What Does Bill Gates Have to Do with the Revenge of the Nerds?

I’m giving a talk on my dissertation research soon, which means figuring out how to distill a few years and a few hundred pages of work into a 40-minute presentation. Kicking around ideas with my advisor about how to do this, he suggested that I post a super-concise core argument for the talk here on the blog just to see what you all think of it. This is what we last discussed:

People have often told me in interviews that it’s “cool” to be geek ever since Bill Gates demonstrated that geeks can be rich—echoing, as it turns out, earlier research that has suggested the same. This may make sense coming from a computer programmer, but for whatever reason, I also hear it from comic book fans, gamers, and plenty of other geeks and nerds who make no claim to computer skill or a lucrative job. The prevailing assumptions of “geek chic” being rooted in economic power, then, may be an oversimplified reflection of a new value accorded to what “geek pride” is really rooted in: intellectual curiosity, on a continuum between the technical and the playful.

What do you think? Is “geeks aren’t rich (and therefore shouldn’t be considered cool because they are rich)” an aha! kind of statement to you? Should the above argument imply (as one person I discussed this with suggested) that geeks are just as powerless as ever if they’re not really making more money than before? Please let me know your thoughts, whether kind or brutally honest. (I do have other parts of the dissertation to draw from, after all.) Thanks!

18 thoughts on “What Does Bill Gates Have to Do with the Revenge of the Nerds?

  1. This really resonates with me:

    a new value accorded to what “geek pride” is really rooted in: intellectual curiosity, on a continuum between the technical and the playful.

    And I think that regarding geeks being powerless, it might be interesting to frame it from an economic power perspective: geeks’ growing purchasing power.

  2. What economic power does is validate being geek without having to sidestep mainstream values. If everybody agrees that making money is a measure of success, Bill Gates was the first hugely known ‘geek’ who you could point at, to anybody, and claim that without leaving his marginalized geek culture, he was able to succeed in the most normal way. The fact that he was the richest man in the world lets you go even further, and question whether this marginalized subculture might not be an even better means to get wealthy than the usual non-geeky pursuits.

    Whether or not this still leaves geeks powerless is an interesting question, but not one that anybody can really claim to answer. Depends on whether or not you see economic validation as ‘enough’, whether there can really be coexisting non-marginalized subcultures, etc. I’m sure there are legions of academic feminists with plenty to say on the topic.

    But it also depends on whether or not social power is something that geeks want. I think there’s something to be said for geeks seeing economic success as *some kind* of validation, but not a end in and of itself. If your prime virtue is intellectual curiosity, then money isn’t really much validation? I see my own occasional accumulation of money as proof that I can play well in the non-geek world, but its only a validating signifier for people around me, and personally more of a measure of success in yet another game I sometimes play.

  3. It’s reassuring to me to hear you guys going in these directions, as this is sort of the direction I’ve been thinking about since posting this. (And it’s especially reassuring to hear it coming from a first-person perspective. Honestly, one of the greatest advantages to this dissertation topic has been my fellow geeks’ skills of self-reflection.)

    Even when you look beyond the accumulation of wealth, I think that most of the ways that geeks have been validated have still been by the rules of mainstream society at large: It’s now marginally more acceptable to play video games, but only as long as there’s some competitive, masculine component (sports games, Halo) or some obviously social component (Rock Band, Wii) that marks it as less … well, geeky. I think there’s probably still some sense that you might want to be embarrassed if you have “nothing better to do” than play video RPGs all by yourself.

    I’m also wondering, Justin, what you mean by “purchasing power.” I’ve been thinking a lot about companies trying to market stuff to geeks (e.g., this season’s spate of geek-oriented TV, and pretty much all of what Comic Con has become), and wondering if this counts as some sort of external validation or economic power. Is it such a good thing to be marketed to? Are geeks especially good at defining the terms of how stuff is marketed to them? (Or have I completely missed what you mean to refer to with regard to “purchasing power”?)

  4. I think that what Bill Gates did was make a certain percentage of people look at Geeks and say, “Hmmm…not quite the way I’d live my life, but that Microsoft Guy was sort of like that guy and he made millions.”

    I think in the end, this meant that people were okay with letting geeks alone, all geeks even those who weren’t trying to become millionaires. In that way, I think it revealed pressure on those who are geeks–normalizing the image in the mainstream some what.

    So I feel like Gates freed “geeks” from something by being a template for how one could exist in society as a geek…in the same way that Michael Jordan or Larry Bird created a space where it was okay for 1000s of kids to (waste their time and) play basketball, Bill Gates did the same for the wide variety of activities that is loosly connected as geek culture.

