I was a nerd once. It was a privilege to compete in the state science fair. I was proud of earning second place in the county math competition, acquiring years of straight As and possessing a computer at a time when computer's weren't in everyone's purse or pocket. But now, I don't know. I still read a lot, still love science, still game and giggle at seriously corny jokes that you have to know calculus to understand. But something has changed. I don't feel comfortable being a privileged smart guy anymore. I feel alienated by mainstream culture even though mainstream culture is comprised of all the things I used to like: Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, the X-Men, Star Trek, Aliens, Terminators, and all the other stuff I genuinely enjoyed because they weren't cheap thrills and stupid gimmicks, but progressive ideas with small budgets. I basically gave up on seeing a remarkable movie this summer. The next big one, Pacific Rim, I've already seen many times over because I watch old Japanese monster films and animation. So, what's going on? Why am I having to rub elbows with douche bags to watch The Avengers? Why am I uncomfortable playing games online because someone is yelling fag all the time? What is science fiction's problem with making stories with female protagonists? Seriously, this isn't who I am!
How the class war was won ...
In 2012, Apple, a technology company, became the largest company in U.S. History, surpassing Microsoft which trailed in the number two spot - bigger than any big bank, big oil, or big tobacco company ever. As these technology companies were rising, manufacturing and construction jobs were replaced or moved, and engineers, scientists, medical professionals and lawyers replaced them, and all of the professions in these sectors use technology. Technology is, in fact, the cause and means of all cultural trends operating today, which means it is we, the technologists and nerds, who drive the economy, and that is why our tastes are dominant now.
So, if economists can be believed, the middle class is comprised of individuals with disposable income that actually spend it. Marketing to the middle class is what most large commercial enterprises do. Their products, such as entertainment, durable goods, commodities, and real estate, adjust their image, marketing, features, and franchises to meet the demands of the middle class. And because the middle class has been predominantly nerds in recent years, all the movies (Tolkein, Batman, The Avengers … STAR TREK, DOCTOR WHO?!?!), gadgets (business is booming at ThinkGeek, Woot.com, Zinga), events (concerts like Steamstock, omg cons), art and literature (A Legend of Zelda non-fiction art and concept book is one of the top 10 best sellers on Amazon right now), and television shows are geek niche franchises of the previous millennium made into mainstream product lines.
Technology, and those who know how to use it, have replaced the factory, manufacturing, and construction workers as the driving force of our economy. The over-masculine hit blockbusters, middle-age women power dramas, and war narratives are finding customers in older demographics (unless it is nostalgic for kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s, like the Expendables). My father-in-law watches CSI and NCIS (which include their own forensic and hacker characters) and he seems antiquated or at least un-hip. Baseball, the classic american sport of the everyman, is suffering from a decline in popularity, while traditionally un-american sports such Football (american: soccer) and Hockey are on the rise. The popular supermodel singer, such as Britney Spears, has been supplanted by the quirky and bizarre androgen, such as Lady Gaga. Heck even our president is more metrosexual, intellectual and technologically savvy than one from the same party a decade ago. For good or ill, our culture is nerd-dominated, just as Movie Bob pointed out last week. If you are still unconvinced, please watch this Video.
It’s easy understand why this new nerdy middle class replaced the old machismo one. Once we could replace a worker with a programmable machine on the assembly line, the programmer and robotics engineer naturally replaced the assembly-line worker. However, the status quo died slowly, as most of the technology we have now could have been developed much sooner, but it took a younger generation of innovators to defy what was expected of them to develop it properly. With it, there are certain things that I’d like to thank technology for and a few things that we still need work on.
- The re-integration of women into the workforce. Have you noticed that women are as smart as men? If not, you’re probably not middle class because all the doctors, lawyers, scientists, programmers, and engineers I know, including my boss and her boss and her boss understand that females do everything males do in the post-industrial work-force, and a lot of females capitalize on this. The womanly aspects of anyone’s personality is almost fully in their hands these days. We still have a problem offering females the same benefits and compensation as males, but the gap is closing, and I’ll be very happy when it’s gone.
- Innovation has a chance. I’ve not coded an app for that, but I know someone who has. And, given that they are competing successfully in the same arena as microsoft, yahoo, aol (god, why wont it die?), apple, and countless other technology firms with massive budgets, that they make anything at all is kindof remarkable. But this is how economic mobility has always worked. When a person of modest means can bring new commodities to market, opportunities exist for people to change their circumstances. Technology, for those of us who have it, provides this power, and it is great and amazing indeed.
