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Nerd Nerd Revolution
Part I:  Introduction


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
February 9, 2009

I am finally getting down to writing this commentary after dealing with the issue that all of the music in my house has starting sounding "too digital" to me. I lack the inclination to ever deal with vinyl again; however, I read somewhere that rather than spend thousands of bucks to get real analog sound with a tube amp, the distortion provides its distinctive sound can be digitally synthesized on the cheap. A quick Googling found a product called Ozone that plugs into various PC-based music players and provides user-adjustment analog distortion. I've been listening to some Internet radio stations with Ozone and it definitely does something to the music to have 24-bit, upsampled distortion injected into it. Retro without the hassle.

Well, I guess that the sort of person who uses digital methods to make his digital music less digital is a nerd these days. For the next several months the whole nerd phenomenon will be the focus of these commentaries. Indeed, I will be delaying next month's commentary for two weeks so that I can write about my upcoming attendance at the ultimate Nerdfest, South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive in Austin, Texas. (Well, actually, Peguicon may be the ultimate Nerdfest, but I'm not going there as long as they hold it in Detroit.)

Back in the day there was no such thing as a nerd. Lots of people were into technology, but "techies" had no yet evolved into a recognizable stereotype like nerds or geeks. Techies certainly weren't social misfits, we were demigods with rudimentary superpowers.

What lead to the rise of the nerd stereotype was the replacement of Howard Hughes as the technostereotype with Bill Gates. Bill Gates rose to power in the early 1980s, the same time that the whole nerd thing took off.

Back in the 1940s (before I was born, I may add), technology really was sexy. Technologists could do as sorts of these that common folk saw as magic. We could blow entire cities up, detect incoming aircraft hundreds of miles away, and fly to all corners of the earth. Were we Supermen. And the most super among us was Howard Hughes. He was the richest man in the world, he had movie-star good looks because he was a movie star, and he had his pick of movie-star girlfriends. Think of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, only smarter and better looking. (Tony Stark, Iron Man with the iron,  was based on Howard Hughes, of course.) Sadly, Hughes became quite crazy and when word of his insanity got out, he stopped being a role model for up-and-coming technowizards.

In the movies and on television through the 1960s, most technologists were portrayed so that they bore some resemblance to Howard Hughes. I just got the first season (1963-1964) of The Outer Limits on DVD and the pilot episode is about a radio station owner and engineer played by Cliff Robertson. (The engineer manages to tune into the Andromeda galaxy with the unfortunate result of beaming the "Galaxy Being" to Earth.) Cliff Robertson bears no resemblance to our contemporary stereotypical nerds. Indeed, when he wasn't latching onto aliens, he considered good enough looking to play JFK and later did an acting turn as the ultimate playboy, Hugh Hefner.

So, what went wrong? I blame a latest guy to be the world's richest man. You guessed it, Bill Gates. Now even though most tech guys are impossibly handsome, this one not-so-handsome guy started a stereotype that lives on to today, a stereotype that appears to be self-fulfilling. Guys no longer say "I'm not as handsome as Howard Hughes so I can't possibly go into a technological field." Instead, there say "I'm kinda bit repulsive so I better hide in a lab or on a 'campus' in Silicon Valley and do something involving technology." Thanks to Mr. Gates, technology now has a stigma attached to it that it never had when I was growing up. I was literally programmed to grow up to be Cliff Robertson, not Bill Gates.

I would like to present Exhibit A in the indictment of Bill Gates, this famous cover from time magazine that came out in 1984.

Now can you see any resemblance to Howard Hughes from his days as a silver screen idol?

Howard Hughes

I didn't think you could.

It can be no mere coincidence that in that very same year, nerds exploded on the movie screens around the global. Of course, there was Revenge of the Nerds, almost certainly the first movie with the word "nerd" in the title. More importantly, were the two John Hughes movies, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, with Anthony Michael Hall playing the nerd role. It is also no coincidence that Mr. Hall would go on to play Mr. Gates in the superb cable movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley.

Despite the negative stereotyping of nerds, not all is lost. While the techies of old were few and far between (to use a common cliché back then), nerds are everywhere, stigma notwithstanding. Nerds even have television shows. One of them, The Big Bang Theory merits an entire commentary later in this series. Nerd culture is so pervasive, that just covering a few of its high points will keep me busy and out of trouble for a good chunk of 2009. Next time, a bit later than usual, I'll report on what's up in Austin.

Copyright 2009 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to