What the nerds know about technology that nobody else knows - yet
October 6th, 2011
03:47 PM ET

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.”

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soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. Deon Fasheh

    Chinese dry-cured hams have been recorded in texts since before the Song dynasty and used in myriad dishes. Several types exist in Qing dynasty cuisine and are used in dishes of stewing hams.

    May 13, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  2. iphone

    Helpful info. Fortunate me I discovered your site unintentionally, and I am shocked why this accident didn't happened in advance! I bookmarked it. iphone http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVLDhZY4mtA

    January 31, 2013 at 1:19 am |
  3. RS

    This is what happens when women with little knowledge of technology write blog articles.


    October 22, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  4. Ronnie

    Why are all of you taking offence to being a nerd. I'm proud to be one. I embrace it. That flow chart is awesome because I'm asked to fix family computers all the time and thats basicly what I do. But being a nerd does not make you an antisocial, skinny kid with huge glasses. Stop taking offence to a steriotype.

    October 9, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  5. Henry

    im tirred of people with a brain being labeled nerds. You want to stop the bullying stop encouraging writers to call people nerds or geeks were not social outkasts as a mater a fact im very attractive and just know how to handle technology don't get mad and decide to label me as a nerd because you can't figure something out.

    October 9, 2011 at 12:31 am |
    • floristeria

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      April 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  6. Brian

    What now I am a labeled as insocial if I am good with computers?

    October 8, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  7. Erin

    I don't expect technology to perform miracles, but I've found that I get out of it what I invest into it knowledge-wise. Basically, I need technology to produce my work in the most efficient way possible so I can get to what's really important – trolling the intergoogle while making it appear that I'm actually working.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Cesar

      Zune and iPod: Most people orapmce the Zune to the Touch, but after seeing how slim and surprisingly small and light it is, I consider it to be a rather unique hybrid that combines qualities of both the Touch and the Nano. It's very colorful and lovely OLED screen is slightly smaller than the touch screen, but the player itself feels quite a bit smaller and lighter. It weighs about 2/3 as much, and is noticeably smaller in width and height, while being just a hair thicker.

      April 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  8. boogietime

    Blessed are the Geek, for they shall inherit the earth.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  9. Burnouttx

    Four letters for everyone out there.... R T F M. If you dont know what that means, google it.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • boogietime

      And don't read it in the other 8 languages, read it in English.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Deela

      There's J F G I, too.

      October 12, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  10. Melissa

    No, my idiot boss was wrong. Why? Because all our computers are about ten years old and run on windows xp. Only one of them has been updated with a new hard drive because my coworker got a virus that caused the HD to spin till it burned out. It would be different if they have a modern HD, but these are NOT modern HD's.

    My work computer drives me crazy. It doesn't have enough ram, is extremely slow, and otherwise incredibly annoying. All because the company refuses to upgrade their equipment. The IT guy that used to work full time for us (they got rid of him because they're being cheap and the office is down to half the size what it was in spite of us being much much busier now than we were three years ago) hated working for them because they just expected him to pull miracles out of his hat and fix everything even when it wasn't fixable. It was a full time job just maintaining these pieces of garbage because they are always breaking down. The only time the company will buy a new anything is if it won't turn on anymore. Its like they're held together by duct tape.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Uhhh...

      BZZZZT! Wrong again, but thank you for playing!
      If the computers will run XP, they are using DRAM and the only SRAM is in the CPU cache.
      Really, sweetie, you're in over your head.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
      • Renee Marie Jones

        Huh? I don't see anywhere where she even *said* SRAM. And if I'm missing it somewhere, maybe it's a typo or slip up or something innocuous. You can't condemn someone for a one-character slip up. I suspect that means *you* are the one that doesn't know what you are talking about, if you have obsess over something like that.

        October 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  11. Melissa

    Honestly, it shocks me how little people know about the technology they're using. Most of the stuff they have problems with could be solved with 30 seconds of logical thinking. Its not as hard as people make it out to be.

    Just an example... my coworker was having problems with her computer not opening anything she clicked on. I told her to reboot the computer, leave it off for at least 30 seconds, then turn it back on. My boss (who thinks he knows everything under the sun and has no shame in showing it at all. He's also about 26 years old, where I am 35), says "No, just turn it off and right back on. You don't know what you're talking about". I looked right at him and said "No, you turn it off and leave it off for 30 seconds so the hard drive will stop spinning and the temporary memory will empty. Usually doing this will fix any problem on a computer, but not always". So my coworker, being a much brighter person than my idiot boss, decided to listen to ME. It fixed her problem, and my boss still didn't believe me.

    So another day, a different coworker started not being able to get on the net, and my boss was freaking out that he'd have to call in a tech and how much it would cost. I asked him if I could take five minutes to look at it to see if I could fix it and he gave me this look of incredible annoyance and said in this exasperated tone "Fine, if you can fix it, go ahead but don't make it worse". It took me 30 seconds to figure out the computer had somehow activated the proxy settings and disable it.

    Uggg, I wasn't lying when I said I know alot about computers. And the stupid thing is that even though I've fixed several computers in this office, they STILL won't give me admin rights even though I seem to know more than everyone in the office except the IT tech they call in sometimes.

