Chris Gulker

Nerds? Dweebs? They are all sorts. They are brilliant. And they are changing the world

They're nerds, geeks, dweebs, rocket scientists, propeller-heads. Their business cards read "Chief Scientist", "Chief Technical Officer", "Systems Architect". The funny ones say "Code Warrior" or "Keeper of the Acronyms".

They're proud. They're twenty-something. Not a few have a net personal worth approaching that of a medium-size Central American democracy. They have their own languages - C, JAVA, Pascal; and dialects - C++, Objective C, Visual C.

Some are archetypically chubby, unkempt males, sporting imperfect personal hygiene along with thick, eyeball-magnifying lenses in two-tone brown plastic glasses frames. Others are blonde, svelte, expensively perfumed, stylishly costumed and as unmistakably female as they are undeniably in charge. In fact, they come in every shape, size and gender.

They have bad haircuts and perfect hairdos, expensive Italian suits and stained, ripped T-shirts, old jeans and linen slacks, Egyptian cotton shirts embroidered with initials and cheap knit shirts embroidered with company logos. They wear Birkenstock sandals, sneakers, brown suede shoes and black, shiny wing-tips. They wear baseball hats and fedoras, beanies with battery-powered propellers, cowboy hats with silver and turquoise bands, and hunter's caps with camouflage ear flaps.

They carry expensive laptop computers in black nylon shoulder bags, backpacks, leather attache cases, worn plastic shopping bags, expensive aluminum cases and cheesy cloth bags screen-printed with the names of computer trade shows. They carry Newtons, Pilots, Sharp Wizards, palm-sized video cameras from JVC and digital still cameras from Apple.

They populate places like California's Silicon Valley by the thousand. You see them everywhere: shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow and pale, pasty cheek by sallow, unshaven jowl.

They are the brains behind Microsoft, Intel, Apple, Sun, Netscape, IBM, Digital and Hewlett-Packard, to name a few.

They and their predecessors invent things - such as computers and the Internet. What they know and do is valued by the world's stock exchanges at trillions of dollars. They are collectively a national treasure. They are intellectual capital on the hoof. They are the idea engine without whom America would be just another backwater market for Japanese or German industrialists.

They're fervent, driven, religious in their beliefs and jealous of their technologies. Their handlers and managers talk about idea markets and intellectual arbitrage, while they argue fervently about network protocols and have fistfights over file format byte order. They're brilliant.

Some are shy and withdrawn in general company; in nerdly circles, their eyes shine and they speak with evangelistic fervour.

They can sway crowds, and make technological converts.

They turn digital water to electronic wine, which is carried to market by well-oiled marketing machines in places called Silicon Valley and Silicon Turnpike.

They are unwitting front line troops in a global change as profound as the Industrial Revolution.

Just as 17th- and 18th-century Europe saw disruption and upheaval as the world stumbled from an agrarian to an industrial economy, so now many of the world's denizens are scratching their collective heads as the Information Age dawns.

In Western countries, steady, educated, productive people whose parents worked 35 years for the same rock-solid, reliable firm find themselves down-sized, right-sized, redundant, or just plain canned, often not for the first time.

In the Third World, even more bewildering scenes: families living in wrenching poverty, their cardboard homes adorned with the logos of the state-of-the-art computer factories where their lucky relatives work for pennies an hour.

The world is stumbling ahead, again. Progress rolls like a slow-motion train wreck across the economic landscape. Jobs evaporate. Jobs are created from thin air. Nobody seems to have the right skills at the right time, from either the employee or the employer's perspective.

In Silicon Valley, workers, used to yearly or monthly disruption, think of themselves as "employees of the Valley". People concentrate on skill sets. Asked what she does, one Valleyite responds: "I do outbound marketing for phase-two start-ups in the Internet space." She has no plans whatsoever to stay at any firm for more than five years: she has yet to stay at one for even that long. She has a portable pension fund, and a nest-egg of stock options granted by a succession of fledgling firms. It will take only one of those firms hitting it big for her to retire in style, maybe at the ripe old age of 32.

It was the eventual creation of whole new entities, such as banks and capital markets, the capitalistic system and democracy, that settled down the industrial world. It will probably take the invention of new forms to settle this new age down: what's an idea worth, anyway?

Meantime, there was never a more glorious time to be an intellectual capitalist. Go ahead, call them nerds, geeks, dweebs. They're laughing, all the way to the bankn

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