The Age of the Nerd

Exploring the development of nerd culture


What goes through your mind when you read that word? What kinds of images are evoked? Are they at all positive?

For a lot of people, the answer is no.

Throughout most of its existence, ‘nerd’ has been thought of as a derogatory term. Merriam-Webster describes nerd as “an unstylish, unattractive, and socially inept person.” Well, to all you Battlestar Gallactica fans reading this, let me just say, frack that.

The real meaning of the term ‘nerd’ is nothing like the backwards definitions you’ll find in the dictionary or on Wikipedia. This word is so comprehensive that it’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint a single definition. According to Zachary Levi, founder of the website The Nerd Machine, “Nerds are people whose unbridled passion for something, or things, defines who they are as a person, without fear of other people’s judgement.” And as Wil Wheaton (the actor who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek) put it at the 2013 Calgary Comic Expo, “Being a nerd is not about what you love, it’s about how you love it.”

In the past couple of decades, the things that nerds tended to like were often mocked or dismissed as ‘a waste of time’ or ‘lame’. Wearing a superhero t-shirt to school was an excellent way to get thrown in the dumpster, and good grades were equated with the bottom rung of the social ladder. However, in modern society, the things that nerds have loved and excelled at throughout the years are rising in popularity and demand – even becoming mainstream. Computers are a necessity of everyday life. Gaming is something that even our grandparents do. Intelligence is sexy.
What facilitated this change? The answer: nerds.

“Nerds are people whose unbridled passion for something, or things, defines who they are as a person, without fear of other people’s judgement.”

The nerds of the 1970s and 1980s eighties pioneered the digital age. They brought us Facebook, Google, Apple, CGI, email, and Blu-ray movies. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, good marks in grade school might have meant getting your lunch money stolen, but it also meant going to top universities. Nerds rose with ease in their respective fields, becoming the leaders of the new world.

Equipped with power, first-class intellects, and imaginations stretched by Star Trek, nerds ushered in a new age, leading the world through a technological revolution. The fantastical devices used by Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker were made a reality. Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone, admitted in an interview with Mobility Ventures that he was inspired by Captain Kirk’s communicator. The bionic prosthetics now available bear a striking resemblance to the limbs of C-3PO. Science fiction has also been credited as the inspiration for tablets, holograms, and GPS, to name a few.

It even might have had a role in the invention of the internet. In his futuristic short story From The ‘London Times’ of 1904, Mark Twain wrote about a device eerily similar to the internet. Called the “telectroscope,” it was a phone-based, worldwide network used for information sharing, making the “daily doings of the globe [visible] to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.” Sound familiar?

Whether or not they were inspired by science fiction, we have nerds – mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers – to thank for the invention of the internet. They led the way from the very beginning, heading the initial military-funded program called ARPANET and, eventually, bringing us the World Wide Web, a tool that has transformed the world of information. We also have nerds to thank for Google, which revolutionized the way people searched for that information, and for Facebook, which revamped the way people shared it.

Nerds changed the world, and paved the way to a new era. Many call it the “digital age” or “the age of information,” but I think a more apt title is the “Age of the Nerd.” People have started to realize that being a nerd doesn’t mean that you’re ‘lame.’ More often, it means you’re successful. As John Green, author and YouTube vlogger, put it in one of his YouTube videos, “Saying ‘I notice you’re a nerd’ is like saying, ‘Hey, I notice that you’d rather be intelligent than stupid, that you’d rather be thoughtful than be vapid, and that you believe that there are things that matter more than the arrest record of Lindsay Lohan.’”

Equipped with power, first-class intellects, and imaginations stretched by Star Trek, nerds ushered in a new age, leading the world through a technological revolution.

In modern society, being a nerd is something to admire, and even strive toward. Being a nerd is, well, cool. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are revered as demigods. Who doesn’t like Iron Man and Batman these days? The popular TV sitcom Big Bang Theory is about nerds. Sherlock Holmes is more of a sex symbol than Brad Pitt and there are world championships for League of Legends.

Even at McGill – or especially at McGill – being a nerd has become cool. People proudly attend classes in Mass Effect t-shirts. With its epic sword fights and bottle cap throne, the Faculty of Engineering’s fantasy-themed ‘Frosh of Thrones’ was the envy of all firstmen. Intelligence is celebrated and respected here, and it’s the same throughout Montreal. With over 40,000 attendants this year, Montreal Comiccon dominated the city on the weekend of September 13. During those three days, it was rare not to see a dementor, gladiator, or Starfleet officer on the streets.

Being a nerd is something that people now wear as a badge of pride – the Age of the Nerd is upon us.

So say we all.