Once Objects of Scorn, Nerds Now Rule

Smiling man, with a bow tie. He's happy. Geek iStockphoto

In the 1984 comedy "Revenge of the Nerds," two computer science students suffered persecution at the hands of the popular kids simply because they were nerds.

Twenty-five years later revenge hardly seems necessary: Nerds today are doing just fine, reports Mo Rocca, CBS "Sunday Morning" contributor and host of CBSNews.com's "The Tomorrow Show."

It's not that being a nerd is suddenly trendy: The idea of geek chic, epitomized by rocker Elvis Costello, goes back to the late '70s. No, today, nerd culture is mainstream - in our gadgets, in our glasses, in our pop culture. You might say nerd is the new normal.

First, let's define our terms.

"A nerd can be defined a couple of different ways," said Ben Nugent, author of a book about nerds. "I mean, it can just be a schoolyard taunt against someone who you want to denigrate in some vague way, right? Or you can call someone a nerd because it actually refers to something about the way they think. You're talking about a love of rules and systems, someone who likes to think logically more than they like to think intuitively."

"So nerds are not very good at reading between the lines," Rocca noted.

"Exactly," Nugent said. "They're not good at picking up non-verbal cues."

Nugent is an admitted nerd.

"When did you first discover that you were a nerd?" Rocca asked.

"I think when people started to throw things at me and shout, 'Hey, nerd,' which probably came around age 7 or 8, I want to say, for the first time," Nugent said.

"Throwing things and calling you a nerd, that was very literal," Rocca said.

"Yeah, exactly," Nugent said.

"So you were able to understand what they were saying?" Rocca asked.

"Yeah, yeah," Nugent said. "Maybe they'd been dropping hints for five years and it took a dodgeball hitting my head for me to actually have, like, the revelation."

Of course, it's not always funny growing up a nerdy kid.

"I think when I was 9 it was much more of an issue," Nugent said. "Because you've just discovered you've been put in this category, and you don't really know what it means."

What being a nerd means, Nugent says, is favoring the rational over instinctual, the cerebral over physical, knowledge over gut, and the practical over stylish.

One telltale sign?

"Nerds tend to speak in full sentences and very explicitly," Nugent said.

"I'm loathe to end a sentence in a preposition," Rocca said. "Does that make me nerdy?"

"That does make you very nerdy," Nugent said.

The word "nerd" first appeared in Dr. Seuss' "If I Ran the Zoo" in 1950, but Nugent says the portrait of the nerd appeared in literature as early as the 19th century, with characters like the studious and single Mary Bennett in "Pride and Prejudice."

And then there's Victor Frankenstein.

"He is a scientist who tells his family to leave him alone," Nugent said. "Won't talk to anybody, and goes up into a tower for a year, and just fiddles around with these machines just 'cause he thinks it would be cool to take all these corpse parts and make them into a living creature."

But in a world so reliant on technology, those with the curiosity of a Dr. Frankenstein are more valuable than ever!

Nerds, of course, are sometimes called geeks, a term that came into vogue in the 1980s with the rise of Silicon Valley and carries connotations of tech savvy.

"I would say all geeks started, at some point in their life, probably as kids, taking something apart … and you started asking questions: 'How does this work?'" said Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, the army of mobile tech personnel who answer distress calls from those who don't know how their things work.

In the Internet Age, Geek Squad members are something like paramedics.

"Geeks love manuals," Rocca said.

"Geeks love manuals so much, they read manuals for stuff they don't even own," Stephens said.

"Beach reading," Rocca said. "Like, just take the manual--"

"Well, I wouldn't take a geek on the beach, though," Stephens said. "I mean, we have a skin issue here."

Of course, most people these days have some basic understanding of technology.

"It's the public that's becoming the geeks with their Xboxes and their BlackBerries and their iPods," Stephens said. "Geeks are actually becoming more normalized. We're entering a space right now where, you know, the lines are kind of blurring."

If we're all kinda nerds and geeks now, that may explain geekery's star turn on mainstream's main stage: primetime network television.

CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," about two brilliant physicists and their beautiful next door neighbor, has emerged as one of TV's hottest sitcoms - and the only one with an experimental partical physicist on staff to fact-check the science.

Really.

Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady are the show's creators.

"We had talked for a long time about guys I knew back in my previous career as a computer programmer," Prady said. "And who were wonderful, brilliant people that sometimes had difficulty fitting into the real world."

"He told stories about guys that could figure pi to 80 decimals like that, but couldn't do a tip in a restaurant because there are too many variables," Lorre said. "That struck me as a wonderfully different kind of character."

Characters that were once punchlines are now sometimes leading men.

Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki are two of the show's stars.

"You guys are the leads in a really popular series and you're socially awkward," Rocca said.

"I think it's cooler than being hip and vapid," Parsons said.

"You're absolutely right," Galecki said.

"So, socially awkward is the new . . . " Rocca said.

"Oh, jeez I don't wanna say cool," Galecki said.

"The new little black dress," Parsons said.

And these days, socially awkward doesn't mean hiding in your parent's basement.

Atom! Freeman - yes Atom! not Adam - and Portlyn Polston own geek hotspot Brave New World Comics outside L.A.

"I think everybody wants to be a geek now, whether they realize it or not," Polston said. "Every TV show, every movie, all the games and books on the shelves are kind of based out of comic books right now. Comics are where it's at. Comics equal geek; geek equals cool."

At a geek singles night, those looking for love came to flex their pop culture muscles.

"Why do you think that more people are comfortable with the label and willing to take it?" Rocca said.

"Because they're zillionaires," Freeman said. "I mean, come on. What? Richest man in the world. Find me a bigger geek than Bill Gates. Seriously."

But even if nerds have more power than ever before, Ben Nugent isn't ready to declare victory just yet.

"It's still a cool kids' club?" Rocca asked.

"I think you still need cool-kid skills to get to the top in most situations," Nugent said. "And by that I mean the ability to project confidence, and to make conversations run smoothly, so that people have the illusion that they know you even when they don't."

Nerds and geeks may be mainstream. But cool? That's something else.

"We still don't want to be like Bill Gates," Nugent said, "even if we have his money."


For more info:
"The Big Bang Theory" (CBS)
"American Nerd: The Story of My People" by Ben Nugent (Simon & Schuster)
Brave New World Comics
Geek Squad
sweetongeeks.com
  • Mo Rocca

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