General Disclaimer: I have no strong opinion of Ms. Munn as an actress, person, geek, nerd, non-nerd, non-geek, insertwhateverjudgmentqualifieryouwanthere. I had no clue who Mr. Bleszinski was before this week.
Whew. That’s out of the way. Now, apparently, there’s a dustup going on this week over Olivia Munn’s interview at CNET saying that nerd/geek doesn’t exist because tech is ubiquitous and a tweet sent out by video game developer Cliff Bleszinski. Apparently, if there isn’t a misogynistic Internet dustup started on Twitter, the day doesn’t end in “y.”
Now that we know our two main players, let’s get a little deeper into the multifaceted issues going on here. On it’s face, this looks like another one of those “girl geeks just have to prove themselves more than males” thing. I don’t think that’s the case. Intertwined in all of these different narratives are conversations about gender, self-identification, and culture. The problem is that it’s hard to separate them out because everything is so twisted up in various points of view and all these different conversations we have.
When we break the yarn into its fibers, however, we start to see all the pieces and how they build on one another.
- The Gender Thing. I’m a woman. Looking at the responses to Mr. Bleszinski’s tweets, the majority of the ones that I saw as I scrolled down appeared to be written by men type posters based on a cursory look at some of the handles. Men say dumb things to and about women. Men shouldn’t say say dumb things to and about women. This is neither a new issue nor one that has been ignored in recent geeky media. The Fake Geek Girl Myth is a thing discussed ad nauseum such that I don’t feel the need to further wax poetic on it. I think that the biggest issue for me in this is looking at someone’s professional persona and judging her private life on it.
- The Nerds and Geeks Don’t Exist Because Tech is Ubiquitous Thing. A lot of what Ms. Munn said in her interview is true. Technology is everywhere. You’re talking about tech in an interview about tech that people will read on a piece of tech. The ironic meta quality cannot be ignored. The interview is meant for the average consumer. The questions about hoverboards and video games and the discussion of kids coding were all very general, informal, and non-specific, as well they should be for an article on an Internet magazine. Correct tone. Correct focus. As I discuss with my engineering students, tech’s relationship to our lives has no connection to our actual understanding of how it works. Understanding how to use tech and being educated in that is entirely different from being the person who creates the tech and is the expert. This is where I think I both agree and disagree with Ms. Munn.
- Nerds Exist Still. As the consummate nerd (“Grade me! Grade me! Validate me!”), I don’t think that we will ever really lose nerds in our world. One of the academic research pieces I’ve used, which I love, looks at the nerd stereotype in terms of self-identification by scientists who equate themselves with high IQs, good grades, unfortunate high school social experiences, and continued academic success. To the extent that Ms. Munn meant that nerds and geeks don’t exist as negative stereotypes in our society anymore, I wholeheartedly agree. The wealth associated with developing new technology has earned its creators social capital due to their intelligence. That I totally buy. Nerds aren’t bad anymore. They’re powerful. In effect, money and social power make you some kind of level of cool thus erasing the negativity previously associated with the term. As we’ve moved from a labor based economy to a service economy, socio-economic power has become synonymous with intellectual capital. Ms. Munn’s comment, when taken in that context, is exactly correct. No, the scrawny vengeful nerds don’t exist anymore. The powerful societal force of moneyed nerds, however, totally exists.
- Geeks Exist Still. The societal assumption that geeks are defined by their enjoyment of video games and tech is a bit outdated. In the sense of that definition, yes, Ms. Munn is correct once again. Geeks no longer exist. Video gaming and all the types of activities that were considered socially isolating in the 1980’s are now both popular and highly social. The rise of online multiplayer games has added a social element that connects friends and strangers in a common interest. This means that the pimply faced, greasy haired, glasses wearing kid hunkered over a brightly lit screen in an otherwise dark room is a thing of the past. Or, well, if not a thing of the past at least probably more the exception. The more widely accepted definition of a geek as someone who is passionate about something is the one to which I adhere. Geeks love things – sports, tech, musicals, books, video games, knitting – passionately. (Yes, knitting. Go find a knitter.) This idea of loving interests passionately transcends technology. It is about the human experience and our capacity to enjoy things in life. By this definition, geeks will always exist. If we run out of people in this world who love passionately, then it’s not a world I want to live in anymore.
- Self-Identification Belongs to the Individual Living the Experience, Not to Outsiders Looking In. Now, see, this is the real issue underlying a lot of what I saw in both these articles. Not to sound like I’m hatin’ on a sister, but Ms. Munn and Mr. Bleszinski both exhibited the same behavior. The only difference between them was intent. The problem is that the unintentional is just as hurtful in its own way. Ms. Munn’s statement that nerds and geeks don’t exist anymore took away a group with which many self-identify, thus invalidating people’s experiences without their consent. In the same way, Mr. Bleszinski’s comment that Ms. Munn is using nerd culture for her profit attempts to invalidate her lived experience. Ultimately, both create a narrative in which outsiders define self-identity of another. Mr. Bleszinski defined what a nerd is and ousted Ms. Munn’s experience. Ms. Munn defined geek/nerd culture in a way that ousted many people who identify with the culture. Despite the different intents, both of these lead to the same problem of outsiders defining the experience of individuals.
- Outcome Is More Important Than Intent. Ms. Munn’s statements were rooted very clearly in her definitions of the terms. Her invalidation was accidental and non-malicious. Perhaps she wasn’t thinking in advance. She obviously meant no harm given her own passions. The context in which the question was asked also may have led to coloring her response. Mr. Bleszinski’s comment was purposeful and rooted in that weird sense of gatekeeping that exists in geek culture, or even in any community. Unfortunately, despite the different intents, both still invalidate the experiences of others. Aye, but there’s the rub. In the case of invalidating a person’s sense of identity, intent doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not we notice that our actions led to this outcome.
Neither Ms. Munn’s statement that geeks and nerds don’t exist nor her inability to qualify as one of these based on Mr. Bleszinski’s statement really matter. Not on their own at least. If we look underneath the surface, we see the greater issues of social class (nerds will inherit the earth), socio-normative behavior (loving something too greatly can be cool), devaluation of self-identity (no, you can’t tell me I’m not a nerd because nerds don’t exist), and the irrelevance of intent (it was a misspeak or a misinterpretation of something not intentional). If we move from the geekdom aspects and focus on the underlying issues, what we see in this entire nerdy dustup is a deeper societal discussion playing out.