  5. I’m insanely busy at work right now so I’m only scanning and I don’t have enough time to fully contemplate this, but I’ll toss it out anyways.

    Is it possible that ‘geek chic’ has arisen due to a sort of Social Darwinism effect? We seem to be in the middle of shifting from a Post Industrial society into something else. This something else has largely been defined/signaled by the rise of the ‘net. The ‘net is a creation of geeks and was basically an exclusive geek playground until the 90s. Geeks also tend to be the types that are most successful in this new arena (Bill Gates, the Google boys, etc).

    Combine this with the general populace’s lack of understanding when it comes to the subtleties that differentiate different tribes of geeks and you come up with a gross over generalization that geeks as a whole are the ones who have the necessary traits needed to succeed in this new age. And so we are emulated. I’m not talking strictly money here, but more of an ability to casually function with in this new realm and be proactive with the change instead of reactive.

    I’ve also been contemplating some of the ideas in What The Door Mouse Said (I forget the author) and should probably actually finish the book to follow these ideas through, but the general gist of my thoughts is the effect that contact with the counter culture has had on the geek scene in the long term. There definitely seems to be a fair amount of counter culture swagger in the new geek mindset. Whether that’s a shift in the over all geek mind set, or if it is simply an echo chamber effect caused by the counter culture geeks being the most visible segment of the geek world, I’m not sure.

    Does any of this scan? Sorry it is a little jumbled. I’m literally writing this while I’m waiting for some stored procedures to complete.

    Back to work.

  6. OK, second set of stored procedures just got kicked off so two more thoughts.

    1) Looking through the comments there’s this idea of geeks coming into the light. We are going from the basements and becoming cool. The thought occurs to me though, how many people who currently are geeks would have been 10 or 15 years ago. I know personally I did go through a period of my life where I tried to be normal. I failed and eventually embraced by geekiness, but I wonder how many people through out history have closed themselves off to their geekiness and forced themselves to be normal. There’s a parallel here with gay culture and coming out of the closet, but I don’t have the time right now to really connect the dots.

    2) Speaking of Gates, it might be an interesting thought experiment to compare and contrast Gates and Stallman both from the geek standpoint and mainstream society. They’re very similar in some respects and vastly different in others. With in the geek world, especially more computer centric areas, Stallman is much more widely respected. While in the mainstream I’m guessing that Stallman is all but unknown.

    OK, procedures done. Back to work.

  7. Matt, I’m not sure what sort of free software circles you run in, but I wouldn’t say that Richard Stallman has much of any respect outside the narrows of Stallman-approved free software advocacy. Beyond some grudging acknowledge for being a good programmer and an uncommonly talented crooner, Richard Stallman has more of a reputation for being an uncompromising bohemian jackass than anything.

    None-the-less, he illustrates the point that you start here, that since geek cultures began to achieve mainstream acceptability, there are two geek cultures: the approved, business-saavy, interested culture that we’re talking about here, and an even more marginalized geek culture that largely refuses to intermingle with the mainstream. Ex. free software advocacy, LARPing, etc.

    I think this is maybe part of what you’re getting at with a comparison with gay culture. Both have these peripheral cultures, that celebrate differentness within the larger culture of affinity, and are marginalized but protected by their larger constituencies. As long as you don’t take this too far — if you keep in mind that being geek is at most a culture and lifestyle, and homosexuality is a lot less negotiable — there’s more here for the digging.

    Jumping a little to the side, I really like the way that Chris is framing the point, and not just because metaphoric spatial representations get me all hot and bothered. Gates shows a path where you can live comfortably in your geek clothes, and even if you aren’t a computer geek, you can still draw parallels into your own particular affinity. This is simple and positive in a way that perhaps my own thinking is not.

  8. The gay thing was more in line with the idea of being geeky is more “acceptable” culturally (in a mainstream sense) then it used to be and so people who would have previously spurned their own geekyness have instead embraced it, even to a small extent. I do agree though that the comparison falls down really quickly. What I was mainly wondering about was whether there were any models or metaphores that could be borrowed.

    I think the Stallman/Gates comparison could prove to be an interesting one. Sure everyone agrees that Stallman is a bit of a stubborn jackass (then again, for the role he fills, he should be), but I still say that Stallman gets more respect then Gates does the further you move into hardcore geek territory. I wonder if that could be used as a measurement of sorts to map out the edges of geek culture?

