There’s a “Nerd Handbook” making the rounds on the nerd social news websites (e.g. Digg) that’s a fascinating read, but it takes some of its premises a little too far. I do agree with a lot of what it says, but the wrong parts are quite misleading. Let me explain.
The handbook is written in the second person with the intended audience being the girlfriends of nerds. However, it seems to me that the vast majority of the readers are actually the nerds themselves. No matter. One of the author’s main points is that nerds always seem to have a project they are working on that takes up a lot of their time. I can’t argue with that. My current projects are: making a telescope (4 hours a week), exercising (1 hour a day), and writing a novel in one month (2-3 hours per day). Some of my recent previous projects included writing code for Veropedia, writing code for Wikipedia, writing Wikipedia, making a wall-mounted neon lambda sign, my computers, etc. So the projects part is right on, at least in my experience. I do have to take issue with this though:
Your nerd has control issues. Your nerd lives in a monospaced typeface world. Whereas everyone else is traipsing around picking dazzling fonts to describe their world, your nerd has carefully selected a monospace typeface, which he avidly uses to manipulate the world deftly via a command line interface while the rest fumble around with a mouse.
The reason for this typeface selection is, of course, practicality. Monospace typefaces have a knowable width. Ten letters on one line are same width as ten other letters, which puts the world into a pleasant grid construction where X and Y mean something.
That’s a huge over-generalization. Most nerds aren’t into Linux, and you don’t often see Windows nerds using the (very deficient) DOS command line. Yes, I do use the command line a lot, and thus, I do use a monospace font, but that’s simply because no other font makes sense on the command line. When I’m doing other things, like writing blogs or word processing, of course I prefer adjustable width fonts. It’s about picking the right tool for the job. The jump from using a monospace font in one of the few applications in which it makes sense to “These control issues mean your nerd is sensitive to drastic changes in his environment” is totally unfounded. He goes on to talk about “system-redefining events” that cause nerds to be frustrated and act erratically. Huh? Sounds like pop babble psychology to me.
He talks about how each nerd has a “Cave“, which frankly, I just think is reaching. I don’t know any nerd who has a “Cave”. Yes, every nerd has a computer with Internet access. And maybe some knick knacks. But who doesn’t? Everyone has a personal space that they like to keep in a certain way. There’s no sense in calling just the personal spaces of nerds “caves”.
I do mostly agree with the rest of the overall points of the blog post, especially this part: “If you’ve got a seriously shy nerd on your hands, try this: ask him how many folks are in his buddy list? How many friends does he have in Facebook? How many folks are following him on Twitter? LiveJournal? My guess is that, collectively, your nerd interacts with ten times more people than you think he does.” The parts about nerds liking puzzles and videogames, typically having warped senses of humor, having an amazing appetite for information — all are mostly true, but are trivial observations. What really gets me about the handbook is the overriding concept that nerds can be understood as if they were computers.
A lot of the terminology and examples he uses are computer-related. He talks about nerds being adept at “context-switching” as if they are changing between windows on a computer. He says nerds like monospaced font because it lets them see things in X and Y coordinates. He even says “[The nerd] sees the world as a system which, given enough time and effort, is completely knowable.”
He’s missing a huge point here. Nerds are people, not computers. Just because nerds use computers a lot doesn’t mean that they are even anything close to being like one. This should be incredibly obvious, but it needs to be pointed out: nerds are humans too; they have human emotions, human limitations, make human mistakes, etc. Trying to understand people by thinking of them as computers is dangerous. It’s the exact same fallacy that the author chides nerds as having when he says “seeing the world as a system” is “a fragile illusion”.
This emphasis on trying to understand nerds as a system strikes me as coming from someone who’s read too much about autism spectrum disorders (or, not to be mean, maybe someone who suffers from one). Autistic people lack emotional faculties, and thus try (and often fail) to understand other people logically as systems, rather than emotionally. The same fault is present in this handbook’s analysis of nerds. It’s destined to fail. My one advice to any girlfriend out there trying to understand her nerd is this: Think of him as a person. You’ll only have much worse results if you think of him as a computer and then treat him accordingly.