The danger of the Nerd Handbook

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.

4 Responses to “The danger of the Nerd Handbook”

  1. Kelly Martin Says:

    Indeed, you’re exactly right with the comment about autism-spectrum disorders. It’s quite true that many nerds have some form of PDD, and I’m sure the incident rate of PDDs in the nerd population is higher than in the general population, but that’s no reason to treat all nerds as if they were Rain Man. I strongly suspect the author suffers from a PDD, and is merely projecting his own inability to appreciate other people’s emotions onto everyone else, and proposing his own solution to his personal problem as a universal solution.

    This isn’t new, and it’s not going to go away. Sadly.

  2. Edward Newton Says:

    Cyde, I believe you have missed the point about font choice. It not about what impact it will have on others, its about living in a controlled and as orderly world as possible. Nerds are fully capable of using “The right tool for the job” as you put it, but in doing so they are thinking about how it will effect and be viewed by others and not “what is the most efficient way of getting this data out” that is the typical first thought. I believe this comes from the same deep seated need for order and structure as Rands pointed out aversion to “system-redefining events”. As a Nerd I go to great lengths to avoid the chaos involved in such events as a new job or a move to a new house or city. I have remained at my current job while very unhappy with it because the “unhappiness” is less stressful then such a major change would be. The frustration comes from trying to reassert as much control over their own lives as they can knowing how little that truly ends up being. And frustrated do tend to act erratically while working out their frustrations.

    I admit I dont have a “Cave” in the way Rands wrote about, but I believe that is mostly because I live alone and so it can be argued that my entire apartment is my “Cave”. However a Nerd’s “Cave” is not so much about it being their “personal space” as much as it exists to shut out as completely as possible the “outside world” and either allow them to enter “The Zone” as Rands calls it or recover and recenter from the time spent in the real world.

    Rands is a software engineer and now a manager of software engineers so computers and computer terminology is what he knows the best. Do not all writers write from what they know best when trying to explain complex concepts? What can be more complex then a human being? While I agree, Nerds are people and not computers, they do not let their actions be ruled by emotions nearly as much as by logic. Which means they ARE acting and responding more like the computers they prefer to deal with then the more emotionally controlled “normies” they are surrounded by. And unless I am missing something the point being brought up about autistic disorders misses the fact that as a nerd acting and reacting to the world around me in as logically a manner as I can is a CHOICE of mine which I dont believe it is for those with autism. As a nerd I do have the full range of human emotions, I just choose to not let them control my actions as much as possible. My inability to relate to and with normies mostly comes from not understanding how or why they do let their emotions control them to the extent it seems to. I do understand the emotions they have and experience, just not why they seem so much more controlled by them rather then being the one in control. Kelly stated in her own blog that autistics do not have the ability to understand the emotions of others which I believe is subtly different then being able to understand the emotions but not the actions those emotions spur.

    Anyway the point of Rands essay was to point out that nerds do not act or react in the same way as non-nerds and to give those who may have to deal with them day in and day out a better understanding of how and why that is. As is the case with any group of humans larger then 1 it is not a perfect fit for everybody, but it comes close enough on more then 1 point to be functional.

  3. bi Says:

    “Cyde, I believe you have missed the point about font choice. It not about what impact it will have on others, its about living in a controlled and as orderly world as possible.”

    No, Newton, it’s _you_ who have missed the point. You’re trying to divine what’s going on inside Cyde’s brain, when he’s made it clear in no uncertain terms that he simply doesn’t think in that way.

    “As is the case with any group of humans larger then 1 it is not a perfect fit for everybody”

    Granted, but is there any indication that Rands’s account fits even, say, 90% of the people out there who can be called “nerds”? If not, then on what basis does Rand get off giving a description of himself and calling it a description of The Prototypical Nerd?

    Besides this whole “font choice” thing, another blooper is how Rands talks about the nerd being “the king of the context switch”. Because I like to bring my full attention to bear on a task until it crumbles before my eyes, and I hate those pesky context switches. I could equally well spin this trait of mine into a just-so story about why this is a prized property of the generic “nerd”. And why would my just-so account be any less descriptive of the generic “nerd” than Rands’s?

    Really, this whole “Nerd Handbook” is full of dubious explanation and just-so stories, like ESR’s and Paul Graham’s and Dave Winer’s `accounts’ of their respective `tribes’ (http://www.idlewords.com/2005/04/dabblers_and_blowhards.htm).

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    Bi, I have to agree with you about the context switch thing. When I’m doing lots of things at once, it’s just ADD acting up, and I’m not really doing much productive. That’s just me getting distracted. When I’m truly nerding out, I focus all of my attention on one thing for hours. I don’t want any distractions. Like when I’m seriously working on my NaNoWriMo novel, I turn all the music off, as well as my second display (where my IRC and IM windows live). I think devoted attention to a single project at a time is more the hallmark of a nerd than doing lots of things at once.