Thursday, December 15, 2016

Stay In Your Lane

I assume readers know evolution is not a conspiracy. You start out with a small tree shrew and—through nothing other than the pressure to survive in various environments—you end up with a giraffe whose neck gets ever longer and a panda whose color gets ever starker and who becomes increasingly intolerant of anything but bamboo.

Complex environments create specialists, and the longer these environments are stable, the more stereotyped the specialists are pressured to become. That’s why Bertrand Russell was able to write:
The reign of Augustus was a period of happiness for the Roman Empire…Augustus, for the sake of stability, set to work, somewhat insincerely, to restore ancient piety, and was therefore necessarily rather hostile to free inquiry. The Roman world began to become stereotyped, and the process continued under later emperors.

…so when I say “capitalism wants” I am no more talking about a conspiracy than when I use the shorthand “evolution wants”.

All kinds of people are born—always—but the pressure to survive while being that kind of person (plus the lessons their parents impress on them because they themselves had had to survive while being whatever kind of people they were) push people in each field toward personality types that can survive in their environment.

Considering, for instance, the world is going to keep producing artists, what kind of shape does early 21st-century capitalism want them in?

It needs them to go to school, for two reasons:

-the examples of earlier artists are always available (and often in the public domain), so in order to make anything broadly competitive saleable to a public whose main reliable taste is for technical expertise a decent chunk of them must have access to the means of acquiring it

-as we now expect technology will advance continuously, we like our artists to be conversant with it, as marrying the artist to new technology produces novelty—the other thing the public reliably likes—plus enables our artists to be able to talk to our advertisers, with whom they exist in a symbiotic relationship.

Capitalism wants artists’ talents and ideas because they can be used to sell things, capitalism wants artists to have a liberal education so they can steal ideas from all the world's culture. Capitalism would like to meet artists at parties—where the artist can simultaneously entertain the capitalist and can be introduced to patrons in an informal setting outside the recorded and legalized confines of the application process (where there are difficult questions concerning how many people of what kind you're taking applications from)--so it wants artists to throw parties, or at least go to them, and so be at least social enough to handle that. What it doesn’t want is artists who have money (artists are creative, so if you give them money they won’t necessarily invest in things and hire people to make more money, they might just spend it on firecrackers and beanbag chairs) or power (artists are nearly by definition people with unpredictable and radical ideas, and capitalism wants stable or at least controllable governance) or who are taken seriously outside the world of entertainment (unpredictable ideas plus the ability to communicate=trouble).

And, lo-and-behold, what kind of personality types do we get? “Artists are crazy,” “Artists are flakes,” “Guitarists are drug addicts,” “He’s a genius behind the piano but in real life he was a disaster”, etc. etc. Lovable but "unstable". You'd never vote for an artist.

Are these myths promoted to keep them in their place? Or descriptions of the personality-types that the institutions and conditions most favorable to survival produce? If, like lawyers, artists had art firms come around their studios around graduation time and offer them jobs they could keep for life we might well have a very different stereotype of them. Or maybe not. Whether chicken or egg isn’t actually important to my point, the point is however artists got there, capitalism has exactly no incentive to change their position. They have them right where they want them: always unstable, always vulnerable, always available.
The etymology of the word “nerd” goes back to 1950.

This makes perfect sense: a great war had just been decided through the use of weapons that had been unimagined (and in some cases had been unimaginable) during the war just before it. We were buying cars, we were about to have a space race. We did not know what the future would bring, but we knew we needed minders of machines and the mechanized bureaucratic instruments they enable. We put money into manufacturing these people on an industrial scale.

Just as The Art Student (nipple ring, blue hair, Starbucks job, campus-rock music taste, earnest and pointless politics, flake spirituality) is something that capitalism has done to its artists and the Jock (etymology: 1963) is something capitalism has done to its athletes and physically capable people, “nerd” is something that capitalism has done to its intellectuals.

“Intellectual” has two common definitions—the first is the kind of person you hear getting interviewed on NPR about a Big Idea, the second, used by people like Marx, is any kind of economic actor who gets paid to do brainstuff rather than hard labor, like a plumbing engineer. The point of "Nerd" is to keep these two kinds of intellectuals separate, because together they are fucking dangerous. When Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing Black Panther comics and demanding reparations after documenting decades of housing discrimination?--capitalism does not want that shit.

