I spent a good part of my life being tagged with either one of the terms you see in the title above this post. For a long time I took offence to it as it was a label that put me on the outside of almost any social group. That was until I found my like minded kin who shared the same interests as me and from then on the term took on something completely different. No longer did I feel ashamed to call myself a geek or nerd, especially when I’d explain my hobbies to others. To be truly honest none of my friends really fit the typical definition of geek or nerd as we all have some aspects of ourselves that don’t quite fit the image (for instance most of us are quite physically active, I myself work out 4 times per week) and I had reserved to using the term “modern geek” in my head to describe them. At our hearts we still share the aspirations of the stereotypes but that only makes up a portion of who we are.
You can then imagine my reaction to this piece I saw in the New York Times:
The Times ran an article Monday suggesting that what America will need in the future are more “cool nerds.” A playful tweak of the nerd stereotype, to be sure, in an effort to alter it. The people described in the piece were ones with hybrid careers, combining computing with other fields from medicine to Hollywood.
These are jobs that do not match the classic computer geek or nerd image — a heads-down programmer who is socially isolated. In the new hybrid careers, computing is a crucial ingredient and, economists say, such work will be the source of many new jobs of the future.
But David Anderegg, a professor of psychology at Bennington College, says that merely mentioning terms like nerd or geek serves to perpetuate the stereotype. The words are damaging, much like racial epithets, he says, and should be avoided.
Personally I don’t find the terms damaging at all. I remember when I was working in child care, many years ago now, I had a group of 10 year olds approach me and ask the question “Are you a nerd?” in an attempt to bait a response from me. Casually replying “yes” threw them completely off balance as that obviously wasn’t the answer they were expecting. After that I never heard them use the term in a derogatory sense again. It was a testament to how you can identify with a stereotype but not let the negative connotations that are associated with it affect you. I can only imagine how my life would be if I learnt that life lesson 15 years earlier.
Whilst I hate to admit it there are also people to thank for changing the terms geek and nerd from a stereotype to a label people wear proudly; namely people like Steve Jobs. He has managed to take a niche computing company and turn it into a brand with the power of bringing what was traditionally sacrosanct technology in the halls of geeks and nerds to the wider world and in the process made it cool. From the proliferation of Macbooks in university campuses and Starbucks the world around, to the penetration of the smartphone markets with the iPhone Apple has truly made leaps and bounds for all us geeky and nerdy types as being something to aspire to, not to avoid. I’m not an Apple fanboy by any stretch of the imagination but their affect on culture worldwide is really quite hard to ignore.
With all things nerdy and geeky now becoming a mainstay in almost everyone’s life (how many people do you know who don’t own a computer?) it really was only a matter of time before those who were ostrasized became elevated to the social positions we now place them in today. Being a geek or nerd in this modern world is now just a part of social norms as being an avid sports fan and this shows through with the multi-billion dollar industries that have popped up to cater to us geeks and nerds, just like our sporty counterparts.
I guess the big question is what will be the next ostracized social behaviour that will turn into a norm?
Just as the IT industry continues to reinvent itself every 10 years so it also appears do the people in that industry. Whilst the term IT is relatively new when compared to many other trades it has still managed to capture a stereotype. What is interesting however is how the image of the typical IT geek has progressed over the past few decades from a lab worker to now something completely and utterly different.
Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum.
In the early days of large computational clusters many technicians would look like this. Well dressed and with an almost business like demeanour. It was part of the culture back then as many of these types of systems were either for large universities or corporations, and with big dollars being shelled out for such systems (this was the IBM 7030 Stretch which would cost around $100 million in today’s dollars) this was kind of expected. I think that’s why the next generation of geeks set the trend for the next couple decades.
Image courtesy of Microsoft.
A young Bill Gates shows what would become the typical image conjured up in everyone’s heads when the word geek or nerd was uttered for a long time to come. The young, tall and skinny people who delved themselves into computers were the faces of our IT community for a long time, and I think this is when those thick rimmed glasses became synonymous with our kind. It was probably around this time that geeks became associated with a tilt towards social awkwardness, something that many people still joke about today. What’s really interesting though is the next few steps I’ve seen in the changing geek image.
Image courtesy of JustTheLists.
Jerry Yang and David Filo, the first of a generation of what most people call Internet pioneers. Whilst I can’t find a direct link to it Yahoo had a bit of a reputation for a very casual work environment, with t-shirts and sandals the norm. It was probably because of their success from coming straight out of university and into a successful corporate world, where they grew their own business culture. This kind of thing flowed onto many of the other successful Internet companies like Google, who lavishes their employees with almost everything they will ever need.
Image Courtesy of Robert Scoble.
Tom Anderson, one of the co-founders of MySpace is not what you’d call your typical geek with a degree in Arts and a masters in Film. You’d struggle to find him even associated with such titles, yet he’s behind one of the largest technical companies on the Internet. Truly the face of the modern geek aspires to something more like Tom Anderson then it does to a young Bill Gates.
I found this interesting because of the company that I keep. We all love computer games and the latest bits of tech, but you’d be hard pressed to find among us anyone you could really call your stereotypical geek. I think this is indicative of the maturity that the IT industry has acquired. The term IT Professional no longer conjures up an idea of a basement dwelling console hacker with thick glasses, more it gives the impression that you’d expect from a professional in any industry. Something which carries with it a decent chunk of respect.
I guess the next step is when we start seeing Joe the IT Professional used in political campaigns.