The trouble with "nerd pride"

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.

11 thoughts on “The trouble with "nerd pride"

  1. What is really poisonous is the notion that technical knowledge and social inadequacy have to go together.

    These two notions have a non-trivially small Hamming distance but not as small as perceived by the public.

    Most of the computer/math/engineering geeks are highly intellectual. Even if they are “cool” and enjoy life (pubbing, clubbing, whatever), their behaviour is still different just because they are different.

    However, a good geek, having a high IQ, should be able to understand other people well enough, and behave in a manner that while cool in their own sense is not termed completely inappropriate by other, non-geek people.

    There are many people who achieve this. In any major crypto conference, for example, you are certain to find at least 20 people (both mem and wonen) who go to nightclubs almost every night. And they mix quite well with the locals, I must say.

    There are many people who don’t.

  2. If you can differentiate between Klingon and Hebrew, and you are neither, then you are most definately too nerdy!

  3. 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.

    What is technical study like in Italian Univeristies? Do you converse in italian? Is Italian the language of choice for lectures, discussions, communication of ideas, etc?

  4. What is technical study like in Italian Univeristies? Do you converse in italian? Is Italian the language of choice for lectures, discussions, communication of ideas, etc?

    I have lived and worked abroad for far too many years now, but I still think that Italian is definitely the language of choice for scientific communication in Italian universities. Only very few departments of Computer Science offer MSc level courses in English. It is only at the level of PhD education that courses tend to be given in English by foreign guests.

    In fact, several of my non-Italian colleagues are surprised by the lack of proficiency in English of the typical Italian CS student. Having served as coordinator for EU exchange student programmes at universities outside Italy, I have had to answer their complaints far too many times.

    An analysis of the reasons why Italian students are not that good at English would lead us too far here, as would a discussion of why there are more Italian female researchers in Computer Science than in countries in northern Europe.

  5. What is remarkable is that inspite of english being a second language, a lot of exceptionally well written english publications come from universities that “think” in other languages – Hebrew, Italian, Chinese. And the authors seem really comfortable with advanced english grammar. The papers are just plain well written.

    Im in total awe of this. I couldnt for the life of me complement mathematical expression with my second language.

  6. Since when were nightclubs cool? They are generally populated by very uncool and naive people. Nerds + Nightclubs = crap + more crap.

  7. Why not to regard nerds as a subculture? Not as something embarassing for the nerd and absolutely unattractive for its non-nerd environment, but as something different.

    These people are usually very intelligent and (however unexpected by some people this might be) do have a sence of humor – it is just different! Why does the society percieve normally the subcultures of hippies, goths and (even!) emo and cannot percieve nerds (which may at times be way more pleasant to talk to then representatives of sub-cultures listed above) as something from the same range?

    Nerds call themselves (and are sometimes) socially disabled, but… many of them seem to be fond of this! They (consciously or not) love their geek’ness as this lets them to differenciate themselves from others! There is a certain degree of romantism in the fact of being unique and so intelligent that the rest of the society hardly understands you! Though this pleasure is quite masochistic, certain nerds are quite happy with it. And there are girls who like who like nerdish type of guys(yes, they do exhist!). Geek’ness seems to be getting more and more popular nowadays! (Beware, guys, one day it might become fashionable ;))

    So as a result we have the society not YET prepared to accept nerd sub-culture and nerds who either struggle with their nature or enjoy it. Probably, within 5-10 years these two groups will be happily merged and nerds will be blended in the society (as it will simply get used to the increasing number of members of nerd sub-culture) – it all depends just on the way people see each other. Luckily, people’s perceptions can be changed and I guess the change will be noticeable very soon.

  8. The US is really the land of the stereotypes. The so-called typical nerd (from the US) would be considered a normal guy/girl in most Asian or European countries. He/she might excel academically or possess a a certain kind of “technical” knowledge not accessible to others, and he/she may be not be a “smooth” person socially, but he/she would still be a normal person outside the US. Not so in the US! Also, in this country, there is a pressure of sorts on girls to act dumb or at least not sound too smart or something, lest others label her nerdy. This is truly a sad state of affairs!

  9. Re: “I think its sad your a nerd”

    Compliments on your use of irony, anonymous. I agree with you: despite their reputation for anti-intellectualism, few nerds would make three grammatical mistakes in such a short sentence.

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