Friday, August 18, 2006

I’m concerned about the nerds.

On the surface, 2006 seems like a good enough time to be a nerd. Technology that was once the exclusive province of nerds now permeates American life. Non-nerds look to nerds for direction toward the future. Nerdiness is the dominant strain of American culture in film (the five top-grossing movies of 2005 were all nerdy) and a major factor in all other media. But might there be some danger in all this attention? I submit that there is—and we’re already suffering from it.

It may be exciting for nerds, perhaps having been little-respected in the past, to find themselves in the epicenter of the Target Audience, with thousands of marketers trying to determine what it is that they want to watch, own or consume and then falling over themselves to satisfy those desires. This weekend sees the release of a movie in which Samuel L. Jackson, arguably the coolest man on earth, panders directly to the absurd whims of a million web geeks and only becomes cooler in the process. But the marketing machine doesn’t exist for nerds’ benefit. It exists to take their money.

Extracting money from nerds is probably a bit easier than getting it from most other social groups. Nerds’ obsessiveness makes them an ideal customer base, especially for products and entertainments that are just barely differentiated from one another. An ordinary person would probably be much less likely to buy a new action figure or figurine if he had several similar ones already; a nerd, on the other hand, might feel compelled to buy them all to make his collection match his idealized taxonomy. Nerds are notoriously uncalculating in the ways they spend their time. What if the manufactured obsessions that surround us leave no time for the academic obsessions that originally defined nerds as a group? What percentage of the nerds out there now lacks any specialized technical or scientific knowledge at all? When we give advertisers a few of our dollars, how many hours or years of our lives do we throw in for free? Nerd-focused entertainment can be beneficial, fostering group identity, but it can also be a dangerous siren song in the same way that gangster rap is alleged to be for impressionable young black men.

Isn’t it clear that our willingness to spend lots of money on entertainment is why nerd influence on culture is greater than that of other groups? Many nerds have been tempted to obsess over pop culture (see this 1990 article on otaku) rather than the productive studies that we traditionally focused on. What happens when we’re tapped out? Will the zeitgeist move on? Will our leading figures remain behind to charm us with an image of consumerism that few of us can actually maintain?

And in the meantime, many people who before never would have been considered nerds now co-opt nerd identity as a way of signaling their intelligence, confident that their social skills can speak for themselves. But nerdiness is not really about intelligence. It’s about obsessiveness, about favoring knowledge over social graces. These people who can put on and take off the mantle of nerdiness may also co-opt whatever social cachet nerdiness has, while the actual nerds, too busy being seduced by their own media image to push their way to the forefront of our knowledge economy, drift off once again into marginalization.

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