    The scary thing is, if anyone in the office bothered to learn how to use a computer in more than just typing, they'd know all this stuff themselves.

    Computers are NOT that difficult to learn. Especially at this level.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Uhhh...

      You aren't as smart as you think. The spin of the hard drive platters isn't an issue, and the read heads park in an instant. there is no need to wait for the hard drive to spin down. In fact, spinning down a hard drive wears out the motor faster. That's why if you use the reboot option on your computer it doesn't wait for the drive to spin down. There is no need.

      Also, your computers at work use dynamic RAM (DRAM), which needs to be refreshed hundreds of times per second, or it loses the data it is holding. It is not necessary to wait for that memory to "clear," turning the machine off will do that just fine. the only static RAM in them is in the CPU cache, which clears itself when the machine powers off, and again when the machine powers up. No waiting necessary, it is part of the CPU's power on and power off sequences.

      Your "wait thirty seconds" advice might have applied in 1990, but not so much in 2011.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:49 am |
      • Heh...

        4 teh pwn!

        October 7, 2011 at 9:53 am |
      • Feynman

        I think it's safe to say that Melissa now has two ***holes.

        October 7, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Melissa

      Oy. Try explaining that to people that only know how to turn it on and type honey. If you say something like I just said, they get it because its brainless and stupid, just like 90% of the population on the planet.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:55 am |
      • Melissa

        And once again, doing that works to fix most problems. So stop b!tching.

        October 7, 2011 at 9:56 am |
      • Uhhh...

        My point was your "idiot boss" was right, turning the machine off then back on would have worked just fine. Your knowledge is out of date. Maybe you should climb down off your Learned Elder pedestal and listen to the younger generation now and then.

        October 7, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  12. Dan Ari

    Our lives are run by computers that are made for nerds who enjoy the complexity. Fortunately, our cars, our thermostats, our iPods, and even our smart phones were made to be easy to use so you don't have to reinstall your engine every time the car stalls. The economic cost of this vast legacy system called Windows is immense, but that is the tragedy of a monopoly.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Oh, come on.

      Linux is free. Stop blaming Bill Gates for making a product people would rather pay for.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Melissa

      Computers aren't as hard as people make them out to be. Programming is hard, not computers.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      Another Mac user complaining about windows 98? Windows does not call for you to reinstall in order to fix problems anymore. It hasn't worked that way for about a decade. The only device I own that has re-installed it's OS outside of a planned upgrade is my iPhone. It locked up and went to an error screen asking to be plugged into a computer. When I did, it re-installed the phones operating system.

      Over the last ten years or so, windows has figured out how to be a lot more reliable, and allows the user to do whatever they want, while apple has moved into the consumer electronics market, and determined exactly how their devices will be used, and for what. It's almost like the two companies swapped roles and personalities.

      October 12, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  13. Kyidyl

    The geeks shall inherit the earth. 🙂

    October 7, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  14. ali

    i continue to be amazed that having some tiny bit of common sense is now being a nerd.

    amazing. why can't people just try to understand what they have and use before calling up someont to get it working for them.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • Deela@ali

      That was addressed in the article:
      "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."

      October 12, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  15. Jorge

    BIG DEAL, I can rebuild my car on my own, reroof my own house, reline my own pool, do my own plumbing, carpentry, masonry and electrical work, fabricate and weld up anything from blueprints, cook up a pit-roast feast with sides and dessert for 20-plus people in 4 hours, give you CPR, square, plumb and level a foundation for a building to perfection with clear vinyl tubing, water, food dye, a tape measure and a pencil and teach you how to wipe your nose; go away, nerd.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:48 am |
    • Meh.


      October 7, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • Wow

      You're so cool. Teach me how to be like you.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Davy Jones

      None of those strike me as particularly remarkable skills. I see hispanic immigrants doing construction work all the time. Heck, I've done all those things aside from lining a pool and the BBQ one (where I come from BBQ can't be done in 4 hours).
      I mean, really, you think understanding a water level is unusual?
      Oh, and I can code in several languages and script in several more.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Derrick

      Sorry Jorge, but those skills are operationalized and can be outsourced to other countries where workers are willing to perform them for less pay. And the truth is: the world needs nerds. Without nerds and technology, the US economy would stagnate and the US military would be ineffective. I highly recommend the advancement of nerds for the sake of the US economy and national security: giving nerds tax breaks above the other professions will help drive innovation and keep the US economy ahead of China and others.

      I will say that the comment comparing manual labour to hispanic immigrants was quite racist. There are many hispanic immigrants who are successful nerds; not all are cheap labour.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:37 am |
      • Mathias

        Love this post! All these candies were so yummy "back in the day" but bbblue tage and nerds were my FAV!! And I too LOVED Chico Sticks, those were so yummy : )

        August 5, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • Kyidyl

      And yet...you still probably get mad at your iphone or computer when it doesn't work right.

      I've worked with users for years, I recognize the bruised ego and defensive reflex of someone that's be repeatedly defeated by electronics, and feels stupid because of it. I've often wondered what is so threatening to some people about the idea of someone else knowing more than them about computers.

