Day of the nerd

The bookish, spectacled guy next door is no longer the marginalised figure he once was, writes Alice-Azania Jarvis

Recently, a film about a skinny, bespectacled boy named Harry enjoyed the most profitable opening period in cinematic history. At the same time, a series of children’s books starring a group of gauche young tweens, NERDS, is expected to be one of Christmas’ big sellers. The festive must-have for adults, meanwhile, is Apple’s iPad: an invention so extremely elegant, so undoubtedly cool, that it’s easy to forget it was designed by Silicone Valley’s current Nerd-in-Chief Steve Jobs. Or at least, it would be easy were he not quite so famous, his grinning visage not quite so synonymous with success.

What of 2010 more broadly? The Social Network, a pacy thriller about Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, was the film everyone wanted to see. Off-screen, at $6.9b Zuckerberg was named the youngest billionaire on the planet, while Bill Gates, once again, was awarded the number one spot on the Forbes Rich List. Bill Gates, bespectacled, chino-clad, a man so extremely nerdy he might well have been pulled from a Hollywood casting lot and handed his job, along with a script.

Of course, if he were, that script would be 1984s college comedy Revenge of the Nerds. Because the nerds, it’s safe to say, have won.

Things weren’t always this way. In 1951, Newsweek reported on the rise of a new term in the national dialect. "Someone," the magazine observed, "who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd." By the next decade, the idea of the ‘nerd’ as a derogatory term, indicating uncoolness, was well established.

What happened in the second half of the twentieth century, though, was that these various ideas — the notions of the straight-laced killjoy, the cleverer-than-thou swot, and the unloved loner — coalesced into a single, pejorative stereotype, duly adopted and reinforced by the television sets that took up residence in every home.

Nerds, with their exaggerated ineptitude, were used as plot devices to make the other, more emotionally intelligent characters look good — and, by extension, make observers feel better about themselves.

Combined with his own more-appealing qualities — loyalty, kindliness, intelligence — the position later bagged him his fair share of popularity and romance. Either realising the empathetic potential of the nerdy underdog, or clocking the custom to be found among their real-life equivalents, authors and producers started to feature them centrestage.

At the same time, inextricably linked to this, a broader economic shift was underway. The rise of the Silicone Valley and the first dotcom boom saw nerds, long preoccupied with the intricacies of maths and computer science, blossom from the unpopular kids in school to serious financial power players.

When Bill Gates became the world’s richest man in 1995, nerds finally had their own hero to whom they could aspire. According to columnist Mikki Halpin, "There was a real feeling that the geeks were the future." What this added up to was a burgeoning culture of nerdism as a lifestyle choice. A Nerd Pride movement emerged, spearheaded by Gerald Sussman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As the nerd community enjoyed a cultural blossoming, so the outside world sat up and took interest. When JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books became a literary sensation in the late 1990s, the fantasy genre — hitherto a characteristically nerdy corner of publishing — went mainstream. "There was a huge explosion of interest," reflects Andy Sawyer, science fiction librarian at Liverpool University. "Suddenly, it was OK for younger people, girls, and so on to take an interest." Buffy the Vampire Slayer continued the trend on television, while The X-Files became a phenomenon on both the small and big screens. With the dawn of the new millennium — and the threat of the Y2K bug — geeks only assumed greater prominence. After all, without their expertise in reconfiguring our computers, we were in danger of watching aeroplanes fall from the sky.

Then, in 2003, millions of women around the world fell head over heels for one particular man — or, rather, one particular character: Seth Cohen, star of the glossy teen mega-drama The OC. Created as an awkward, comic book-loving antidote to the series’ uber-hunk Ryan, Cohen, with his diamond-print tank-tops, love of video games and comprehensive comic book collection, rapidly became the main event. He was geek chic personified.

Of course, if the nerd of late twentieth century imagination — the bookish, awkward caricature — is no longer the marginalised figure he once was, neither is he, necessarily, the guy everyone wants to be.

Just because Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are international celebrities, just because Mark Zuckerberg is the most popular man on the planet, it doesn’t mean that the everyday lot of the classroom dork is suddenly rosy.

— By arrangement with The Independent