Cogito Ergo Numb (A Brief History of Nerds)

Standard

The concept of Cool Nerds is by definition oxymoronic. Yet here we find ourselves, in the Age of the Geek where – to paraphrase basically every TV executive in the last decade – “nerds are totally in right now”.

As I stand on the outside of the new nerd In Crowd, I have been facing a bit of an existential crisis. Am I not nerd enough? Am I some Uber Nerd who is doubly ostracized? In truth, it is mostly an isolation of my own making, so I did some research to understand my reluctance toward being cool – which was itself a really nerdy thing to do.

As a word, “nerd” hasn’t been around for very long. Dr. Seuss used the term as a nonsense name for an imaginary creature in 1950’s If I Ran the Zoo, but it didn’t get attached to the traditional concept of a machine-like intellectual until the mid-sixties, on East-coast college campuses. It basically took over for the word “tool” (which literally meant one who carried the tools of the nerd trade, like slide rules and pencil protectors), which itself had replaced the word “grind” (as in “nose to the grindstone”). “Nerd” finally became the popular label for the brainy crowd in 1977, thanks to Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and the SNL sketches featuring their nerds.

[For all of this awesome history and more, I recommend you read Ben Nugent’s book “American Nerd”. I have twice. It is wonderful.]

While the label is relatively new, the concept has been around much longer. The idea of the person who loves science and prefers rules and “ratiocination” (logical thought and argument) to ambiguity and innuendo, who is direct and precise with language to the point of being viewed as blunt, tactless, or rude, is found throughout literature and history. Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is one. Thomas Jefferson was one. I am absolutely one. But why and how did this become uncool?

Like so many other wonderful things in human society, the full-blown idea of the uncool nerd was born from a combination of fear and bigotry. The grandfather of all the nerds – Nerd Prime – is Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, whose obsession with science completely isolates him from love and family and does not end well for anyone. The novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of focusing on logic over emotion, sprung from the fear of Romantics like Shelley who valued feelings over all.

Then came Victorian traditionalists, who lamented the increasing value of technology and strategy in warfare over brute force. They mourned the passing supremacy of the warrior / knight, and – in a classically American twist – despaired at the influx of immigrants from races and cultures more stereotypically inclined toward intelligence (or at the very least ‘book learnin’).

Put these together and the result is a societal agreement that an affinity for logic, rules, structure, and process (all things machines and role playing games offer in spades) is separate and distinct from emotional awareness, interpersonal skills, or physical prowess. Humans as a group flipped the defining characteristic of humanity from “reason” (which had separated us from the animals) to “emotion” (which separates us from machines), and bought into the idea that a person could not be skilled at dealing with both things and people.

The glasses, bad clothes, and dorky laughs got slapped onto the image shortly after.

Thus, the concept of “nerd” came to be synonymous with “abnormal”, the perpetual clash between nerds and jocks launched into almost every aspect of society (both Tom Wolfe and Paul Feig – the creator of Freaks and Geeks – have described the American political system as a version of this battle, and one look at the styling at MSNBC and Fox proves them right), and – worst of all – generations of self-hating nerds were born. Nerds who secretly fear that we really are heartless Tin Men, or at the very least not entitled to love or romance – a price that is paid for intellectual gifts.

None of this is true, of course. Thought and feeling are not mutually exclusive, and nerds do have deep emotional lives, even if we can’t always express them in a “normal” way. A lot of progress has been made in the last decade to combat the idea of the awkward, emotionless nerd; as a group, we are learning how to dress and express ourselves, and celebrities like Tina Fey and Chris Hardwick have done wonders for making intelligence sexy. But for every emotionally vibrant nerd like The Big Bang Theory’s Leonard, there is still a caricature like Sheldon for mocking. Have we really gotten to the point where nerds are cool, or is society’s embrace just a new way of laughing at the “weird kids”?

Which brings us to hipsters, who are fake nerds wearing the cloak of uncoolness to avoid becoming actually uncool. Hipsters tend to work in creative professions, which puts a lot of pressure on them to keep their finger on the pulse of what is cool. Since that is basically impossible even for a high-school cheerleader, they defend against it by embracing the trappings of the least trendy character – the nerd – pretending to be so uncool that they can never be actually uncool.

But there is a big difference between quirk and intellectualism – one exemplified by the two title characters played by the Deschanel sisters, Zooey and Emily. The New Girl is beloved by our society; Bones is an awkward genius learning to be “more human” (and the one I love). Quirk is styling your hair and clothes like Einstein; Nerdity is actually reading books about physics and cherishing a 20-year-old teddy bear named Albeart who sports an “E=MC2” T-shirt.

Hipsters are traditionally cool people trying to appear uncool in order to preemptively ward off any challenge to their coolness. Some are actual nerds who have embraced the fake-nerd culture to be a more attractive imitation of their former selves and thus fit in, but both are putting on an act. They are also today’s taste makers, and this is the root my discomfort with the new Geek Chic world order.

The idea of “cool” is rooted in being “normal” (whatever that means); for generations, the one and only source of nerd pride stemmed from the idea that we were at least “special”. Are we really entering an age of enlightenment where different is normal and unique gifts can be celebrated without weaknesses being mocked? That would be nice. My fear, though, is that the cool kids are simply redefining normal one more time; that we are simply on the brink of some new group becoming the epitome of “uncool”.

Will it be science deniers? Meat eaters? I hope it’s liars. That would at least appeal to my hyper-literal, rule-bound brain.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Cogito Ergo Numb (A Brief History of Nerds)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s