It is not uncommon that those immersed in the culture of sci fi and twenty sided dice are subjected to a high degree of skepticism and even outright disgust. It strikes many as strange and even offensive that these people would be so far outside of the popular scope. It strikes people as pointless when they see that someone has gone out of the way to remember the names of even the most obscure starships in several different franchises, the precise geography of a dozen fictional countries in as many separate fictional universes, and the biographies of characters that are present in only a few seconds of screen time. To critics, this seems like time profligately wasted on obscure trivia that no one will ever care about it. Rarely do they ask, what value or purpose do these ships, lands, and characters serve or why these nerds dedicate themselves with nearly nationalistic fervor. More often than not, they write these nerds off as rather conspicuously maladjusted human beings.
The first step to approaching the answer is examining a likely critic of these nerds, someone who feels in contact with that which is considered mainstream. It is safe to say they are in possession of a wealth of information, useless trivia one might call it, concerning their favorite stars in film, athletes, musicians. Such a critic is likely to know who their favorite people are married to, who they’ve divorced, and how they’ve embarrassed themselves in public. One could make the argument that these people have the distinction of at least being attached to individuals in the real world, but this really isn’t true. The mainstream critic knows these people only insofar as they appear in performances onscreen and on stage. Furthermore, even these celebrities’ public conduct directly affects their show careers and is inevitably bound up in contrivance. The main difference between the critics and the nerds they look down upon is the number of subscribers to their group.
Each social group has its language of acceptance and shared values. Members dedicate themselves to mythology, the heroes, the music, the religion that best represents their culture. If one compares demographics, a disproportionate number of black people prefer rap or other types of music made chiefly by black people. One could conclude that black people have a ‘rap gene’ or far more plausibly that such music serves as a means for black people to connect with their group and distinguish members from outsiders. Familiarity with a common repository of stories and personalities helps foster cohesiveness and a sense of unity. Most groups of friends in American society overlap in preferences to at least some extent and are not usually distinctive enough to be coherent entities and certainly not enough to appear clearly outside of the accepted canon. If the Main Stream has a width, a spectrum so to speak, it is readily noticeable when one encounters those who are well outside of it. To critics, the presence of nerds is offensive because they are clearly disconnected from the larger culture.
A disproportionate number of nerds are physically awkward, socially awkward, or both. This is because they possess traits that make social acceptance at a young age extremely difficult. Such woes are commonly dismissed as a mildly irritating, passing aspect of childhood, but this is done without considering long term implications. When one is excluded from a social group during key formative years, it only becomes harder to catch up. At a certain point, the excluded ones admit even to themselves that there is never to be any reconciliation. During those key years, they grew apart from everyone else. Excluded by their peers in the real world, they discovered far away worlds and galaxies populated by peoples wholly alien to the order that rejected them. In these alternate realities, they find stories of hope and acceptance, lands where those traits which are considered impediments in ours could actually be an asset. Sooner or later, these people begin to meet and coalesce into groups. Finding a place is generally more difficult for these nerds and once they do so after a difficult time growing up, they devote themselves with a degree of enthusiasm that seems unsettling to outsiders. Critics understandably find it difficult to understand how anyone could become filled with excitement at the prospect of mastering a fictional language that no one outside of a small circle would ever know of or care about.
What critics do not understand, is that the obscurity and hence the exclusivity of such information is precisely the point. Made to feel shame in the early part of their lives, nerds create something they are all proud of, a culture and folklore that both provides entertainment, stories and metaphors pertaining to their lives, and which sets them apart from the main stream in which they never found acceptance. Nerds take exquisite pleasure in participating in a social environment in which they do not feel intimidated or pressured. After being cast out they finally take it upon themselves to return the gesture by actively shutting out and rejecting the widely accepted lore and culture and replacing it with something that fits with their personalities and interests. Certainly, it is conceivable that some of the disapproval expressed by critics results from a sense of indignation at how completely conventions have been deliberately shunted aside and ignored.
