Friday, May 10, 2013

The Nerds, Posers, and Hipsters Trilogy, Part One: In Praise of Nerds

I've spent much of my life watching bizarre trends and mysterious obsessions sweep over the populace and then disappear back into obscurity -- things and people and topics that only seem popular because they're popular. And most of the time, I have pondered the question of why I so often seem immune to the object under discussion, whatever it is. Yesterday, as the town was gripped by a sports-related mania, right on the heels of a furor over Conan O'Brien, it occurred to me: being a nerd is like taking a vaccination against obsession!

There's a certain amount of group psychology at work here. We know obsessions can be contagious: if everyone around you is interested in something, it can seem natural to pick up the interest. This can be as innocuous as hanging out with friends; they expose you to potential common interests, which they encourage through conversation, which focuses your attention. Or it can be a factor of the desire to fit in socially: once a TV show reaches a certain point of popularity, the popularity itself will draw more viewers in.

Another important aspect is that people often seem to be looking outside themselves for something to care about, to believe in, to get riled up about. They're not doing it consciously, but once something comes along, they'll grab it. Of course, everybody's different, and individuals react in different ways, to different degrees. But for many people, if they don't already have something external to care about that'll occupy their mind enough, then they're more susceptible to influence, and they become temporarily obsessed with whatever the people around them are obsessed with, or whatever the media is encouraging them with.

Nerds are known for their obsessiveness, but the truth is, they're no more obsessed than the general public. The general public just doesn't admit it, and they wander from one obsession to the next -- which is one of the ways the mass media makes its money. Whereas nerds tend to embrace their obsessions -- ones of their own choice -- which makes them less susceptible to transient obsessions. They already have something external to occupy their minds with, and to get riled up when the need arises. It can be science fiction, Bollywood films, obscure punk rock bands, any kind of technology.

Which leads to the question: are sports fans nerds? Many sports fans have chosen their obsession the same way a nerd has chosen theirs, and in that case, they are in fact nerds, whether they know it are not, and may well, like nerds, have more immunity to random emotional manipulation than the general public. However, many people jump in and out of an interest in sports when a local team is winning, thus more desirable as an object to identify with and get riled up about, or because of marketing/advertising factors. When people without personal obsessions see the team getting a lot of attention, that gives them something to focus their attention on.

Obviously, I'm not talking about unhealthy obsessions. Just channels for the human desire to be interested in things. People want something to care about, even if that makes them flash-in-the-pan fans. The people who are either making money, or successfully swaying people to an agenda, are the ones who offer them something to care about. Something outside themselves and what's perceived as mundane daily realities, to have an opinion about, to get angry about, even. People who pick their own obsessions are less profitable, except for those who are in niche businesses. Mass profits are made off mass interests.

A billion years ago, when I was in journalism school, there was a big advertising Coke Vs. Pepsi thing stirred up. They were talking about it as marketing in some intro class I was taking, and I mentioned that they were putting in all these billions of dollars for their ads, but it didn't make any difference to me, because I didn't drink or buy any sodas. That's when I learned that the term for me is "Statistically Insignificant." They know freaks like me are out there, but they don't care. I am profitable to the people who sell Bollywood and cult horror DVDs, out-of-print books, and obscure religious bric-a-brac; I am not profitable to the mainstream.

Most of us are unlikely to cultivate true objectivity and detachment, which would render us immune to obsession in general. That being true, often the best case scenario is that you can channel your obsession into something productive. Otherwise, you can either waste your energy caring passionately about something that you'll forget all about in a month. Or worse, you can focus that energy on some kind of ideology in which you're being manipulated for someone else's agenda.

If you're in the habit of following your own interests, and occupying your mind with what you like, regardless of what other people think, it's good training in thinking for yourself on all subjects, which makes you less susceptible to manipulation. That's why I know sci-fi nerds on all ends of the political spectrum, but (more often than in the general populace) they have reasonable reasons, which they can articulate, for what they think. They're not just knee-jerk reactors.

So it's probably for the best if you don't get any encouragement for your interests until AFTER you've already developed them.

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