Day of the nerd?

Is it really true that nerds are more popular than they used to be?

On the one hand, how true is it really that people used to get picked on for liking science, science fiction, computers, and the like?  Weren’t people actually picked on for being socially awkward and weak?  Surely these are still liabilities.

Another thing:  how much of our memory of teenage life past is colored by movies about teenagers?  These have long posited a simplistic social scheme, with high school divided into nerds (uncharismatic but sensitive, usually the good guys) and the dumb, cruel, brutish jocks that torment them (before getting their comeuppance).  There are good reasons to be suspicious of this picture.  Remembering my own high school years, athletes were not nearly the monsters one would expect from the movies.  Sure, a few of them were jerks, but most were decent enough.  What’s more, if there was a single hierarchy of popularity, I wasn’t aware of it.  I myself was probably considered rather nerdish, yet I wasn’t treated terribly; I had a few close friends, and my only cause for complaint was that I couldn’t get a girlfriend.  There are also a priori problems with the jock/nerd dichotomy.  There’s an assumption built in that physical prowess makes one a brute, while intellectuality is connected to virtue.  Past cultures, which admired warriors and found holiness in simplicity, would have thought these assumptions perverse.  I think we can see clearly here the effect of a general Jewish cultural dominance of Hollywood, for what are nerds and jocks but the Jewish imagination’s image of itself (refined and brilliant but vulnerable) and the surrounding Gentile menace (cruel and stupid)?

Still, something feels different now.  When I was a kid and decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist, I had no sense of this being a high-status field.  It was a nerd job tolerated by a general public not interested in black holes and whatnot.  For the most part, I still feel like an average guy whose job is just more pleasant than most peoples’.  But the way I sometimes here people talk about physicists, it’s as if we’re now one of the standard examples of people who are successful.  Our status seems to have gone up.  This is ironic because, as Lee Smolin, Bruce Charlton and others have lamented, the current crop of physicists (and other scientists) are less deserving of admiration than any other in the past two centuries, at least going by actual discoveries.

I remember back in the 90s, Hollywood discovered computers and decided to try to convince us that people who are really good at using them are cool.  Thus, we got a string of “hacker” movies.  That was just a phase though.  When is the last time you heard about hackers?

Is this nerd solicitude an aspect of sodomite coalition building, trying to convince nerds that they too have an enemy in ordinary people?

14 Responses

  1. It is nothing but a continuation of the hippie to punk to alternative fashion, from Baby Boomers to Gen Y. I am surprised it took so long for the geek/nerd ‘culture’ [which should be used very loosely] to be appropriated by hipsters. Both are, after all,extremely consumer-focused. I don’t think intelligent but socially maladroit people have really become that popular. But their sociological consuming culture and obsessiveness with ‘stuff’ is top dog, make people happy, and make companies happy. Should we be surprised that the ‘day of the geek’ arises at the same time that popular medias are struggling with decades-old business models and audiences? That ‘nerd or geek’ is going to buy two of all the crap of his or her favorite movie, comic book, cartoon, action figure, et al. They’ll spend days complaining about how their favorite intellectual property has been ruined because the owners didn’t recreate the exact source material- but they’ll be there, day one, to purchase the next iteration no matter what.

    Of course, how can we discuss hipster culture without the Norman Mailer article from 1957? Here’s the link:

    I have many disagreements with Mailer’s assessment but, I think it is a good document to start with for understanding the hipster phenomena. There is a very strong influence of early 20th century European intelligentsia on the whole hipster mentality.

  2. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  3. “When was the last time you’ve heatd of hackers though?”

    Wikileaks, Manning, Snowden… nerdistry has been assimilated under the lefts blanket victomology. Physics may be apolitical, but as the maxim goes, anything not expressly leftist will eventually be hijacked. #Shirtgate … case rested.

  4. I suspect the recent valorization of physics is due almost entirely to the success of the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

  5. I am a high school teacher. I watch these kids every day. There is virtually no jock-nerd bullying, but neither was there in my day. People are not overtly cruel to the socially awkward kids, they just don’t hang out with them on the weekends and the girls don’t date them (I assume, I don’t really know who is “dating” whom.)

  6. What you describe is just an extreme loosening of the terms geek and nerd.
    I was a nerd at school and was treated fairly unkindly by some, not by those we might call jocks simply those who prey on the weak. In my experience nerd groups, which tended to be exclusively male, were a way of acting male roles, virtues or whatever without disproportional competition. Chess club, computer club etc. were social experiences but they were also competitive. Nerds without the intelligence to excel at these could submerge themselves in the escapist fiction associated with the culture. The identity served to prop up the three legged table of self esteem in the face of important deficits in physical strength or social skills. Often unwillingly adopted and with all the worst connotations of ‘freak’ compensation took the form of tacking on all the positives of ‘special’. Exiles tend to define themselves against the virtues they lack or are vulnerable to, strength is caricatured as brutishness, confidence becomes a shallow arrogance and escapist utopian fiction becomes the standard by which reality is judged. Or at least it was in my day.

