Twilight of the dorks?

Geeks and nerds produced the art and science that define the modern age. But now that everybody's climbing on the dork bandwagon, where's the rage and resentment that fueled their creativity going to come from?

Published October 29, 2003 3:30PM (EST)

At the end of the 1984 classic "Revenge of the Nerds," Louis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) mistakenly ends up with the beautiful temptress of Pi Delta Pi. Stunned by his sexual resourcefulness, she purrs, "Are all nerds as good as you?"

"All jocks think about is sports," he replies. "All nerds think about is sex."

And with that clarion call, dorks all over America began to throw off the shackles that had socially bound them since kindergarten and started to see themselves in a different light. They began to take a little pride in their TRS-80 computers; they banded together to escape dungeons and fight dragons; they even took dodge ball a little less seriously.

It has been a slow climb, but after nearly 20 years, the American dork finds himself sitting atop the cultural heap of history, finally king of the mountain. Think he looks weird? Think his glasses are stupid? The new dork doesn't care -- he prides himself on it.

The bust of the dot-com revolution is misread as a repudiation of technology and the eggheads that came with it. "The end of the nerd as a crossover hit," proclaimed the New York Times, but the paper of record was being hasty and myopic. The true geeks that hammered out code and designed pages for these companies were the first hired and the last fired, and most of them have found new work, with or without a Foosball table in the lobby. The days of overnight millions are gone, but the American love affair with dorks is set in concrete.

But with this ascent to cultural supremacy may come a price. If dorks are no longer despised, from where will they gain the motivation to create the masterpieces of art and science and technology that define modern life?

It's important to define what I truly mean by "dork," just so he or she doesn't get casually lumped in with "losers," "burnouts" and "lone psychopath bullies." To me, the dork is somebody who didn't fit in at school and who therefore sought consolation in a particular field -- computers, "Star Trek," theater, heavy metal, medieval war reenactments, fantasy, sports trivia, even isolation sports like cross-country and ice skating. I'd also include the Anne Rice obsessed (goths), the car enthusiasts (gearheads), and the seemingly homosexual (gaywads).

Early American poet William Cullen Bryant remarked that "difficulty is the harsh nurse of greatness," which is the first lesson most dorks learned soon after they started realizing everyone else in the world was in on some secret that they weren't. Some young dorks generated their quirks from several sources: weird parenting, odd siblings, books around the house -- but most fledgling nerds rose from something much more ethereal. Early on, they were just pegged somehow -- they might have been weaker, they might have looked a little different, they had glasses, they sucked at sports -- but on that day a pheromone was sent forth, a chemical lingering in the social air, perceived by both the dorks and the crowd around them, and it pitched the afflicted into a netherworld that used to take decades (or a lifetime) to undo.

That dynamic is changing. These days, it's tough to find anybody who doesn't think they're a dork. Dork sensibility and "geek chic" have become so prevalent that even the least dorky have glommed on to the title -- not just because the digital revolution made heroes out of nerds everywhere, but because adopting the "nerd" label gives a certain street cred to everyone's early child development. Even if most of it is revisionist history.

Alicia Silverstone: "I'm this weird, dorky girl." Freddie Prinze Jr.: "I was a dork in high school. I barely even got to go to the prom." Mena Suvari, Billy Crudup: "I was a dork." Almost every cheerleader, sorority girl, investment banker, novelist, model or movie star ever interviewed hastens to speak the words. This tends to piss off anyone who actually had their locker defaced, or finally went with their 16th choice to the prom, or used up cases of benzoyl peroxide every week in ninth grade, but it's a testament to the lasting power and redemption of geekery that everyone claims such fervent membership.

Before MTV chained American music to the mediocrity of the physically attractive, music was once a place where dork bands like Yes, Journey, REO Speedwagon and Devo could find purchase. Now it looks like those days are coming back, with self-proclaimed nerd bands like Weezer, Barenaked Ladies, and Super Furry Animals scoring hits. Moby, Fatboy Slim, and the explosion of techno have inspired a generation of goofy guys angling to be the next electronica sensation by trading bleeps and blops on the Internet. Even OutKast has released a stunning departure from hip-hop, with Andre 3000 appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair in what seems to be an Urkel costume.

Movies are no exception. The four biggest heroes of the last five years have been Neo from "The Matrix," Harry Potter, Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker, and a fat kid named Cartman. The television has so many shows dedicated to dorks that any cursory view of the cable guide after hours will provide Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network, and several late-night hosts to satisfy your inner nerd. "Saturday Night Live" has the lisping, supercilious "Nick Burns, Your Company's Computer Guy," while ads for Sprint and Verizon feature a weirdo in an "X-Files" trenchcoat and a bespectacled dork nasally repeating, "Can you hear me now?"

The new American hero is Jack Black, who fits into the subcategory of dork we called "spazzes." He's all rock 'n' roll, but in the studied way, like the kids in high school who worshipped the Canadian band Rush. He might have been the first kid you knew who got drunk, but remember, he was also playing "Axis and Allies" at the time. The Britneys and the Christinas may have a stranglehold on what corporate America regards as cutting edge, but ask the cool 13-year-old girls what they're listening to, and they'll mention Black's Tenacious D, Pink, Avril Lavigne and Kelly Osbourne, acts who are less about rebellion and more concerned with misfit empowerment.

But there is a problem in all this. Famous goth Robert Smith said of the Cure, "If we're selling out arenas, how can we be 'alternative'?" The same could be said of today's misfit teens, who get more airtime and cultural attention than they know what to do with. Post-Columbine parents are finally taking their troubled teens seriously, with zero-tolerance policies and heavy-duty counseling stopping most abuse before it gets going. The percentage of American children who are obese has more than tripled in the last four decades, so obviously school sports don't hold the cachet they once did -- nerds are given a pass on dodge ball these days, perhaps because there are much bigger targets standing around.

Dorks have also found each other through the Internet, where a simple search on your undying passion (comic books, astronomy, multiuser dungeons) yields 4,500 like-minded kids dying to talk to you.

What happens when the "harsh nurse of greatness" is replaced by peace and harmony? Most of the world's best art, best engineering, best cosmological thinking, came from years of nerds not being able to find a date. The typical dork, allowed to stew in his or her own juices, is capable of almost anything.

Who wired America? Certainly not the lacrosse team. Fourteen-year-old college student Alexander Graham Bell didn't invent the telephone by going to a lot of Tri Delt parties. Eli Whitney locked himself in a cabin until he came up with the cotton gin. It is because of nebbishes like Jonas Salk and Alexander Fleming that you don't have polio and don't die when you get the flu. When travel was difficult, 18th century nerds developed efficient trains; tired of always going downstream, 19th century geeks invented steamships. If it weren't for dorks, America would look like Chile.

Perhaps there's nothing to worry about. Perhaps childhood sucks so bad, and teenagers are so naturally full of self-loathing, that no complacency will sink in. There will always be that bully around the corner, whether he's the failing fifth-grader with a moustache, or the U.S. government. It would, however, be a pity if none of us could look back upon our childhood with the kind of anger, resentment, self-pity and desire for revenge that have fueled our greatest work.

By Ian R. Williams

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