      It's a different skillset and, yes, one you don't know. Get over it. Make peace with the electronics and their keepers, cause neither is going any place any time soon.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:43 am |
      • Melissa

        Well said and completely true.

        October 7, 2011 at 9:43 am |
      • Deela@Kyidyl


        October 12, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Davy Jones

      Derrick, stop looking for things to be offended about.
      It isn't racist to recognize that many hispanic immigrants come to the US as unskilled or semi-skilled laborers, and that as such many of them find work doing the tasks Jorge was bragging about.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:51 am |
      • Derrick

        Your previous post didn't specify a subset of hispanic immigrants. And just because I pointed out the obvious doesn't mean I am looking for things to be offended about, nor did I state I was offended either.

        October 7, 2011 at 10:32 am |
      • Davy Jones

        That's a pretty BS argument, Derrick.
        My previous post also didn't say "all hispanic immigrants." If I said "people often argue on the Internet," would you feel compelled to point out that some people don't even know what the Internet is? Or would you understand that a collective noun isn't necessarily comprehensive, and the statement was an honest observation?

        October 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Scott

      This nerd can do all those Jorge. I am also a licensed ham radio operator and work on some of the largest computer networks you have ever seen. I write computer programs in more programming languages than most of my peers even know about. The water level... how cute... btw, it works nicely when you have 60 feet of blocks and need to see if each corner is the same height. Get a clue. Nerds rule.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Byanka

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      April 8, 2012 at 3:28 am |
  16. Paul

    I used to develop for cellphones for DoCoMo, Verizon, AT&T, etc etc. Now I get alerts from a pager. Iphones are cool, but 99% of the features were available in 1999! rofl! I used them in the early 2000s got bored and moved on.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  17. The Brain

    Yes! Pinky! Everyone does what their cell phone tells them to do. It's more important to them than the reality around them. If we can devise the proper app that everyone loves, we can use it to tell them what WE want them to do and TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:33 am |
  18. The_Mick

    "But for easily the past 50 years in American, she said, a culture of anti-intellectualism has made mastering technology the domain of nerds and decidedly un-mainstream." +++++ And now we only produce 50% of the mathematicians, scientists, and engineers needed to keep our society functioning. This mind-set has to change, yet being a scientist is almost always portrayed as being comically removed from reality like in "The Big Bang Theory," the professor on "Gilligan's Island," etc.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:09 am |
    • Asav

      That's nonsense you know. I'm a scientist. Find another scientist or mathematician and ask them. There may be a shortage of highschool science teachers (maybe), but not scientists. I know a lot of very smart ones who can't find a job. Because there are not enough jobs for the scientists we already have. Then they leave science and start doing something else to make even $30,000 a year (I'm not kidding) and then I hear Obama saying there aren't enough scientists and I get really irritated.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:09 am |
  19. r

    There are also too many feminine hygiene products out there too.

    October 6, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  20. leecherius

    Sometimes tech goes a little too far. Take a tv remote...52 buttons, I use 3....on/off,volume , change channel. More than this and your just screwing with me.

    October 6, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  21. Burnz

    Needs a bubble saying "Look directly at object, smash fae against it three times"

    October 6, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  22. Scott

    I can't begin to tell you how many people I know have all that new flashy mobile tech and don't have a clue how to operate any of it beyond the most simple options.

    October 6, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Matt

      I know EXACTLY what you mean. In my school I see people with the nicest phones and I hear them over and over asking how to do the simplest things to me. It actually bugs me to no end.

      October 6, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
      • Glenn

        You're right, it's completely iiurcdlous. Every night I go I have to scramble for parking and wait 5 hours to use a bench or treadmill.The worst is that they are still on drives to recruit more members the other day they asked me for 15 names!!! Point can't handle 15 more people.

        April 7, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • AGeek

      I'm a senior core engineer for a global tier 1 carrier. There are not too many professions nerdier than mine. The phone I carry is as dumb as a brick. It sends/receives calls and the receives the rare, urgent text pager message. When I see people with these "smart" phones, 99.999999% of the time, they're playing a game, watching a show, or texting someone. F–king idiots. Your assessment is spot on.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:07 am |
      • Curious

        Two questions:
        1. What is it you think they should be doing with their smart phones?
        2. What makes you the arbiter of how others should derive satisfaction from their possessions?

        October 7, 2011 at 8:05 am |
      • me

        Yeah, I hate enjoying my tech, too.

        October 7, 2011 at 8:51 am |
      • Melissa

        Tech envy, huh?

        October 7, 2011 at 9:49 am |
      • xxsevensxx

        Even though I don't agree with the sentiment, I do kind of understand where AGeek is coming from. The "nerdiest of nerds" are the most practical people you will ever meet. To them, technology is a tool rather than a diversion. He may not have the flashiest, trendiest, newest smartphone, but I'm willing to bet AGeek's computer can whoop yours and mine solid.

        October 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  23. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    I Love Nerds!

    October 6, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Deela

      Rare or well-done? 😉

      October 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |