• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Mysteries Under the Hood

Society shifts in favor of nerds.

February 25, 2015

We moved a couple of weeks ago and had to change the children to a new school mid-year. My son said to me that it’s fine, as long as I can find him a bunch of nerds to hang out with. 

I realized, though it didn’t exactly surprise me, that my son self-identifies as a nerd. This is such a change from when I was growing up. Then, nerds were someone to feel sorry for. They were mocked in popular culture: the entire plot of movie Revenge of the Nerds centered on nerds as social outcasts and underdogs. At the time, no one could imagine that anyone would ever want to be like them. 

I began to think about the causes for the re-evaluation of the place of nerds in our society. Certainly, programs like The Big Bang Theory hype the value of the nerd. Sure, the four protagonists are still socially inept in that series, but their intelligence often is rewarded. In fact, the show seems to imply that they need to be nerds in order to have genius qualities. They also still end up paired up and able to have a love life. Yet, I wonder whether popular culture is creating new representations or reflecting them?

The technologies we use today change how we see ourselves. While the nerds used to be the ones so devoted to data and being labeled “techies,” all of us now are attached to screens and are able to recite reams of data available at our fingertips, one Google search away. Duff McDonald used the revenge of the nerds narrative to explain how IT nerds won control of business away from the MBA jocks. “Science — specifically, computer science — is cool again,” McDonald observed. “It’s Mark Zuckerberg’s world now.”

We even consume our entertainment with the ravenous appetites of nerds. We are a society of binge viewers, consuming entire series runs over a single sleep-deprived weekend. Social media and websites promote lists of shows that are binge-worthy. The ability to recite verbatim lines from a favorite program is no longer the mark of a nerd, but a share-worthy fan.

We are working at my college to build up an Innovation Lab, where our students can learn how create new technologies through play. I can’t help but think that we are becoming more and more dependent upon the people who are able to dissect otherwise opaque technologies. It used to be that drivers could fix their own cars by looking under the hood. Now, though, underneath the hood is a mystery to so many of us. We need a mechanic to plug our car into a computer to determine whether that “check engine” light is really something to worry about.

I remember when my son was a three-year old who had taken the lid off of the toilet tank because he wanted to find out where the water comes from and goes. It’s great that as a ten-year old, he still wants to uncover how hidden technologies work, and that there may be classes, games, and other outlets that may give him the chance to find out. How can we uncover more opportunities for students to be able to look under the hood? How do we persuade them to want to do just that?


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