Justin Li

Nerd: A Retrospective


One of the few instances of shopping I remember as a kid probably also says the most about me. This was around 1999, and software was still sold on CD's. Back then, Hong Kong had a giant market for bootleg software. The Wan Chai Computer Centre, then and still one of the biggest specialty malls for computer related stuff, was simply store after store of ripped games and productivity products. I remember spending my slowly-earned pocket money on some deal - any three CDs for some special price. The three CDs I chose: Rise of the Robots, Populous: The Beginning, and... Microsoft Encarta 1997. Actually, I'm not sure if the first two were what I bought (they were both games I eventually owned), but I am certain Encarta came from that incident.

I think even then, my parents were shocked that I would spend money on reference software. I myself cannot tell you why I did it, except that I did. I still have fond memories of the thing: the encyclopedia came with an interactive orbit simulator, where you have to set the Moon's initial position and velocity such that it is captured by Earth. There was also Mind Maze, a trivia game where you must find your way out of a grid of connected rooms.

Now that I've jogged my memory, Encarta wasn't even the only educational software we had. I remember spending hours on Operation Neptune and Treasure Galaxy!, both of which were by The Learning Company. Ditto for Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, the full version for which includes a two-inch-thick geography reference. I also had a virtual observatory, and one where you're in this cave-turned-museum, and you can move around and watch crystals and minerals grow. I think the last two are both by DK, but I can't find any reference to it.

In retrospect, a lot of my nerdier and more academic interests exhibited themselves early. I remember in primary school (that's grade 1 to 6 for you Americans) having more than a few Dorling Kindersley reference books, including one on space (who doesn't have one of those?), one on dinosaurs (or one of these?), one on gemstones... As I grew older, my collection of of non-fiction books continued to expand, now adding books on the occult and on philosophy. I somehow read Thomas More's Utopia in middle school, as well as Sophie's World. I suppose this is humble-bragging, but I think it's also representative of my childhood.

It's curious that, despite the above description, I've slowly stopped identifying myself as a nerd. It's not that I have lost interest in these topics, but my definition of "nerd" has changed. In pop-culture, nerds are more highly identified with people who follow particular franchises: Star Trek/Wars, Middle Earth, Doctor Who, Dungeons and Dragons, Halo... While I have enjoyed some of these universes, I am also deficient in much of the canon; for example, I have yet to read Dune. I don't follow any TV series (maybe with the exception of Sherlock), nor am I a gamer, video, tabletop, board, or otherwise. By these definitions, then, I'm not a nerd.

It's fun to speculate about the origins of these two different meanings of "nerd". Being in academia, and computer science at that, you would expect them to be nerd stereotype incarnates. But, in fact, most of my friends in computer science are not hardcore gamers (with the exception of a group who plays board games), and while pop-culture references do come up, they do not form the backbone of our discourse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are instead more likely to have diverse academic interests, who would read books on sociology, math, or philosophy for pleasure.

This makes me question how the stereotype of a nerd even started. The origin story of hackers as tabletop gamers now seem less plausible to me. If that is only a myth, then something else must have connected academics with gamers. I don't think it's the social ineptitude, either, and neither groups are obsessive about what they do. Wikipedia suggests that in academia, nerds are more likely to be interested in science, mathematics, engineering, linguistics, history, and technology. If I had to guess, it has something to do with finding interesting combinations in complex, rule-based systems. This doesn't jive with the history aspect though, and it's surprising that law nerds is not a thing.