    Gates at one end, referencing the more mainstreamed geek culture, and Stallman at the other end, referencing the more “underground” geek culture. Take a geek tribe, see how they rate the two men (not saying that they think one is great and the other sucks, but which has more respect even if it is a choice between a douche and a pooh) then plot them along the line accordingly. Could be fun.

    Anyways… I think the Gates/Stallman thing comes more from some thoughts I’ve been chewing on for awhile about the juxtapositions between how geek culture is viewed from with in the community and from with out it. Talk to certain geeks and Doctorow is as famous as Britney. Though, 99.9% of the mainstream doesn’t know who he is. (and yes, I’m exaggerating my example for effect) This situation is common to any culture, subculture, tribe, or whatever. Since I’m a geek though I’m curious if there isn’t a way to exploit this echo chamber effect and turn it into some fun way to hack around with reality. Kind of like the Cult of Rai.

  9. On Stallman vs. Gates: I suspect you’d find opinions all over the map on these two. For what it’s worth, the conflict between these two a battle of epic proportions that has been considered before.

    On comparison with gay culture: This has actually come up in the course of my research more than you might expect. People refer to themselves or others as “closet geeks” very frequently. And I do think that there’s a sort of sexual tinge to this sometimes—a recognition of not being a “real man” (more often implied than “real woman”) who can’t get dates, not just a comparison in terms of secrecy for fear of being embarrassed or rejected. J!NX used to have a “Closet Geek” shirt that labeled different parts of the brain with things like “Ardor,” “Reticence,” and “Pr0n.” It’s now a sticker on their site, and the words aren’t clear enough to see in their graphic of it; commenters are wondering what the words say, and noting that they hope there’s no such thing as a closet geek, that such a thing would be a traitor to the cause, that they are ashamed to have been in the closet but their friends all convinced them to come out and be themselves. I don’t think they’re just making riffs on the discourse surrounding closeted homosexuality; based on others I’ve talked to, I really think they think of it this way.

    On Gates and “living comfortably in your geek clothes”: I think that there’s an implied sacrifice, though. You’d expect the Consumer Electronics Show to be a massive display of geekery, but as one blogger told me, it’s too business-oriented to be really geeky. It took a bit of coaxing to get anybody at all to talk about Star Trek, robots, and such. Basically, the benefit to being a geek (if you have tech skill) is getting to do something you like for your work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you get to be in full-on “geek mode” 24/7.

    On counterculture: This is the biggest area that I haven’t really had time to explore in my research. Christina Dunbar-Hester has done a good job focusing on that in her dissertation on low-power FM radio activists (which has a chapter on geek identity). I do sometimes feel like there’s a difference—and feel free to correct me if this seems off—between people who start accepting the label ‘geek’ as part of an identity as a tech activist, and people who start accepting the label as a way of reclaiming it from those who made fun of them as kids. Not that you can’t belong to both groups, but that seems to be two different ways of coming to identify oneself as a geek, with potentially divergent sets of ideals and notions of what it means to be a geek/nerd.

    Also, Church sent along a Wired link that I think is pretty relevant to this conversation. The author is bummed that his kid chose to do a school project on an athlete (rather than a scientist or something) because the kid didn’t want to be “nerdy”:

    This is a kid whose parents are the editor of Wired Magazine and a former editor of Nature Genetics, who goes to a school in Emeryville,CA with Pixar on one side and biotech companies on the other, whose friends’ parents are mostly scientists, professors or engineers. The kids go to summer camp at UC Berkeley, and know Steve Wozniak as the funny guy who showed them card tricks. The creator of the iPod comes in to speak at career day at school. What more could we have done to teach our kids that science and technology is cool?!?

    And here we have the giant disconnect between what it’s like to be a geek as an adult versus a geek as a kid. The adult world is big enough that we can afford not to care about most of the people who think that (part of) being a geek is uncool. Not so, when you’re a kid in a tiny, insulated social environment.

    Thanks again for all the comments, guys. (And anyone else reading, feel free to jump in. I’m still prepping this talk and all feedback is much appreciated.)

  10. Look at it from the perspective of the mating market. A young nerd has focus, high intelligence and education, and a dynamic new industry in which to exercise that focus and intelligence. He is also usually more or less socially clueless and often has poor dress-sense or else wears the same type of clothes all the type, which may inhibit his interactions with other women somewhat, once he’s ‘caught’ by one particular woman. Yet despite his ungainly social skills, he’ll often be quite at ease with young kids – another big bonus for potential mates with a desire for babies. From this perspective “cool” might overlap significantly with “attractive” for a certain kind of potential woman. So — this is before we’ve even factored in the possible money-making potential, and the recent wave of media messages that ‘nerds are cool’. If we see the mating market as a kind of gamble, nerds are a pretty good bet for a certain type of woman. Certainly better than some fast-talking fast-driving hard-drinking middle-manager.

