Why nerds are inheriting the earth

The best-selling books, hottest cinema tickets and most desirable gadgets have one thing in common – they have a high nerd count. Alice-Azania Jarvis offers a spotter's guide to the geeky species that is inheriting the earth.

Last week, a film about a skinny, bespectacled boy named Harry enjoyed the most profitable opening period in cinematic history. At the same time, a series of children's books starring a group of gauche young tweens, NERDS, is expected to be one of Christmas' big sellers.

The festive must-have for adults, meanwhile, is Apple's iPad: an invention so extremely elegant, so undoubtedly cool, that it's easy to forget it was designed by Silicone Valley's current Nerd-in-Chief Steve Jobs. Or at least, it would be easy were he not quite so famous, his grinning visage not quite so synonymous with success.

But forget Christmas. What of 2010 more broadly? The Social Network, a pacy thriller about Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg, was the film everyone wanted to see. Off-screen, Zuckerberg was named the youngest billionaire on the planet (he is worth a staggering $6.9bn), while Bill Gates, once again, was awarded the number one spot on the Forbes Rich List. Bill Gates, bespectacled, chino-clad, a man so extremely nerdy he might well have been pulled from a Hollywood casting lot and handed his job along with a script. Of course, if he were, that script would be 1984's college comedy Revenge of the Nerds. Because the nerds, it's safe to say, have won.

Things weren't always this way. In 1951, Newsweek reported on the rise of a new term in the national dialect. "Someone," the magazine observed, "who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd." Quite where the word came from is unclear, though in the 1950 Dr Seuss book If I Ran The Zoo, the narrator speaks of collecting "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too". By the following decade, the idea of the nerd as a derogatory term – a term indicating extreme uncoolness – was well-established. A 1965 edition of Bachelor magazine pokes fun at a group of "nurds" (sic), pictured in what has become the default uniform of popular imagination: plaid shirt, high-waisted trousers and spectacles. In the 1970s, retro-kitsch sitcom Happy Days made frequent and hearty use of the word. And in 1978, Grease arrived complete with uber-nerd Eugene Felnic, played by the equally geeky Eddie Deezen.

Of course, if the 1950s gave rise to the terminology of nerd-dom – not to mention the sort of teen culture which welcomes such labels – the concept behind the character is a much older entity. "Drips" and "squares", common insults amongst the Jazz Age's fun-loving youth, were sufficiently well-established for Newsweek to use them without explanation. In the UK, the word boffin, armed forces slang for an engineer during the Second World War, had come to denote a kind of swotty intelligence. And of course, the notion of the outsider, handicapped by his own lack of social skills and isolated by an inability to fall in with conventional conduct, has been around since time immemorial: from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to William Golding's Piggy.

What happened in the second half of the twentieth century, though, was that these various ideas – the notions of the straight-laced killjoy, the cleverer-than-thou swot, and the unloved loner – coalesced into a single, pejorative stereotype, duly adopted and reinforced by the television sets that took up residence in every home. Benjamin Nugent, the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People has likened process to earlier ages' caricaturing of the Jewish community: "If you look at drawings from the 18th and 19th centuries, the standard depictions of Jews show them wearing glasses, with pointedly unathletic builds. They are bookish and timid. In the nerd, the characteristics that many westerners had used to impute to Jews have been gathered into a figure with no particular ethnic or religious affiliations."

Whatever the significance of such similarities – and in terms of our philosophical progress, they can't be very good – every major television comedy was, before long, propagating them, offering up a nerd to provide the butt of more popular cast members' jokes. In Family Matters it was Steve Urkel, in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air it was Carlton Banks and in Saved by the Bell it was Screech Powers. On Saturday Night Live Gilda Radner and Bill Murray began their much-loved Nerds sketches while in Francine Pascal's phenomenally successful series of Sweet Valley novels, Winston Egbert was left to pine away over Jessica. Nerds, with their exaggerated ineptitude, were used as plot devices to make the other, more emotionally intelligent characters look good – and, by extension, make observers feel better about themselves.

Yet for all their punchline potential, the role of the nerd hasn't been limited to that of the victim. 1984's Revenge of the Nerds scored one for the geek community, while from the early 1990s onwards, nerds, in all their goofy, unfashionable glory, got to enjoy a growing role as something other than the token loser. Saved By the Bell's Screech, for instance, may have been the school nerd, but he was also best friends with heartthrob Zack. Combined with his own more-appealing qualities – loyalty, kindliness, intelligence – this position bagged him his fair share of popularity – and romance. Either realising the empathetic potential of the nerdy underdog, or clocking the custom to be found amongst their real-life equivalents, authors and producers started to feature them centre-stage. In 1997, MTV debuted Daria, a witty, sassy and – yes – cool programme about a female nerd and her outcast friends.

