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.