Links: A Few Notes During a Moment of Quiet

Things have been busy with non-web writing lately, and are about to get busier, so updates may be sparse (or, I suppose, absent) around here for at least another week or so. Tomorrow I’m headed to Montreal shortly for the International Communication Association 2008 conference, presenting a paper on experimental comics and the concept of visual language. In the meantime, here’s a few links I’m not sure what to do with, but which seemed interesting enough to post.

Defining the American Nerd: Salon has an interview with Ben Nugent, author of American Nerd: The Story of My People. (Thanks to Paul for the link.) Our respective approaches to considering the place of the geek/nerd in American culture differ somewhat, but I have ben fascinated to read more about the points where our conclusions align. I wonder, too, how readers here would respond to his definition of what all nerds—from computer programmers to Society for Creative Anachronism folks—have in common: “a love of rules, a love of hierarchies that were meritocratic and open to everybody, and in some cases the affectation of rationalism.”

On a personal note, I also found it funny when Ben remarks that “I’m probably the one person on planet Earth who might have to affect nerdiness as part of their professional life.” I similarly keep getting the “Are you a geek?” question and I’m never quite sure how to answer. I certainly think I am, but I have known geeks who would disagree (because I don’t build/program/live in my own computer). Plus, the people who ask me are generally the people I wouldn’t normally act geeky around—something I only realized about myself after months of studying how others understand what it means to be a geek.

Breaking into Geekdom: Austin 360 (the web presence of the Austin American Statesman) has an interview with a hometown geek done good, Scott Porter, star of the recent Speed Racer movie. (Thanks to Church for the link.) What I found most interesting was how there may be a mild hurdle for a guy who played football (and played a football player, in Friday Night Lights) to get accepted among the Hollywood geek elite:

The weird thing is now that it’s becoming popular there’s this huge backlash and everybody’s really testing each other to see if you’re a true geek or a true nerd. I passed the test — the Wachowskis kind of ribbed me for a little bit. I don’t know if it’s because of the fact that I played football in high school or the characters I play or the way I look, but a lot of people tend to not believe that I’m as into it [comics/sci-fi] as I am.

Virtual Therapy, Real Gains: I was completely fascinated by this New Yorker article about “Virtual Iraq,” a Full Spectrum Warrior VR mod customizable for treating soldiers with post-traumatic stress. (Special thanks to Chop Shop, my local haircut joint, for leaving out something in the waiting area other than fashion magazines for a change.) The article does a pretty good job of explaining how this is used very carefully as a tool for therapy, and what psychological processes it engages. I was most interested, though, to read the very important cultural strength behind this, as it offers a method of therapy that lacks the stigma of seeing a “shrink.” As one soldier explains:

Infantry is supposed to be the toughest of the tough. Even though there was no punishment for going to therapy, it was looked down upon and seen as weak. But V.R. sounded pretty cool. They hook you up to a machine and you play around like a video game.

That same soldier admitted later in the article (anonymously) that he cried after every session.

One could argue that there’s a more widespread gain to be made by removing the weak or non-masculine stigma of therapy, rather than catering to those who can’t get over that stigma. That doesn’t do much good for people who are suffering right now, though, and I wonder if treatments like this might be a way of getting the hardest-to-convince populations thinking about therapy in new ways. Of course, I’ve made pretty much the same argument about how making formally unusual comics and video games can shift stigmas related to those media among non-geek audiences, so take from this what you will.

Not Interested in Unlocking the Clubhouse After All: The Boston Globe has an article commenting on recent research suggesting that the major reason for the gender gap in the sciences and technology professions may just be that this is what women prefer, and our society allows greater freedom to follow personal career preferences.

I post this link with the usual caveat that it is not scientific research, but a newspaper article about said research, and may qualify the claims therein less than peer reviewed material would. That said, I’m very curious to learn more about this, as the chicken-or-egg possibilities seem very important to consider. The implication here seems to be that science and tech simply don’t appeal to the innate and more broadly enculturated preferences of American women, but I wonder how well the stereotypes surrounding these fields specifically can be parsed out when studying what people want and believe.