At the same time, inextricably linked to this, a broader economic shift was underway. The rise of Silicon Valley and the first dotcom boom saw nerds, long preoccupied with the intricacies of maths and computer science, blossom from the unpopular kids in school to serious financial power players. When Bill Gates became the world's richest man in 1995, nerds finally had their own hero to whom they could aspire. Gates had achieved rock star levels of success and celebrity but, superficially at least, demonstrated all of the traits of a nerd. Gradually, both the American and British economies became less dominated by pursuits which demanded the social and physical skills so at odds with nerdism – the hard labour of manufacturing, the macho jostling of banking– and opened up to incorporate industries based on intellectual capital: IT, programming, technology.

Reacting to this, two American journalists, Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, launched Wired magazine in 1993. A monthly glossy dedicated to covering the news and gossip of the technology industry, it was, in essence, Vogue for geeks. Included were features on gaming, hacking and special effects, as well as a regular column by Mikki Halpin on how nerd-lovers could bag themselves their very own nerd. "People were writing in, saying that they had never felt so understood," reflects Halpin now. "There was a real feeling that the geeks were the future." She went on to author The Geek Handbook, a wry and self-conscious celebration of the nerd community.

What this added up to was a burgeoning culture of nerdism as a lifestyle choice. A Nerd Pride movement emerged, spearheaded by Gerald Sussman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Calling on his followers to "resist peer pressure to be anti-intellectual", Sussman campaigned to make nerd status aspirational, rather than the unfortunate consequence of social ineptitude. An international Geek Pride Day followed (25 May, the anniversary of the first Star Wars film), "nerdcore" sprung up as a sub-genre of hip-hop, and several so-called "geek rock" bands achieved mainstream success: Weezer, They Might Be Giants and Nerf Herder.

As the nerd community enjoyed a cultural blossoming, so the outside world sat up and took interest. When JK Rowling's Harry Potter books became a literary sensation in the late 1990s, the fantasy genre – hitherto a characteristically nerdy corner of publishing – went mainstream. "There was a huge explosion of interest," reflects Andy Sawyer, science fiction librarian at Liverpool University. "Suddenly, it was OK for younger people, girls, and so on to take an interest." Buffy the Vampire Slayer continued the trend on television, while The X-Files became a phenomenon on both the small and big screens. In 1994, the first use of the term "geek chic" appeared in the British press, used to describe Chris Evans' speccy style; the following year it became a major reference point amongst menswear designers. With the dawn of the new millennium – and the threat of the Y2K bug – geeks only assumed greater prominence. After all, without their expertise in reconfiguring our computers, we were in danger of watching aeroplanes fall from the sky.

Then, in 2003, millions of women around the world fell head over heels for one particular man – or, rather, one particular character: Seth Cohen, star of the glossy teen mega-drama The OC. Created as an awkward, comic book-loving antidote to the series' uber-hunk Ryan, Cohen, with his diamond-print tank-tops, love of video games and comprehensive comic book collection, rapidly became the main event. He was, cultural commentators noted, geek chic personified. Correspondingly, he was rewarded with the voluptuous affections of the school sexpot, Summer Roberts. "Seth Cohen romantically validated nerds," observes Nugent of this. "Being one didn't necessarily mean you were undesirable."

From that point, it was a short hop to the sort of stylised nerdiness we see today: the east London scenesters who don Buddy Holly frames and buttoned-up shirts, the colourful laptops that perform every task under the sun, and the comic book conventions drawing crowds from right across the social spectrum. The cliché of the techie dork might as well be extended to all of us, constantly fiddling away with our smartphone apps, competing over who has the best wifi connection and splurging our thoughts on various social networks. It's no wonder, really, that this Tuesday saw the first ever Geek of Year Awards – held, inevitably, in London's Hoxton.

Of course, if the nerd of late twentieth century imagination – the bookish, awkward caricature – is no longer the marginalised figure he once was, neither is he, necessarily, the guy everyone wants to be. Just because Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are international celebrities, just because Mark Zuckerberg is the most popular man on the planet, it doesn't mean that the every-day lot of the classroom dork is suddenly rosy. Halpin argues that for a more accurate depiction of nerd culture, we should look at The Big Bang Theory. The programme, broadcast on E4, follows four arch-nerds as they hang out together, competing over their respective intelligence. The gang are, to a large extent, self selecting; their identity not shaped by someone else's taunts but by their own interests. Still, much of the plot is devoted to winning over – against the odds – their decidedly un-nerdy neighbour Penny.

And of course, for every social rung that the nerd has been allowed to climb, you can be sure that there is a new type of underdog waiting to take the flak, be they the local Glee club or the "desperate wannabes" of Tina Fey's Mean Girls. In order for a crowd to be "in", someone must be "out"; the definition of outsiderism may simply have shifted. Quite what to isn't clear, though, as Halpin puts it: "At the end of the day, if the nerds aren't being picked on, somebody else is."

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