The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well

Grant McCracken has argued in his book Plenitude that one of the defining characteristics of the last fifty years is an explosion of subcultural variety — people creating new lifestyles and new identities around occupations, sexual tastes, hobbies, genres of art and music, religions, and just about any other investment of time human beings have ever dreamed up.

When McCracken proposes that there is now as much divergence among individual subcultures in the life of the modern West as we can find among preindustrial tribes in the annals of anthropology he is probably exaggerating. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is onto something when he observes that the old idea of a ‘mainstream’ culture with subcultures developing in anti-conformist reaction to it is falling apart.

[S]ubcultures now come from the cultural system in place. The culture of
commotion is, as I have labored to demonstrate, dedicated to the production
of new and different subcultures.

SF fans. Skatepunks. Polyamorists. Gangsta rappers. Goths. McCracken certainly has this much right; there are now lots of voluntary subcultures out there that have the kind of adhesiveness once only associated with religious or tribal groupings. Belonging to them is not just a predilection like being a baseball fan or liking Chinese food, but a statement of identity with a whole social network and a set of myths and dreams and heroes attached to it.

Among the five groups I listed more or less at random above the culture of SF fandom is a bearded grandaddy, dating back to the late 1930s and thus predating the beginnings of the modern explosion of plenitude in the 1960s. The others are all much more recent, and illustrate how new tribes can emerge to become apparently permanent features of the landscape in less than a decade.

And this brings us to the geeks. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was not yet anything you could call “geek culture”. Sure, there were bright kids fascinated by computers or math or science, kids who were often poorly socialized in the jargon of the day and hung together as a defensive measure; I was one of them. But we didn’t see ourselves as having a social identity or affiliation the way the jocks or surfers or hippies did. We weren’t a subculture, nor even a community; we didn’t even have a label for ourselves.

Slowly, slowly that began to change. One key event was the eruption of science fiction into pop culture that began with the first Star Wars movie in 1977. This was our stuff and we knew it, even though most of us never joined the subculture of SF fandom proper. Personal computers made another big difference after 1980; suddenly, technology was cool and sexy in a way it hadn’t been for decades, and people who were into it started to get respect rather than (or in addition to) faint or not-so-faint scorn.

You could see the trend in movies. War Games in 1983; Revenge of the Nerds in 1984; Real Genius in 1985. To kids today Revenge of the Nerds doesn’t seem remarkable, because geek culture is more secure and confident today than a lot of older tribes like bikers or hippies. But at the time, the idea that you could have an entire fraternity of geeks — an autonomous social group with reason to be proud of itself and a recognized place in the social ecology — was funny; all by itself it was a comedy premise.

The heroes of Revenge of the Nerds were people who created a fraternity of their own, who bootstrapped a niche for themselves in Grant McCracken’s culture of plenitude. The movie was an extended joke, but it described and perhaps helped create a real phenomenon.

The term ‘geek’ didn’t emerge as a common label, displacing the older and much more sporadically-used ‘nerd’, until around the time of the Internet explosion of 1993-1994. I noticed this development because I didn’t like it; I still prefer to tell people I hang out with hackers (all hackers are geeks, but not all geeks are hackers). Another index of the success of the emerging geek culture is that around that time it stopped being an almost exclusively male phenomenon.

Yes, you catch my implication. When I was growing up we didn’t have geekgirls. Even if the label ‘geek’ had been in use at the time, the idea that women could be so into computers or games or math that they would identify with and hang out with geek guys would have struck us as sheerest fantasy. Even the small minority of geek guys who were good with women (and thus had much less reason to consider them an alien species) would have found the implications of the term ‘geekgirl’ unbelievable before 1995 or so.

(There are people who cannot read an account like the above without assuming that the author is simply projecting his own social and sexual isolation onto others. For the benefit of those people, I will report here that I had good relations with women long before this was anything but rare in my peer group. This only made the isolation of my peers easier to notice.)

