There was an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times entitled We’re All Nerds Now. It is here. The words nerd and geek have indeed changed in meaning since I was a student at Caltech many years ago. At that time they were insult words, implying social ineptness, often based on deep interest in topics that were not considered “in” (usually math, science, and technology), sometimes to the partial exclusion of those that were (pursuit of sex, alcohol, cigarettes, fast cars, athletics, and what was considered “cool” in mannerisms and dress of young people at the time), The article is celebrating the fact that nerds and geeks now have a certain social cachet, and we are all better off for being more involved with technology.
Nerd and Geek definitely have a more positive connotation than they once did. But I think the author, Noam Cohen, is a bit naïve in thinking that we are all nerd/geeks, simply because many of us surround ourselves with and heavily use digital equipment. We have always used complicated products of technology and science, ranging from automobiles and airplanes to telephones and medicine, but that does not mean most of us understand them in depth, or could design and manufacture them, nor does it mean that we are considered to be on the fringes of society. And we have not considered ourselves to be nerds or geeks.
Nerds/geeks at one time had a deep understanding of their favorite technologies or other fields of interest, sometimes deeper than others wanted to hear about, and sometimes to the exclusion of highly developed social graces. The typical nerd at Caltech in my day was someone with an overwhelming interest in science, mathematics, and/or engineering and who was comfortable with the theory and jargon involved, fascinated with them and their application, and fond of discussing them with others of similar interest. The breed that typified this to me were the amateur (ham) radio people, who not only loved radio communication and related topics, but also were comfortable with the jargon and theory involved, had a clear understanding of how the equipment and systems worked, and in fact often built their own equipment. And admittedly, if one did not care about grid bias, could occasionally be a drag.
The self labeled techie nerds and geeks of popular culture typically love digital equipment and the internet, but do not have a deep knowledge of how they work, and certainly could not build them. Spending time at an Apple store or on social networking, do not lead to much technical sophistication. I consider such people fans of the digital world, and perhaps skilled users, but not necessarily nerds or geeks. In fact, many of the people I know whose left hand is usually grasping a smart phone are members of a very large and growing society, feeling good about being connected to a very large number of people, and getting points in their society for their activities. They even sometimes tend to look down upon people who do not have smart phones and pads and whose lives to not hinge on apps. But if they run into trouble with the technology, rather than better understanding it, they tend to turn to their friends and family, customer service pages on the internet, or if they are in an organization, their favorite IT person. And many of them do not seem to seek out the classic badges of the true technology nerd — mathematics and sophisticated theory.
When I entered Caltech as a student, we were taken up to a camp in the mountains to become acquainted with the other members of our class and with the philosophy of the school. Among other things, we were told that we would be considered a nerd/geek, simply because of our affiliation with the school. We were also given simple rules to follow, such as never wear your slide rule on your belt, never wear shirt pocket pencil protectors, and never talk mathematics at a party. Since I attended a rather non intellectual high school, I was able to add several to those that served me well socially. (such as talking about cars and not telling people at U.C.L.A parties that I was a Caltech student).
Fortunately, times have changed. I was an early champion of not only the advantages of, but in fact the necessity of more widespread knowledge of technology and science (and of course math beyond calculation) in our society. I still am. For those reasons I am glad to see the acceptance of the terms nerd and geek. But as long as people are seen as nerds and geeks, we have a ways to go. Bill Gates and friends have helped by making a lot of money and doing a lot of good. But we are a long ways from most of my friends wanting me to explain why e, (the base of the Naperian logarithmic system), raised to the power of i (the square root of minus one) times pi (which you have all met) should be equal to minus one—which at one time fascinated we Caltech students. Even my wife finds me less attractive if I start doing such things around the house. She loves digital equipment, especially if it is white and made by Apple, and as a check of my theory, I gave her a piece of paper with the sentence above beginning with “but”, and she admitted she could hardly bear reading it and had no interest in understanding it. But I must admit that I gain in perceived attractiveness if I fix her broken car or digital equipment, which I can do though not a nerd/geek in the social sense, but probably in the technical one —win some, lose some.