How Nerds Became Rock Stars

Something strange has happened. Basically, nerds rock. No, I'm not talking about how it's suddenly okay to like comics,and thick-rimmed glasses. This isn't about superficial hipster geek chic. I'm talking about a genuine, meaningful cultural shift.

Something strange has happened. Basically, nerds rock. No, I'm not talking about how it's suddenly okay to like comics, Star Trek and thick-rimmed glasses. This isn't about superficial hipster geek chic. I'm talking about a genuine, meaningful cultural shift.

The nerds have been pulled in from the pop periphery and the fanatical fringes. They've become accepted. Revered. Embraced. Tech has become the new rock'n'roll. Science is cool. Even data is sexy. Programmers and academics are celebrities.

So what's going on? Is this really a thing? And how did it happen?

No culture icons

There was a time when our rocks stars were, well, rock stars. At its heart, rock is about rebellion. Defying the establishment. Challenging the status quo. It's about rejecting mainstream ideas and trying to change the way people think. Shaping culture. Discarding the old to make way for the new.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

Rock'n'roll used to do cultural change pretty well. Rockers became stars. Stars became icons. But then they got old. They became the establishment. New waves of bands brought fresh sounds, but they struggled with the rebellion bit. They didn't challenge the mainstream; they were the mainstream.

Rock ceased to be an authentic cultural driving force years ago. And we needed new cultural icons. New heroes. New stars.

Like a rolling stone

Enter the internet. The Age of Nerd Rock Stars began. Suddenly nerds had their own stage on which to perform. The web was like a giant sandbox. A space to be innovative. A place to build. Somewhere the world could be reconstructed.

Nerds became culturally significant when everyone suddenly needed to use what they built. But they became cool when they started shaping the way we behaved. And they became rock stars when they began developing tech that transformed the way we interact with the world. Because that started to fundamentally change our culture.

The new stars

Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google and changed the way we searched for new information. Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia and changed the way we learnt about it. Jack Dorsey started Twitter and changed the way we shared it.

Drew Houston crafted Dropbox and changed the way we work together. Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook and changed how we communicated with our family and friends. More than anybody, Zuck become the slightly awkward poster boy for the nerd cultural shift.

But none of them compared to the star power of Steve Jobs. He altered the way we thought about technology and the people who developed it. He represented the new role tech played in our lives, and in society. He was innovative and iconic. On stage, he was as charismatic and inspiring as any world leader or rock star.

Changing the game

This sort of pioneering nerdism changed everything. It opened a gateway. It made a whole universe of knowledge accessible, digestible and shareable to everyone. And when people got round to checking out what they could learn online, they made an incredible discovery: stuff like physics and astronomy and maths and history are simply awesome.

The memories of boring school lessons faded. Suddenly, we started thinking about ideas and science as entertainment, not merely education. And nerds fed the demand by presenting information in new, engaging and exciting ways using videos, animation, infographics, interactive games and presentations.

Our whole perception of scientists and technologists changed. We realised these people were seriously cool. We wanted more of them. We wanted to embrace their nerdisms. We wanted to be inspired by their work. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the awesomeness of the subjects they studied.

Nerdism and pop culture

Academic speakers are now received like pop stars at ideas festivals like TED, SXSW and Wisdom 2.0. The Uncaged Monkeys show takes biologists, physicists and statisticians on nationwide UK tours like rock bands. Festival of the Spoken Nerd involves a scientist, mathematician and comedian putting on shows that feel like indie gigs. We even want to watch live astronomy, and see scientists drink beer and talk about Dark Matter. This is now prime-time TV, and no one bats an eyelid.

This embrace and celebration of nerdism has filtered down to wider pop culture too. Our movie action heroes aren't macho musclemen any more. They're characters who can defeat bad guys with tech savvy, not brute force. We don't want to see Rambo break a dude's neck with his bare hands, we want to see Tony Stark build a suit that can crush villains all on its own.

People have learned to laugh with nerds, not just at them. Shows like The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowdare huge hits, and the awkward scientists and engineers are heroes rather than outcasts. In this new world the nerds aren't just the butt of the gags, they're in on the joke.

Kids and coding

Cool nerdism isn't a fad. It's here to stay. Technologists and scientists are going to drive the culture and economies of the future. Governments will need to follow the lead of progressive countries like Estonia. A rounded education will need to include coding.

Teachers will have to persuade kids that being a nerd is the way forward; that programming is the way to go. Winning hackathons could become as socially rewarded as success on the sports field. Schools may even start to resemble Hogwarts for hackers. Children could aspire to careers in development and white hat hacking.

By showing kids the fun they can have, the positive impact they can make on the world and the doors nerdism will open, teachers might find they don't need to do much persuading.

After all, who doesn't want to be a rock star?


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