What changed? Several things. One is that geek guys are, on the whole, better adjusted and healthier and more presentable today than they were when I was a teenager. Kids today have trouble believing the amount of negative social pressure on intelligent people to pass as normal and boring that was typical before 1980, the situation Revenge of the Nerds satirized and inverted. It meant that the nascent geek culture of the time attracted only the most extreme geniuses and misfits — freaks, borderline autists, obsessives, and other people in reaction against the mainstream. Women generally looked at this and went “ugh!”

But over time, geeky interests became more respectable, even high-status (thanks at least in part to the public spectacle of übergeeks making millions). The whole notion of opposition to the mainstream started to seem dated as ‘mainstream’ culture gradually effloresced into dozens of tribes freakier than geeks (two words: “body piercings”). Thus we started to attract people who were more normal, in psychology if not in talent. Women noticed this. I believe it was in 1992, at a transhumanist party in California, that I first heard a woman matter-of-factly describe the Internet hacker culture as “a source of good boyfriends”. A few years after that we started to get a noticeable intake of women who wanted to become geeks themselves, as opposed to just sleeping with or living with geeks.

The loner/obsessive/perfectionist tendencies of your archetypal geek are rare in women, who are culturally encouraged (and perhaps instinct-wired) to value social support and conformity more. Thus, women entering the geek subculture was a strong sign that it had joined the set of social identities that people think of as ‘normal’. This is still a very recent development; I can’t recall the term ‘geekgirl’ being used at all before about 1998, and I don’t think it became commonly self-applied until 2000 or so.

Interestingly, the dot.com bust does not seem to have slowed down or discredited the geek subculture at all. Websites like http://geekculture.com and http://thinkgeek.com do a flourishing business, successfully betting investment capital on the theory that there is in fact a common subculture or community embracing computer hackers, SF fans, strategy gamers, aficionados of logic puzzles, radio hams, and technology hobbyists of all sorts. Just the fact that a website can advertise The World’s Coolest Propeller Beanies! is indication of how far we’ve come.

I’ve previously observed about one large and important geek subtribe, the Internet hackers, that when people join it they tend to retrospectively re-interpret their past and after a while find it difficult to remember that they weren’t always part of this tribe. I think something similar is true of geeks in general; even those of us who lived through the emergence of geek culture have to struggle a bit to remember what it was like back when we were genuinely atomized outcasts in a culture that was dismissive and hostile.

There are even beginning to be geek families with evidence of generational transmission. I know three generations of one, starting when two computer scientists married in the late 1960s, and had four kids in the 1970s; the kids have since produced a first grandchild who at age five shows every sign of becoming just as avid a gamer/hacker/SF-fan as his parents and grandparents.

Little Isaac, bless him, will grow up in a culture that, in its plenitude, offers lots of artifacts and events designed by and for people like him. He will take the World Wide Web and the Sci-Fi Channel and Yugio and the Lord of the Rings movies and personal computers for granted. He’ll probably never be spat on by a jock, and if he can’t find a girlfriend it will be because the geekgirls and geek groupies are dating other guys like him, rather than being nonexistent.

For Isaac, Revenge of the Nerds will be a quaint period piece with very little more relevance to the social circumstances of his life than a Regency romance. And that is how we know that the nerds indeed got their revenge.

21 thoughts on “The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well

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  2. It is an open question whether or not geek culture is addicted to outcast status. If so, we could expect to see geeks behaving more and more outlandishly in social settings to maintain the feeling of being a member of a persecuted (and superior, or at least noble by virtue of victimization) minority. There is a story about John Nash emulating some crazy eccentricity or other of Norbert Wiener’s, because he thought that this was how a real mathematician behaved.

    I have no idea if this sort of thing is happening throughout geek culture or not, but I know that there are individual geeks inclined to odd or anti-social behavior simply because they want the honor of belonging to such a minority. I know because I have felt this temptation myself.

    McCracken’s larger (and, I think, mostly correct) idea is that the dichotomy between mainstream and subculture is being erased for ALL subcultures, as people develop the technologies to explore specialized interests and to communicate with the like-minded. Although I believe that most people will end up participating in some subculture to their taste, there is a difference between this and consciously rejecting the mainstream. Most probable, and consistent with my own anecdotal observations, is that people will enjoy their unpopular identities online, or with a small circle of friends, but will adopt a mainstream persona in most real-life dealings. But who knows? More people openly displaying far-from-normal (used in the statistical sense; the sort of term we will have to use if the cruder concept of mainstream or not falls from usefulness) behavior and social identities is possible and almost entirely good, as far as this lover of variety is concerned.

