Tuesday, February 5, 2013

American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent

What makes a nerd a nerd? In American Nerd, Benjamin Nugent doesn’t try to put aside nerdy stereotypes. He gives them a context.

Nerds are people who seem to others to be like machines.  They are often passionate about a technical interest, they use jargon, they avoid confrontation, they favor logic over emotion, and they enjoy working with machines.

One of the interesting things about the book is that Nugent provides examples of machine-like nerds from literature.  The prototypical nerd is Victor Frankenstein of the Mary Shelley masterpiece.  Frankenstein has a powerful intellect and technical skill.  After all he makes a body from corpses and brings it to life.  On the other hand, he lacks emotional depth and the ability to connect.  Shelley shows this in his withdrawal from family and in his inability to cope with his creation when it is a living being.

Of course, nerds are not machines.  One thing that makes them nerd is their passion for their interests.  No machine is passionate.  Even though nerds are passionate, they generally aren’t comfortable with emotionalism.  People send out a mass of confusing and contradictory signals.  Nerds prefer lower-noise communication that is direct, rational, formal, and rule bound.

In this regard, Nugent compares nerds to people with Asperger’s syndrome.  Asperger’s involves difficulty in reading the emotional cues of others and in affecting appropriate responses.  It a result of their neurological makeup; Asperger’s has a physiological basis.  Because of this, people with the condition share with nerd’s preference for formalized communication, social discomfort, and attraction to scientific and technical fields where logic and rules prevail.  Nerds don’t necessarily have Asperger’s, but people with Asperger’s might often end up becoming nerds.

While I’m on that subject, I thought it was interesting that Nugent cited research about Asperger’s and engineering, my own profession.  There is evidence that suggests that autism spectrum disorders appear in engineers more than in the rest of the population.  Also, 15 percent of people with Asperger’s have an engineer in their family, about three times the typical frequency.

In many ways, engineering is a profession of logic and rules.  It also calls for creativity and social skills.  A project of any size is the work of several people.  Engineers have to work with their peers and often with people from other fields:  CADD operators, equipment operators, architects, surveyors, contractors, skilled laborers, craftsmen, lawyers, accountants, and government regulators just to name a few.  The social aspect of practicing engineering, and the inherently social mission of the profession, is greatly underplayed.

Nugent points out that the dichotomy between head and heart, thinking and feeling, drawn by Romantic authors and popular teenagers to distinguish the machine-like from the genuinely human, the in crowd from the nerds, is not necessarily a true one.  To support this argument, he calls on T. S. Eliot’s critique of Romanticism and defense of metaphysical poets.  The Romantics appealed to the heart, but the metaphysical poets used heart and head together, little distinguishing between thoughts and feelings, and produced affecting poems that were also full of ideas.  We don’t have to choose between following our hearts and using our heads; if we’re wise we’ll do both.

If you’re looking to understand what nerds are into, you probably won’t find much in this book that you don’t already know.  If you’d like a look at the origins of the idea of nerdiness and a thoughtful theory of what makes nerds nerds, Nugent’s book will fill the bill.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Nugent, Benjamin.  American Nerd: The Story of My People.  New York: Scribner, 2008.

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