Thursday, August 9, 2012

Nerd World Order: We Won... Now What?

I don't know if I will post this, but I had to write it for the same reason that I write anything: because things build up in my head and I can't do anything else until I've let them out. It's how I cope with a world that often befuddles me.

Close your eyes and picture a nerd in your head. Seriously. Close your eyes and think about "Nerds" for a minute.  Summon a mental image that embodies the essence of Nerd Kind.

Got it?

What was your mental image?  Did you picture Bill Gates? The guys from Big Bang Theory? Or maybe Anthony Daniels from Revenge of the Nerds? Awkward, brainy-but-socially-stunted men with questionable hygiene and tape on his glasses suffering under the knuckles of the school jocks...

Me, basically?

Congratulations if you imagined Felicia Day. You are ahead of the curve if you did. When I was a kid, nerds and geeks were synonymous, and they did not as a general rule look like Felicia Day (at least none of the ones I knew did) but we'll get back to Ms. Day in a minute.

When I close my eyes and picture a nerd, I picture myself.  At around the age of 12 or 13, usually, but any age will do. Bespectacled, awkward, desperate to fit in. Talking to my peers with the ineptitude of a foreigner speaking a language with which he is only passingly familiar, always a page behind in the guidebook and wearing the local garb like it's a Halloween costume.

This is going to sound dark, and it was. And it might not jive with the stories I usually tell of a childhood out of an Archie comic if it had been ghostwritten by Ray Bradbury. Those stories are true and so is this: No true story is entirely light or entirely dark. It's mostly a matter of what bits you choose to leave out.  Humor, as is often the case, has been a defense mechanism of mine for as long as I can remember.

I was a nerd before anyone thought it was okay. I was tormented and sometimes quite literally tortured by bullies under the uncaring gaze of teachers -- mostly gym teachers. Once, after I had been bodily picked up and slammed down on a larger boy's knee as one might when trying to break a stick, cracking two of my ribs, the gym teacher who had watched it happen ordered me to get up out of the dirt and run laps for the sin of being an asthmatic wimp who would rather read a book than toss a football. I managed a quarter of a mile out of shear fear of punishment before saying "screw this" and stumbling off to the nurse's office without permission.

What I remember most is that I got in trouble and he did not.

That sort of thing happened over and over again. From the relatively innocent glasses getting stolen and thrown in a toilet to my head getting stomped or my testicles randomly punched. From early on, classmates singled me out as someone they could make cry if they were heartless enough. These memories are rife with adults standing by, ignoring what was happening, apparently under the impression that getting my ass kicked on a regular basis would build character.

I don't know if it built character. It might have made me stubborn or I might've been born that way. I do know that it built, deep in my heart of hearts, a deeply-embedded suspicion of authority. So congratulations for that.

I was told that if I just wouldn't cry, they would leave me alone. That turned out not to be true. I was told again and again to ignore them and they would stop. That wasn't true either. I ignored them so well that I developed the ability to become vacant -- to retreat so far inside myself that it was as if my body was a costume and I was simply pretending to be Scott. Which is a handy thing when the other kids view kicking you in the crotch as a hobby.

Being smart or talented didn't seem to matter once you walked out of the classroom and into the halls or onto the gym floor where might made right.

I was uncoordinated and I was (and remain) almost painfully thin. If I sit still for too long, the pressure on unprotected arteries will put my extremities to sleep. I have historically had very little meat on my bones or the ability to acquire it, much to the frustration of the same gym teachers that thought what I really needed was more laps, more weight lifting, more basketballs to the face.  More time to suck it up, wipe the blood off my face and get back to moving a ball from one end of a pointless expanse of grass to the other end of the same pointless expanse of grass.

If a foreign government did half of the things that happened to me to an American soldier, the United States would bomb them back to the stone age on principle.

My parents helped as much as they could. God bless them, they tried and I wasn't an easy child at the best of times. They were as understanding as two adults can be who have no idea what I was going through because I wouldn't tell them most of it. It wasn't fair to them, but I was a kid, what did I know of fair? Very little of my experience of life outside of the house was about what was fair.

Talking was too painful anyway. Far easier to escape to my room and bury myself in books -- escape into fantasy.

I spent nights and weekends in basements with like-minded friends, rolling dice and sending characters with more impressive attributes than my own down dark dungeon hallways.  I gravitated toward bards because what I really dreamt of wasn't strength, but charisma. I yearned not to punish the monsters that tormented me day in and day out, but to communicate with them. To somehow get across to them that I was human too.

Because I don't think most of them believed that I was.

What does this painful reminiscence have to do with anything?

It's to underline the fact that when I tell you I, by God, earned my nerd glasses and if anyone has the right to be a got-here-first, these-damn-kids-have-it-too-easy, nerdmudgeon, it's me.

But I can't.

I didn't endure all that only to force those who came after me to go through it too. That's insane.

While I was in the trenches, up to my ears in a fight against an enemy that had no idea they were losing, somewhere, out beyond the schoolyard, the heroes of nerd kind were inventing the personal computer, creating video games, piecing together the internet, and conquering the world on my behalf.