- Homophobia. This comes in a different flavor than the machismo version, as it doesn’t seem to involve deaths like Matthew Shephard or Brandon Teena, but when online, you can expect something to be casually referred to as gay, negatively. If you stay on for more than a couple of minutes, worse follows, until people are threatening the very violence I mentioned above. This is sad. Really it is just a projection of the slurs most nerds suffered from the previously dominant machismo culture onto others because it pained them plenty when they were young. The abused becomes the abuser, history and research shows, but really, this is some serious neanderthal crap; No offense to neanderthals, they were likely a misunderstood minority in their time.
- Cultural sexism. Okay, while we all work with women, there is an intractable undercurrent of values regarding women which also mirrors the trauma of that same high school setting that generated the homophobia. Nerds became accustomed to rejection and even abuse from attractive women in the schoolyard. Therefore, nerds are as bad as the machismo guys about how they envision the female body, the feminine persona, and the value of women outside of their work-force contributions. Even in progressive narratives like the Avengers, the absence of female characters that aren’t fetishized is stark. Among my nerd friends, the tendency to get crass for no reason when women aren’t around is so epidemic, that I pointedly only see some of them occasionally anymore as a result. They say they respect women, yet pour their money into all the burlesque, pornographic, sexist franchises that they always have, and have very little ability to form adult relationships with mature women that last more than a short while. Yes, nerds suffer from a gap in growing up, and it is high time we all stopped treating it as cute. It’s not cute. It’s lame. And even though poseurs of many genders attend comic-con, nerds single out "fake nerd girls" like they are somehow worse than "fake nerd guys." And if you don’t think this double standard exists, you can refer to the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon Cooper is attractive and his female intellectual status equivelant, Amy Farrah Fowler, isn’t.
- The deprication of sentiment. This should resonate with nerds as most are familiar with distopian and apocalyptic literature. As our society becomes more technologically advanced and our values change about human worth, we may be tempted to take measures that are not fully thought out to deal with our antiquated physiology and our emotional problems. New trends towards immortality, sanitary detachment, and technological replacement (include 3-D bioprinters) that dissolve privacy and humanity have their share of problems, but the biggest one in my mind is the devaluation of sentiment. Currently, liking something genuinely is still uncool. The nerd is, by definition, obsessive, and that obsession has a predictable seductive quality when executed and brought into reality. The thing is, as a nerd becomes mainstream, s/he may do a lot of things to fit in, to use the economy of mainstream values to get the things they want, and eventually, do away with all the sentiment that motivated them to be rebellious and visionary in the first place. You may find, if you have not already, that there are goliaths in the technological industries who cannot be toppled, and whose visions and progressive ideas have long ago been diminished or dominated in favor of marketability or the opinions of others. Our space program now has to do things that are popular, as mars gets the go and space shuttles are retired (Not the full story, but there it is). I liked the mars rover, but there are more important advancements in astronomy and aerospace engineering that probably deserve our attention, but don’t get any, which is why other countries are investigating the space technologies that will get us much farther, like solar mirrors on the moon, nuclear spacecraft, and habitable extra-solar planets. Our dreams are dying because our tastes are changing. Culturally, this applies too, as our sci-fi and hero franchises try very hard to gather up the greatest audience share. Heck, the new Star Trek movie wasn’t about new frontiers at all, completely lacking in the sentiment of daring and discovery that inspired nerds before. Doctor Who sucks more every season. And this trend shows no signs of slowing down.
In conclusion, nerds inherited the U.S. economy, and like most other custodians, we’re backwards, flawed, and misguided. The problem is not solely ours, as we are simply the middle class of the moment. We shall likely innovate ourselves into obsolescence someday, so this too shall pass. But understand this – we are no better or less susceptible to those who have real power (aka wealth) than anyone else. We might have been once, but nerds traded that freedom for progress, and we shall also have to change someday. I suppose we should enjoy it while it lasts, but I can already see this cultural trend’s demise because of its flaws, and I, for one, want to be part of a marginal and innovative sub-culture again. I don’t want to be a homophobic misogynist who tries too hard to fit in and only enjoys things ironically, and if that makes me unpopular, it’s familiar territory. At least I still have Warhammer 40k, right?
-f. f. white