Innovation Hub: Rise of the Nerds

I was labeled one. You probably were too. And now that we’re grown up, lots of us believe that being a “nerd” is actually a badge of honor.

But David Anderegg, author of Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies and Trekkies Can Save America and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope, argues that the nerd stereotype is more detrimental to our future than we realize.

Here’s an edited, condensed version of my interview with Anderegg. For audio of the full conversation, visit the Innovation Hub homepage.

Kara Miller: OK, so first of all, let’s start with a definition here. What is a nerd?

David Anderegg: That’s a really tough question. Nerds are a social stereotype. They don’t really exist, but the stereotype is of someone who’s very bright, very good at math, usually male, and usually sexually unappealing or awkward.

KM: Is this stereotype changing at all? Think of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates—people who you know were nerdy once upon a time. And they went on to amass a lot of power and earn a lot of money. So is there any sense that the story is changing?

DA: I think the story is changing a lot, but it depends on where you are. Around Boston or in Silicon Valley or in places like that, this is not a big deal. But if you live elsewhere, I don’t think it has changed that much. Kids are still anxious about being labeled a nerd. And other kids are very down on kids who do nerdy things, like science and math. Pop culture has also changed too, but not as much as I would like. The Big Bang Theory, for example, is every nerd stereotype you could ever imagine. And it’s one of the top television shows in the nation, and I think that’s kind of terrible.

KM: In the subtitle of your book, you say that nerds can save America. How?

DA: All the jobs that we have remaining in this country—I’m talking about jobs for high school grads or people who have a two-year degree—those jobs require much more technical expertise than they used to require. And my biggest concern about the nerd stereotype is that a broad swath of the population is discouraged from taking an interest in science and math and computer courses that they need in order to be employed. It’s a big concern.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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