  11. I’m also wondering, Justin, what you mean by “purchasing power.” I’ve been thinking a lot about companies trying to market stuff to geeks (e.g., this season’s spate of geek-oriented TV, and pretty much all of what Comic Con has become), and wondering if this counts as some sort of external validation or economic power. Is it such a good thing to be marketed to? Are geeks especially good at defining the terms of how stuff is marketed to them? (Or have I completely missed what you mean to refer to with regard to “purchasing power”?)

    No, you got it. I just mean that the geek demographic, as much as geeks have demographic qualities in common, is a growing power, what with video games continuing to rise in popularity (WoW 10 million subscribers, though this does count a lot of non-Western gamers, etc.). You start to see companies reaching for a bigger slice of the pie (e.g., Wii, built for both geeks and non-geeks). But I think that by and large, geeks could give a crap — they just want the goods, vs. “hey, we’re finally being marketed to in a big way” — so I don’t think that it’s a form of validation in itself. I think the validation comes from the increased awareness of geek culture by non-geeks, with a bit more crossover of participation in that culture by non-geeks, that serves to lend a bit of normalcy to geek culture.

  12. Carol:
    Thanks for the post! I wanted to link to something I once read that seemed relevant to your comment, but it turns out that googling “geek boyfriend” yields way more results (many arguing that geeks do make great boyfriends) than I ever imagined…

    Thanks for clarifying. I think that makes a lot of sense, and kind of fits with somewhat parallel arguments made in literature about marketing to racial and sexual minorities: It’s not like the readers of Out and Advocate are dying for Abercrombie to court them, but there’s something to be said for being openly recognized as part of our society at large.

  13. Interesting, but this discussion seems to be framed largely as geek = male geek? What about female geeks? And what role has the larger numbers of women (or at least, larger visibility of women) in ‘geek’ fields like science and tech, contributed to the mainstreaming of geek into things like ‘geek chic’?

  14. That’s definitely a fair question. To some extent, I suspect that the influence goes both ways: As such fields have an increasing female presence, they are seen as more mainstream; and as such fields seem more mainstream, they attract more females.

    I think that Margolis and Fisher’s Unlocking the Clubhouse—which discusses the male-dominated, stereotypically geeky atmosphere at CMU’s computer science program—focuses on the latter argument. That is, the argument there is that the CMU program needed to be made more female-friendly before it could be seen as more mainstream. A follow-up article by Blum and Frieze argued that CMU later managed to correct this problem by actively recruiting students who didn’t have a background in computer science, enforcing gender balance, and encouraging personal interests beyond computers among the student body. (That article, “The Evolving Culture of Computing,” is probably locked away for those not in universities, but I think an earlier version is available for free here.)

  15. I don’t think Bill Gates is responsible for geeks becoming cool. At least not directly. I feel like I was always told growing up that my smarts would someday make me money. Not necessarily as a computer programmer, but more likely a doctor or engineer or something. I believed it, other people believed it, but it didn’t make me any cooler. In fact, it may have made me less cool. So I don’t think nerds have become cool because people realize they can make money.

    I think the rise of geek coolness is based on the realization that geeks can be cool, funny, and friendly people in their own way. The antecedents for this are not so much the Bill Gateses as the Woody Allens and Quentin Tarantinos–celebrities who managed to be geeky and cool at the same time. Also, the creation of a geek consumer market, facilitated by computer and internet technology, led to a rise in geek culture which gradually spilled over into the mainstream.

    It may just be the idealist in me talking, but I don’t think money is the reason we’re suddenly cool(er).

  16. From a purely economic standpoint, if geeks are now making money—and I contend that not only are they doing so, but they also tend to be willing to spend that money on consumer goods, especially technology—that makes them an attractive demographic for advertisers, content providers, and technological product companies. All of that specific targeting puts them more in the public eye, which kind of helps enhance their perception as cool. Or, at least, successful.

  17. Thanks again to everyone for all the comments. I gave a practice version of my presentation yesterday, and the verdict was basically, “fun, but disorganized.” So, this weekend, I’m reorganizing.

    My advisor also recommended throwing a video into the middle somewhere. I have some ideas about what might make sense (perhaps even some footage I shot at Come Out and Play?), but for an example of geeks making fun of the “money = masculinity” mindset, you probably can’t beat YT Cracker’s foray into mainstream rap, LOL Money.

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