GeekOut

What the nerds know about technology that nobody else knows - yet

There’s this fantastic comic on XKCD that makes every nerd I know laugh. It’s titled “Tech Support Cheat Sheet,” and it’s a flow chart explaining to the people who treat nerds as their own personal “Geek Squad” how to use a computer program. It's introduced thus:

Dear various parents, grandparents, co-workers, and other “not computer people.” We don’t magically know how to do everything in every program. When we help you, we’re usually just doing this:

It’s funny for nerds because they know working with consumer technology is not rocket science. Amy Bruckman, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, is quick to point out, “There’s some basic debugging skills and logical thinking skills that solve most problems with technology.”

But for easily the past 50 years in America, she said, a culture of anti-intellectualism has made mastering technology the domain of nerds and decidedly un-mainstream.

“Think about the ham radio enthusiast,” Bruckman said, “who, at least in our stereotypical visions, is the nerdiest kid we’ve ever heard of.

“Sitting alone, communicating with other enthusiasts. Electronic communications used to be the ultimate nerd pursuit.”

For nerds, “Being smart has immediate payoffs” when it comes to manipulating technology, she said.

The ability to get results from computers and other devices is “almost like magic. To people who don’t understand it, it is magic.”

So what does that magic boil down to? Nerds are “inherently curious,” Bruckman said. They lack the fear that hinders most people from a meaningful use of technology.

“You need to slow down, look at the technology and realize that if you really look at it in detail, the answer is right in front of you,” she said.

And yet today, the relationship between nerds, non-nerds and technology – especially mobile technology – is quickly erasing the need for XKCD’s day-in-the-life social critique.

Because so many people have access to mobile technology, they are more likely to be excited about it, she said. Other examples of consumer technology reaching a critical mass of popularity – like the Minitel phone technology in France in the late 1970s – show that as more people use technology, new uses for it are invented.

Minitel started out as a computer terminal-like electronic phone book that developed, among other things, a home shopping application through widespread use.

“The interesting thing that’s happening now is, it’s getting cool to be techno-savvy for the first time,” Bruckman said. “If some of the smart kids sometimes feel unappreciated by their more socially adept peers, the technology gives them a place to have a kind of power, because you can do things that impress other people. It gives you social capital.”

But it won’t make a nerd any less of a nerd, she said.

“I see two possibilities,” she said. As a reaction to the precipitously mainstream use of mobile technology, “the nerdy kids will find more technologically intense niches where they are masters of their smaller universe, and it will just require more technical savvy to keep the rest of the kids out.”

“And the other is there may be a broader shift away from this American tradition of anti-intellectualism towards one where, hey, if you’re smart and you can make these things do amazing things, that’s cool,” she said.

“And I hope it’s the latter, and I think there’s a serious possibility for that to happen.”