Nerdom is great. . . but at what cost?
This essay was a great read, and captured many of the feelings I've had myself as an intellectual nerd. I could simplify and call it an immaturity problem, because to an extent, it is. The extension of adolescence through early and well into middle adulthood has made it easier I think, to remain in the realms of the fantastic, to become embroiled in the tribal politics of arguing over this character or that plot line, whereas before, people would graduate to more high brow pursuits. There are no constraints requiring people to genuinely grow up, and if tragedy strikes, it is easier to resort to the realms of adolescent fantasy than contend with the brutality of adulthood. Their character formation and ability to reason and draw from experience is nascent at best.
As such, I've often noted how, even above-average people can tell you ad-nauseum about Taylor Swift and the deep meaning behind her lyrics, endless hours of conversation and thought dedicated to knowing every little nuance about characters in their favorite franchise, and yet -- basic grade school knowledge about weather, geology, history, literature -- it's all replaced with candy-coated fantasy. And they can't contend intellectually or conversationally on topics outside of those very niche fields. It's like talking to philosophy majors who have stayed confined to their one corner of the library, who stare dumbfounded at you when you talk about anything outside of that limited shelf.
Take your LOTR example. I have gotten in knock-down drag-out arguments with men and women who, despite their passionate love for the story, know nothing of Tolkien's life, and at worst, are totally dismissive of how much his love for his Catholic faith infused many elements of the world, without it being a direct parallel (Lembas = the Holy Eucharist, Galadriel as inspired by the Virgin Mary). It is a paltry intellectualism and poor facsimile of a well-formed intellectual life.
For so many adults, there is little guidance to an intellectual formation, as well as how the spiritual and physical formations play into one another as well toward being a fully, well-rounded person. Everything just comes down to dilution and irrelevance, to be commercialized and exploited, ad-infinitum.
Feels like it also might have something to do with the very "heady" and disembodied nature of the nerd. I'm reminded of SBF's insane thoughts on Shakespeare.
Their very sterile outlook earns them status in "logical" circles, but they have a disconnected, impoverished, and child-like yearning for myth. Hence, you have man-babies worshiping Luke Skywalker (Christ) and having a tantrum when their savior is sacrilege'd.
Your essay makes me think about the evolution of Jazz — first, its evolution out of more popular forms to become a high art enjoyed by a subculture (bebop in Harlem); then its spread to a broader spectrum of intellectuals (whites in America, then Europe and Asia); then its later popular versions (things like Dave Brubeck, muzak, etc.); then its return to more esoteric roots.
That's a simplification, but the broader pattern is a swing back and forth between esoteric and exoteric. Amazing things come from concentration into an esoteric culture (GRRM's books are a great example), which then expands outwards and cools down (think about how JRRT's characters are flattened and made into comic relief in the films). When this process goes on long enough, interest dies out, the form contracts back into the esoteric core, and the process repeats.
I don't see the CGI fests as surviving much longer; they feel like a hangover from the Joss Whedon era. They remind me of the seriously violent "action" movies from the 1980s — perhaps some people will still consume them, in the same way that some people will continue to consume horror movie franchises, but if I were to predict the next five years, I'd say far fewer Marvel-style films, and probably no high fantasy.
I don't remember where I read that, but someone wrote once that the kind of person prone to become obsessed with a niche interest — so, nerds — would, in the past, collect and classify butterflies or something, thereby advancing knowledge; while the same kind of person today is more likely to spend their free time recording every detail from a video game in a specialized wiki instead. (My first thought upon seeing the butterfly illustration was that is was reference to this.)
I'm not sure if that's true, but if so we might reasonably be worried that nerdom becoming a cultural force of its own, with a large market of video games and entertainment franchises to satisfy it, is diverting some of humanity's capabilities towards pointless ends. Maybe that's fine, but I do have a small worry that we're wasting some of our potential, which dovetails nicely with your point on intellectualism.
I actually disagree with this thesis: Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and Marvel comics were never nerdy. Reading was. (As evidenced by the fact then when all three stories became movies they were suddenly mainstream.)
There are still nerdy intellectuals reading things no one else is, but that’s because no one else reads. It’s the widespread adoption of video that is bringing them into the mainstream (not tech CEOs making nerdom cool).
This post reminded me of a great blog post from 2020 titled "Millennials, the Dying Children":
"It's sad to watch my generation collapse into nihilism and fear as our bodies begin the process of dying. The men become bugmen, living to consume, filling shelf after shelf with toys their adult brains can't find amusement in, because they know of nothing else to do. The women are in a panic, desperately trying to hold onto their evaporating youth, trying to prove to themselves that a woman can be just as sexy and alluring at 35 as she could at 23. There's a lot of rage at the Boomers, but it's aimless and uninformed….
Boomers have a perpetual teenage mentality that their parents never understood, and they raised us to be the eternal teenagers they didn't get to be. When you're 17, the idea of just buying cool stuff, having consequence-free sex, and binge-consuming media for the rest of your life sounds fantastic. You do not understand that when you are 40, you will not want that any more. There are tons of guys my age and younger who wear Star Wars T-shirts, collect Marvel [toys], and have gotten vasectomies, and they have no idea why they're so miserable. There are women my age who just broke up with another live-in boyfriend of three years and have no children. So here we are, and we're falling apart....
