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Monday, May 03, 2010

In praise of nerds

Tanmoy’s recent musing on nerds set me thinking, and presently it occurred to me that humanity can be safely divided into nerds, lunatics and automatons (let me know if I have missed some important category). The lunatics, of course, are a threat either to themselves or to society or both, whether they are of the trivial type like the housewife I mentioned in my last post on the other blog, or of the Ivan the Terrible/Adolf Hitler sort. The less we have to take notice of them the better.
Most of us are not born to become anything better than automatons, first at school and later on as workers and neighbours and family men… even those (a very small minority) who seem in their youth to be gifted with energy and imagination and a sense of personal direction by and large become that way by the time they have lived forty years on earth. Most of us have to, simply in order to cope with life as it is; the dullness of unavoidable routine not only eventually grinds out all sparks of the divine fire, but maybe that is the way it should be for ‘civilization’ to survive, seeing that most kinds of necessary work is of a menial, low-IQ, repetitive kind, whether you are pushing files or removing tumours or repairing boilers or balancing account books or selling insurance or managing a shop or cooking daily for the family. Thank God mankind produces far more of the Telemachus type than the Ulysses…
But, although defined in a rather sneering way, it is the nerds who keep not only the individual life but civilization as a whole from dying of stagnation. Every great invention or discovery was made (if not accidentally) by some unsocial nerd who stayed obsessed with finding out the why or how of something he found irresistibly curious, some problem he felt just had to be solved, no matter whether he could see any kind of immediate benefit from it or not – whether it was vast questions like why the apple always falls straight to the ground or finding out if something could shut bags and other things better than hooks, clasps or buttons could (I am thinking of the zip fastener), or figuring out what a strange inscription on a rock in a desert meant, or how to remove seeds from a juicy fruit. And where would sensitive and thinking people be without the likes of Homer and Shakespeare and Stevenson and Rowling, who were all nerds of the finest types? All mankind owes a debt to nerds that can never be repaid. Without them, we should still be swinging from the trees. And turning to the individual life, I admire no one more than a man who can say, at age 50, that he has started mastering sudoku or learning a new language, or watching a new genre of movies, or cultivating a new talent such as music or painting that he has just discovered inside himself. All of us who cannot do that are already dead, even if we might physically survive (and continue to pollute the earth, and irritate our families and neighbours with endless grumbling and preening) for some more decades still. Without a strong nerdy instinct, men and women become insufferably boring by the time they reach my age, as I can see very clearly among my own contemporaries: I’d hate to spend an evening with them instead of with their children, who, mercifully, are still not quite so brain-dead … though, alas, they are trying very hard to become like that, with Facebook and video games and Hannah Montana to help them!
P.S., May 05: Someone who probably wouldn't want himself named here (otherwise he could have sent in a comment directly) wrote that I might consider a fourth category of 'idiotic dreamers'. What do my regular readers think?


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Thank you for writing this post. You are so very right, the nerdy instincts of many people help all of us to live our life. I will definitely tell this to many people from now on.



Sunup said...


On reading this post my mind went back to a movie I saw very recently on HBO -- Flash of Genius. It was based on a true story -- that of Dr. Robert Kearns, the gentleman who invented the intermittent wiper, a feature/function that exists in our motor cars. This person was a true nerd in every sense, one who was obsessed with his inventions, one who neglected his family to the core. His invention was stolen by the mighty Ford Corporation, who began to use the intermittent wiper on their cars without acknowledging Kearns nor honoring his patent. He fought for 12 long years against all odds (during which time his 7 children grew up without their father's guidance, his wife divorced him) and finally won a landmark verdict, wherein Ford had to acknowledge that they were cheating and had to pay $10 million in damages.
Before the verdict Ford tried to settle the dispute out of court, even willing to pay him $30 million! But the gentleman was indeed a man of principles -- he rejected all monetary rewards -- he was interested in only ensuring that he got due recognition for his invention. I wonder how many of us would be like him today. I can't even vouchsafe for myself -- I might have taken the money and forgotten about my patent, who knows (feel ashamed to admit it though).
So like you mentioned, contrary to what most of us feel, most nerds have better principles than the commoners, have less hunger and greed for money and monetary pleasures, and contribute more to society.

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

Paul graham has written an essay about why nerds are so unpopular in high schools, in USA. I am attaching the link here.

Most of the nerds in USA have a very hard time at school, quiet contrary to what happens in schools in India.

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

Speaking of nerds, I recently stumbled upon a book called ‘The Atlas of Middle Earth’ while I was looking for maps of Middle Earth (created by J.R.R. Tolkien). I found positive reviews of the book and bought it. I was pleasantly surprised (rather shocked) upon flipping the pages of the book. The author, Karen Wynn Fonsted, was a freelance cartographer and had referred to several books (Tolkien’s and others’) before reconstructing the maps. There are plenty of notes and indexes, all cross-referenced. And all this effort for an imaginary, fantastic world! I’m sure she’s nowhere near the geniuses who changed the world but I do a think she’s a nerd nevertheless. Thank God for people like her and Tolkien we can have wonderful escapades.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Absolutely, Nishant. Sir William Jones was a nerd - to him we owe the first translation of Abhignyam Shakuntalam into English - and so was James Murray, who collected words, out of which hobby was born the Oxford Dictionary; so was the man who dedicated his life to making a black tulip. As I said, without the nerds we should still be swinging from the trees. Most 'successful' people I see around me are doing just that, metaphorically speaking, except that they are doing it at multiplexes, shopping malls and pubs...

