Why nerd culture must die

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My first girlfriend was someone I met through a MUD, and I had to fly 7,000 miles to see her in person. I read a paper version of the Jargon File at 15 and it became my bible. Just reading its descriptions of the internet I knew it was world-changing, even before the web, and as soon as I could I snuck into the local university computer labs with a borrowed account to experience the wonder of Usenet, FTP, and Gopher. I chose my college because Turing had once taught there, and the designer of the ARM chip would be one of my lecturers. My first job out of college was helping port the original Diablo to the first Playstation, and I spent five years writing games. I’ve dived deep into GPU programming. I’ve worked for almost two decades at both big tech companies and startups. I’ve spent countless hours writing about coding for the pure love of it. I’m a grown man who still plays Dungeons and Dragons!

My point is that if anyone can claim to be a nerd, it’s me. As a lonely teenager growing up in the English countryside, reading the Portrait of J. Random Hacker gave me a wonderful jolt of excitement and recognition. I’d never met anyone like that, but knowing that there were others out there like me gave me hope. As I went through college I started to discover a few more people who took a perverse pride in being geeks, but it was still rare and very much outside mainstream culture. Nobody really understood why I took a poorly-paid job in game programming after college instead of joining a bank, and most people’s eyes would glaze over when I mentioned I worked in computers. Over the years I gradually built a group of friends who shared the same interests in sci-fi, comics, games, and computers. It was nerd culture that brought us together, and their support was life-saving, but they were hard to find, and we were still way outside the cultural mainstream.

Over the last decade, that’s changed. Comic book adaptations are the safest bet in Hollywood. Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have made fantasy something anyone can enjoy without embarrassment. Perhaps most importantly, nerds now have money, power, and status. The biggest, fastest-growing companies in the world are run and staffed by us, and mainstream culture has shifted from mocking us to respect. Startups are sexy. We’ve won.

And that’s where the problem lies. We’re still behaving like the rebel alliance, but now we’re the Empire. We got where we are by ignoring outsiders and believing in ourselves even when nobody else would. The decades have proved that our way was largely right and the critics were wrong, so our habit of not listening has become deeply entrenched. It even became a bit of a bonding ritual to attack critics of the culture because they usually didn’t understand what we were doing beyond a surface level. It didn’t used to matter because nobody except a handful of forum readers would see the rants. The same reflex becomes a massive problem now that nerds wield real power. GamerGate made me ashamed to be a gamer, but the scary thing is that the underlying behavior of attacking critics felt like something I’d always seen in our culture, and tolerated. It only shocked me when it was scaled up so massively into rape and death threats, and I saw mainstream corporations like Intel folding in the face of the pressure we can bring to bear.

That’s why Marc Andreessen’s comment that Silicon Valley is nerd culture, and nerds are bro’s natural enemies felt so wrong. Sure, we used to be picked on or ignored by the bro’s, but that was when we had no money or power. Now we have status, bro’s are happy to treat us as buddies instead of victims, to the point that we’re unlikely to think of them as bro’s. I’ve pitched most VC firms in the Valley at one time or another, and a lot of the partners come from business or finance backgrounds. There are nerds in there too of course, and they do control the culture, but they also get along perfectly well with the preppy MBAs. The same holds true across the whole tech industry – they might have tried to steal our lunch money twenty years ago, but now they’re quite happy running biz-dev while we do the engineering.

One of the things I love about nerd culture is how much it values evidence and checking facts. When I’m optimizing code, my intuition about which parts are slowest is often wildly wrong, so I’ve learned the hard way that I have to profile the hell out of it before I try to fix anything. It’s a core skill for dealing with computers, our gut feelings often don’t work in such an alien realm, so skepticism becomes a habit. What has surprised me is how we leave that habit behind when confronted with evidence about ourselves. Pretty much every statistic we can track has shown fewer women getting computer science degrees and working as engineers compared to the 80’s. It’s a basic fact that we’re an incredibly imbalanced industry in all sorts of ways, from race to class and gender, and we’re getting worse.

I’m not claiming to know the answers, but you don’t have to be a social justice warrior to notice something is going very wrong somewhere. Even the Jargon File acknowledged, to paraphrase, that hackers routinely behave like assholes. Is it a crazy leap to imagine that this deeply-rooted tolerance of terrible behavior might drive people away?