    P.S. Bless the parents for naming their kid after Newton. Now if only they named a future brother Gottfried or Robert H. – what fights they could have!

  3. I guess I was fortunate in the time that I was able to grow up in. Not only did I end up in a technologically rich age where I could get on the web and learn HTML when I as 12 and was able to pick up Linux a couple of years later, but I never really had to put up with any negative stigma with being a geek or a nerd.

    I didn’t have to worry about taking any crap from the jocks, because as a football player I was sort of one too, and many of the other jocks were geeks too. Hell, our football team’s starting quarter back also on the math team, probably something that would have been to nerdy for the starting QB to do back in the 80s.

    Even being in the Air Force I’m surrounded by geeks, and many of them were geeks before they joined an got a job in communications, but it seems that the AIr Force does get a lot of the geeks that join the military, although the other branches do have their fair share, with the Navy having quite a few as well.

    And like every thing else in our society the rise of the geeks also has something to do with money. My uncle, who is a rather stereotypical nerd, driving his BMW and living in a very nice house is a perfect example of why people aren’t so harsh against nerds today.

  4. I think that common acceptance of geeks started happening when it became clear how wealthy Bill Gates had become.

  5. Not having read the book, I won’t comment on that. I will say that I think Eric is late by several years on a few of his dates, but nevertheless essentially correct in his underlying theory.

    The dotcom bust may play in the mainstream media as a repudiation of geek values, but the much-hyped failures were never actually representative of our values at all. We’re still here, we’re still running the infrastructure that runs the world, and while there may not be as many instant millionaires among us as there were five years ago, we are definitely still powerful.

    I didn’t see “Revenge of the Nerds” when it was new…by the time I did (early 90s) it already seemed extraordinarily dated, sociologically speaking. “Real Genius”, on the other hand, remains today the ultimate geek movie. :)

    It is interesting to contemplate the environment in which tomorrow’s geeks are now growing up, and contrast with the one in which I did. :)

  6. Hey Brandon, most of my Army buddies think all of you Air Force guys ARE geeks. Like that’s something to be ashamed of, right. Besides, I know you guys do a lot of good things. Take care. Hooah. (Is it me, or does the Air Force really need an equivalent to our ‘hooah’ and the Marines’ ‘oo-rah’?)

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  8. It looks like some non-geeks are calling themselves “geeks” just so they look K3WL N 31337. Is this good or bad?

  9. I think Kim in Doonesbury called herself a geek girl back in 1996.
    I find it unlikely that the whole Air Force consists of Geeks. George W Bush anyone?
    I think that the cultural fragmentation level varies a great deal by region and by socio-economic class. Penn State and Florida State in the late 1990s were VERY different in their sub-culture/mainstream relations.

  10. “over time, geeky interests became more respectable”
    The problem with geeks is that they want to be a tribe. Just another collective that supresses the individual. Geeks don’t ride bikes, nor paly basketball, so they invented Google and Wiki.

    Google make sure eveybody looks at the same web pages,
    Wiki makes sure everybody knows and thinks the same.

    Individuals who think independently will keep looking elesewhere to do their business.

  11. I have to say that while rather rare there were definitely geek girls before geek culture became mainstream. In the mid 80’s I recognized my mannerisms in a funny skit in high school. The geek in the skit was male, but it was not hard to recognize that I had been a major source of inspiration. I took every math and science class available to me, was socially awkward, and read (and still read) science fiction obsessively. With the exception of the geek glasses (I have 20/15 vision naturally) I was stereotypical in everthing but gender well before nerd social acceptance.
    While not numerous by any means, I can recall at least 3 other geek girls that date from this era.
    I think before that point, both male and female geeks were too caught up in their fantasies of the more socially desirable members of the opposite sex to look at the really compatible ones sitting next to them in Physics and Calculus. Revenge of the nerds exemplifies this. The nerds gain social acceptance to attract cheerleaders, not geek girls.

