We're Not All Nerds Now

Nerd culture is about exploring systems and pushing boundaries, not just being a gadget enthusiast. If you want to be a nerd, you have to do the work.

Andrew Conry Murray, Director of Content & Community, Interop

September 15, 2014

4 Min Read
(Image: flickr)

"We're All Nerds Now," declared a headline in the New York Times' Sunday Review. The editorial acknowledges an increasingly porous "boundary between geek culture and mainstream culture."

It cites the frenzy around Apple gadgets and the dominance of comics- and sci-fi-based movies as evidence of the mainstreaming of the nerd.

I think this article conflates nerdism with technology adoption. That's a mistake; people have been attracted to new technology long before anyone was called a nerd for it. Whether it was cars in the 1920s or telephones in the 1930s or microwave ovens in the 1950s, people have flocked to all kinds of new machines.

[What features make the ideal robot? Read My Ideal Robot: 10 Must-Have Features.]

We used to call the development and wide availability of technology "progress." Progress meant taking complex machines and simplifying them so that they could be easily operated by society at large with little or no special training.

It's the same thing today with the Internet, computers, and smartphones. Significant efforts have been made over the past five or six (or seven) decades to refine computing machines for mass consumption.

In other words, just because you own a bunch of gadgets doesn't make you a nerd.

So what does? In my mind, there are three essential traits of nerds. First, nerds are attracted to novel technologies that demand the acquisition of arcane knowledge to use them. Second, nerds have a desire to explore, understand, control, and sometimes exploit complex systems. Third, nerds question rules and boundaries.

These traits are present in the origin stories of our modern technology infrastructure, from the Tech Model Railroad Club to Captain Crunch to the Homebrew Computer Club.

For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s everyone owned a telephone. It was nerds who decided to explore the intricacies of the telephone network; to understand its routing and signaling systems; and to parse the lingo of phone operators, linemen, and electrical engineers.

In some cases these explorations were driven by mere curiosity. And in some cases, acquired knowledge was used for mischief or theft.

The same applies today. Anyone can own a smartphone. Only a small number of people are interested in testing the limits of the hardware and software on the phone, or writing applications, or creating malware. Those are the nerds.

Being a nerd means doing work
However, I want to be clear: While I dispute the notion that we're all nerds now because of smartphones and Captain America movies, I also recognize the problem in drawing boundaries around an identity.

I'm not trying to claim nerd-dom for a certain group. That's one aspect of the editorial I agree with.

The article quotes Randall Munroe, creator of the popular xkcd comic, who warns about the exclusionary attitude that can come with tech or nerd culture that makes the "… community steadily more homogeneous and exclusionary."

He's absolutely right. Nerd/geek culture can be insular and unwelcoming to outsiders, particularly women and minorities, and particularly in disciplines such as software development and IT.

Instead of trying to reclaim the term "nerd" or purify the nerd community, the goal should be to promote nerd traits. Nerds aren't afraid of working hard to acquire the arcane knowledge required for mastery. Nerds have a deep curiosity about complex systems.

And nerds don't simply accept limitations on a system -- they want to know why. If a limit or boundary seems arbitrary or unfair, they're willing to find ways around it.

I think all of those traits are positive qualities that can be widely applied to our world.

You don't have to be a hardware hacker or a software developer to claim nerd status. The world is full of complex systems -- economic systems, political systems, social systems -- whose underlying assumptions can be questioned, whose rules can be understood and challenged, and whose boundaries can be changed.

If you're curious about the way something works, and you're willing to put in the time to understand it and the effort required to change it, by all means let your nerd flag fly.

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About the Author(s)

Andrew Conry Murray

Director of Content & Community, Interop

Drew is formerly editor of Network Computing and currently director of content and community for Interop.

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