Nerds are a phenomenon that results from the structure of Western industrialized civilization. It is in this society that children spend most of their time around other kids in their age group rather than the family. Even where there is the luxury of a stable nuclear family, obtaining optimal employment means moving every several years. Thus, contact with extended family tends to be sporadic at best. Both parents are likely work full time jobs and are often preoccupied with satisfying the obligations of the workplace even after hours. Cell phones and laptops ensure no minute of the day is sacrosanct. It is certainly possible to regulate one’s life, but parents live in an environment that is particularly conducive to workaholism. Detached from family most of the day with only a handful of adults superficially involved in their lives, children develop in a scholastic environment isolated from the adult world outside. Left to form their own society, an environment dominated by the most physically able and socially clever individuals results. Those who are unable to compete become members of the lowest class in this brutal hierarchy.
Nerds are generally seen as a group of human beings that inevitably spring forth, but such a phenomenon is a product of the Western model. Only in such an environment does social failure at school mean complete isolation. The nerd very likely has parents who are constantly busy, if indeed they are both present in the household, lives in a suburb that is deliberately located as far as possible from anything non-residential. In such a neighborhood, the neighbors are generally casual acquaintances at best. There is little to no commonality or sense of community. Most people there will have moved somewhere else within a few years. The neighborhood was designed in the interests of adults and the safety of very small children. For children who have grown older, there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. In small Western families, there are not likely very many siblings to help care for and in an industrialized economy, no substantial way for children to contribute directly to the wellbeing of the family through labor or by learning trades. Relegated to the lowest tier in the social sphere that dominates life—school—nerds find themselves in possession of a wealth of leisure time. In this time, they become experts on everything from computers, to science and mathematics, to star trek trivia. Perhaps the origin of a nerd begins with being rejected, but over time the individual is more attached to the values they have acquired in isolation or with a few others of their persuasion. Eventually, they make the final choice to split off completely.
As youth life progresses into high school, participation in society becomes more of an obligation than ever before. To get attention from the most important and influential people, one must be a regular in the social and party scene. To even have means of meeting the requirements of this social life one must have a car. Teens who own cars must hold jobs outside of school just to scrape together enough to cover the expenses incurred by their vehicle. None of this is enough; a teenager must change around his or her wardrobe every few months as fashions change or be left behind. The lifestyle necessary to acceptance demands every spare scrap of a teenager’s time; it allows virtually no room for reading or independent study. A nerd, someone for whom these things matter most finds him or herself no longer desirous of participating. Succeeding in high school social life requires absolute devotion and constantly battling against fierce competition. Even if a nerd had a complete change of heart at this point, he or she simply would not have the necessary qualifications to operate even at the entry level. Without first mastering basic fashion, the right way to talk, the right way to carry oneself, the right way to walk, the right TV shows and music to like, there is no breaking in. Fortunately, most nerds are by this point not regretting the choices they’ve made that have led them down a different path, at least not as much as they used to. Even if it is lonely and painful to be as they are, they begin to accept themselves and in the larger high school environment begin to encounter those who share their tendencies. A distinctive nerd culture cut off from the rest of society results.
Nerds possess a great deal of knowledge, some of which makes them highly competitive in the workplace. However, they tend to lack people skills and have more trouble than average doing well at interviews and keeping good relations with co-workers. They are more likely to be in their cubicle laboring away, rather than creating a network of useful contacts by socializing. They will never meet a great many people who could help them with their work or even promote them.
The members of the mainstream on the other hand are extremely adept in social matters and have everything they need to score a job for which they have lower ability or qualifications. The years they spent fighting to get on top of the social heap left them without any time to develop professional skills. They are accustomed to cutthroat social competition, but they developed in an arbitrary society formed by children. Many of the values they learned are useless in the real world. In the professional environment there is an expected style of dress in the workplace. An expertise at following fashion trends honed over years of practice suddenly becomes obsolete.
In the long run, those who grew up in the mainstream still come out on top. Nerds are a small minority and fitting in even in the real world outside of school is always going to be an uphill battle. Any given hiring manager is highly likely to be somewhere within the mainstream spectrum. When faced with hundreds of resumes and dozens of interviews, they are going to choose those who walk, talk, and act like an ideal employee, in other words, a normal person. Qualifications and claims on paper can be embellished or even lied about. Personal presentation is going to be the ultimate decider.
Not only does the mainstream person have the advantage in grabbing jobs, but also in relations with the opposite sex. They’ve had years of practice in opposite sex social interactions while most nerds are barely getting started in college.
Though crippled and stunted through their adverse developmental experience, nerds take a fierce pride in their identity. They are more than willing to make sacrifices in life in order to be the people they feel they were meant to be and to be as true as possible to themselves. When they come together, they create a society in which mainstreamers would immediately appear hopelessly inept and crippled if ever they tried to participate. Perhaps critics are disturbed by the fact that there is more than one path to social legitimacy besides the one upon which they labored with such intensity and for so long.
Though mainstream people have the edge, everyone loses under the current system. Well qualified nerds are ignored because they lack the skills to get attention and form connections. The socially adept get hired but find themselves minimally prepared for their work. The businesses lose because they have difficulty finding candidates who are well balanced between social acumen and hard skills. The fact is that society at present does not encourage the formation of the well balanced individuals they are looking for. If society were a business, its manager might very well be fired for gross incompetence. In real life, things became the way they are because they were left to form arbitrarily according to the forces of nature. That anyone ever expected an ideal form of society to come from such an approach evidences a fundamental lack of thought, or at least that this system was itself a random aggregate product of many individuals acting with varying degrees of coherence, motivation, and influence over the course of generations.
An examination of nerds and their surrounding environment is by necessity a study in anthropology. In this situation an entirely new society with different if not directly conflicting values forms within the bounds of the one already established. This phenomenon has come about not in small tribes or provincial villages, but in dynamic sprawling civilizations composed of millions of citizens. Ironically, a small group seems to be better suited to integrating all of its members. When there is a small community, even the eccentric and socially inept are known to all and can over time be accepted for their redeeming qualities. With a small stable permanent population, it is possible to have a real sense of community. With all members contributing directly to the wellbeing of the whole, it is much easier to have a genuine sense of unity. In such an environment, mere idiosyncrasies and divergent hobbies do not in themselves merit ostracism. In a larger environment, however, people must compete even for recognition of their existence; those who are awkward get trampled. The first impression is frequently the only chance one gets and as a result, the range of behavior society can tolerate must narrow if there is to be accepted social standards across larger populations. Furthermore, when a society counts its numbers in the millions, there can be no direct supervision of successful societal transmission by family and neighbors. Cohesion must be forced by formal institutions, ideological abstractions, and the fear of social unacceptability, which is for many humans greater than the fear of death.
A mass society with an excruciatingly specific agenda of how one is to behave inevitably creates a disaffected underclass. Human beings are incredibly adaptable, especially in social matters, so the percentage of those who simply cannot make it tends to be small. Those who fail thus see most everyone around them meeting with greater success and are very likely completely isolated. By the very design of a mass industrialized society, the conditions are right for the formation of new societies that better suit the needs of castaways, minorities, and splinter cells.
The more specific and rigid a mass society becomes, the fewer people it suitably serves. With increasing numbers of ostracized individuals, resentment pools and the nerd phenomenon becomes more likely: a new type of sub-society forms. One that actively rejects the values and the culture into which its subscribers were born. Thus it could be said concerning mass industrial societies that consensus breeds antithesis.
There is an Aesop’s Fable that warns how attempting to please everyone pleases no one in the end. This moral applies to societies because humans identify with tight knit tribes on a more visceral level than they do with nation states and mass cultures. No single institution or cultural entity can represent the views and needs of all or even a majority of citizens. Though only a small minority is unable to make it or refuses to participate, they can safely be considered the tip of an iceberg of discontent. There are many others who are only just able to meet the minimum qualifications and live a high stress life on the lower tiers of acceptance. There may be only a few who break away, however, particularly difficult times or the right catalyst could easily amplify the trend.
It would do critics well to cultivate a better understanding of nerds and other social fringe groups, because so long as current conditions prevail existing minorities will grow in number and new groups emerge. If millions of people collectively hold a custom that eating salad with an almost imperceptibly smaller fork is the only right way to do things, there will eventually be those who do otherwise. The dominant custom is enforced through overwhelming weight of numbers, but if it becomes a source of pressure by the very fact that it is a widely held standard, deviation follows. There needn’t even be any huge dissatisfaction and certainly not protest or consciously assembled social movement. People do what comes to them most easily and naturally, a cuture that comes to pressure millions can only hold sway for so long in such a varied and volatile environment.