Sayak Shome said...

There's another group 'fake intellectuals' You can't term them lunatics, they appear to be nerds but are actually automatons.

Shuvojit said...

Dear Sir

I seriously thought that you have covered all in the 3 groups. But "idiotic dreamers" put me thinking.
I can relate to the terrible urge of claiming that "i am not an automaton but not an nerd either" (assuming that i am not a lunatic)
I can say that i have some blazing handicap & hence stuck as an automaton
But the fact is a lunatic dreams (Hitler was trying to put Germans at the top of the world) so does the nerds (obvious) & so can the automaton. What differentiates an automaton from the other two is that the automaton is outright lazy or simply refuses to leave his/her cozy niche. It is the 99% perseverance which elevates anyone to an higher plane
I am sorry but i cant agree to adding the fourth category. You are an automaton irrespective of whether it is by choice or by ability. I absolutely agree that this fact is hard to accept but sadly it is

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks, Suvojit. Good to see that at least one person answered my question!

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

It requires a lot of courage and gumption to step of the "role" one has carved out for oneself or that others have carved, but if one doesn't do that, it will most probably just lead to bafflement later on as to "where life went." I am just speculating on some such instances that I have seen around me. My grandfather used to tell us to "think", "be", "think", "be"...all our lives. Is it as easy as it sounds? I wonder how many of us from my generation (me included) think beyond getting a job or getting a post graduate degree in science or business and then getting a job. What then? What if that ultimately fails to fulfill us?
I suppose it is the awareness a person should have of himself and of the life that he leads. If that awareness is constant then the state of the automaton can be avoided.


Shilpi said...

This essay, Suvro da, has had me thinking ever since you put it up. If I haven't replied it's hardly because I haven't been thinking about it...in fact it's one of those juicy essays which get me all excited and a-pondering about categories and holes and how people can be divvied up into these holes...especially when I'm on the bus or in the car or on foot...

Yet the last question is easier to answer than the three categories...because I seem to be shaking my head at the three category mark although I can’t pin the reason down. I can see that you've extended the definition of 'nerd' in an interesting and rather unusual way, and so that part of it is fine. Nerdiness can be seen as running along a continuum...so you have the zipper chap...and then the apple scientist and the fine nerds. And the lunatics too probably run along a continuum - the harmless to the harmful ones...although there must be highly creative loonies too. And I guess there may be some mixing and matching: so for instance a loony can be an automaton for the most part (the middle-aged mother with the brick, who broke the window) unless the loony is a creative nerd, which would be a delightful combination. Okay...

Yet where would a sportsman who loved and excelled at his sport be? An athlete, maybe, who ran and didn't stop running? Or a musician who didn't compose but played music or sang and kept on playing or singing till kingdom come? Would these people be nerds as well and if they were, in which category of "nerd-dom" would they belong? Because they can't possibly be automatons and they wouldn't be considered lunatics since their obsession (if such it can be called) has a constructive/creative outlet...

And where (in which category) would Ulysses be?...Or a somebody like Richard Burton? Or to move along voyages - a Kabir, a Ramkrishna, or a Meerabai? Or Joan of Arc or St. Francis? The Buddha and Tagore? Or are these people unclassifiable? Or can the category of "nerd" encompass these individuals? Would it be the fine category of nerds then that takes account of this section of humanity?
I know you mentioned Shakespeare and Rowling...Hmm.

I don't know what the person who talked of "idiotic dreamers" was getting at (no disrespect: but maybe the person has had the feeling of being one?), but I'll have to say "idiotic dreamers" may indeed be a category of its own. An idiotic dreamer neither has the tenacity nor the discipline to stick it out and be a productive automaton (get a job) nor has the innate talent to be a constructive lunatic or a nerd (fine or otherwise). So an idiotic dreamer simply dreams and wastes her time and other people's time, steadily running out of it while spinning grand dreams, none of which may ever materialise, while she is idiotically dreaming and hoping. That’s the way I see it. Better to be a productive automaton than be an idiotic dreamer.

Sorry for the late comment, Suvro da….but I’d been dreaming of posting an essay on the same.

Witty and terribly interesting read - needless to say. Your titles are getting ticklish.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

As I'm sure you could make out, Shilpi, I actually hate the word 'nerd' (except maybe when it is used to denote a guy like Dilton Doily in the Archie comics), because I admire the type, and dislike dumbos sneering at them. The type I meet far more commonly, alas, is the sort of people who have no interests of any sort at all, except what their neighbours are doing, and the fad of the passing hour, and what the mass media tell them to be interested in. And they are growing so numerous these days...!

santanu Chatterjee said...

It was a great pleasure to see that you have extended the definition of nerd to encompass people like Shakespeare and Rowling. Typically the word is used in an adverse sense. Nerds are considered to be the most boring people and i remember getting a bit upset when you had called me one after i had came to Pune to do my post graduation. But as Shilpi has rightly pointed out that nerd-ism is not necessarily about creativity and people from various hue and colour can be considered nerd. Yes, the obsession is important criteria to be a nerd. Moreover, i would like to point out that nerd-ism also should not encompass people like Hitler or Ivan the terrible because a nerd by definition cannot be harmful to society, although it may very well be non social.
And as far as idiotic dreamers are concerned, well i personally do not think that can be considered a category. They will either be nerd or automatons depending on whether they work towards implementing their dreams or not. In fact a nerd regularly requires some idiotic dreams, else their nerd-iness will cease to exist.