I also think we should question the assumption that working in science and tech means working with “inorganic materials” as opposed to the “organic.” As any programmer can tell you, even the most tech-oriented jobs require working with people at some stage in the game. I wonder if we should be questioning not just why people prefer what they do, but why we conceptualize different fields the way we do. Might we see interests in computer science programs shifting if they offered increased emphasis to communication skills and teamwork exercises in their curricula?

Perceiving Smarts and Popularity: Boing Boing directs us to research at Ohio State University suggesting that kids think peers with glasses are smarter and more honest, but not necessarily any less attractive. One researcher said that “the findings suggest that media portrayals associating spectacles with intelligence may be reinforcing a stereotype that even young children accept.”

Meanwhile, Newsweek reports on research at the University of Virginia that teens can be happy just believing they’re popular, even if they’re not seen as particularly popular by their peers. The kids who are reasonably well liked but not super popular seem to benefit from this, but it doesn’t sound like teens are fooling themselves:

The one group of teenagers who did not fare well socially were those who did not perceive themselves as well liked and were not ranked as popular by their peers. These kids were viewed as more hostile toward their peers as the year went on and they were less sought out by their classmates over time. “They’re not at all on the radar screen,” says McElhaney. “They don’t see themselves as accepted and that’s where it’s most problematic, when you don’t have either that popularity or sense that you’re well liked.”

Perhaps the most practical solution for such teens, implied by another researcher quoted in the article’s final paragraph, is to at least find a small group where one can be accepted.

Makers, Punks, and Geeks: V. Vale at RE/Search has written an essay on the parallels between punk culture and the “maker” culture fostered by Make Magazine and its Maker Faire. As Boing Boing summarizes, shared ideals include DIY, Mutual Aid, Anti-Authoritarianism, and Black Humor.

This is a familiar argument to me, but I’m still trying to piece together for myself a cleaner understanding of the genealogy of this branch of geek culture. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner addresses how hippy/DIY ideals led to the development of the net as we know it. Publishers Weekly said of the book, “On first glance, back-to-the-land hippies and dot-com entrepreneurs might not seem much alike”—but perhaps punk culture is sort of the “missing link” there. (This reminds me that I’m looking forward to reading Christina Dunbar-Hester’s dissertation, which similarly addresses the role of DIY culture and political activism in geek ideals.)

Also through Boing Boing, I came upon this New York Times article on Maker Faire. “This is a real geek fest,” a physics professor quoted in the article remarks, and the article makes note of a couple of the sillier points of the inventions (like cars shaped like muffins).

Noticeably unlike other geek fest articles covered by major newspapers, however—which often leave it to the reader to nod in amusement over weirdos in costume—this article consistently leads the reader back to conclude that this is all A Good Thing. Muffin cars may be weird, but they are “green,” and the overarching message of the festival emphasized here is of the positive uses of technology for humanity.

Is this tone sign of greater respect for geeky pursuits? Maybe. I’m inclined to believe, though, that this is indicative of the socially acceptable geekiness accorded specifically to technology, thanks to its widely understood economic worth. This is, as the author notes, a “high-tech, adamantly nonconformist culture, steeped in engineering and art and innovation in garages that incubate billionaires.” You won’t hear such praise in the Times‘s Comic Con wrap-up this year, even though the attendees of each event may see quite a bit of overlap.

On the Virtues of Steampunk: The New York Times and the Boston Phoenix both recently did pieces on steampunk (and an unedited version of the NYT piece went up here). The NYT piece in particular got me thinking about a couple of things that seem relevant to geek and tech cultures in general.

