re "The Sexual (and Racial) Politics of Nerd Culture"

Priya Alika Elias: There’s so much talk about women believing in fairy tales or being ruined by fairy tales, but it holds true for many, many men.

Ezekiel Kweku: At least most women recognize it as a “fairy tale.” Men don’t even recognize it as a construction; they think that narrative is their right.

Priya Alika Elias: Yes! To be specific, this is the era of The Social Network, the post-Zuckerberg, Silicon Valley age. You know, in the past, nerd movies often focused on “the nerd grows up and he becomes a millionaire, while the bully ends up pumping his gas.” Movies like Can’t Hardly Wait deal with that plotline. Now it’s different because in the Zuckerberg era, you can be incredibly successful as a nerd at 16, 17. That’s ratcheted up the pressure and the frustation, because the nerd isn’t getting the money or the girl — the two things he’s been promised.

The Sexual (and Racial) Politics of Nerd Culture: A Dialogue

(This is a film that I identified with as a young teenager and then didn't watch again until my mid-20s, during which my reaction switched between embarrassment and outright shame.)

There's also a tangent that pulled my attention - earlier this year, someone (I think it was PZ Myers but I can't find the post right now) made the observation that "nerd" and "geek" have gone through a shift from meaning deep-but-marginal academic/creative pursuits to identifying a particular pattern of commercial engagement. I don't think that point is entirely correct; it's a bit "back in my day..." It downplays the importance of product-based social signaling in the 1970s-1980s and undervalues the degree to which commercial engagement today is a creative pursuit.1 But there is something to it; at least, the definitional importance of the two aspects has flipped.

I think this dialogue offers one reason why that might be the case:

Ezekiel Kweku: [To] the extent that being "a nerd" is just having a body of specialized knowledge about some particular topic, it’s incredibly easy to fake in the internet age.

Priya Alika Elias: Encyclopedias on X or Y are immediately available.

Ezekiel Kweku: Wiki everything.

The 1970s and '80s nerd culture offered in the movie is positively defined by the possession of information difficult for the underprivileged to acquire. As we've expanded access to information (as distinct from education and teaching) that can no longer serve as a marker of social status. So it shifts to access to material or digital goods that can only be accessed via financial or social capital, in the way the information was before. Or being the gatekeeper / disseminator of the information becomes the concern - "oh, you read all the Batman comics? well I moderate the Batman wikia."

Which I think also influences why so many modern nerds are so vocal about their toxicity. Thirty years ago, the "well, actually..." interjection was still symptomatic of unfair social power dynamics - most often unexamined sexism and white privilege - but was at least often borne out of genuine enthusiasm for the topic. Today it's a mandatory part of positioning oneself as a "real nerd" and so necessarily also takes on a direct, aggressive tone, staking out an explicit defense of status quo rather than simply existing within it.

  1. That relationship today is disturbing and disgusting, but not at all usefully analyzed by the observation.