While a hip New York Times magazine is flaunting her middle-aged self in the tattoo parlor, the heroically square David Brooks is scraping off any vestige of fashionable symbolism from his lillywhite arm. In today's "Alpha Geeks", Times op-ed columnist Brooks dryly charts the ascendancy of the nerd in American culture:
The future historians of the nerd ascendancy will likely note that thegreat empowerment phase began in the 1980s with the rise of Microsoft and the digital economy. Nerds began making large amounts of money and acquired economic credibility, the seedbed of social prestige. The information revolution produced a parade of highly confident nerd moguls — Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and so on.
Brooks is, of course, right. Nerdiness is cool. Nerd values, nerd aesthetics, nerd morality, above all nerd sensibility is not only taking over American capitalism and culture, but also American politics. And he is right to situate Obama-mania at the heart of this nerd hegemony:
Barack Obama has become the Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes. They honor him with videos and posters that combine aesthetic mastery with unabashed hero-worship. People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.
Yes, it looks like we will have our first nerd president by the first of week of November. Brainiac Obama -- with his Harvard law degree, cool programmatic rationality and under-stated humility -- is the classic nerd. Hillary and (particularly) the Fonz like Bill, meanwhile, are stuck in the pre-nerd epoch, when it wasn't cool to look or sound like a calculator. Then there's John McCain who is so unnerdish, so uncool, that he's almost cool in a negation-of-a-negation Hegelian sort of way (but who will still get crushed by the wireless device from Illinois in November).
So how does the coolness of the nerd conform (to use an unfashionable word) with Thomas Frank's argument that coolness has been successfully conquered by Madison Avenue. If Frank is right -- and coolness has been successfully commodified by the marketing departments of large American companies -- then what does that tell us about the nerd in a cultural history of American capitalism?
Is the nerd the subject or the object of world history? Are guys like Obama, Sergei Brin and Bill Gates programming America for everyone else? Or are they unwitting agents of deeper cultural forces -- currents that are dragging the rest of us poor suckers into a nerdish whirlpool of programmatic rationality, under-stated humility and wireless devices from Illinois?