Why nerd culture must die


Photo by Attila Acs

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.

184 responses

  1. Three comments:

    1) Well written, and I agree. As the father of two girls I’m horrified by the biases in tech. And for all of you that say otherwise, google “institutional bias” and realize that tech is just another institution.

    2) The shiny new blog tells me you’re no longer in startup land 😉

    3) Why u no like WAIS?

  2. Hear, hear.

    I am sorry I don’t really have much more to say but I’ve seen ‘culture’ change so swiftly from times where it was damn hard to find anyone even remotely interested in the weird stuff you yourself appreciated to ‘I can find **** load of people for all sort of **** with an app’ that the transitional stage doesn’t feel like a transition but a club over the head, repeatedly, and with ever more enjoyment for the people holding clubs.

    I hope we’ll come out better in the end but I’m not really an optimist at heart. Thanks for the post, truly appreciated.

  3. I’m taking my first CS course this semester and I have to say the community at Berkeley is just absolutely awesome. Most of the people I have encountered are happy to help a newbie out and are also very encouraging. I couldn’t believe how welcoming the department was for an outsider econ major.

    This has made me very optimistic about the future of the nerd culture you describe in your post. I think that if programs everywhere can provide such a rich and welcoming experience it can have a profound impact on how people think and act in the future.

    Shout out to the CS department at UC Berkeley, you guys are awesome!

  4. Nerds or not I think most minority groups tend to get pretty aggressive when they become the majority. At first I thought having access to the internet would make people more aware of others but it seems the filter bubble is causing the opposite – everyone just searches and consumers whatever validates their viewpoints.

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  6. Growing up in this culture it’s been hard to see it grow the way it has. Even outside the rampant sexism and misogyny that goes on, it’s become more and more about establishing one’s “nerd cred” over other people, destroying the inclusiveness that once defined its relevance.

    We used to fight over things like “Star Trek vs. Star Wars” and “Batman vs. Superman,” but what were once friendly jabs have turned more vicious. Today you can’t be a real fan of Tolkien if you adore the Peter Jackson movies but haven’t read the books, and you aren’t a “gamer” if all you do is play Call of Duty and Candy Crush. It extends to the professional world where you have “nerds who code” and basically everyone else that either works in general IT or went into something completely different like Philosophy or English (God forbid they break the mold). It confuses me to no end when I see someone (especially females) with an interest in something like Dr. Who or web development run into a wall of people who only want to establish how much more they know about a topic than this newcomer and question their credentials. I agree, we’ve completely lost sight of why we got involved in all these things in the first place.

  7. If nerds were mistreated/ostracised/had it tough in the past, I think the best response now is to help people who are currently being mistreated/ostracised/having it tough. If being a nerd seemed so tough, try being non-white in a white society, or a woman in just about any modern society.

  8. Thank you Pete for this article.

    As a musician/composer heavily reliant on copyright as a means of at least some form of power in relationship to my clients (tv production companies and tv stations mostly) and as a tech lover (since my days on the C64 who never really went into science, coding or engineering because music was the bigger love for me) for the past 10 years I’ve experienced the “wrath of the internet” first hand and in painful personal attacks. And what hurts most was, that I felt the dreams painted by the geeks where my dreams (open culture, removing the middle men, direct access) but then the geeks started to actively destroy my professional field (the one that lets me provide for my family) and at the same time ignored the writings on the wall (the steady decline in revenue and the loss of the middle class musician/composer due to piracy).

    There was mockery, victim blaming, talk of a “new business model” that nobody really defined. Not even the really smart people in tech managed to come up with a “new model” that actually works for the lower and middle class musicians. For them, the best solution is still to sell an album (digital or physical) for roughly ten bucks.

    Throughout those last 10 years the “ignoring outsiders and believing in ourselves” that I deeply admire and that I feel I`m a part of in my field has built up such a high barrier between otherwise like minded people (nerds and musicians are always visionaries, they recognize things that most people don’t). Even though I have built up a strong resistance for it, it still hurts the sensitive side in me.

    Let us work on bridging that gap.


    • Ginger Wildheart was an arsehole. He probably still is. But he turned the music industry on its head and went to his fans to provide his income. His story is quite inspirational.

      • The business of music is much wider than singer-songwriters, so your comment really isn`t universally applicable.

        My point was how we (musicians, composers, music industry but also every other creative industry reliant on copyright) were treated during the past 15 years, because we had to (and still do) go through quite the abuse, personal attacks, smokescreen discussions and astroturf lobbying.

