Archive for August 26th, 2004

A Tale of Two Nerds

Thursday, August 26th, 2004

Ever since the movie “Revenge of the Nerds,” the word “nerd” hasn’t been so much an insult, as a promise; or at least a suggestion that those kids who spend their time in geeky pursuits will one day employ the cool kids (or at least cash in some nice stock options along the way).

Well, stock options aren’t what they were (unless you work for Google), and jobs of nerds and former cool kids alike are finding their way to India and Asia, but geeky pursuits continue among both kids and adults.

Today I’d like to tell you about two teenage nerds I met recently. Wait, I mean two teenage geeks. Nowadays, around here at least, geek is much more complimentary than nerd. But since it may vary where you are, I’m just going to alternate between them – you’ll know what I mean.

Anyway, I want to tell you about them, because their pursuits today may give us some insight into the future. More important, I think their stories may shatter some misconceptions adults often have about what it means to be a nerd today. Consider this a plank in bridging today’s digital generation gap (something I’ll be writing more about).

When I was a young nerd, my main hobby was Amateur Radio (or Ham Radio). I had my advanced class license by 14, and passed the technical requirement for first class by 15 (didn’t quite make it on the morse code). I could tear apart and repair a short wave radio, build Heathkits for fun, and spent weekends participating in contests and sometimes T-Hunts (first generation geo-caching, done the hard way).

We all know those kids have vanished. Heathkit is but a fond memory. Ham radio largely relegated to senior citizens. The computer took over, and everybody knows that it’s on computers that you’ll find today’s young nerds. But let’s take a closer look at what everybody knows.

In “Revenge of the Nerds,” the technology nerds played with computers and build robots. In fact, any kid who used a computer was by definition a “computer nerd.” That is no longer true.

Almost every kid and teen today uses computers routinely, most are on the Internet as well. And while it might feel nice to interpret this as a victory of sorts (yeah! all the kids are geeks now), it’s just not so. For most kids and teens the computer is a tool. They have little or no interest in the computer itself – just in what they can do with it. From using wordprocessors for reports, to presentation software for classroom presentations, to online gaming, etc., the computer is a means to an end.

So how did I recognize these two “computer nerds?”

I spotted the first one when we were having a casual conversation about computer monitors. This alone is not a mark of a nerd – monitors are a fact of life nowadays, but he used the term “frame rate,” which is not in the vocabularly of the average teen. Later we were discussing a dynamic state machine based AI he’s developing for a game he’s writing, and two things became apparent: First, that I’d forgotten more than he knows about state machines (with an emphasis on the “I’ve forgotten” part), and second, that he definitely qualifies as a nerd (oops, I mean a geek).

The second one I met at a LAN party. When not in school he runs his own part time business, charging friends and neighbors $25/hour to clean their computers of viruses, set up security, and install software. Yep, that definitely qualifies.

My nephew and his group of friends have quite a few geeks among them as well. In fact I had the pleasure of watching them participate in a STRUT contest last year in which their team field stripped a computer to its component parts, then reassembled it in a shockingly short time.
Ok, this isn’t enough to play “spot the nerd,” but the key thing to remember is this: just because a kid is using a computer doesn’t make him or her a nerd. You have to look further.

Oh, one more thing.

Both the two teens I mention here, and most of the others in this group have one other interesting thing in common: they spend much of their time using and playing with Linux. Today, that is definitely the mark of a geek. Tommorow? Who knows….