LC#11: Nerd Politics — Revenge of the Bros
Starting a trilogy on Nerd Politics.
After dedicating the last three newsletters to comedy and Italian identity, I’m doing another three-parter. This time we talk about the figure of the Nerd, a long-standing comedic trope and pretty much a functioning avatar of the current zeitgeist. The first chapter is about the relationship between the Nerd and its more socially adjusted counterparts. Let’s do a bit of the usual warm-up first though.
This week’s warm-up is all about the unintentionally funny. First up: this article about randomly pillaging the Italian language for some cutesy baby names wound up getting edited, after people started noticing how naming your offspring after dicks or ass is not the best idea.
Apparently this second link is a bit old (like one month, so not too bad) but it made waves in the UK. Basically this small town meeting turned sour so quick it became a viral sensation across the country.
And finally, remaining within the UK: Nigel Farage started offering dedicated voice cameos online for cash, and got trolled almost immediately.
(Shout out to my brother for sending me link 1 and LC fan #1 Phett Waivv for inspiring link 2 and 3)
Nerd politics may very well start with a story of revenge. It was 1984, and a now iconic comedy was released in theaters. Revenge of the Nerds was not unlike many other movies within the same genre: a group of young, socially marginalized underdogs had to navigate their coming of age through a fog of hormons, bullying from the usual frat boys, and the shenanigans of college life. Quite significantly, apart from the familiar sex and drug-related gags, the film tells a story of institutional vindication. The nerds are in fact initially excluded from the fraternity system and deprived of their own house, but (helped by an alliance with a black fraternity) manage to gain a voice in the college council and eventually, after winning a competition, gain control of the council altogether. The final speech below delivers a heartfelt appeal to end nerd oppression, even establishing an intersectional alliance of sorts with all of the marginalized. The Nerd is here a placeholder category for the “other” — in fact, nobody is going to be free until nerd persecution ends.
It is probably not a coincidence if, just a few months before Revenge of the Nerds came out, Apple had just launched the Macintosh with a now legendary commercial. The short clip shows a room full of gray, passive, brain-washed men looking at a giant screen, where a sinister face promises the full subjugation of enemies through unity of thought. Then, a blonde woman in skimpy shorts rushes in and throws a sledgehammer into the screen, and the voiceover announces the launch of the new personal computer, promising that “1984 will not be like 1984”. It was a pivotal moment for consumer electronics and their marketing: a bit like in Revenge of the Nerds, the computer — and the computer-savvy people who think different, by the Macintosh claim — will liberate everyone from the dull sameness of televisual propaganda.
To be sure, it is not a nerd throwing the sledgehammer into the screen, and Steve Jobs — the quasi-messianic figure helming Apple as a company — was also not really a nerd. In fact, while the promise of technical emancipation offered by the personal computer was key to Apple’s success, slickness of design and a laid back refusal to be bothered with technicalities were also crucial selling points. This is most notable in another very successful ad campaign for the Mac: the now historic “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” series. By pinning the clumsy geek of RoTN lore as an avatar for Bill Gates’ brand, Apple identified itself with a cooler, smarter, even more attractive computer user. The Nerd has now entered the house (our house), but it has split and transformed in the process: the choice is now between adopting a tech-bro persona or being marginalized once again.
In 2007, just a year after the new Mac ads rolled out, the college comedy steps up to the challenge. American Pie Presents: Beta House features a quasi-specular plot compared to RoTN: the geeks are now wealthy and arrogant, calling the shots around campus, while the frat boys wax nostalgic about the golden days. The flick is not quite as epic as any of the franchises it draws from, but it captures the zeitgeist in some way: the nerds are now in power, and they’re still bitter about how they got there.
A decade down the line, just before the 2016 US election, the Nerd has mutated again. Two things are now clear: on a structural level, the Silicon Valley ethos (the infamous Californian ideology) has taken over across the board. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft (mashed together in the menacing acronym GAFAM) have disrupted pretty much every aspect of our lives: advertising, information, entertainment, but also logistics and transportation. Tech-driven innovation has accelerated privatization and financialization, disgregating national governance and workers rights in the process. The underdog nerd is now a capricious landlord (quite literally, especially in the uber-gentrified San Francisco described in this excellent book by Jarett Kobek) and even its 1980s college comedy mythos is seen in a new light after a wave of incel misogyny and not-quite-so-ironic right-wing radicalization has been shaking the Internet for a few years. On a social imaginary level, the “think different” motto is now best incarnated by hyper-masculine, conspiracy-keen podcasters like Joe Rogan or the wider Intellectual Dark Web constellation, a weird amalgam of often regressive social ideas and neo-John Perry Barlow-ian ambitions to digital pioneering. Psychedelia-inspired marketing (à la Jobs) and blunt-smoking tech moguls who think they’re Iron Man converge with life design ponzi schemes and one-size-fits-all app engineering. It’s a new era of nerd politics on steroids.
