Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Why Nerd Culture is Destroying America

How the Transvaluation of Pop Culture May Be Altering our Social Values and Mores for The Worse


Like all ecosystems, the high school ecosphere is supposed to be a well-balanced one. For decades, the high school sphere was a fairly well-proportioned social microcosm, with jocks and preps serving as equally emulated-and-despised overlords while nerds and outcasts served as a sizable, much belittled underclass. Between the two poles, however, was a “middle class” of average students, who pretty much ran the spectrum from your average wannabe hip-hoppers, redneck deer hunters and backyard pretend pro-wrestlers to coffee-house poets, hyper Christian evangelicals and aimless, socially averse weekend partiers. Granted, it wasn’t the fairest system in play, but it keep things consistent, and the monoculture, for a good part of the 20th century, remained unchanged.

But then, something happened. The Columbine Massacre in 1999 was more or less a symbolic changing of the guard, representing a slow, albeit inevitable inversion of the high school social pecking order. The jocks and preps were still at the top of the pole, but their power was slipping due to the immersion of “middle class” students into the nerd and outcast subclass. And over the next 15 years, something absolutely amazing has happened: for all intents and purpose, it’s the nerds that now run the social hierarchy.

For kids that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, stepping foot into a high school today is like stepping into some alternate dimension where everything’s been flip-flopped. Instead of a much loathed jockocrocy in place, the modern American high school is instead an un-athletic, almost egalitarian society where a good 90 percent of the student body is in, some way, shape or form, a nerd, geek, dork or dweeb. It’s actually the jocks -- the football players, the basketball players, etcetera -- that are universally decried and despised now, usually typified as the last vestiges of an allegedly racist, sexist and homophobic teen uni-culture. Judging by the non-stop rancor slung at figures like Tiger Woods and Manti T’eo in popular media -- the same media that now endlessly celebrates nerd iconography such as comic books and video games and flabby, pot-bellied heroes such as Kevin Smith, Jonah Hill and Zach Galifanakis -- it’s apparent that the nerds have not only exacted their ultimate revenge…theirs has become the dominant culture of America.

One can find news about comic book storylines on CNN…as in, the same CNN that used to cover shit like wars and international politics. While uni-culture promoting teen flicks like “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “She’s All That” were a dime a dozen fifteen years back, today’s cinema culture instead feeds us a steady diet of comic book claptrap, with obscure licenses like “Guardians of the Galaxy” now garnering multi-million dollar movie deals. Earlier this year, Wikipedia celebrated June 06th not as D-Day…you know, that thing that only killed Nazism -- but as the 20th anniversary of “Link’s Awakening” on the Game Boy. While the most popular programs on television 20 years ago were dark, satirical insights into the vapidity of modern life (The Sopranos, Seinfeld, etc.), the most popular shows on TV now are now unapologetic geek pornography like “Game of Thrones” and “The Big Bang Theory”.

The nerd takeover of American culture is really one of the most remarkably under-publicized events of the last 20 years…an utter paradigm shift not only in our entertainment preferences, but also, our social mores and values.

When assessing the most notorious mass killers in recent U.S. history, there appears to be a completely disregarded social link between figures like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Hui Seung Cho, Adam Lanza, James Holmes and Jared Loughner -- primarily, the fact that all six were, for lack of a better term, huge fucking nerds.

Both Harris and Klebold were obsessive video gamers that cared more about designing “Doom” levels than socializing. Cho was a hardcore collector of action figures, an avid “Sonic the Hedgehog” admirer and stated that “X-Men” was his favorite movie. Adam Lanza was reportedly a mindless “Dynasty Warriors” addict, who spent hours upon hours playing computer games in lieu of actually communicating with others. Holmes -- who had a penchant for online dating sites -- was said to have had an apartment that was plastered wall to wall with Batman memorabilia, and Loughner was a political radical, whose worldview was greatly shaped by dweeb-bait like the website AboveTopSecret and the 9/11 conspiracy theory pseudo-documentary “Zeitgeist.”

Of course, nerd culture isn’t the only catalyst here, but I would argue that a fascination with these dork values is every bit as convincing as mental health issues and firearm access as culpable agents in mass shootings. Allow me to explain.

Nerd iconography is rooted in fantasy, so dork icons are generally fictitious beings, like Spider-Man or Link or Bilbo Baggins. Contrast this with the iconography of normal culture, which is rooted in reality -- a world with flesh and blood heroes that are praised for actual human traits, achievements and characteristics. When we’re celebrating “Rocket Raccoon” instead of Smedley Butler and vaunting Game Boy titles over World War II heroics, we’re very much trading in a sliver of our real humanity and instead investing it in a fantasized virtual community, where things like consequences are irrelevant. Batman doesn’t die, and if you get killed in “Halo,” you can just hit the restart button. By reinterpreting our notions of valor and bravery and heroism AWAY from real life people -- who, many times, sacrifice their very lives for a greater good -- we are in turn changing our perspectives on what death is. Since all of our role models are on-paper or on-celluloid creations that exist as immortal constructs, we in turn devalue the notion of human death and its meaning.