This article is concerned with “the intersection of romance,” emphasis on explaining the contemporary and subcultural importance of the romance. I’m curious, though, of whether this has broader relevance to how we consider the design of technology. For instance, I was very interested in this comment: “Yes, he owns a flat-screen television, but he has modified it with a burlap frame. He uses an iPhone, but it is encased in burnished brass.” The specific mention of the iPhone suddenly got me thinking about how steampunk may in some ways be another version of the kind of design consistency and holism championed by Apple.

Sure, Apple is all very top-down, steampunk is very DIY, but in both cases, it allows for a unified aesthetic experience between multiple objects in everyday life. The economic realities of mass production mean that a truly unified design aesthetic across multiple product types must necessarily be DIY, or at least rely on a lot of copycatting. Apple doesn’t make video game consoles, but thanks to redefining white and curvy as the color and shape of the future, Nintendo and Microsoft have helped make their electronics fit the contemporary living room aesthetic.

I’m not sure I’m going anywhere with this, but I suppose I’m wondering whether steampunk represents a challenge to other unified design aesthetics (or, to be less charitable, aesthetic monocultures). We’ve been able to “skin” our software applications for years now; will marketers find a way to bring that level of visual customization into other areas of our lives, on a much broader level?

This brings me to the other line I particularly appreciated: “Part of the reason it seems so popular is the very difficulty of pinning down what it is. … That’s a marketer’s dream.” This seems so relevant to the concept of “geek” and “nerd” more generally that I wanted to make note of it for future reference.

The Best Weapons Are Silent: How do you entice the employees of a video game publisher to keep mum on company secrets? Sega’s gamble: motivational posters with ninjas.

3 thoughts on “Links: A Few Notes During a Moment of Quiet

  1. I’m sure that one of those links mention it, but to see the overlap of hippie and geek culture you need only look at the Whole Earth Catalog, and it’s offspring the WELL.

    That Richard Morgan link is a spiked article on steampunk (although I imagine it is unedited.) The one that the NYT ran is completely different.

    And to bring it back around, I think that the steampunk aesthetic is a celebration of the DIY culture that Makers Fair embodies. The often non-functioning bric-a-brac acts as camouflage for the non-user-serviceable devices underneath, allowing us to imagine that there’s nothing there that can’t be serviced with a tiny pipe wrench.

  2. The original research in the Globe article appears to be fairly straightforward, showing that women who would educationally and cognitively be able to work well in IT are not. Using the term self-selection is perhaps a biasing, as acknowledged in the article there is little evidence one way or another how this choice is being made. But more bothersome here is that the study focuses on IT, but then the article makes a fast leap to women in science and technology. IT is not science, and this says nothing about the more interesting and important question of why many women drop out of science before establishing meaningful careers.

    Furthermore, following “women often leave technical jobs because of rampant sexism in the workplace” with “a certain amount of gender gap might be a natural artifact of a free society” is freewheeling bullshit. There’s an implicit claim that sexism is a necessary component of a free society. Hooray!

    Pinker’s research appears at first glance to be underdone. First, she’s not accounting for family economic issues; countries that supported a single-earner family should be expected to have had fewer working women (assuming an initial bias towards men in the workplace). Second, their are significant outliers in the countries she lists. Soviet Russia strongly encouraged working women in a way that most countries did not. Japan is still relatively discriminatory towards women in the workplace. I suppose my point, with the caveat that I haven’t read her book and thus this is all handwavy middle-fingering, is that she fails to compare her data with overall gender splits, and then fails to look for other more meaningful sources for any gender discrepancies. Bad science, hmrpth.

    I suppose I shouldn’t be looking for anything more than dripples of news in the science pages of the Globe, but ending the article with some boring platitudes, musing about the possible end of feminist history or somesuch rubs me the wrong way. And avoiding the interesting questions along the way makes me angry…why not ask “what effect does paternity leave have on women’s lack in careers requiring long-term intense working commitments” or “and so what is the evidence for cognitive difference as a result of sexual dimorphic physiology?”.

    That article isn’t bad; its really quite good as science reporting goes. But it is not good enough, and is a subject that would be better addressed with more depth. And less Pinker (family grudge, yo).

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