I miss the nerds.
Way back in the mists of time, when I was young, nerds were a subculture. They (note, much as I would love to call myself a nerd, I’m really not) hung out in labs, in front of glowing green screens and mainframe computers, they played Dungeons and Dragons on Fridays nights in their parents’ basements, with twenty-sided dice and lots of friends. They were mostly guys, but there were girls, too, nothing like the girls from my suburban high school – all feathered hair and handbags. These girls were smart, and funny and not afraid to show it. They wore interesting and sensible clothes, or fancy sexy clothes, or old ragged clothes because they couldn’t be bothered. They wore their hair however they liked, and whatever shoes they wanted. They had backpacks full of books and ideas, not handbags full of combs and make-up.
They were smart, too. Not all of them, but some of them were really smart, and the conversation flew, puns and jokes and philosophy and computers and movies and books. Real conversation. Not what I now know is the kind of conversation designed to create and destroy social cohesion, conversation full of traps and pitfalls and inside comments designed to show where the boundaries are and who is inside and outside of them. This was conversation for the sake of finding out stuff, and it was next to impossible to say the wrong thing and be shunned (as far as I could tell, that is).
Nerds were my people.
Over the last 25 years or so, I have hung out on the fringes of the nerd subculture to various degrees. I wasn’t a science or engineering student, but I did use the university’s mainframe to write essays and participate in the discussion fora. I was a journalist, but I knew about computers, so I gravitated to other computer-geeky-journalists. Then I was a science and technology journalist, in the early nineties, so I got to hang out with and interview hackers and nerds and geeks (and corporate PR types in branded golf shirts, too, some of whom were secretly nerds under the plastic coated logos).
When I joined the university, I met more nerds, graduate students in computing science, my own students with nerdy leanings, colleagues with secret stashes of comic books and games. We formed a kind of subgroup within the university – my colleagues in journalism were baffled by my having coffee with PhD students in computing science, with me talking to people about the VAX in the basement – the one that brought the Internet to South Africa, right under the nose of Vorster, who would not have approved.
In the last decade, though, I’ve been wondering: where have the nerds gone?
One of the side effects of the mainstreaming of computer technology is that the subculture has all but vanished. Now everyone is on the internet, everyone knows about lolcats and xkcd, most people have heard of Warcraft (although not played it). That flash of recognition, when nerd meets nerd, is all but gone. Students who want to write about gaming are crawling out of the walls, there is no sense of secret and private knowledge, of access to things other people don’t know, or care about at all.
Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is fabulous – an amazing invention, and the fact that there are two billion people online is truly incredible. I’m glad that there are millions who communicate every day, that Twitter lets me and everyone else know the latest celebrity death hoax almost instantaneously, that Google’s dispute with the Chinese government is the lead on the evening news (even if they do get it wrong). I just miss that sense of belonging, that sense that there are only a handful of us, and we know each other by secret means. I miss my fellow travellers, now that we’ve been overtaken by the corporate behemoths, intent on advertising and market share and revenue streams.
I miss the nerds.