Keep Your Cool

The war is over. The nerds have won.

When I was a boy — if, indeed, such a wildly implausible circumstance was ever the case — I was bullied. It wasn’t unusual, and it wasn’t the kind of abuse that defines one’s life for years to come, but for several years the spectre of cruel taunting made school a sporadically miserable place. I was bullied, of course, because I was a nerd. A geek. A swot, to use a peculiarly British idiom. I loved science fiction and fantasy; I loved astronomy and mathematics; I only stopped spending my lunch hours programming the BBC Micros in the computer lab when I discovered Dungeons and Dragons.

Which we also played in the computer lab. That’s the peak of the nerdy bell curve, right there.

In the last twenty years, however, things have changed. The geeks, as was almost foretold, have inherited the Earth. We don’t just control the tech industry, but the creative industries too; we haven’t just asserted our right to cultivate our own culture, but we’re making in-roads into the very mainest of main-stream entertainment. Geeky musicians like Jonathan Coulton, They Might Be Giants, OK Go et al have accomplished remarkable things. Video games are a bigger industry than Hollywood. Look at the list of the ten most profitable movies ever: Harry Potter, The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, Avatar. The only non-nerdy movies in the top ten are Titanic and Toy Story, and even they are fringe cases.

Yes, alright, Transformers is in there too. I didn’t say nerd culture is entirely positive.

The point is this: we won. Geek culture emerged from the shadows and took its place as part of the shared cultural landscape. The stereotype of the socially-awkward nerd is now subverted more often than it is played straight: even in The Big Bang Theory, which spent at least its first season making fun of the nerds for a non-nerdy audience, understood that there are awesome, desirable things about these guys, and took them from being the butt of the joke — defined as something essentially other than the normal, non-nerdy members of the audience — to being the heroes of the piece. Out there on the fringes of geek culture, some battles are still being fought — and the consequences are still being experienced by nerdy kids in high schools all over the world — but the war is over.

Which makes this all the more baffling:

“I’m The One That’s Cool” by Felicia Day, accompanied by the cast of The Guild. The song is an anthem for the oppressed nerd, proclaiming their new social superiority over the jocks and jerks of the world. Geeks aren’t just accepted for who they are, but they are the new pinnacle of the social pyramid; they are the new cool.

But that isn’t what being a nerd is about; more importantly, it never was.

I certainly don’t want this to descend into a No True Scotsman argument; Felicia is absolutely a nerd, and has done a great deal to promote the cause of geeky girls. She’s absolutely a force for good in the world. But this fascination with cool is odd and subtly disturbing. Cool is exclusionary — it’s nigh impossible to define, except by defining what it’s not.

Nerds, geeks — and yes, wonks — are passionate about things. They aren’t embarrassed to care or obsess; they never sacrifice their enthusiasm to look cool, and they don’t expect anyone else to do so either. Being a geek should be an inherently inclusive way to live; it isn’t about delineating us and them, but rather about celebrating all the weird little quirks and fascinations which make life worth living. It’s essentially hypocritical for a geek to be snide about someone who is more passionate about sports than Star Trek; in this instance, as in so many others, if you replicate the behavior of those who exerted their social dominance over you, then you are no better than they were, and thus have no cause to complain.

Geeks are not the new cool, because cool doesn’t matter.


13 thoughts on “Keep Your Cool

  1. YES! Alastair, you’ve said it beautifully. Part of being a decent human being is accepting everyone…everyone…for who they are. “Us” and “them” never works, no matter on what side of the fence you fall. There’s plenty of room for all of us on this lovely planet and you’re right, cool doesn’t matter, but passion does.

    Thanks for this!

  2. I wasn’t necessarily a nerd but I wasn’t cool. I was a geek though and I was in Band. Need I say More? We accepted everyone because the band always sounded better with more people. I think that’s one of the ways we learned to be inclusive, too.

  3. I was a nerd from day one; when I was 6, I tried to teach my 2 yo brother to read because reading was so awesome. I believe it traumatized him. He was a jock, but not an exclusionary type.

    Cool is not something I’d like to see nerds and geeks aim for because cool is about being exclusionary and generally mean to the non-cool and I’d had to see the nerds and geeks get mean. They have ways to be mean that the cool kids couldn’t even imagine.

    The problems is one you see all the time all over the world: when the oppressed wins the war, they become the enemy. Let’s hope fewer nerds and geeks follow that way; maybe they know the “becoming the enemy” danger already. One can only hope.

    As much as I was bullied, I’d hate to see “my people” become the bullies.

  4. I was not one of the “cool” kids in school but I also wasn’t a nerd. Because I was a fat kid, I wasn’t completely socially acceptable, but I was at least tolerated on the fringe by the popular kids. I didn’t much care and turned my shoulder because the two girls that were my closest friends were treated beyond that fringe and I wouldn’t hang with people who shunned them.

    I’m still not a tech geek, but I am unashamed of my dolphin geek status. This says it perfectly: Nerds, geeks โ€” and yes, wonks โ€” are passionate about things. They arenโ€™t embarrassed to care or obsess; they never sacrifice their enthusiasm to look cool, and they donโ€™t expect anyone else to do so either.

    Thanks, Alastair!

  5. I love this. Thank you so very much. Always on the outside of the circle as a kid, I got to observe a lot about life and human nature. I’m a writing geek, and proud of it.

  6. I just realized something. I was bullied for being a geek too when I was young! Seriously, I just now remembered that. Oh well. I’m working as an author and web developer at a major university, and everyone who bullied me…isn’t. Success is the ultimate revenge. GEEK ON, PEOPLE!

  7. Bravo!
    I hung out in the newspaper office behind the ag room. Because the computer lab, being the only air conditioned space in school, wasn’t available for loitering.
    btw: I was a pretty nerd who then became a popular girl who then MARRIED a geek ๐Ÿ™‚

    Cool seems to imply a certain insular conceit and affected apathy. Apathy has never been my scene.

  8. This is so–sorry–cool! I was (and still am) a geek and all those other words, only I wasn’t all that good at the geek stuff, either, and I DID care. I loved growing up and figuring out that it was all okay. I could marry a bad boy, like (and give birth to) jocks, and remain a geek of mediocre proportions. Thanks for spelling this out so well.

  9. Wow II think you summed it up very well. I agree, I want to celebrate my geekiness without knocking anyone else down.

  10. I love the sentiment behind this piece, and I full heartedly agree. After all the only way to solidify nerd’s conquest over other dominant cultures is to accept those cultures with open arms. Its much easier to get along with others by inviting them to take a seat and roll initiative. After all what’s the alternative? a fractured disconnected culture that breeds misery?

    The only thing I would disagree with you about is your analysis of Big Bang Theory, I find it intolerable to watch. The Nerdy characters aren’t the heroes at any point they are always the butt of the joke, if you don’t believe me watch it with the laughter track edited out. I will concede that I have only seen the first four seasons however.

    A show I think revels in its celebration of nerd culture is Community. Whilst not as popular a show it is far less mean-spirited in its humour.

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