When I look around, I see the culture we’ve built turning from a liberating revolution into a repressive incumbency. We’ve built magical devices, but we don’t care enough about protecting ordinary people from harm when they use them. We don’t care that a lot of the children out there with the potential to become amazing hackers are driven away at every stage in the larval process. We don’t care about the people who lose out when we disrupt the world, just the winners (who tend to look a lot like us).

I’d always hoped we were more virtuous than the mainstream, but it turns out we just didn’t have enough power to cause much harm. Our ingrained sense of victimization has become a perverse justification for bullying. That’s why I’m calling time on nerd culture. It’s done wonderful things, but these days it’s like a crawling horror of a legacy codebase so riddled with problems the only rational decision is to deprecate it and build something better.

What would something better look like? The Maker movement gives me hope, because including all the kids we’re missing is built in from the start. Whatever the future becomes, the bottom line is we need to value being a decent human being a hell of a lot more than we do now. Our toleration of asshole behavior must end, and it’s such an integral part of nerd culture that nuking the entire thing from orbit is the only way to be sure.

181 responses

    • Heh, haven’t found a D&D game since the mid-80’s. :/
      Starting today, I’d have to start anew.
      That entire military career thing got in the way. Granted, there is a D&D group or seven all over the military, but my duties interfered with such things.
      That said, I retired and am back home.
      Working in IT and doing reasonably well.

      As for “nerds doing well”, that is relative. What is your voice in government? From my seat, it’s the same as back when you were a minor child.
      So, now is the time to get the collective voices heard “on high”, lest you continue to be “the nerd”, who gets zero overtime, even if working 160 hours a week.
      Yeah, it *is* getting that bad in the law making department.

    • You can’t solve a problem by ignoring it and hoping it goes away all by itself. Especially when it’s one as ingrained in our culture as the double-whammy of casual misogyny and casual racism. As long as it remains undiscussed and unchallenged, it will remain unchanged.

      The only problem that will go away if you ignore it is an alligator. Because eventually.. the alligator won’t be hungry any more.

  1. While there are some high profile “nerds” who have indeed “won” in recent years, the rest of us non-lottery-winning code-writing DnD-playing suckers have to slog along in an increasingly hostile and volatile work environment.

    The Wall-Street business “bros” are still emphatically on top, and they do like it when we forget that fact because we get slightly less antagonistic and revolutionary and get back to making them money.

  2. Why does the overall distribution of race and gender in the tech industry have to reflect the overall distribution in the general population?
    It should reflect the distribution of the people with technical interest and skill.
    Why are there no complaints that most dry cleaning services in big cities owned by asians or people from the Middle East? Or that most gardeners and lawn care services are owned by Mexicans, especially in SV?
    These people complaining just want in because of the money, and if the software industry suffered a downturn and salaries went down, I would expect them to stop trying to get into tech companies and do the same to the next up and coming industry.

    • Yeah. Hi. In 1982 my dad bought a $2,000 Leading Edge 8088, and thus began my full immersion in computers.

      Obviously, this isn’t an option in a country where the average total household wealth of black people and self-identifying hispanic people is well under $10,000. If you are really interested in the question you ask, and it is not just rhetorical, start by googling the “technology and race gap.”

      I’m not sure why you would willingly compare minimum wage per diem heavy labor contract work to computer science jobs. Do you think mowing lawns for $40 a day is on par, job and life security-wise, with a job that comes with a computer science degree?

    • Two things: First, your analogy is so bad that it reveals you don’t understand the software field as well as you think you do. The software industry creates products that are used by others outside the field. If everyone in the software industry thinks alike, then we will continue to build products that suck. This follows from the fact that we design and build software based on how WE think it will be used, which is often vastly different from how OTHERS actually use it. Increasing the diversity of viewpoints within the software design process reduces the likelihood of building crappy, unusable software.

      Second, your comment is both racist and sexist. Many of “those people” ARE very interested in technology and very skillful, but bias and hostile culture pushes those VERY qualified individuals out of the field. Most people do not want to spend their working years surrounded by people that are repeatedly belittling them, ignoring their points, and otherwise acting like sophomoric jerks. Perhaps you just don’t see this because your ego has not allowed you to see that some of your female and underrepresented minority peers are actually BETTER than you and do not think it is worth their time and effort to talk to you.