    18 years later and my company takes on a thorough going geek of the modern type and I’m very surprised by how it has all changed. I make no pretence of a social history but these changes stand out:

    1) there has been a significant influx of women into geekdom and gender separation as a norm is degrading
    2) the activities associated with the identity have become more social and increased in scale
    3) the identity has become heavily politicized
    4) the opportunities for commercialization are exploited on a large scale

    Clearly these changes are interdependent and reinforcing. More women means more politicization and feminine activities, cosplay anyone? Politicization keeps the gates open by redefining ‘inclusiveness’ as a core value of geekness aided and abetted by commercial interests who want a larger market regardless.

    The net result of this is that the term nerd or geek is now thoroughly devalued. Its current use generally indicates a liking for an entertainment product packaged as ‘not mainstream’ with all its attendant virtues. How many times, particularly from women, have I heard the words ‘I’m a complete Game of Thrones geek’ which means in total ‘I watch and enjoy a TV show’. Got a DVD box set of Doctor Who? Wear a Green Lantern T-shirt now and again? Read a book by Iain M. Banks and liked it? Congratulations you’re a geek!

    So its not that nerds are more popular just that popular people now call themselves nerds. As for the pariahs, they’re still there they just need a new name.

  7. As a possibly relevant cultural data point, Hollywood’s current conception of a “hacker” is Chris Hemsworth, who also plays the Norse God of Thunder in the Marvel movies:

  8. Still, something feels different now. When I was a kid and decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist, I had no sense of this being a high-status field. It was a nerd job tolerated by a general public not interested in black holes and whatnot.

    Millenial here, who went through all of the breathless “Isn’t science wonderful!?!” curricula in public school, with not much actual science attached to those colorful Scholastic booklets that were either joyfully celebrating the airplane-car or sobbing over acid rain and ducklings with plastic rings wrapped around their legs. This seems to have precipitated into a very shallow culture, exemplified by such Facebook groups as “I !@#$ing love science” that considers “Like”ing pictures of black holes as equivalent to reading a Brief History of Time. Science is “cool”, and by science it is meant all the emotions one feels when looking at a picture or movie that might have astronomical or biological themes.

  9. I agree with the other commenters. Geeks (if by geeks you mean the people who always have been called geeks) are as marginal as ever. However, calling oneself a geek has become fashionable. Thus, there are a lot of “geeks” who are popular, socially adroit, and are fans of such “science fiction” franchises as The Hunger Games.

    Children and parents now compete to get into the gifted program. Thus, the gifted program has morphed from a refuge for bright but otherwise dysfunctional people to just another arena in which voluble suck-ups attention whore and resume build.

  10. Nerd has different meanings. In my experience nerds were interested not in science but in stuff like Dungeons and Dragons. In other words we hated ourselves and wanted to construct an imaginary self. Relevant:

    OK I am a Euro. I think your nerd can be translated as an intellectual, and maybe my nerd as a… loser?

    Nevertheless we hated the body – ours – and loved the life of the mind. Even if it meant imagination.

  11. This is kind of what I said in my comment to your last post. The meaning of “nerd” has become watered down. It’s hard to tell who’s really a nerd when everyone is fidgeting with a high-tech gadget all the time, playing computer games, and going to see movies based on comic books.

    When I was in high school and even in college, there was definitely a pack of “nerds”. Oddly enough, they consistently clung together as a group underneath a staircase, playing some kind of esoteric fantasy game. You could tell by looking at them that they wouldn’t be very interesting to talk to (or smell), and the snippets of conversation I heard on my way past them confirmed this: always something about some particulars of the game they were playing, or snorting laughter at an inside joke whose humor you could tell came solely from the number of times it had been repeated.

    These kids probably stayed the same way as they grew up, only now they aren’t called “nerds” anymore. (What are they called now? Aspergers patients?) The title of “nerd” now goes instead to otherwise normal people who, as other commenters mentioned, watch a TV series or attend a convention or like a Facebook page.

  12. Reblogged this on Philosophies of a Disenchanted Scholar and commented:
    I like this theory, it’s thoughtful.
    I would add we have a specialised mindset now where a person cannot be both intelligent and athletic, as if such a person is being unequally talented to the rest? And the direction of teen movies is the talented kid being taken down to the common level.

  13. @Bonald – The recent ‘fashionableness’ of nerds in physics and computing is the reason for the PC/ media crackdown – both this shirt nonsense, and the CEO of Mozilla being examples.

    Eventually PC will oppress everybody, but getting power, status, or popularity make you a priority. Chemists and mechanical engineers are unfashionable and – as yet – seem to be exempt from active persecution.

    But this all started in the 1960s with the sciences most relevant to humans – Psychology (intelligence research) and evolutionary theory applied to humans (sociobiology/ evolutionary psychology) and these fields have been under the cosh for several decades.

  14. […] see.  Movie protagonists are often modeled after a progressive’s self-image.  There’s the nerd who’s smarter and more compassionate than everyone else, the misfit who at first nobody […]

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