Nerdinator: The Rise of the Geeks

Another post inspired by a bit of catch-up viewing on Netflix. This time, it’s been the later series of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ – a show with just enough relationship entanglements to appeal to general sitcom enthusiasts, and spades of geekdom to draw in people like me. The popularity and appeal of the show has left me wondering: is it at the expense of the nerd and geek? Or did we suddenly become mainstream enough to be considered – dare I say it? – cool?

Perhaps you, like me, were in that special sidelined group at school – the group that enjoyed Star Wars or Star Trek, that liked to play role-playing games, that had little or no interest in make up or sport or whatever else the majority of kids were into. Or perhaps you were in the groups who played MMORPGs – maybe World of Warcraft or Minecraft, or myriad variants thereof. Shunned socially, sometimes viewed as odd, weird or outright repulsive, the nerds and geeks of schools up and down the country laboured under the label of ‘different’ and were maligned accordingly. I use the past tense because it seems to me that there is a much higher tolerance and admiration for these groups now than 20 years ago, and I suspect that it is this that makes shows like The Big Bang Theory possible to green light in the first place.

But why this sea change? Is it, as Bill Gates has been wont to observe, that we end up working for the nerds and geeks (thus his exhortation to be kind to them)? Is it that, as those school cliques grow into adulthood, we come to see each other beyond the raging hormones of adolescence and encompassing struggle for identity?

As the cool kids and the geeks and nerds become the responsible adults, maybe it is as simple as society coming to terms with us and understanding that we are not threatening; rather, we can make a really valuable and positive contribution to society. A little case in point; the chances are that you’re reading this post on a tablet device or smartphone of some kind (it’s certainly been written on one!) – technology made possible by the nerds and geeks who wanted to make the gadgets of Star Trek a reality. You make quotidian use of the Internet and, in what has to be delightful irony for that most socially unacceptable of groups, the social media that we use every day is the work of those selfsame geeks and nerds.

I suspect that a greater understanding of conditions like Asperger’s and autism also plays a part, as less extreme cases (rather like Sheldon’s in ‘The Big Bang Theory’) often demonstrate dedicated interest in something that others might find unusual and real difficulty with social interactions. As this is studied – both medically and through the social lens of characters like Sheldon, or arguably some aspects of recent incarnations of Dr Who or current reimaginings of Sherlock – it makes it ‘okay’ to deal empathetically with people like this in our day to day lives.

Geeks have moved from being portrayed as the odd outcasts to being sympathetic and interesting, and having a vital role in culture and society. Geek chic and geek style glasses are a real deal, gracing media everywhere. We know what Comicon is, and we might well ‘get it’ even if we’d never go ourselves. As we appreciate their likenesses to ourselves, we seem to have developed a genuine fondness for the geek subculture.

This is epitomised, to my mind, in a comment made by Leonard in season 7 of ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Asked why he is friends with Sheldon, he explains that the loveable anti-hero is loyal, trustworthy and a good friend. It’s almost a Shylockian ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ style statement, underlining the humanity of geeks and nerds. We may be different, but we are still human – and moved by the same passions and seasons as mainstream society.

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