Silicon Valley, Mike Judge’s masterpiece take on the tech industry, is an example of just how the garage ventures of visionary nerds have evolved into a powerful institution governed by massive investment capital and internal feuds. The inextricable symbiotic relationship between visionary engineers with Asperger syndrome and shroomed-out tech-bros is made abundantly clear in the trailer — the conflictual relationship between the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) mentioned by Richard could be considered a prototype of that — but beyond that the series offers a sophisticated and hilarious dissection of nerd politics. On one hand, Richard and his crew of hardcore engineers want to radically de-centralize the Internet on a very structural, material level; on the other, they have to appease short-attention span investors, strategically ride vapid trends, and keep an eye on the predatory Steve Jobs-wannabe competitor Gavin Belson, who wants to cannibalize their company.
Another virtue of the show is the Nerd’s characteristic quirkiness and social ineptitude is represented as multi-faceted: often endearingly, Richard’s aspy behavior allows him to deep-dive into problems and find brilliant technical solutions, but it also distracts him from handling the people around him; from a more sinister perspective (although not exclusively), the character of investor Laurie Bream is instead entirely focused on profit and mostly devoid of human empathy.
While definitely simplistic, the personalization of big tech’s affinity with the practical and disregard of the social as personality traits is a useful narrative device — and one that the tech industry has also adopted for itself. Apparently, according to Peter Thiel (a man who co-founded a data analytics company named after the infamously sneaky all-seeing orb in the Lord of the Rings) not being able to see social cues can help people think outside of the box, and that’s why many of the most successful people in Silicon Valley are people with Asperger’s. As someone with at least one foot on the spectrum, I’m not going to diss the neurologically atypical, but I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking the premise that Silicon Valley success might be measured against, and not alongside, social awareness might be problematic in itself.
Apart from the big CEO’s, examples of awkward encounters between the technically minded and issues of social justice are not rare and represent the kind of wider Internet “color-blindness” that academics like André Brock have been researching for years. James Damore’s infamous Google memo is a prime example of that in relation to sexism, but the cringe tirade in the video above is probably more representative in terms of race. Titled “Programmer Lives Matter” and published in June 2020, the clip starts with a rather tasteless comedic re-mapping of the BLM movement onto the programmer experience. The YouTuber appeals to end “Manager supremacy” and “HR brutality” and invites programmers to rebel until they can also become presidents and get free jobs. Like in the 1984 film, “nerd” is again a slur to be reclaimed after decades of oppression.
The bit is obviously ironic, but the message that follows is more serious: the video discusses examples like Uber Eats’ decision to exempt black-owned business from delivery fees as inherently racist and illegal, and proceeds to illustrate how race should not be factored in at all (as it often happens, the parameter is compared to class and nationality, but also to height and weight). While Uber is definitely not the best company to be preaching social justice (they don’t have the best record in terms of workers’ rights) and the move may very well have been an attempt at woke-washing, the video is ill-focused. In other words, it is ironic a representative of the tech industry such as the YouTuber in question should start the video by trivializing the movement in general terms (overlooking its historical specificity and social grounds), while the practical example he winds up dissecting is a classic case of Silicon Valley “solutionism”, or switching variables around to patch things up the easy way. The much criticized decision was probably, dare I say, more of a programmer’s approach to the issue, rather than a BLM activist’s.
To conclude, let’s go back to Judge’s Silicon Valley. As mentioned before, conflating the Nerd’s characteristically quirky personality with anti-social ideas is dangerously simplistic. When push come to shove, in fact, the series avoids laying the blame on nerds: it is after all Gavin Belson, the shape-shifting New Age tech-bro, who finally embodies the ultimate pathological “solutionist” posture widespread within the Silicon Valley milieu. After being forced into retirement, in a bold re-branding move Gavin launches a code of tech ethics (“tethics”) for all Silicon Valley CEOs to sign; the gesture is obviously a cosmetic attempt to dodge responsibility for the invasive privacy policies and data malpractice tech has become known for, but it is eventually rewarded by becoming academic canon (a twist that hints at the known complicity of academia in legitimating industry trends).
The parable of the Nerd and its political revenge is thus forever bitter: even after conquering the biggest house on campus, administering power turns out to be much harder and less fun than anticipated.