Monday, May 14, 2012

nerd self-mythologizing

I don't want to step on a piece I'm finishing for another venue on the Nerd Victimization and Grievance Industrial Complex, but I was struck by this comic from the Oatmeal. It's mostly a piece of hagiography about Nikola Tesla (indeed, a great man) that confirms again that most hagiography actually makes you feel worse about its subject, not better. But its subtext is yet another in the Oatmeal's series on how geeks are better than you. (The sub-subtext, of course, is that the guy who writes the Oatmeal is better than you.) Which is not to blame the Oatmeal dude specifically for this; there's this whole huge edifice of geek self-mythologizing. What I always wonder when I read this stuff is, don't you guys know that adults aren't supposed to talk about how great they are?

Now, I know what my frequent critics on these issues will say: but the context is a world where geeks and nerds are/have been oppressed. On the "are" front, I would say, no they're not. Not for the things that are self-consciously geeky, not the stuff that self-described nerds and geeks use to so self-define. The social awkwardness is totally independent of the cultural convictions that are used to define geekdom. And, indeed, derision and marginalization of socially awkward people are prevalent in the halls of geek culture, too. On the "have been" front, I would simply point out that reacting to a changing world is important to maintaining a worthwhile self-criticism; that oftentimes the worst bullies are those who have been bullied themselves, and thus can't imagine themselves in the other position; and finally, that even if you could go back and erase the stigma about comic books or whatever that was the focal point of bullying in the past, it wouldn't have removed the bullying. The bullying just would have taken a different form. Social aggression exists for reasons that are entirely separate from the proximate target of that aggression. Bullies and jerks will always find reasons.

Incidentally, the comic lionizes Tesla for choosing to forgo sex in order to remain mentally sharp, portraying it as a kind of heroism. I would argue that it's actually a pathology. And incidentally, sex>alternating current.

Update: I kid Nikola Tesla! I love Nikola Tesla. I'm just kidding about the sex. And, you know, most everything else. I'll link to the piece as soon as it's out. I want only for geeks to recognize and enjoy the fact that they've already won.

Update II: But do check out Alex Waller for a spirited and informed defense of Edison.

6 comments:

Alex Waller said...

Please, please forgive my shameless self-promotion. http://abstractengineer.blogspot.com/2012/05/this-tesla-love-fest-has-got-to-end.html

Freddie said...

No forgiveness necessary! And that's an awesome corrective.

Anonymous said...

You often talk about having the confidence to leave others the space to make different choices. Choosing to forgo sex in order to remain mentally sharp is such a choice. Calling it a pathology reminds me of things you have criticized in others' work. Your last three sentences do not seem well-considered.

Freddie said...

Oh, I'm just teasing. I kid Nikola Tesla! I love Nikola Tesla!

Paul Sherrard said...

Oatmeal sucks. He really shouldn't be putting anyone down for claiming geek & smelling like an executive.

This, however, is interesting: he's using a larger font for phrases that refer to techie topics and/or purport to be statements of historical fact---the type of phrases that people make into links. Only they're NOT links. It's like he's internalized the feel of link-laden prose and uses it as a kind of punctuation.

Example: "Who held patents over a hundred years ago that were later used in the development of the transistor?"

Is this a thing? It's the first time I've seen it.

Brendan said...

I don't think the concept of "oppression" applies to geeks, now or ever. I think geeks have been socially marginalized, which is different. But this is kind of an aside to my main point, which is that I really don't think you're right that geeks have "won" in any real way, and for that reason I do think there's a place for stuff like this comic. (BTW, I doubt Matthew Inman himself qualifies as a geek.)

I think your mistake is this: "he social awkwardness is totally independent of the cultural convictions that are used to define geekdom."

This is backwards. The social awkwardness is what defines geekdom. And we have to be a little more precise than "social awkwardness." It's a certain personality type of which social awkwardness is only the most visible sign. I'm not going to try to define it exhaustively because I think you kind of know it when you see it, but I think being most comfortable with certainties, quantities, physical things, hard abstractions, etc. is a big part of it. The "cultural convictions" that are associated with geekdom arise from this personality type, not the other way around. Partly they're a conscious defense mechanism, and partly they're just a natural expression of the geek psyche. Non-geeks can like this stuff too, of course, but liking it won't turn them into geeks.

What's interesting about the geek type is that, on the one hand, these people are HUGELY overrepresented among scientists, mathematicians, engineers, etc., and I think it's fair to say that the personality type is intrinsically linked with success in these fields. So geeks' contribution to the society we are all enjoying is immense. But at the same time, geeks--by which I mean people with the full-on geek personality, not just everyone who likes comic books--have ALWAYS been socially marginalized and ALWAYS will be, because human nature does not change. Note that hard sci-fi tends to depict a future in which human nature basically HAS changed, so that geek traits are the most highly valued: this is the ultimate geek fantasy.

In short, I think you've conflated two different things: people defending pop culture against imaginary highbrow gatekeepers (which I agree is bullshit), and geeks.