If it was a war, then we won.  Comics, computers, games, books... The things that got me beat up are the things that now define our culture. Our President is a nerd. There's a picture of him posing in the Oval Office with Nichelle Nichols, the lady that played Uhura in the original Star Trek. He's throwing the Vulcan salute which is the closest thing nerds have to a gang sign.

Nerds rule.


Which brings us full circle. Now that we have the upper hand, will the Nerd World Order rule benevolently? Or is it time for us, in turn, to give as good as we got?  Are we to now become the closed clique against which the outsiders run headlong in hope of belonging?

Recently there was this piece at by one Jon Peacock titled "Booth Babes Need Not Apply", which implies that we should go exactly that route. Peacock was apparently set off by the influx of girls pretending to be nerds so they can dress up and go to Comicon. You see, being a nerd is cool now so everyone wants a piece of the action. Pretty girls that were never seen in those dank basements are popping up at Comicon and other conventions dressed like Lara Croft and Catwoman and Princess Leia and "sexy insert noun here". Peacock implies that these pretenders can be discerned from the "real" nerd girls by dint of being too sexy. By making him feel uncomfortable and drawing attention away from the nerdiness of the event with their feminine wiles.

Peacock's rant struck me and many others as inherently sexist. It also resonated deeply with some part of me that I am ashamed to admit exists. The part of me that was snubbed by the pretty girls that saw me as sub-human.

They're too pretty to be real nerds. They never suffered like I did, how could they?

Even I found myself thinking that and I damn well know better.

My wife is, hands-down, one of the smartest people I've ever met and a mechanical engineer to boot. Told from an early age that she would never be good at math because she was a girl. She is also the prettiest girl I've ever met and a nerd at the same time. She hid her grades from her classmates so they wouldn't know she was the one who blew the curve in physics class and was told by fellow engineering students and professors alike that she didn't belong in engineering because of her looks and gender.

Those men who said those things were wrong; no one had more business being there than she did. Who were they to tell a brilliant, articulate woman what she could or could not accomplish because of her gender?

And who are we to do the same to any woman in any other sphere?

Did we all really suffer through the travails of growing up nerdy just to perpetuate that horror on the next generation? Are we truly going to demand that others endure that hellish existence before we let them play our particular reindeer games?

Or did we claw our way to the top of the societal heap so that no one else ever had to go through that again?   To win the right for everyone to pursue their interests and enthusiasms as suits their whims?

The truth is, we've created a world where everyone is a nerd, or can be if they put their minds to it. Felicia Day is a mogul of internet video, in the vangard of the new entertainment, built on the uber-nerdy and self-referential gamer comedy "The Guild".  Steampunk has rewritten fashion and film. The Maker movement is generating real inventions and real revenue for the creators.  Comic books are the film industry right now.

The 21st century is shaping up to be a time when formerly nerdy/geeky enthusiasms are pursued with furious abandon.  And while it's no utopia, it's a world where - as predicted by Herbert Gerjouy predicted  - the illiterate is not the one who cannot read, but the one who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

And if it's really a nerd world, then that makes all of us nerds. No glasses or pocket protector, or background as a bullied minority required.  We went through it so you wouldn't have to.

Sure, we're "the ones who are cool" but that means we get to define what that means this time. Playing 'we got here first and you're too late to play this game' is nothing but rank hipsterism.

Postscript: Peacock's rant launched a thousand blog posts in response, but the one that most resonates with me is this one by John Scalzi, once and future king of the nerds, who dismantles not only Peacock's standing as someone who can decide who has nerd cred or doesn't, but everyone else's.


  1. I wasn't a nerd. I was a skinny girl with a bad perm, braces and acne. My mom dressed me like a forty year old - bless her heart. Even though those things haven't suddenly become cool or universally understood and accepted, I some how I've gotten to ride on the caboose of the nerd train on its trip to coolville, so I thank you, my nerd friend, for your valiant and fruitful efforts on behalf of all us outcasts.

  2. Ah yes, "we were geek before it was chic." Which, while true, and might in certain situations give us bragging rights - doesn't give us the right to behave unto others as was done unto us. Thank you for speaking up for simple human dignity and manners. As a geek girl happily married to a geek guy and raising a geek-in-training, I salute you!

  3. Ah yes, "we were geek before it was chic." Which, while true, and might in certain situations give us bragging rights - doesn't give us the right to behave unto others as was done unto us. Thank you for speaking up for simple human dignity and manners. As a geek girl happily married to a geek guy and raising a geek-in-training, I salute you!

  4. I would like to remind everyone that there were geeks and nerds saying exactly the same thing as this article has said in various fandoms of 20, 30 and 40 or more years ago. I was a nerd/geek in high school in the late 70s, but still don't feel like nerds/geeks have been socially accepted - or if they have, the slimeballs in marketing and management (those same people who bullied us) are now our corporate masters. They decide what we will create, based on whether is "sells" or not. They decide if we will be pink-slipped in our early 40s because our age and experience are a liability to the company. They decide what we can and cannot see on the Internet, all because we are too busy being immersed in this fantasy world we have created ourselves and are mesmerized with the toys we have created. Guilty as charged? Yes. Mad as hell? Yes. Bitter? You bet. The next step beyond begging for the legitimacy of our subculture is to get and stay involved in the real world, because if we don't, what we can and cannot enjoy will be decided for us, and they will still get us in the end.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).