You, reading this, may very well work only with your brain for a living. You're probably too smart to go around calling yourself an intellectual--you know you'd get punched. But you call yourself a nerd? That's fine. That's adorable. Let me buy you a drink.

That's because the word ‘nerd’ and all the ideas around it are epiphenomena of anti-intellectualism. Troll culture is what you get when Nerd is shorn of any trace of intellectualism, and is, like all bullying, ultimately about enforcing existing social roles: If, in the middle of a discussion of a supremely nerdy subject, you bring up a creative imperative, you’re Pretentious, if you out-nerd the nerd you’re Aspie, if you display any awareness of the wider world, you’re reminded you’re just a nerd discussing a nerd thing in a nerd place. Be a middlebrow minder of machines, be quiet and uncharismatic and if you have to dream, dream only unreachably escapist and irrelevant dreams and if you have to fight, fight only with other nerds about those dreams and with no-one by your side. If 'Nerd' is the defanged intellectual, "troll" is the intellectual as collaborator, as kapo. And, like the kapo, they are betraying the only culture that could ever value their real assets.

Back in the day, under a different kind of ruling class than we have now, the kings and emperors knew that if they could just keep the smart people arguing which each other about whether Christ had one soul or three, they wouldn’t have much to worry about. That's why, when a smart person invented monks, they decided to keep them around--and make sure they kept wearing burlap sacks and having shitty haircuts. When the monks started growing pea plants and getting ideas about genetics and fucking nuns it was time to dream up new roles for them. Feudalism needed scholars, but not thinkers.

Capitalism needs smart and well-educated specialists who know how to teach machines to do new tricks. What it doesn’t need is more guys in the office charming or aggressive or relatable enough to compete for their management jobs. It doesn’t need to meet them at parties (they can just apply, it’s more efficient), it doesn’t need them to reproduce (their skills are considered transferrable through formal education rather than culture and parenting), it doesn’t want them rich or brave (a nerd who doesn’t need a new job after the one they’re quitting can do things to your machines that destroy you forever), it doesn’t need them broadly culturally educated (just make the fucking printer work, ok?).

For an example of how this works in practice, Wesley Yang does a good job here of describing what it's like for many high-achieving tiger-parented Asian-americans who feel like all their education has done is polish them into ideal cogs for managerial types to install and ignore: "An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people 'who are good at math' and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.".

Nerds (or, rather: the intellectuals that late-stage-postindustrial capitalism would like to turn into mere “nerds”), like art students, aren’t actually that stupid. Anyone with a brain can do more (probably needs to do more) with it than crunch numbers and make bad jokes. And the nerds created, despite the wider economy’s—at best—apathy and—at worst—hostility to the idea, a culture. Gary Gygax going from adjusting insurance to working with Dave Arneson to invent a game about elves fighting demons is just about as pure an example of that culture as we get. The game drew on a knowledge of a rich literature that had developed completely independently of the mainstream of American literary culture; a culture that had vociferously argued, not coincidentally, the year before about whether to give Gravity’s Rainbow—an undeniably literary literary novel that only a Naval engineer with stacks of pulp novels in his garage could’ve produced—a Nobel prize. Both Gygax and Pynchon (born a year apart) were part of the first generation old enough to be called "nerds" as teenagers, had gotten nerd jobs to survive about as soon as they could and--about 20 years later, managed to make things that built on the would-be disposable culture they loved and the technocratic esoteric they'd been stuffed full of.

D&D, like Gravity’s Rainbow, was an assertion that the nerd had something to teach the art student—and a hint that maybe they both could push past roles that they were being asked to fill and just be smart people.

This is a terrible revelation—because it suggests maybe if you stop accepting You’re just a…(whatever) you might suddenly have responsibilities. You might be capable of things you’ve been neglecting. You might be expected to compete on a wider field than just how fast you can get that Naruto reference in or cite the figure that backs up the opinion everyone you know already has. You might’ve been slacking off all this time.

It is ok to be awkward or afraid or unable to relate to people outside the narrow world of your hobbies and tastes—but it isn’t ok to fail to recognize those things as limitations—and ones that the world outside you has encouraged and will continue to encourage. This was not done to protect you from the world--it was done to protect the world from you.


