Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Trope of the Geek and Nerd

What is a geek? What is a nerd?

A typical answer can be summed up thus: the lone, obsessive individual, with bad teeth, pale skin, glasses that look suspiciously hipster, who labors day after day, working on some great invention, often based off obscure principles like Feynmanian diagrams of space-time, or else some new way to rewire circuits to get free Wi-Fi. This individual (of course!) must be bullied relentlessly, or ignored, or shunned. His friends (should he be lucky to find any worthy of his interest and time) are the same as he: lone, obsessive individuals. Eventually, twenty years into the future, our hypothetical character creates an amazing invention or website that nets him millions of dollars and a mansion, the girl (there's always a girl somewhere in the story) and the football jock that bullied him and made his life miserable is stuck working for the nerd/geek, as Bill Gates said in his oft-copy and pasted quote:

Be nice to nerds. Chances are, you'll end up working for one.

Behold, the Trope!
Today, we essentially worship the idea of the geek. To many of the common public, he is a god, in a way - someone who is intelligent enough to solve the mysteries of the Universe. (Yet, somehow, he can't find a way to save his lunch money from getting stolen.) Silicon Valley (most notably, Google) works the public's fascination to their advantage! Google offers free lunch to all their employees, because, you know: with all those nerds and geeks walking around, the bullies are sure to steal their lunch money. Shows like The Big Bang Theory play this to their benefit. Many are in love with the idea of the unsung geek or nerd being isolated all his love and somehow creating a great website or something. (Hey, doesn't that sound familiar?) Even all the cool kids and cliques at school are in on the act: wearing suspenders, hipster glasses, and other adornments of the geek/nerd, to seem "smart".

Does this all sound familiar? Yes? Absolutely. I'd be surprised if you didn't. Silicon Valley, the Internet, and our technological revolution has brought the geek and the nerd to hero-status in society. Is there really a difference? Yes, technically, which I will enumerate thus:
A geek is someone who is obsessed with one thing and one thing only: it can be anything. A nerd is a more academic person, who is usually obsessed with science, Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, &c. 
(Compare this to TV Tropes' definition: The distinctions between "geek" and "nerd" are many and various - or maybe there aren't any distinctions at all. The meaning of both always depends on who is using the term.)

Is all of this starting to sound a bit cliche? You're right. Because, my dear friends: nerds and geeks are nothing more than tropes. The way we view them are cliched and tired. Are all nerds and geeks obsessed with mathematics and Star Wars and physics?

However, I am here to destroy this idea of the geek and nerd.  

Recently, I was told by someone that I was a geek because "I liked math and hard stuff." Bear in mind, and I mean this in the nicest, least derogatory way, that person was painfully wron. I had to explain to them that I was not a geek because I liked maths. In fact, I don't like maths. Yes, I'm taking calculus, but I don't find it engaging or absorbing. I'd MUCH rather read a sonnet by Shakespeare and analyse it than find the area under a curve. Many, many more people would, too. They are extremely intelligent people. Yet, for some reason, we cannot consider them nerds and geeks, because of peoples' misguided beliefs that math and science are the only things that make nerds and geeks, well, nerds and geeks. And that is the BIGGEST PROBLEM. This is a stereotype, my friends: and stereotypes are never write. Or right. :(

Does he look like a geek to you?
Proto-geek, perhaps.
Credit: Wikipedia
Our world flows in a mathematics-science kind of STEM pattern now. It didn't used to. In the past, as I have regrettably lamented, humanities were king -- indeed, as far back as the Middle Ages, the monks who lived, sheltered in cloisters for eternity, were the only ones who could read and write -- and so were considered educated and wise and all. They were the nerd/geeks of their day. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this remained true as well, as the most educated people - Miltons and Shelleys and Byrons and Murrays were usually literate and intelligent. There were some notable mathematicians, like Newton, Lagrange, and Fermat, but most of them were famous for work in another field. (For example, Fermat was a judge.)

However, as the liberal arts and social sciences continue to be overlooked in exchange for more modern, futuristic pursuits, this question is likely going to be asked more and more often. Yes, I think math and science are important, but that doesn't mean that I have to like them. (Except chemistry. Chemistry is awesome.)

I identify as both a nerd and geek. I have many academic pursuits. I am singlehandedly obsessed with many different authors (and can quote the entirety of Macbeth, for the most part. LAY ON, MACDUFF!) And I even have hipster trope glasses. (But they are prescribed.) I don't have much of a social life. But, at the same time, I don't know who Captain Kirk is, whose side Boba Fett is on, whether World of Warcraft is better than Dungeons and Dragons, or whatever. And I don't really like math and science. What does that mean, then? To most people, well...

I'd like to point out that I'm generalizing a bit, here. I know not everyone views geeks and nerds as science and math and obscure pop-culture fanatics. But our society and culture in general is perpetuating a trope that, in my eyes, is wrong and accurately misrepresents a portion of individuals who do self-identify as a geek or nerd, such as I. It should not be "wrong" to like literature or any other social science and yet be delegated to some other title, like "history buff", which, for the record, sounds like a shoe polish. The shoe polish that polished Washington or Wellington's floor... (Ha ha ha...That was a terrible joke.) And also, keep in mind that I am not bashing science and math fanatics in any way. They do make our world work, now. And I can respect that. Otherwise, without them, I would not be here, posting on a computer. I just have a different view of the world than them, and I feel that we should all respect these different views and tastes.

So there's my semi-monthly rant. Agree or disagree, I'd love to hear your opinions. Sound off below in the comments.


-R. R. (The nerd and geek!)

1 comment:

  1. I've always considered myself more of a geek, and I've never been in a situation where either nerd or geek is considered a bad thing. What I do notice is that it's often really hard for people to understand why other people like something they don't like, unless they are spectacularly good at it.

    And in the case of something like a TV show, it's... I don't know if you can be "spectacularly good" at a TV show, so I guess there's that. *shakes head*

    Still, VERY good post. Me gustaba.