When the movie The Revenge of the Nerds was released in Italy, the word “nerd” was not translated because it had no analog in Italian. American movies set in high schools or colleges would always bring very foreign notions, such as fraternities, cheerleaders, school cafeterias, elective classes in high school and so on. But, just like after watching a few pirate movies you get a sense of the conventions of the pirate lifestyle, after seeing a few of those movies, they started to make sense. The notion of nerd, however, was more difficult to figure out. To be sure, we have terms of abuse for the academically achieving, and high school and college students are fond of creating identities and cliques. Such identities, however, tend (I should say, tended, in the late 80s and early 90s, I don’t know how things are now) to be defined more by class and by politics than by other factors.
Then I spent a year at MIT, I saw Richard Stallman, I heard stories about him, and I finally understood. And so came the realization: I am one of them! For the non-American, see here and here for an explanation.
After Dr. Free Ride launched a nerd-off, Sean Carroll wrote an essay on the matter. I agree with every single word. On the one hand, it is right that there is no shame in having a specialized technical knowledge, be it on the Klingon language, on gender and class in Elizabethan poetry, on the PCP theorem, or whatnot. On the other hand, social awkwardness and a certain strain of anti-intellectualism (both highly associated to the “nerd” identity) are not things to be promoted.
Besides, what is really poisonous is the notion that technical knowledge and social inadequacy have to go together. There are surely more important and complex reasons that, from K-12 to college to grad school, push girls and women away from the study of science and engineering, but this association certainly plays some role. And that’s not all: we all know a few girls and women who fit, and even embrace, the “geek” and “nerd” stereotype. And, if you are reading this, I am sure you know many white and Asian men who do as well (probably, you are one yourself). How many black men do you know who do?
(Here, I am not trying to follow the lead of Governor Schwarzenegger and say that blacks have it “in their blood” to be cool, or that women have a “grace gene.” The point is that the dynamics of peer pressure can be very different in different groups.)
What about the solution of nerdifying the world? I am all for a society that does not look down on specialized knowledge (of any kind), but I think we already have enough men with ponytails and witty T-shirts as it is.