff writer has never been called a "geek," but she has been labeled a "bookworm." She can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .