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Geeks and Nerds, personality types of the new civilization

from an article by David Brooks

“In 1950, Dr. Seuss published a book called ‘If I Ran the Zoo,’ which contained the sentence, ‘I’ll sail to Ka-Troo, and bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PRO, a NERKLE, a NERD, and a SEERSUCKER, too!’ According to psychologist David Anderegg, that’s believed to be the first printed use of the word ‘nerd’ in modern English.

The next year, Newsweek noticed that nerd was being used in Detroit as a substitute for ‘square.’ But, as Anderegg writes in his book, ‘Nerds’, the term didn’t really blossom onto mass consciousness until The Fonz used it in ‘Happy Days,’ in the mid- to late- ‘70s.

At first, a nerd was a geek with better grades. The word described a college outcast who was persecuted by the jocks, preps, frat boys and sorority sisters. Nerds had their own heroes (Stan Lee of comic book fame), their own vocations (Dungeons & Dragons), their own religion (supplied by George Lucas and ‘Star wars’) and their own skill sets (tech support). But even as ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ was gracing move screens, a different version of nerd-dom was percolating through popular culture. Elvis Costello and The Talking Heads’ David Byrne popularized a cool geek style that’s led to Moby, Weezer, vampire weekend and even self-styled ‘nerdcore’ rock and geek-stra rappers.

With the rise of Microsoft and the digital economy in the 1980s, nerds began making large amounts of money. The information revolution produced a parade of highly confident nerd moguls - Bill Gates, Paul Allen and so on.

Among adults, the words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ exchanged status positions. Geekdom acquired its own cool counterculture. A geek possessed a certain passion for specialized knowledge, but also a high degree of cultural awareness and poise that a nerd lacked.

Geeks distinguished themselves from alienated and self-pitying outsiders who wept with recognition when they read ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ If Holden Caulfield was the sensitive loner from the age of nerd oppression, then Harry Potter was the magical leader in the age of geek empowerment.

The new technology created a range of mental playgrounds where the new geeks could display their cultural capital. The jock can shine on the football field, but the geeks can display their supple sensibilities on their Facebook pages, blogs, text message and Twitter feeds. Now there are armies of designers, researchers, media mavens and other cultural producers with a talent for whimsical self-mockery, arcane social references and late-night analysis.

Tina Fey, who once was on the cover of Geek Monthly magazine, has emerged as a symbol of the geek who grows into a swan.
The news is that being a geek is cool has apparently not permeated either junior high schools or the republican Party. George W. Bush, with his professed disdain for intellectual things, has energized and alienated the entire geek cohort, and with it most college-educated Americans under 30.

Barack Obama has become the Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes. They honor him with videos and posters than combine aesthetic mastery with unabashed hero-worship. People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of bog-writing culture producers.

So, in a relatively short period of time, the social structure has flipped. The last shall be first and the geek shall inherit the earth.”

“The geek cohort’s cultural revolution: New technologies and new skill sets have turned the American social order on its head” by David Brooks, New York Times. In Star Tribune, May 27, 2008.

 

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