A few relevant links found their way to my inbox this week. Let’s have a look.
The Alpha Geeks. David Brooks writes a fairly standard “triumph of the nerds” sort of op-ed for the New York Times (thanks to Cabral, Deb, Gen, and Elizabeth for the link). This article comes complete with the proclamation that the “geek shall inherit the earth” (a turn of phrase that has been used about 65,000 times before). You know the drill: Geeks became cool with computers, nerds remain uncool, jocks only stay in charge through school and then the world turns upside down. Lev Grossman of Time‘s Nerd World blog used the “geek shall inherit” phrase for the title of a similar article three years ago, giving more consideration to the pop culture associated with geekdom than David Brook’s tech-centric view (with a dash of Harry Potter for good measure).
There’s nothing wrong with this format, per se, but I’ve seen so many articles of this template by now (and I’m not the only one) that I was kind of surprised that the NYT, of all papers, would simply rehash it without any further consideration of what this whole phenomenon all means. I’m also unconvinced that it’s necessary to speculate about which of the president candidates is the “nerd” of the bunch, though I’ve seen that popping up in a few other articles and interviews marveling over the new nerd phenomenon.
Why link this, then, if it’s such a cookie-cutter take on geekdom? Well, for one, I’m a sucker for completeness. I also think it’s an interesting sign of where geeks register in popular consciousness overall that a paper as high profile as the NYT would print something like this so late in the game, as it were. (Then again, it took them awhile to get around to discovering xkcd, too. At least in that case, I appreciate the acknowledgment that the strip isn’t just about programming, but the transition to adulthood.)
American Nerd Excerpts. In a sea of lightweight pieces on the geek inheriting the earth, however, a few pieces emerge as particularly noteworthy. Lately, I’m seeing excerpts popping up here and there for Ben Nugent’s new book, American Nerd: The Story of My People. Nerd World offers praise accompanied with a segment on gaming and the Society for Creative Anachronism:
Are these really nerds? Yes, but they’re nerds who have banded together and found a way to make themselves non-nerds within a separate universe. They’ve put the game of pretend in a logical grid of titles, allegiances, and hierarchies, but they’ve also made it outdoorsy and valorous.
“We were dorks in high school,” one of the stick jocks tells me. “But we’re dorks who can kick your ass.”
I’m fascinated to see that Ben and I (and those I’ve interviewed, and those who comment around here) reach some of the same conclusions, or similar angles on analyzing the “rise of the nerd.” Consider this segment:
To understand how the nerdiness aesthetic works, let’s go way back to 1950s Norman Mailer. In 1957, Norman Mailer wrote an essay called “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” … The Negro … was used to living under threat (Mailer believed), and so by adopting his mentality white hipsters could find a way to preserve that which was precious in their souls during the atomic age.
What we have right now, in Brooklyn, the Bay Area, Portland, East Los Angeles … is a similar choice on the part of the privileged to identify with the outsider. The outsider in this case is the nerd, because nerds are people incapable of, or at least averse to, riding cultural trends. When your greatest fear is that you will become a loser because your intuition will fail to keep up with tastes, you embrace the nerd like a little harmless teddy bear who’s the one creature in the whole wide world who would never do anything to hurt you.
This doesn’t mean that being a nerd is like being black, let alone being black in the 1950s. (Mailer’s account of being black in the 1950s is maybe sketchy anyway.) It means that nerds are a group by definition incapable of riding trends the ways that people in the creative professions need to ride trends. Nerds are the outsiders that hipsters gesture toward as a way of signaling an awareness and rejection of those forces that shape their lives.
The fake nerd, like the white Negro, is a way of dealing with constant threat. The threat, in this case, is a lot milder than that of nuclear war, but it’s the single largest threat that hangs over the lives of creative professionals in major cities: losing momentum in your career, losing the aura of an up-and-comer, acquiring the odor of failure.
I believe what we’re witnessing is this phenomenon wherein people see it fairly easy to buy into that nerd lifestyle. By definition, it’s a bit of a ragtag confederation of disparate individuals and elements, and as such the “secret handshake” ain’t so secret. Nerds are beginning to represent a sort of punk rock-flavor brand of anti-hip that is almost bulletproof. With geek chic, anything that’s nerdy marks the conspicuous consumer as bearing a keen self-awareness as an outsider, while anything that’s cheesy can be easily laughed off as ironic.
There are differences in how we may conceptualize these things, of course. I stop short of labeling anybody a “fake nerd,” prioritizing my role as an ethnographer over a position of authority as a member of the culture in question. The nerd-styled hipster may hail from a different subcultural lineage from the geek who acutely recalls high school torments, but I’ve known too many “real” geeks who grew up into the hip kind of geek to claim that they’re different animals altogether. Ben acknowledges this transition as well, but implies that the “real” nerd is the kind that really can’t interact socially at all. I wonder whether other geeks and nerds would approve of the “real” vs. “fake” nerd distinction implied in this way. (Please feel free to chime in.)
Reflecciones on Nerd Pride Day. In closing, let me just offer up a handful of links (La Rioja, La Rioja again, Informativos Telecinco, Actualidad—all in Spanish) about el Día del Orgullo Friki, a.k.a. “Nerd Pride Day,” in Spain. The unofficial, internet-organized holiday was recently celebrated for the third successive year on May 25th, the anniversary of the release date of Star Wars. Also worthy of note: You may be interested to learn that, even in Spanish, the phrase “revenge of the nerds” remains culturally salient.