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Against nerds

May 18, 2010 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To hear some tell it, no minority in the past half century has been so completely liberated as the nerd. Nerds have thoroughly colonized intellectual achievement. They are the inventors, the scientists, the policy experts, the analysts, and the respected academics. They are the main beneficiaries of two trends: the increasing technical complexity of the world at all its corners, and the leveling of barriers erected by race, class, and cronyism. The future is theirs.

But it’s a future we should fear, a highly segregated, spiritually barren future where there is no common ground, only collections of special interests, however intense, intelligent, and well-informed. It is a world of hobbyists.


Now the real issue here is nerdiness, of which being a nerd is simply a limiting case. You can be a nerd about X without being a nerd per se, without letting your nerdiness translate into full-blown social dysfunction.

Nerdiness is a form of intellectual engagement marked by obsessive interest in acquiring knowledge of a certain, highly specific kind. It could be almost anything at all. There are language nerds and music nerds and public policy nerds and baseball nerds. We needn’t confine our attention to the devotees of computer programming and science fiction. Nor should we, since the underlying phenomenon is much broader.

Nerdiness is now the dominant model of intellectual activity: to be an engaged, informed person, in anything whatsoever, is to have an inner nerd.  Some features of the nerd model:

1.  Nerds are pure, unconflicted, childlike in the best way. They aren’t in it for the money. Their only source of angst is having their obsessions interfered with. Taken in themselves, these passions are perfectly uncomplicated and self-sustaining. Anything Star Wars makes Star Wars nerds happy. Anything about cell biology makes cell biology nerds happy. Nerds just want to be left alone with their toys.

2.  Nerds delight in categorization, including self-categorization. They love arranging objects and information. This is also a way of defining themselves. Nerds take great pains to carefully demarcate their area of interest. They are responsible for everything within that territory—hence their obsession with completeness—while everything outside that territory belongs to someone else. This is the work of a nerd: / CC BY 2.0

3.  Nerds are highly social. They love games, conventions, and websites that allow them to connect with other nerds. They prize esoteric knowledge in large part as a status symbol. They enjoy punny jokes because they are less interested in humor than in signaling the depth of their interest: the logic is always “I am so into math that I enjoy otherwise worthless jokes simply because they are math jokes.”

4.  Nerds are consumers. Every nerd is also a fan who is highly ready to invest in the material accoutrements of his or her chosen obsession, often to the point where the accoutrements become an obsession unto themselves. Moreover, nerds are creative consumers. Their instinct for specialization creates new demographics and demand for new products.

(A Karl Marx puppet, for the philosophy nerd. via)


For all their gains, there is still something to the negative stereotype of the nerd as an awkward, isolated onanist. The world of the nerd is cozy, but self-limiting, narrow, fragmented, and sterile: a world of niches. Nerds are more interested in genre fiction than fiction itself, much less the things fiction is about. The nerd gives no serious thought to his obsessions, their larger meaning, value, or purpose. Each obsessive pleasure is its own justification, expressing nothing beyond itself. Where nerds are dominant, we all lose sight of breadth as anything other than polymorphous nerd-dom. Persons are—as the social networking sites already insist—just lists of atomic likes and interests. The idiosyncratic person is simply an idiosyncratic list. The well-rounded person occupies several niches simultaneously. There is no horizon of personality, just preferences strung together.


The rise of the nerd is also connected to the devaluation of art and artists as models of engagement with the world. The brief of the artist is essentially opposite to that of the nerd. The artist is concerned, in broad terms, to make the particular shine on the universal. He may focus on particular things, but his field of vision is unlimited. The nerd is interested only in the particular, and then only within a very narrow compass.

Art in this sense takes a certain kind of ambition, and courage, which tend to be met now with suspicion and mockery. (That this response is often the correct one only makes the situation worse, as does the fact that many artists have adopted a style of nerdy self-limitation.) Claims to beauty and ineffable truth ring hollow. We cannot help but think of artists as pretentious. If they are successful, they are charlatans, if unsuccessful, self-deluded. We have killed off the artist as a serious role model.

Knox Harrington, the video artist

It’s much easier to numb that part of us that thinks about larger meaning and conceive of our various life projects as expressions of mere taste. Let us agree, in essence, to think of our souls as tongues or genitalia: you get your meaning in life one way, I get mine in another, and they are both equally valid. There are no larger issues.

Some will rise to defend nerds. They will doublespeak: narrowness is breadth, limitation is freedom, the particular is the universal. If there is anything to this, it derives from the idea that bondage is freedom when it is freely, self-consciously undertaken. If there are such nerds, we should wish them well, but I doubt that there are. Nothing against nerds–has there really ever been such a free slave?

The only other defense of nerds is the sad, nihilistic, concessive one. That there really is no common ground, that it’s all hopelessly fragmented, that we can’t have genuine meaning or beauty or God or what have you so, fuck it, we may as well have all the action figures and conventions and fanzines and chat rooms we could ever want.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kwame permalink
    September 28, 2010 6:41 pm

    The Karl Marx puppet looks more like Harry Frankfurt…?

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