Links: Thoughts on the New Nerd Order

May 28th, 2008

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.”

The New York Press, meanwhile, offers an essay musing on the connection (or distinction) between nerds and hipsters (thanks to Church for the link).

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.

Now compare this sentiment with a comment that Z. recently made here:

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.


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3 Responses to “Links: Thoughts on the New Nerd Order”

  1. sam Says:

    I’m a demi-nerd-cum-demi-hipster who lives a few stops on the train down from Williamsburg itself, so I had to comment.

    I think there’s a lot more to it than simple fetishization. First of all, the norms of nerddom and the norms of hipsterdom are more similar than one might think. To be a good hipster, one must make an effort to maximize attention on information that is, by default, outside the main stream. The only difference with nerds in this respect is that nerds are (generally) more inclusive; that is to say, a blonde girl in an American Eagle dress would receive a far warmer welcome at, e.g., DragonCon, than she would at, e.g., Studio B (to name a particularly egregiously hip Williamsburg club). This attitudinal difference aside, the hierarchical, taxonomical arrangements are very similar. The way kids ‘score points’ with their friends talking about the latest developments in comic books, technology, or videogames, is almost identical to the way hipsters judge each other when discussing the latest underground bands.
    Which leads me to my second point: I think a fair amount of hipsters were nerds when they were younger. In some sense, the much of the Williamsburg scene is similar to the SCA, in the way that like-minded individuals who are unfit (in the Darwinian sense) in the macroculture claim a space for themselves and essentially refashion society in their own image. There are a lot of people I’ve met in Brooklyn who used to, and some who still do, play Magic cards or D&D, and the hipster homes I’ve seen without a Wii and/or PS3/XBox are few and far between.

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    This makes some sense. And actually, what you’re describing in your first point is common to a lot of youth subcultures, a process described pretty well in Sarah Thornton’s book Club Cultures. What you’re calling “scoring points among friends,” she calls (borrowing from Bourdieu) “subcultural capital.” I do think that there’s substantial policing of boundaries and checking for “geek cred” (if that’s what you might call our form of subcultural capital) even among geeks, though. Some geeky groups may be pretty desperate for new members and especially for women, though others are fierce meritocracies…

    The suggestion that a lot of hipsters are former nerds is an interesting one. The biggest gap in my own research is what happens to the kids who were nerds but grow up to be not nerds. We know from previous research that some kids do escape geekdom in high school by finding their way into other, less stigmatized and sometimes more openly resistive groups. I’d be curious to hear from folks who went this route and what they think about the concept of ‘geeks’ now.

  3. Nate Says:

    I disagree with the bulk of this article.

    Lets start by defining a nerd. The dictionary claims that a nerd is “a boring or unpopular person, esp one obsessed with something specified.” Although this may be the technical definition, pop culture seems to define a nerd VERY differently. Would pop culture label someone with a specified “obsession” for sports a nerd? Definitely not; they would be labeled a jock or something along those lines. Don’t most people have a specified obsession with their career, or at least those that aspire to be successful in their career? As for nerds being “boring or unpopular,” this is simply subjective. One nerd may be very interesting/popular among other nerds. But to the average joe that could care less about philosophy (or whatever nerds discuss), this subject may seem very boring. Pop culture (essentially) defines a nerd as someone that is highly intelligent and devoted to their studies. Someone that will be in the library not because they have to study, but because they enjoy reading.

    Now the claim that “nerds are going to inherit the world” is slightly off. Not because nerds won’t inherit the world, but because they already have. Do you think that most influential CEO’s, political leaders, philosophers, scientists, inventors, ivy league school grads, etc. were the cool kids in high school? These people had devoted their lives to their “specified obsession”, which is why they were able to achieve amazing things. They spent a large portion of their childhood in libraries reading and studying the things that interest them. This is also why it is “unnecessary to speculate which political candidate is the nerd of the bunch,” because it’s obvious they’re all, and have always been, nerds.

    Now onto the subject of nerds in relation to hipsters. There are 3 groups: pure nerd, pure hipster, nerd/hipster mixture. These 3 groups have existed since man developed the ability to think (but I’ll get into that later). Hipsters have a specified interest regarding art and culture. A hipster will study one or more of the following: visual art, music, creative writing, fashion, etc. Now just because hipsters have an interest in culture does not disqualify them from being nerds (vice versa), because hipsterism is essential a counterculture. They reject pop culture and favor personal style. Nerds also reject pop culture, but do not reject counterculture. A lot of people tend to think hipsterism is something new, but they have been around as long as nerds. All of the greatest and most innovative writers/musicians/artists were hipsters. Just as all of the greatest and most innovative scientific thinkers were nerds.

    Although art and science influence each other, these are the essential definitions of nerd and hipster.

    The “Nerd”: Intelligent, creative, scientific thinker within a society.

    The “Hipster”: Artistic thinker within a society.

    The “Hip Nerd”: Both scientific and artistic thinker within a society.
    (Although this is different from a nerd with an appreciation for the arts or a hipster with an appreciation for science)

    Personally, I have been called a nerd, hipster and everything in between. Also, these are the types of people I have an inclination to associate myself with so I think that gave me a better understanding of how these two groups are labeled and the similarities they share. I almost feel like I could write a book on the subject just because I’m so familiar with these two groups Nonetheless, great article, it really got me thinking then my tendency to apply deductive reasoning to every situation took over. I randomly stumbled across this article and figured I’d throw a few of my thoughts out there to you guys even though it’s a few years old. element05@comcast.net – shoot me an email if you have any thoughts or debates on this matter.

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