  1. I find this a very well expressed point. For those interested in the cultural history of "the nerd," I have found this piece - - by Willie Osterweil, to be a similarly well written approach to many of the same themes.

    1. God I hope not. Part of the reason I wrote this was the shallowness and reliance on received wisdom and generality in articles like the one you just linked.

    2. Seems the article is also factually incorrect, there apparently is a link between being perceived as nerdy and bullying.

      Perhaps due to the articles focus on colleges, and not high schools, and I think the nerd/jock division is more pronounced in high schools. And there seems to be more bullying on high schools than there is in colleges/universities. Probably due to high school kids being young. So if the article only looked at the bully stats for college aged kids that might explain why it says nerdyness is not a factor. As I expect you get bullied for it less the older people get.

    3. It's not really relevant--the rest of the article is so shallow it's like spotting a typo in a 3rd grader's term paper.

    4. I realize that you might not be interested in discussing the details of an article you so clearly dislike, but I'd be curious to know if there are specifics that you can point to in the Osterweil piece that are the centers of its shallowness. I would agree that the article does paint with a broad brush at times (often without links), but I found its use of specific films to be a grounded way of doing the history of "the nerd." I felt that the argument of the other piece was sympathetic to your own -- as both seem to be about how the construction of the nerd serves to reproduce certain types of power. This is largely economic in your case, and largely social (racial/gendered) in the case of Osterweil. Your piece references RPGs, while the other really lets video games stand in for most of "nerd culture," so I could see there are some points of departure there, but I'd still be curious to hear any specific critique on your part.

    5. Osterwell's article does nothing to address what "nerd" means--beyond briefly acknowledging different groups lay claim to the word for different reasons.
      There's no explanation of _why_ such a word should cover a whole set of easily-identifiable personality characteristics that (even though early films mostly showed them in one race and gender) apply across race and gender categories.
      What Velma and Lisa Simpson have in common with Egon is not remotely touched on--and in a piece called "what was the nerd" this is a tremendous failure.
      In addition, much of it is taken up with repeating now-cliche 2-year old analysis of video game controversies (mostly derived from other, smarter, people) without investigating any of the things the ideas around the word "nerd" can tell us about it.
      For example, both sides of that conflict were profoundly "nerdy" not just in the sense of liking video games, but in every way they expressed themselves and attacked each other.
      It also doesn't address how these methods do or don't relate to the electoral-political methods of the right-wing groups that followed.
      tl;dr It's lazy as shit.

  2. Holy shit. This is possibly the best thing you have written yet.

  3. I always found this nerd/jock divide to be very American.

    Is it really as bad as they show in the movies/media/entertainment?

    When I was young, some of our 'jocks' also played magic the gathering. And our comic book stores and gaming stores, while at times having strange people in them, are mostly filled with normal people who just like to play games or read comics.

    They do tend to look a bit more counterculture than average) but little of these 'big bang theory' stereotypes.

    1. I don't know about this "nerd/jock" thing. I do know that the least intelligent nerds online consistently behave with a consistent set of bad, stereotyped behaviors

    2. If the split is very American it is--as I said--a product of american anti-intellectualism

  4. This is one of the very few times I have to disagree with you.
    The division between nerds and intellectuals is not a problem of capitalism itself but a problem of the American culture as you said later.
    Here in Brazil, we started experiencing this kind of problem only in the last few years and mostly because only now we are importing the American-culture en masse.
    The problem you describe is spreading here since we become a globalized country with our digital revolution in the last decade.
    People 25yo and older are very aware of this because back in their teens only intellectuals existed.
    Anyone with a minimum intellectual capacity are very much annoyed with that problem because we grown up without labels in our forehead.

    1. I think that it's impossible to disentangle the influence of modern hypercapitalism from the influence of Americanism, as both have acted as carrier signals for each other.

      However: if your theory were wholly true, than the word "nerd" (and its connotations) would have existed for as long as America (ie since the 170os or 1800s)--not for as long as America's undisputed technological pre-eminence (ie since 1950).

      So you must be wrong. Either its due to forces I describe or Americanism PLUS the forces I describe.

