America has never been a very intellectual nation. Instead, our society began as a beheaded version of contemporary Europe, lacking largely in its relative proportion of the educated, professional upper class. National expansiveness has historically led to a preference of quantity over elegance, flair over humility and industrial practicality over cognition. In hindsight, it makes some sense that so few of our presidents have ever held a Ph.D. Attaining a high level of mastery over any academic discipline has just never been a very “American” thing to do.
In light of these facts, it makes some sense that the word “nerd” originated in this wonderful nation of ours. In the 1950s, it first appeared in Dr. Seuss’s “If I Ran the Zoo” and quickly took on the notion of a bookish individual that had avid intellectual interests but didn’t pursue social/conventional activities. He (so often “he,” but not always) became the outsider, the outcast in that society.
In some ways, the four-letter word became a substitute in our lexicon for an intelligent person—and I am fascinated by this uniquely American conflation of terms. When did intelligence become equated with dullness, bookishness, awkwardness and stuffiness as well? How on earth did this become a package deal? When did one’s cognition—something that has defined humanity’s ability to build great civilizations, something that Eastern faiths consider a form of divinity in itself—get the same status in American high schools as a venereal disease?
I think to begin to look at the answer, we must understand what was idolized by children in the last half-century. Cowboys, barbies, baseball greats and movie stars—all these were in the echelon of admiration for their courage, physical talent or their beauty. These were all visceral, concrete qualities to admire—qualities that were plainly visible to any layperson. You didn’t need to be an actor to recognize charm; you didn’t need to be a baseball player to recognize athleticism.
However, to even begin to understand the nature of the achievement of the academic celebrities of the last half-century required some intellect. The admirer of an intellectual hero would himself need to be smart enough and persistent enough to be able to read a technical document (an academic paper, a patent, what have you), and understand the genius behind the work to begin to truly admire him. This is when alienation sets in—the nerd’s aspirations and dreams become unintelligible to the larger populace.
This is compounded by the un-American notion that intelligence is a hereditary, static trait, just like eye color and height—so that “nerds” will forever be unintelligible to the rest of the world. The rest of American society and media says, “I don’t understand, and I don’t think I am smart enough to understand. So I don’t care to learn about the nature of your ambition.”
Then something happened. The space program emerged, and everyone was fascinated with outer space. All of a sudden, the astronaut joined the cowboy and the movie star as part of the vast echelon of American heroes. The achievement of the man on the moon itself—the technicalities of how it all worked—were all still cryptic to a general populace. But something fundamental about the American attitude to intellect changed the day that Sputnik flew in the night sky. There was something visceral, something real that could be the product of such intellect and could define a new kind of American imagination.
After space, American nerds found many other frontiers, including information technology. Integrated circuits, then the personal computer, then the Internet, became physical realties. In the process, Silicon Valley emerged only a few miles from this university. Self-proclaimed “nerds” amassed millions, then billions off their creations.
Now, in a 21st-century America, the notion of “nerd” has turned into a form of endearment. Since those halcyon years, nerd culture has expanded beyond science and technology, into theater, music, even entertainment. Tina Fey typifies the beloved nerd of Hollywood. We may have our first nerdy president. After all, we’re all with Coco.
All these modern nerds seem pretty damn cool to me. So I must ask: do we even care about the nerd anymore? Is there anything about nerd culture that is about the underdog? Or are we all as adorable as Coco’s flashy, orange hair? I’d like to think we are.
To inform Aaditya about true 21st-century underdog nerd culture, send him an awkward poke at [email protected].