If you’ve ever read a graphic novel like “Sin City” or “The Watchmen” before, you’ll quickly realize that these things are almost entirely anchored around mass homicide fantasies. The characters in Alan Moore and Frank Miller comics are emotionless, amoral beings that have no qualms about murdering, since the kind of murdering they engage in is rationalized as a social positive. You see, the bad guys Rorschach and Marv brutally maim and dispatch deserve it, and as such, all of that robotic carnage can be easily dismissed as passively inconsequential. Not surprisingly, the two most celebrated super hero yarns of all-time, “The Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” both contain subplots in which countless nameless, faceless characters die in horrific instances of mass homicide. Planes fly into buildings, theaters get shot up by madmen, children are poisoned, an entire studio audience gets wiped out by toxic gas, cruise ships explode, and an octopus being butchers millions of New Yorkers. Virtually EVERY comic book movie promises, or at least teases, the same thing: an entire city, poised to be murdered, by some grandiose intergalactic threat or the guerrilla tactics of some cult-of-personality, pseudo-philosophical (and irresistibly quotable) madman. Within these perverted moral dynamics, there’s really not that much of a difference between the values promoted by the alleged “heroes” and the purported “villains.” In the medium -- once a niche bastion of dorks and geeks, but now perhaps our utmost inspiration and driver of contemporary popular culture -- death and destruction are similarly celebrated tools for “the good” and “the evil” alike.

Modern gaming represent as similar devaluing of the former social mores of heroism, death and morality, with games like “God of War” and “Gears of War” featuring hyper-masculine killing machines as amoral champions of the only thing that matters -- that being, killing and more killing. In 2009, Activision released “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” a game which featured a segment in which the player was to take control of a terrorist that then proceeded to gun down an entire airport filled with helpless, unarmed civilians. The game was a favorite of Anders Breivik, whom said that he used the title as “training” for his 2011 Oslo rampage that resulted in the death of 77 people. Earlier this year, a foiled mass shooter indicated that he wanted to embark upon a similar rampage, with actual music from the “Call of Duty” stage playing while he gunned down innocents.

Mass killers with other abjectly geeky interests have also popped up on the radar recently. Trey Sesler, a 23-year-old dork that brutally murdered his mother, father and brother in 2012, was a fairly popular YouTuber whose channel was dedicated solely to pervy and infantile Japanese cartoons. Denizens of popular online nerd haunts like “Something Awful” and “4Chan” have been linked to numerous criminal activities, and in 2006, a disturbed Megadeth fan and regular contributor to the goth-cum-dweeb website VampireFreaks went on a shooting rampage in Montreal.

With the proliferation of nerd culture, we’re clearly seeing the usurping of “traditional” social values in U.S. culture. When large throngs of individuals find a sense of collectivity in “fandom” -- a wholly make-believe world -- instead of community or personal accomplishment, then perhaps its not surprising that so many nihilistic losers, whom only see “worth” in pop cultural relics, embark upon such displays of wanton carnage.

Any immersionist philosophy is probably a negative, but with these nerdy domains -- things like comic books, and science fiction, and fantasy gaming -- the thing which they are immersing themselves in is completely illusory. Yeah, things like religion, ethnicity or patriotism may be abstract ideals, but at least they are things that can be personified by real world fixtures. And unlike nationalism or religion, there’s hardly any communal benefits to nerd fandom; while a hyper loyal Christian or Elk Lodge member may feel a certain personal impetus to help out others, you really can’t cull the same social benefits out of “Star Trek” or “Doctor Who.” And that’s not even taking the necessary passivity of geek fandom into consideration: to be a nerd means to witness and watch instead of do or personally experience -- in turn, promoting a culture of consumption without similarly promoting a culture of productivity…unless, of course, you consider spending a small fortune to build an outlandish comic-con costume every year and publish lawsuit-baiting, erotic fan fiction to be worthwhile undertakings.

Every year in Atlanta, thousands of people flock to an event called “Dragon*Con,” an annual celebration of all things dorky and nerdish (with proceeds going towards, among other things, the legal defense fund for a convicted child molester.) At one point in time, the event was a sparsely populated anti-celebration, in which dozens of horn-rimmed geeks hobnobbed and talked about how afraid they were of girls. But as the year’s progressed -- and the high school strata phenomenon mentioned earlier inverted itself -- the gala eventually transformed into a gargantuan, multi-day, multi-hotel clusterschmaz with its own parade that shuts down half the town each and every Labor Day.

We used to laugh and mock and tease the hell out of those kids, but now? Nerds and dweebs of the like have become, ostensibly, mainstream America. Spending thousands of dollars to build miniature spaceships isn’t considered a pathetic activity of the marginalized anymore, but instead, a celebrated custom of contemporary American consumerism. Back in the day, things like “cosplaying” and “LARPing” and “online gaming” was seen as the bottom of the barrel when it came to social activities, but nowadays, more kids seem to be into beating each other with foam swords than they are traditional sports like football and soccer. Obsessing over trivial pop culture franchises isn’t just an accepted part of the American experience, it’s now an encouraged pastime.

These things, I am afraid, are what have utmost “meaning” to a growing proportion of the American population. And with that in mind, is it any wonder why so many nerds and dweebs end up going deranged?

3 comments:

  1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who as taken note that the "nerd culture" phenomenon may not be as harmless it appears to any parent who is simply thankful their teen loves Zelda and not hard drugs (to their knowledge of course.) I stumbled upon your blog while doing a preliminary search for articles that address the nerd culture phenomenon in terms of sociology. I Did not find any resources dealing with the topic, but I am yet to check though scholarly databases for published journals. Its mind blowing that this is not a highly studied topic by now!
    Maybe you already have(haven't gotten to browse your blog to much yet) but I would enjoy reading a rant about this website I discovered today: http://www.lootcrate.com/

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  2. I'm not completely agree with your thought that nerd culture is destroying America. It seems these days as though the nerds have won. In both economic and cultural terms, rise of IT and tech companies, cloud computing, programming, the internet etc. They've become an essential and valuable part of everyday life, and the tech industry is massively profitable. There's still that aura of weirdness around IT workers and such, but they're now a part of everyday life on all levels. Nerdio for example, is the speedy Tech-Nerd support team, that provide all-in-one Streaming IT solutions to help grow a business efficiently with modern technology.

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    Replies
    1. Maybe the big thing is focusing on reality rather then fiction.

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