Nerding Out

“Nerding out” has become synonymous with deep engagement, but it also imposes a false consensus

The Theorizing the Web conference is in two weeks In bringing social theory to social media through discussions that are conceptual, critical, and historical, it shares with Real Life a common scope, philosophy, and personnel, so we wanted to preview the topics of its four keynote panels. This one is on nerd culture. See the others on youth and social media, socialism and the web, and objectivity.

The nerd has had its time in the sun. The obvious joke is that nerds never liked the sun much anyway; they prefer the glow of a screen. But that precisely is the problem: Such jokes hide the fact that the world is now ordered by nerds. Today, “nerd culture is culture,” as Vicky Osterweil writes in “What Was the Nerd,” “but the nerd myth — outcast, bullied, oppressed and lonely — persists, nowhere more insistently than in the embittered hearts of the little Mussolinis defending nerd-dom.”

The sociologist Christian Smith once observed that the defining character of American Evangelicals was not their belief so much as a sense of embattlement. Nerds, like Evangelicals, see themselves as an embattled minority even as the culture and economy bend to their desires. Both are drawn to cults of personality and authoritarian strong men seen as the only egos big enough to fight off the evil dangers they themselves promulgate. Nerds can side-step America’s anti-intellectualism by pointing to their aggrieved status: How can I be an elite intellectual when I am so oppressed?

The STEM fields are most closely associated with the nerd, but as long as there are white papers, bills, and studies to read, any topic can become eminently nerd-out-able. Everything from reactionary 4Chan shitposters to Nate Silver–esque explainers to Jordan Peterson’s repackaging of generic self-help as deep psychopolitical analysis can seem to qualify as a kind of nerdiness, but no matter what the flavor, nerd discourse converts morality into a matter of technical capacity: Universal healthcare is no longer something morally necessary but an exceptionally complicated project that should be endlessly picked apart. A healthy sense of self turns into an exercise in evolutionary psychology. This discourse also elevates surface-level decorum above substance. Even the vilest and thoroughly debunked ideas are deemed worthy of engaged debate if they are laid out in an emotionally detached tone.

This means that breaches of decorum are more intensely scrutinized than more morally urgent political matters that require a fundamental shift in perspective. “If decorum bolsters legitimacy,” Maya Binyam writes, “and legitimacy in turn begets efficiency, it makes sense that concerned citizens … would, when presented with these data sets (words misspelled, facts unchecked), rally behind the incantation ‘ACCURACY MATTERS.’ ”

Whereas Trump has effectively weaponized the aggrieved whiteness baked deep into the nerd persona, centrist liberals have made good use of nerds’ love of counter-intuitive arguments to perpetuate equally dangerous ideas. Ostensibly liberal outlets like the Atlantic and the New Republic have played host to the foundational arguments for broken-windows policing and modern race pseudoscience respectively.

It is an ideal time to study the nerd because they are in the midst of a civil war. On one side are New Atheists, race scientists, Gamergate veterans, and the acolytes of Jordan Peterson who are determined to defend white supremacist patriarchy as natural or rational. On the other side is a class of beltway wonks and Silicon Valley disrupters who more than anything want American empire to run smoothly and collegially.

This civil war is best described by example: After New Atheist Sam Harris had Charles Murray, on his podcast and characterized the reception of his 1994 book The Bell Curve — a work of racist pseudoscience — as “a politically correct moral panic,” Ezra Klein wrote a long rebuttal. Klein cites better designed studies that show Murray’s work stops at correlation without proving causation: the poverty and violence inflicted on black people has more to do with producing their IQ scores than anything genetically inheritable. “It’s impossible to look at the cruel and insane experiment America has run on its black residents and say anything useful about genetic differences in intelligence,” he writes. Yet in the last sentence, Klein takes Harris up on his offer to join him for an interview on his podcast, as though Harris were a good faith interlocutor, maintain the enabling fiction of “open debate” that allows racist pseudoscience to perpetuate itself.

Missing from this debate is the recognition that politics is not a game of who can lay out the most complete set of facts. It is rather a competition of moral perspectives. These determine the direction of one’s fact-finding missions. So how a racist chooses to gloss or justify their racism doesn’t matter; you only need to know that they looked for one in the first place.

When Josmar Trujillo pointed out on the podcast Citations Needed, that Malcom Gladwell was a big proponent of broken windows policing, co-host Nima Shirazi responded with a comment that nicely summarizes the consequences of the nerd-dominated media landscape: “These pseudoscientists, professors, or criminologists pioneer this really racist notion of policing and then it gets picked up in the politics and [laundered] through liberal punditry.” And when it later becomes clear how discriminatory these policies are, “it just goes back to having a debate whether living within minority report is worth it, and not hearing from the voices from all the victims.”

For as long as reactionary nerds establish the parameters of debate and liberal wonks elect merely to debunk them, we will be stuck in a cycle of failing institutions and populist authoritarianism. Instead of abolishing the prison-industrial complex, we will get ever-expanding debates about how to make it function more smoothly. For all their command of information and adept application of technical skill, nerds categorically refuse to be moral agents in a world desperately lacking them. This makes them a danger to us all.

This panel will consider the threat and lost potential of the nerd as a social category and the limits of its capabilities as a political force.

Panel: Nerding Out, April 28, 6:00 p.m.

David A. Banks

Maya BinyamNima ShiraziVicky Osterweil

Theorizing the Web 2018 is April 27 and 28 at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York City. Register here.

The conference is run on a donation, pay-what-you-can basis with a volunteer committee. For more information about the event, click here

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.