For my generation, there is not really a path back out. All the social institutions of this country have been detonated in the quest for money and self, or via the hysterical condemnation of every kind of organic social relation as "sexist" or "racist." In the cities, nobody knows anybody. Professional associations and social clubs are borderline nonexistent. Nobody knows or cares about anyone, and nobody knows how to start. It's so sick and twisted that my generation uses the word "community" to refer to people who buy the same consumer products, like going to see a movie means you're part of the "Star Wars community." Even churches have been consolidated into massive theme parks where anonymous masses of people go to be entertained; centuries-old congregations have shuttered as the people moved to the megaplex. Brain-dead "conservative" pundits can only worry our declining birth rate in terms of funding entitlements or GDP; hardly anyone will come right out and say a society with low fertility is fundamentally sick and disordered.
Millennials need to accept that the values inculcated in us were a load of horse crap. I don't see that happening, as we're mostly are upset that we can't live the idyllic lives of self-indulgence the Boomers promised us. Even suggesting that divorce should be harder, marriage should be younger, and women were built to be mothers, not office drones, causes the average Millennial to dissolve into hysterical outrage. We're the generation that thinks having a country is racist and the most important thing about space exploration is making sure hijab-clad Muslims are a part of it. So we're probably not going to snap out of it. We'll be buried in Batman coffins, surrounded by our Xbox games. Maybe whoever buries us will finally discard the morality of the Boomers."
This fits with something I’ve been turning over in my head awhile, which is our culture’s deepening obsession with niche achievement. It’s not enough to have a mild enthusiasm for a hobby, it seems. If you like running, you need to run 10ks and marathons; if you like baseball, you need to get deep into the different calculations for defensive WAR (talk about nerd culture). Obsessiveness is increasingly lauded and rewarded; casual enjoyment is derided.
It’s not just that previously nerdy things are cool, it’s that the obsessive fixation that typifies nerdiness is now rewarded in every form.
I think there are a lot more factors at work than top-down tastemaking, though you’re right to highlight. But there’s also the late capitalist strategies of creating demand and the unhealthy fixation on childhood attainment is also at play, where kids are encouraged to fixate on a certain pursuit. I’m not sure how they all relate to each other, but I think you’re absolutely right that a larger cultural shift has occurred.
Related cultural development around turn-of-century: The shift from nerds-as-sympathetic-underdogs to nerds-as-incumbent-bullies.
For example: This scene in Legally Blonde (2001). https://youtu.be/PlOx9obQ2yg?t=43
Here the nerds are the snobs, Elle is the sympathetic underdog normie.
Even as far as the late 90s movies, the hot blonde would be the unattainable snobbish bully (and the nerd would be the underdog).
I think the truth is a combination of your theory and the FT theory. I know a lot of kids who eschew nerd culture, some who have never seen a Marvel movie, and I’m interested in seeing where that goes. They look at the adults around them (pushing 50 and still dressing like an Anime fairy every day?) and they are disgusted in to a degree that only the very young can attain.
An intriguing thesis, but in my estimation it is more the prevalence of ideology, largely thanks to technology, that is siphoning the nerds off before they can blossom into independent thinkers.
Something that felt to me like a huge milestone in the mimetic transition I remember is the term "brogrammer" around ten years ago. It was basically a signal that enough guys who would have been finance jocks in past years were opting instead to become software engineers.
I'd say one of the reasons is simply that once the *initial* hurdle of "nerds are the most uncool things there is" was passed, it was soon discovered that many nerd properties have highly marketable qualities in themselves. LotR and GoT are basically historical drama without need to observe actual history and with extras - historical drama was already popular. Superhero stuff - "capeshit" has certain soap opera qualities in the amount of characters one is able to track and their simplistic relationship. A lot of nerd stuff allows for wowing and amazing people with copious special effects. And so on.
I remember reading westeros.org when GoT had just been announced, and the median ASoIaF reader seemed to be convinced that it was going to flop, be ended after one season since no-one would watch it, and even if it became popular it would for sure not follow the books at all, the incest subplot and all things like that would be left out, characters cut etc.
I do not like that D&D is mainstream.
I think you are missing an important point with the last 5 years of nerd culture output: it is largely losing money. The Marvel movies have been flops, Star Wars might be dead, Star Trek died, no one cares about Rings of Power.
The distinction seems to be what people are nerdy about. I suspect the early Marvel movies did well because the nerds writing them were nerds who cared about comics and the characters and settings. They know it front to back, what worked and what didn't.
Now, Marvel movies are written by people nerdy about leftist culture and don't care about the characters and settings, and in fact rather seem to hate them and wish to replace them with their own strange creations.
Early Marvel had a built in, ready made audience of character fans; later Marvel has a built in audience of... I don't know the term for them, but the sort of people who really care that a character has an unusual sexual preference or skin color but don't really care about character or story. That seems to be a really small subset of nerds, while the comic book nerds have largely abandoned the movies, and Tolkien nerds are just not having any of the Rings of Power nonsense.
So the nerds are the popular ones and the intellectuals are the underdogs now. We are in some type of inverse matrix reality. Or is it the liminal space? 😂 😂😂 This was a great article by the way. I really enjoyed it! I always appreciate it when gifted writers help me glimpse the world in a new way.
Nerd culture is also murdering genuine art appreciation. Classical music concerts, art exhibitions, poetry nights, classical dance nights rarely have many people under the age of 50. Unless someone is born prewired for being an artist (and writing symphonies at the age of 6), a few things probably need to happen for someone to develop the appreciation of art. Perhaps, one has to acquire some sort of a life wisdom that (sometimes) comes with maturity. Also, one might need to live long enough to experience a few personal tragedies (or maybe one big one). Perhaps, one has to spend enough time introspecting, thinking about life (and death), and physically (rather than virtually) interacting with other people. Old people have a big advantage here. When they were young, they did not have 24/7 social media, doom scrolling, texting, binge watching, zoom commuting, compulsive online shopping, etc etc. Who has time or desire for art appreciation now...