  12. Revenge of the Nerds exemplifies this. The nerds gain social acceptance to attract cheerleaders, not geek girls.

    Which is, of course, one of the major reasons that it felt so sociologically dated when I saw it in the 90s (which was still before Eric thinks the geek-power thing happened).

    Of course, even those of us inclined to the cheerleader notion of beauty (IOW, not me or most geek guys I know) eventually discover that cheerleaders are BORING! The major difference, I think, between now and the “Revenge of the nerds” days is that geek guys now have the opportunity to learn this in middle school instead of in middle age.

    But perhaps the rise of Geek Culture _does_ have something to do with it. In days past when there was no such thing, we were mere outsiders, with our noses pressed up against the figurative glass, pining after the unattainable status symbols of a culture that surrounded us and yet rejected us. The early Geek Pride stuff might have been a combination of ironic humor and sour grapes, but over time we really did manage to build our own cultural institutions…and now that we have, the unattainable (or maybe not) icons of the old parent culture no longer exert the same psychological pressure on us.

    So I wouldn’t say the nerds wanted to gain social status to attract cheerleaders, but exactly the opposite…they wanted to attract cheerleaders to gain social status.

  13. Hey, Eric…if you had a “preview” button, it’d be a lot easier to avoid embarassing oneself with a missing closing tag as I just did…

  14. This was an intresting read. I found this while looking for information on persicution of nerds for a reasearch paper and I find I really agree with you one this.

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  17. >There are even beginning to be geek families with evidence of generational transmission.

    Why, I’m 15 years old and a third generation geek myself. This isn’t that new, you know.

  18. Sorry, but I don’t see this acceptance. I’m 37 years old and still haven’t had a girlfriend. This in spite of the fact that I’m a former Marine, not bad looking, and strongly built.

    Actually, I think the Marine thing HURTS my chances. Like a typical jarhead, I’m politically somewhat to the right of the political average. And, although girls THINK they like intelligent guys, they reject anyone who doesn’t agree with their own retarded prejudices as “unintelligent.” In other words, the decision on whether I have a girlfriend or not comes down to the decision of Michael Moore, a fat cowardly worm who couldn’t even last a day screwing on hubcaps, let alone serving his nation.

    All you so-called “geeks” are really unathletic jocks. You pride yourselves on how original you are, while swallowing whole hog the crap spewed by a lonely psychopath from the mid-19th century (Marx). If you were really original, you’d still have problems impressing girls.

  19. All you so-called “geeks” are really unathletic jocks. You pride yourselves on how original you are, while swallowing whole hog the crap spewed by a lonely psychopath from the mid-19th century (Marx). If you were really original, you’d still have problems impressing girls.

    If you are talking about Marxism, then you are dead wrong. I know many geeks that hate marxism and/or communism, whilst many of my geek friends are very pro-Open Source. Engaging in the use of Open Source does not make one a communist, in fact, many of the marxist ideals have nothing to relate with it whatsoever.

    And Marx was not the violent one, it was Joseph Stalin, the one who led to the deaths of at least 3,000,000 Russians.

  20. while swallowing whole hog the crap spewed by a lonely psychopath from the mid-19th century (Marx)

    that’s not true, one of the reasons why I hate so much the left is because I’m a geek, Marxism is my WORST nightmare. Because I’m a geek, I have tons of projects, and for making them I need FREEDOM, I need an open word, and open society. Is imposible to be free & independent in a left society.

    what it is also false is that geeks like to be isolated.I would have LOVED to have friends to speak about science. Science was my own stuff, was my personal hobby, and I couldn’t share it with anyone. So, if I wanted to speak, I had to speak of other stuff non science related.

    Now that I am a the university, there are lots of geeks and I really enjoy having lots of friends to talk about geeky stuff.

  21. I have that same problem, asterex. I am currently starting in highschool and while there are some geeks out there, even they tend to to try to fit the populace by only doing light gossip, chat, etc. So it can be tough for me to find someone to talk to deeply or even just scientifically.

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