    • “Why does the overall distribution of race and gender in the tech industry have to reflect the overall distribution in the general population?

      Uhm, a little thing called democracy?

      I’d always hoped we were more virtuous than the mainstream, but it turns out we just didn’t have enough power to cause much harm.”

      My sister is/was a nerd and I always (back in 80s when it all began) found her crowd to be LESS compassionate, virtuous, giving, etc. I always thought that uncaring quality (check out sticom characterizations of nerds as unfeeling androids) was a great part of what made them “nerds”. Not surprised at their oppressive nature, disappointed but not surprised.

    • Just to check, you’re saying that people who want good jobs, that pay well, have good benefits and might actually allow them to get ahead shouldn’t be encouraged to pursue those? And that the fact that people don’t want jobs that involve strenuous physical labor, exposure to health hazards and potentially toxic chemicals proves it? I’m terribly sorry, but perhaps you’ve failed to fully grasp the nature of the society you’re living in, the one that idealizes the “American Dream” (however faulty it may be).

      The overall distribution of race and gender doesn’t HAVE to reflect anything. Having said that, assuming that white guys who only associate with other white guys understand the needs/wants of, oh, say the other 70-odd percent of the population is, frankly, somewhere between really bad business sense and downright foolish. If you like that oh so well paying job, letting some others in might be the way to keep it.

  3. This is an interesting perspective. I suppose it just goes to show that people are really not all that different from one another.
    Very much enjoyed this article!

  4. I’m generally disappointed by bloggers who make “why $THING must get in line with $MY_DEFINITION_OF_RECTITUDE” their concept of insightful writing, especially when it’s as nakedly purgative. People are different than you and have their own values, and the people you find the most unlike yourself generally have more to teach you than the ones you eat lunch with regularly.

    Your having been somewhere at a formative point in history confers no authority upon you. For the record, I’m older than you are but strive not to use it as a fulcrum to convince others of my way of thinking because one, it’s intensely pretentious and two, it rarely works. Either your ideas have merit or they don’t.

    Using statistics to derive or infer causes is very poor logic, ironically placed smack dab in the middle of a paragraph pointing out the disconnect between analytical thinking in technology versus our own lives. There are myriad causes for a lack of diversity in any given workplace, but a knee-jerk approach that there must be a central, malicious cause such as discrimination or micro-aggressions or the audacity to stand up while urinating is just as illogical without something more than numbers to back it up.

    We *should* ask ourselves what’s going on here, and why. Where it’s unnecessary to be a prick, it behooves us to try. But to so comfortably pen a reductionist article which exists to blame a class of people is the sort of thing that contradicts the principles a liberal arts education exists to instill.

  5. Since when did being a “Geek” became a thing like being gay or dyslexic. People don’t look at Geeks anyway different, for all I know people don’t even care if someone is geek(if anything they respect more for it).

  6. Every culture has it’s fair share of assholes and nerd culture is no exception. And usually it’s the assholes who are the loudest part of the community. That does not mean that they are the majority. And it also does not mean that nerd culture as a whole has to die.

    Your over-generalization of our culture and your poorly reflected problem solving approach (as in: one branch of the tree is rotten, so the whole tree has to be cut down) belies the critical thinking you seem so proud of.

  7. A well written article, and I do not see any over generalizations that the other comments are talking about.

    Being any type of hardcore nerd was extremely stigmatized even in my childhood, the turn of the century. Talking about playing games, and giving countless presentations on the pros and cons of gaming competitively to classes would be met with yawns, confusion and at times anger. Anger that some individual would decide to ‘throw away’ his future to play ‘mindless games.’

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  13. I like how he posted an article about someone getting hacked that had nothing to do with gamergate. Honestly what isn’t gamergate being blamed for now? If anything GG has proved why all this is bullshit. Nerd culture is “mainstream” in the same way that white girls wearing bindies are hindu. Elements from nerd culture are being appropriated into the mainstream but the people who were once shamed for being nerds continue to be derided and mocked. Just as one predominant anti-gger explicitly said that gamergate was evidence that nerds should continue to be shamed. Essentially now instead of jocks going after nerds it’s liberal yuppies.

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  15. Nerds to me, have low self esteem,why from a lot of reasons that with patients and good family support system it can be helped,even older people have these problems,n you have different kind of nerds

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  21. The irony here is that while the author is saying we need to stop telling other people how to do things, he is telling us to do what he says.

    I disagree with the premise of the article anyway. Nerds haven’t really gained respect, but they are now seen as useful and/or a way to make money. Valuing people based on how much $$$ they are worth is only winning if you are playing /their/ game.

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  25. This is simple hypocrisy, you spit on nerd/gamer culture for its attitude, while never calling out the opponents for acting the exact same way. They have harassed, doxed, threatened people, yet none of you members of the Thought Police feel the need to mention it. Simply unacceptable, specially coming from people who consider themselves morally superiors.

    Your arguments are all one sided and do not present a picture that is anywhere close to reality. A reality where a minority in both side is acting like a bunch of assholes (much like the real world really), we have extensive proof and history from both sides of unacceptable behaviour. Starting with the developer who started all this, who harassed an innocent community, publicly called for doxing, attacked a charitable cause that was working on getting women interested in tech, and the list goes on. And I will say it, none of that justified the witch hunt that followed, but please do not pretend the acts of a minority reflect that of the majority.

    As a long time nerd, I will tell you what my problem is: You people have decide that your are the Thought Police and your views are the only one acceptable. That is not how the real world works, that is not how democracy or freedom of speech works. I respect your opinions and views, respect mine, that’s all I want out of all this mess, and that’s all you people should strive for if you were as morally important as you pretend to be.

    If you were actually interested in improving the situation you would stop being aggressors, which is all you are. Constantly insulting a broad range of people, never engaging in discussion, it’s just constant attacks and adding fuel to the fire.

    So why wonder why there is animosity when all your acts do is create it?

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  27. Kind of insulted by your behavior. Sounds like money changed you a LOT and not for the better. All that has changed is just that- money. And in our horrible culture money is power. You’re not suddenly “cool” just because you have the financial advantage.

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  31. I used to play D&D, teach assembler on early 90s, came through pascal, c, c++, …
    Ok I had never a lot of friends and my real friends came also from nerd computer family
    Everything changed in years and now I facing my own web project / startup.
    I’m searching for colleagues and for smart people. Who I search for? Nerds! Same people as I used to be. Why? Because I need profi-guys which are able invest time in my project.
    Nerds and non-nerds are same expensive. My statement: I love nerds!

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  33. Well put Pete,

    You allude to the likeliness that nerdish sociopathy may be a contributing factor to the massive labor, gender, and, commercial problem that may be attributed to isolated detachment from this demographic. There is a general written pass to be an asshole in work and in life for nerds, it seems. Many techies didn’t seem to develop fundamental etiquette and people skills in their youth and when you give them too much power, it might lead to some problems. Your article seems to brush along that point.

    I’m glad to have found this article and I am glad there are techies (or “nerds”) out there who are perceptive and insightful like you.

    Bad move bro: it’s “Rebel Alliance”, not “rebel alliance”! How dare you, you rebel scum!!!!🙂

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  36. Stopped reading at “GamerGate made me ashamed to be a gamer”. Apparently you’re one of those weak conformists buying into the poisonous femitheist narrative to garner popularity and success.

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  38. There is nothing wrong with being nerdy
    I am fed up with the new type of radical bully who decides that anyone who is proud to be a nerd deserves to be bullied.
    I am fed up with these bullying bigots who have started campaigning openly in their hatred of nerds or dorks, or dweebs or whatever other word they want to use, for socially awkward people who have decided to take pride in their nerdiness.
    At school nerds are often bullied for being nerdy. So then the victims strike back by trying to make it cool to be a nerd. Then the bullies strike back again to say oh how dare you be proud to be a nerd. Well what do they want us to do kill ourselves, live in a constant state of shame, and then at the same time kill ourselves. Oh yeah I forgot that is what the psychopathic maggots want us to do.
    The whole systematic ideology of these bullies is pure cold blooded evil, taking a feeling of inverted snobbery and sense of superiority toward good decent people for being socially awkward. They hate nerdy people, they bullied them at school, they ostracise and bully them as adults and then when the victims get one iota of success the ruthless relentless remorseless bullies feel anger at their victims state of happiness.
    Let me point out a few facts
    1. You are not being new or revolutionary in deciding to bully and hate nerds. You are just a stereotypical bully, who never reformed.
    2. No matter what angle you find to attack from it does not alter you are just a nasty evil bully who is looking for people to bully for your sadistic warped creepy pleasure.
    3. You will not be happy until every nerd is dead, because you a psychopathic creep. You want people to die, what is the difference between you and every other murderer? You have some deep seated emotional empathical retardatenness, that makes you incapable of ever being good.
    4. I am going to say something that will in your contradictory psychopathic logic upset you. I hate you back. I have learned to hate you as much as you hate me. And I will take pleasure in your misery as you decided to take pleasure in my misery. I take pleasure in the defeats you suffer as a bully, as you take pleasure in my misery. You are not normal. You are the weirdo. For deciding that the only way you can show your normality is by picking on people.
    What I say to people who supporting bullying nerds is, I cannot stop being nerdy I have aspergers which makes me nerdy. I lack social skills. I try my best and sometimes bullies like you break me down. You win sometimes but I have defeated maggots like you in the past and that gives me strength.

    No doubt you will play to crowd and try to work out some other insult. I don’t care cause I’m not listening to you maggot.
    Always choosing easy targets,. If you are so brave take on one of your own psychopathic bullies. But you won’t because they are the creeps you suck up to.

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  40. Yeah so this reply is late to the game, guess what, that’s cool. I’m a tell y’all a little story.
    Back in the day, say ’93, Me and mine was getting down, we was deep, we be seeking all kinds of knowledge, mainly truth. In a little colonial outpost Antipodean in it’s global position. Now, I don’t like to embellish much, but truth is, we knew score.
    One evening, we eventuated our physical persons unto a gathering, held in a public bar the likes one came upon back then… it was bare, dull and square. We found ourselves amidst a roiling mass of overtly smart folks, the rectangular aspect of the quotidian trough soon became a nightmarish cell.
    We were surrounded. BY NERDS AND GEEKS.
    Not a single sinusoid was free of them. Of all ages, but of one age at once. The scene was cataclysmic. The hordes closed in.
    Here was us. COOL PEOPLE.
    INFRINGED UPON BY A MOB OF NERDS AND GEEKS.
    I swear to you, I have been some places, seen some folks and endured some impossible hardships, but that night, I knew the world was doomed.
    Such a concentrated mass of obdurate blindness, obnoxicity (yes you got it), gluttonous in their inelegance (so bland and squat in their dull uniforms), so pretentious in their demands to be heard, they wanted to be noticed, but so much more than that.
    They did not want to see others.
    We were not visible.
    By any means, at the time, we were visible in the most important way, for we were ALIVE.
    WE REAKED OF OUR ALIVENESS.
    WE TERRIFIED THEM.
    SO,
    THEY PRETENDED WE WERE DEAD.

    I felt I could barely breathe, for I was no wallflower, no intellectual sap, no wastoid.

    If at the time I had known what I now do, or been conscious of it, I would have set that place on fire and made certain every last one of those weaklings had roasted.

    A blot on humanity they were, as we now can plainly see.

  41. Look around you dude. Nerds haven’t won anything. The guys who manage those game projects (and I work in the industry) aren’t nerds, the marketing department aren’t nerds, the HR department aren’t nerds, the guys who hold the shares and unlock the financing aren’t nerds. Even Steve Jobs wasn’t a nerds. Just because a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg may be one of the richest men in the world doesn’t mean diddly when you consider the vast majority of the rest of the people who became rich were the financial and business guys.

    Nerds are and have always been the worker bees. The reason why women don’t work in the industry is because it’s too hard and the financial reward isn’t worth it. The reward that makes it worthwhile is intangible and only becomes worth it if you are a nerd. Some women are nerds but not nearly as many as men.

    As for the culture. It should change but not to make it more appealing to women or some other SJW reason. It should change simply just because it sucks.

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