Network: A new image for nerds

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU are reading this week's Network surreptitiously, for fear of being labelled a computer nerd, then take heart from a new Gallup survey. Commissioned by Intel, the results of the poll indicate a drastic swing away from the geeky stereotypes usually associated with computers. The nerd, it would seem, is dying out.

One of the most significant findings of the survey was that the perception of computer use as being somehow "nerdish" or exclusive has changed significantly. According to David Lee, Gallup's associate director, over 90 per cent of those questioned agreed that "PCs used to be only used by academics, experts and boffins, but now they are seen as everyday items like TV sets and can be used by all members of the family".

Indeed, it would now seem that those who do not use computers are more likely to be the losers. More than four in 10 respondents felt that such people "will probably miss out on many opportunities", with a further 20 per cent saying that they "will probably lose touch with the modern world".

The stigma of the computer nerd has long been a millstone round the neck of the home computer industry, which will welcome Gallup's findings. In order to make the all-important transition from the specialist to the consumer market, the PC had to be positioned as appealing and accessible to the high street shopper - it had to be easy to use. More than 30 per cent of those questioned cited ease of use as the main reason for the PC's rising popularity. Ease of use has been the principal innovation in home computing over the last decade. It was the very complexity of the early machines that made them attractive only to the "nerd".

Nerds are interested in the mechanisms of technology as opposed to their results - the means not the end. Such interest requires an in-depth and esoteric knowledge, from which the nerd gains fulfillment. Remove the need for this and the nerd loses his motivation.

Intel's Catriona Jamieson believes that current PCs have a much broader appeal.

"Nowadays computers are easy. You can edit home movies or access Nasa satellites without too much effort. You don't need to be an expert any more."

Even computer games, traditionally a nerd-dominated area, are now becoming a mainstream activity. Of those questioned, over half regularly used their computer for games. While this figure is highest (84 per cent) in the 16-24 age group, nearly one in four of the group aged 65 plus say they play computer games. "It's not just a boy's thing," adds Lee. "Over half of female PC users say they [also] use their computer for games."

Another former nerd stronghold, the Internet, is also facing inroads from normal society. Gallup found that surfing the web is slightly more popular among women than men, with 51 per cent of female respondents interested.

Matthew Burgess