    2. I think I have found the root of our disagreement: There is many definitions of capitalism.
      I use capitalism strictly within that basics concepts of market, private ownership, surplus production, etc.
      You use capitalism with in a concept that intersects things like consumerism, corportativism, globalization, etc.
      Using the concept of capitalism you are impling (cause neither are the only truth) I agree with the most part of your opinion.

      But my theory cannot be false because the "nerd" word should have existed as long as America.
      I need to remind you that this hypercapitalism have emerged only after the industrial revolution with its middle class and mass production/consumption.
      So it seems logical to me that "nerd" word emerged only in 1950 when the hypercapitalism is truly solidified and entrenched in the masses.

      Finally, I agree that it should be Americanism plus the forces you describe.

    3. This article was really good. I recognize this from in the STEM-field, but also among circles of people in humanities and art. The article is wonderfully motivational to people who would be traditionally seen as "smart people". I don't blame you for it, as I imagine the audience for this blog are mostly from a college background. The article mentions jocks in passing, but on the whole it makes me hungry for more from all strata of the working class. "Basic" comes to mind as a particular "stay-in-your-lane" stereotype designed to this to pretty much everyone. Interesting article. Left me hungry for more!

    4. I realize I can't edit, and that I may have replied to the wrong thing in the comment stream. Please bear with me...

    5. I think the matter here is of semantics: the distinction between "nerd" and "intellectual" in Brazil didn't seems to exist due to the way the country 'produced' supposed intellectuals.
      In previous decades, the label "intellectual" were applied to any member to the upper classes that were in college, and could show this as a badge of wisdom. As a related thing, the label "Dr." were also applied to anyone who anyone "educated" (ie, with a diploma). So, many prestigious people ended up having degrees, which they used as credential for better careers - many famous journalists having degrees in Law and Philosophy come as a result of this.
      In the middle, there was the number-crunching middle class, those who cannot get to be engineers (a privilege) but ended as accountants, clerks and public workers. They never get prestige as intellectuals, yet received the same treatment related to the 'nerd experience' - the word wasn't know, but correlates ("CDF", "Caxias") were well-know and expressed the same feeling, that book-smarts people should resign themselves to their books and numbers, being not 'fun' at all.
      And for those lower in the totem pole, back-breaking jobs, as usual.
      This changed (not too much, but in a very noticiable sense) with the changes brought by the software industry and mechanization of society. Soon, those techies could become the new elites, even the new intellectuals. At the same time, and not coincidentally, the label "nerd" come in full force, together with lots of cultural baggage.

    6. As to further clarify the point: the distinction between "nerd" and "intellectual" in Brazil, in fact, did not exist until the last decades. However, it hasn't happened due to some dastardly influence from America, but as a change to the way to interpret said words.
      "Intellectual", in the older view, is someone with a college degree, and willingness to show this and their erudition in public. If their ideas are daring, it doesn't matter. Only the credentials.
      Our 'nerd-analogues', on the other hand, were never considered to be intellectuals; they just were those no-fun guys, sometimes interested in numbers. Overlap between the two doesn't happened in the public sphere.
      Even as college degrees became more common, the perception haven't changed. But when the idea of the nerd got traction due to influence of the internet, the media circus and, maybe, globalization, the older concept started to disappear. But as the result from the competition with another social norm, not that the nerd concept came to fill a vacuum.

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  6. I am Spanish, I live in England, and I am a nerd. I work as an engineer, and though I deeply care about politics (Spanish, British and global) both in the immediate and in the philosophical sense, this entry has made me unsettled. I feel it's so true, it hurts. It makes so much sense and yet it comes as a surprise to me.

    I like to think that I am not completely fooled by capitalism, that I choose my own battles (the small ones: recycling, reutilizing, reducing; buying fair trade, supporting progressive media and NGOs), but I fear that I am exactly where it wants me: just vocal enough to placate myself but not to make a real change.

    I won't call myself a nerd anymore. I will be an intellectual.

    Thank you, Zak.

  7. "The point of 'Nerd' is to keep these two kinds of intellectuals separate"

    The split that 'Nerd' is trying to maintain is the split between producers and consumers of intellectual culture.

    Having the massively broad category 'Nerd' makes reading Black Panther comics feel similar to having a discussion on race; it makes listening to NPR feel like thinking. 'Nerd' not only keeps the Big Idea and the economic actors separate to prevent instability; it also tries to make the discussion of being an actor irrelevant.