Un-Universal Nerd Culture and the Death of Iconography

The 21st Century has somehow made it acceptable and even cool to be a nerd. I'm not sure anyone knew specifically when it happened but there's been a pride movement that's spread popular culture all about geek advocacy. In 2009, the signs are everywhere. Humorist John Hodgman declared the current President of the United States, Barack Obama, the first nerd president. The nerd cause has icons of various appeal. We have the ringleader of Web 2.0, Kevin Rose. We have the genuine superpower nerd of Bill Gates (he who needs no hyperlink). We have the self-proclaimed musical Hip-Hop nerd, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. San Antonio has its own local geek celeb (if you consider celebrity he who has a blog on a daily newspaper's website), René A. Guzman. And we have our lifelong geek who somehow became a spectacular phoenix, rising from the ashes of a career charred in the hate of lower geeks to become our paragon: Wil Wheaton.

Geek culture has had ups and downs over time. It has had stereotypes. It has had definitive attributes. But, like anything else that seems to have happened in the 21st Century, it has splintered due to the subsets of subculture that were created through the advancement of technology. You may have heard me talk about niche audiences before. I'll undoubtedly talk about them again.

When Michael Jackson died, every person I knew, every news network I saw, every blog comment I read said, "There will never be another Michael Jackson." Chuck Klosterman said the same thing when he eulogized Johnny Carson in 2005. What Klosterman so clearly said four years ago but what so many people seemed to have not realized one month ago was that iconography has lost its poignancy in the advent of niche audiences. If the internet connects you to your specific desired entertainment, you can become oblivious to things that don't interest you. From 1962-1992, everyone had a similar icon in Johnny Carson. From 1964 to about 1993, everyone had a similar icon in Michael Jackson. The general population had at least a certain awareness of these icons. This isn't even commenting on adoration, but for these spans of time, the general population had a figure around which it could circulate and have a shared experience. In their time, these two figures were practically Jungian archetypes.

Yesterday, Walter Cronkite died at age 92. I knew of him from videotapes in middle school teaching me Civil War history with his memorable "You are There!" series. My parents remember him because he simply was the news in their time. I read of his death on Twitter, wasn't surprised because I saw it coming (he was 92 for crying out loud and in the last couple of weeks, I read he wasn't in the best of shape), and told my parents. When my sister was in the room, she asked, "Who's Walter Cronkite?" I have to admit, I was a little annoyed at her not knowing who Cronkite was but in retrospect, I can't be. He was not an icon of her time and he wasn't really an icon of mine, I just tend to know more stuff from earlier times than socially acceptable (hence the nickname, Retro).

But to get back to my point, if iconography spread across the general populace has died, one must also note that iconography has died. Technology has killed this concept. We cannot be upset about this. As Klosterman has also said, culture cannot be wrong, it just is. This is just the natural progression of culture. Technology and culture are walking hand in hand to a new province of people who get whatever they want, whenever they want. Many of us would consider that pretty cool. Innovation has enabled us to have personalized bowls of ice cream with toppings we so choose. We can have coffee originally conceived in Italy with whatever milk, caffeine level, and flavor we choose in two minutes (at least it's two minutes when I used to be a barista; for some others it can get up to five and that's just annoying and inefficient). Innovation has given us all the music we want and the freedom to choose it. I now listen to only one or two radio stations and they certainly don't play Top 40. I'm blissfully unaware of Lady GaGa, a woman I've never seen until maybe a couple of days ago and I still can't remember her face, let alone a song she's performed.

So this means we have populaces separated by their interests. Generalists believe this has created the subculture, but if there is now so much of a splintering in culture, is there such a thing as a subculture? How can there be a populace beneath a populace that no longer exists? The lower layers now are the main layers. Here's where things get tricky, though. We still don't have iconography that binds us. So now, the smaller cultures that were subcultures before aren't even united which (finally) brings me back to my first point: the 21st Century is cherishing nerd culture, but I'm saying that there isn't a universal nerd culture because we no longer have the universal definition of a nerd.

If we go back to my previously listed cadre of geek icons, what exactly ties them culturally (not just through intellectual acumen)? What in culture ties Bill Gates, Kevin Rose, ?uestlove, President Obama, Wil Wheaton, and René Guzman? Let's add some more to that list. Where do Pharrell Williams, Joss Whedon, Randall Munroe, Vin Diesel, and Colson Whitehead (read Sag Harbor and trust me on this one) fit? These are all self-proclaimed geeks but they don't have a connecting line between them. They are connected by title but not by actual attributes. They are connected despite the fact that their subculture lacks clear lines.

For some time, this bothered me in myself. I know I'm geeky. So far, in this essay alone, I've written over a thousand words on iconography and the erosion of popular culture in my free time on a Saturday morning. That's a pretty geeky thing to do, but this certainly doesn't make me the same kind of person as George Lucas. My friends are all geeks. I know this because I surmise they have geek attributes (at least until I've questioned what really are "geek attributes"). But I don't like most of the works of Joss Whedon, I've never been interested in comic book culture, Star Wars is entertaining but not all that important to me, I certainly don't like anime like I used to, and I couldn't write computer code to save my life. But I also have loved Star Trek since I was ten years old; I could talk at length about how Kevin Smith dwells thematically on friendship in all of his films (except curiously enough in Jersey Girl, which other than for the popular reasons why that film is decried, may have been why the film wasn't his best, it wasn't a deviation from his vulgar ways, it was a deviation from his constant themes); I've read every book from Chuck Klosterman (if that wasn't obvious already); I can discuss on an intermediate level the importance of Miles Davis's seven stages in his career; and (obviously) I blog. All these things and many other attributes make me geeky, but I'm constantly afraid of losing my geek cred (which I guess would probably make me geekier).

So while I have more admiration for Jon Favreau, President Obama's 28-year-old speechwriter, than Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man, I'm still quite geeky. I just don't fit completely in the attributes that are no longer universal. We no longer have solid lines in culture for anything. There's a difference between the denizens of folks who attend Vans' Warped Tour every year and Mitch Clem (my favorite punk rock web cartoonist). There's a difference between Hip-Hop heads who love Soulja Boy and those who love Wale. There's a difference between Art Blakey and Yesterday's New Quintet. Where we're moving in culture, it's nice to know that we can have things our way, even in a way in which it's cool to be a nerd.

P.S. – I don't know a thing about Dune, the Green Lantern, Frank Miller, or whether or not Greedo shot first. But I do know that with the exception of the song "Nude," all the music off Radiohead's In Rainbows was finally newly composed material at the time and that Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton's press secretary, was a consultant on Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing.


Anonymous said…
In spite of cultural changes, there is still a dominant group with common tendencies, world views, modes of behavior, etc. Even if they lose status as the majority, this elusive group will still have the final say in what is "typical," and what is "nerdy." That being said,I believe that definitions of nerdom have surely expanded, but do not seem to have lost validity.

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