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  10. This is something that clicked instantly the way I read it. There was a time when I used to think that the ostracization of nerds was something that they had to face only in high school, but the rebellious attitude becomes so deeply etched in their behaviour that even when they step out of school into the world of adults, they still find it hard to believe that they wont have to face that ostracisation. Moulding themselves in a way to defend themselves from moronic high school bullies makes them life long rebels, although the real world out there appreciates and applauds their talent a lot.

  11. I can only speak about the software development culture in California, because that is my experience.

    When I first started programming professionally when I was 18 years old back in Oklahoma, half the programmers I worked with where women. I moved to California in 1992, and have continued programming and even managed programmers all that time,spending a lot of that time working for major research universities with diverse student populations. Here’s the kicker: I haven’t programmed with a woman since I got here. I also haven’t programmed with any blacks, or Asians. Indeed, with only one exception, every single programmer I’ve worked with has been a white male. The only exception was a Filipino male. They were also all overwhelmingly in their 20s and early 30s.

    We hear a lot about the tech industry having a gender problem. We hear a little bit less about it having a race problem. We hear even less about it having an age problem (so little, in fact, that only HP includes age in their diversity statistics). And we hear almost nothing about it having a sexual orientation/gender identity problem. The truth is that, in my experience, the tech industry, at least where I live now, in San Francisco(!), overwhelmingly desires straight white males that are in their 20s. Vary from that ideal, on any axis, and you’re gonna have a harder time. Vary from that ideal on more than one axis, and, well, your difficulty level just went up a great deal. In short, the tech industry mirrors the rest of the United States: the easiest difficulty setting is straight white male. But it’s a little worse because you get a bonus added to your score if you’re in your 20s.

    This sickens me so much that I want to leave the industry. It also greatly concerns me that 1) the different groups that are impacted by this are all fighting independently instead of banding together to have a greater impact, or aren’t fighting at all, and 2) that the industry hasn’t faced the fact that they have this odd believe that the optimum business environment is to model a rich, exclusively white fraternity house.

    • Wow. I’m not part of nerd programming culture. Librarian by formal training and career -wise…which I suppose it sounds Luddite but it isn’t anymore. We are kept aware of social justice matters because public programming and service delivery depends on clients and users taking advantages of such services for self-improvement and knowledge.

      I’ve always wondered about gaming culture….another world so far from poverty, immigrant survival matters, etc.

      May your next career path take you to better places.

  12. I wonder how old the author is. Perhaps he has simply grown up a bit and realised that the intellectual narcissism of ‘nerd culture’ is ugly. The ‘culture’ of people in their 20s is by no means a fixed thing and it’s a age of strongly-held but sophomoric certainties. I used to be the ‘typical nerd’ but having a family and being exposed to the wider world of the innovation business has moved me along from the intellectual arrogance I once had back then in my cocksure 20s.

    Like little Johnnie blowing raspberries, I think it’s just a developmental stage that a particular kind of person grows through and eventually out of.

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  14. Thought provoking. Thanks.

    I can’t really comment from a perspective “inside cubicle land” but I notice the modern world is shaped by many forces, not only programmers.

    These forces are mostly characterised by specialisation. People who limit their minds to narrow fields and don’t look beyond that in any meaningful way.

    It’s worth building your trans-disciplinary skills. In other words taking in a wider picture.

    That way the programmers better understand what lawyer/politician/reporters/… are doing and the non-programmers become less so.

    Could change the way the world runs.

  15. I suspect your perception of the “Maker” movement is taken from the public face, while in reality deep inside it is little different than the nerd culture you are calling out.

    However in general it is explicitly making attempts to change and be inclusive, but we’re not there yet.

  16. Every single victimized group in the face of the world has members that use their victimization in order to justify their bullying of others — that’s a tale as old as time, and if you treat it as a reason to say “nerd culture must die”, then to be consistent we would also have to eradicate every single other culture in the face of the planet — starting from every ethnic culture (Greek culture must die, Turkish culture must die) and every religion-based culture (Christian culture must die, Islamic culture must die), and then continue with political movements like libertarianism and the social justice movement itself.

  17. Every single victimized group in the face of the world has members that use their victimization in order to justify their bullying of others — that’s a tale as old as time, and if you treat it as a reason to say “nerd culture must die”, then to be consistent we would also have to eradicating every single other culture in the face of the planet — starting from every ethnic culture (Greek culture must die, Turkish culture must die) and every religion-based culture (Christian culture must die, Islamic culture must die), and then continue with political movements like libertarianism and the social justice movement itself.

    And if you’re to say that ethnic cultures are fundamentally different and/or more valuable than nerd culture, then I’ll respond that, as a Greek nerd, I’d rather eradicate modern Greek culture than eradicate nerd culture.

  18. They arent us. These are kids at most in their twenties. These kids think nothing of viciously attacking and ostracising others, because they dont know what its like to recieve it. They never had to fear being ‘nerds’ because nerdy things were mainstream and cool while they were growing up. They have no concept of how what they do to people feels like, and I get the impression they dont care.

  19. “Nerd culture” died around 1995 when Intel’s P5 chips started finding their way into every home via a Time computer sold to them by Leonard Nimoy with impressive speeds of 28.8k (3200 baud) from the modem that pretty girl from Goldeneye mentions with relish.

    Nerds themselves didn’t die, as the allure of technology became more achievable we, as the general population, shifted from Sneakers (1992) through to Hackers (1995) to The Matrix (1999) whilst mIRC, forums and Napster helped pad out being called “anoraks” by TV presenters asking if people wanted to “email in” questions or competition answers. Slowly we had the dog from Family Guy sing “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” and before you know it Rick Astley is popular again.

    Now we have The Big Bang Theory and Sherlock inspiring hipsters to buy VHS players to play the original release of Star Wars on whilst wearing whatever popular (Or obscure) comic book character on their t-shirts. The contemporary perception of Nerd is more likely what I’d call Geek.

    Nerds do, and always will, exist. The cultural phenomena romantically associated with them is just in flux at the moment. The masses using technology are not guilty of anything through not knowing (Or caring) about how it works and the engineering minds of tomorrow will find other obscure traits and hobbies which they will remember fondly as it seeps into their mainstream culture yet again in the future.

    Will they solve the problem of people being abusive so readily? Of course they will! It’s only a matter of time. In nerds we trust 🙂

    • No, “nerds must die” is a trite misreading of this post. But the ideas of “nerd-as-other” and an identity built on ostracization/alienation, those are now a myth that we must stop perpetuating. Those days are over — functionally no one gets pushed around on a playground for enjoying D&D or Iron Man these days. Everyone has a computer now (even if they call it a phone) and no one cares.

      It’s time to let go of our own self-identity as the out-crowd and accept that the old days are gone. That doesn’t mean losing the sense of self that we gained from the experience; but it does mean we need to accept that we’re not the smartest people in the room and our opinions are no more or less valid than those of any other self-imposed tribe.

  20. I think nerds are still sort of oppressed, but in a very narrow sense which requires a lot of people to rethink what being a nerd is all about.

    Social skills are important to functioning in society. This is true almost by definition, but in addition the way our society is structured expects people to put in a little bit extra. People are encouraged to “network,” they have to go through interviews, they have to talk to their co-workers, etc. The really smart nerds can to a certain extent rely on their talent to excuse them from social situations, but not all nerds can get away with that.

    So if being a nerd means having poor social skills, nerds are oppressed. But if being a nerd means having obscure interests, or being really smart, or spending a lot of time on the Internet, or liking computers, then that has absolutely nothing to do with this. And “nerd culture” has blurred these lines for its entire existence, since it’s hard to form a culture based on merely being really shy and uncomfortable. After all, the founding structures of nerd culture happened because people joined clubs, went to cons, played games together, and socialized. Nerd culture is a fusion of the extroverted-but-weird and the introverted and always has been.

    But at the same time, even if we’re talking narrowly about the lack of social skills, nerds can very easily be both oppressor and oppressed. A lack of social skills doesn’t just mean that you have fewer tools to advance yourself in society, but that you have fewer tools to avoid hurting other people. If people have trouble understanding other people’s perspectives, they can inadvertently be “assholes,” and worse, they can misinterpret perfectly reasonable criticism as personal attacks on them.

  21. I was in the fifth grade when the first giant, clunky, green-screened computers were installed in grade schools, so I’ve seen some shit. I even graduated from the university that invented the things.

    If I wasn’t a scorching atheist, I’d swear that they were the answer to the collective prayers of an entire population of unique people desperate for something cool and powerful to channel their creativity through.

    They got it, and now we should be discussing what font to use for the honorarium we will be erecting in their honor next to the Statue of Liberty.

    After all, if it weren’t for The Nerds, we wouldn’t be posting our thoughts expeditiously about someone else’s thoughts in a little box on a thing called WordPress instead of drinking cheap vodka out of paper bags on a picnic table with strangers in the local park.

    I’ve said too much….

  22. Reblogged this on BloggerMom.ca and commented:
    What a great article written by this guy about nerds and geeks.

    He’s, of course, right that any nerd is still a guy who can be an Asshole. Typically nerds are guys. Some are women (but they number less). And several of these geeky guys believe that they’re entitled to being abusive, and so on. They believe they can be an Asshole whenever they are being confronted with a relevant challenge from other people about their misogyny (which is their frustration towards chicks who refuse to date them). Or when they believe they can be abusive toward people who challenge their hacking, and their attitude that (as nerds) they’re always enlightened.

  23. Great article Pete! I was a nerd throughout high school and entered Engineering school with big plans. But the harshness of nerd professors, the cutthroat fellow students, and the brutality of competition drummed me out. Switched my major to English and got out alive. It’s true. Nerds eat their own young.

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  25. “t’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 am so glad someone recognizes this. It is a real shame for whenever I try to ask questions in regard to anything regarding computers (since I do want to learn) I usually get the typical ‘ditzy ignorant women’ look.

    I would have gone into the computers if I had felt more comfortable.

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  27. Here is the real problem, the past nerd bullying/mistreatment happened of course and no one can deny that fact. As this article mentioned now we are the ones trying to bully because of the power we have gained, in most cases however the nerd doesn’t have much “power.” Other than with his/her inner circle of friends I suppose.

    With that being said there also is the way business is run today. Being that it IS a dog eat dog world even in the computer industry you find macho”ing,” the “cut your throat mentality” and a hierarchy of sorts. Now tell me, is that really the “nerd” cultures fault or is that simply society at play, reverberating into the once tightly knit and well kempt circle of people?

    Personally I know plenty of upstanding nerds that I am honored to call my friends. Although there are equally as many of those that I just simply would rather not associate with. Nerd cultures popularity has put a nice big welt on it. Simply put….it can be considered a fad of sorts now.

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  30. I don’t know much about the previous generation, but it seems like before the U.S. mainly valued business skills (entrepreneurship, finance) and jobs that did not always require higher education. Now, entrepreneurship is still valued, but we are noticing that we need more “STEM” talent, at the same time middle-sector jobs have decreased, and thus “nerdiness” has become more valued.

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  32. I am kind of conflicted in this article. The label of a “nerd” is not quite the same as it is thought of a while back. To think we have all turned into warmongering assholes seems a little unfair. As you said a lot more people are involved into this culture now and to think those people are the same people of 20-30 years ago is a little inaccurate. Now I think we are too specific when we mention just this industry because if you take a step back we can see police, finance, race, nation, war abuse on a much higher scale as a whole. In some ways you are giving the tech industry way too much credit. I think as a society we need to look at ourselves to see what is going on.

  33. Hi there! New reader here, I found this on Freshly Pressed (congrats on that). You know the issue of nerd culture “growing up” and becoming what it fought against is so tragic. But, I guess that happens whenever you give anyone a sense of power. As an avid comic book reader, I’m really sick of people who make me “prove” my nerdiness. It’s as if trivia is a better substitute for a deep and abiding love for something. Really frustrating!

    I have nominated you for a Liebster award, and hope you will choose to participate. It’s basically an informal award from bloggers to other bloggers. You can learn more about it here on my blog: http://wordsacrossborders.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/liebster/

  34. Outside your tiny bubble nerds are still very much persecuted.

    Please remember that Silicon Valley and other upper echelons don’t represent the whole world.

    Think of other countries in the world where nerds do not own any territory or the small towns and cities where the only jobs available to them are IT support type jobs…

  35. I see where you’re coming from. Now it’s popular to have a nerdy look. Big thick framed glasses are in, superhero shirts are a must, and computer skills are all over the place. Now how many of these people would go to cons, pick up an actual comic book, or really game, is probably very slim, and that’s where nerd culture lies. I have plenty of friends that wear nerd themed shirts, but I know they won’t do a weekend con with me or play an RPG. It’s more like cool to just have nerdy things, and slight interests. I believe at one time those people were called “posers”. Really, they’re scratching the surface of nerd culture with no real want to dig. Most of them anyway.

  36. Thank you for this this call for tolerance – which is how I read your article. As a female game designer, I certainly keep wondering why there are so few others of my gender.

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