Culture is downstream of money
How the nerds rose, and what's next
If I said, “Nerds are in” what would your first reaction be? I think the almost knee-jerk response would be to disagree. Although this is strange, because the very word “nerd,” once almost an accusation, seems to have lost all its bite compared to twenty years ago. So why does the phrase “nerds are in” ring untrue?
Nerds can’t be “in” because the entire culture is now one of nerds. There is no “out.” Nerds so dominate the landscape they don’t even exist as a category anymore. They have triumphed so completely over their archetypal rival, the jock, that even the most athletic high school boy is now a Janus with two faces.
All to say, there are no nerds anymore, which is how you know they won. I’d prefer an old-fashioned pompous term like “intellectual” to describe people like me who are more concerned with Kierkegaard than Warhammer 40k, but really I am a nerd and you are a nerd and we’re all nerds now. It’s difficult to express how different the current world is from the one I grew up in, like everyone is pretending it’s totally fine that moms know who Thanos is.
The TV show Game of Thrones was one of the last big unifying events of American pop culture. But I remember the first time I cracked the thick tome of the original A Game of Thrones book, back when I was thirteen1, having been recommended it by my cousin (who is now himself an accomplished fantasy author2). Back at the turn of the millennium it felt like there was not a cute teenage girl in a hundred miles who had read A Game of Thrones, maybe not even one on the whole planet. Fantasy novels were secret shameful things with walking trees on the covers that we, all straw and musk and pimples and excited squeaking voices, consumed voraciously and passed among one another—have you read this? It was deeply uncool.
The first major victory of nerd culture was when The Fellowship of the Rings premiered in 2001. I still remember sitting in the theater as a preteen and that music starting, and then time itself dilated before me as surely as if I were approaching a black hole. I swear watching that movie occupied a more solidly dense chunk of phenomenology than an entire week does for me now, with my thermodynamically-efficient and minimally-conscious adult brain.
So dominate has been the nerd’s ascension that it’s not even remarked upon. Some results have been cultural boons: the rise of science fiction, the prominence of science popularizers in the culture, and new communities like rationalism and online bloggers. But there have been some disadvantages as well, like the fact that big summer movies are now CGI slugfests. Say what you will about 1990s blockbusters like Forest Gump, but they were at least not totally incoherent in their plot, unlike whatever video game trailer Marvel has just released, and we were watching real actors with real faces perform on screen.
How did nerds come to dominate culture so much that they merged with it? I think it’s because Bill Gates got rich. Well, him and all the other nerds. The kids playing D&D in 1985 were doing dot com startups in 1995. These people, mostly men, had grown up mop-haired and spindly, the Geek side of Freaks and Geeks. Then tech companies outperformed the S&P 500 for thirty years, and now Bezos is buying yachts that somehow require other yachts, like some sort of marsupial yacht-ception.
The process played out in perfect concordance with Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, which can be summed up best as:
Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.
We live in nerd paradise because those at the top of the hierarchy the past two decades were not the Wall Street financiers of the 1980s, or the mid-level corporate man of the 1950s with his protestant jawline and white picket fence, but because those at the top once spent afternoons reading The Silmarillion.
If you doubt this, here’s how an interview with Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator (the most successful startup incubator in the world) was described:
I quickly discovered that Paul Graham doesn’t like the word “incubator.” Or, for that matter, “accelerator.” The “guru of startups” prefers to compare himself and, Y Combinator (affectionately called YC by its legions of believers) to JRR Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings"—in that it invented the genre.
Want to get funding and support from the biggest startup incubator? Be a total nerd and name your company after some obscure elvish deity from The Silmarillion. There are now at least three companies funded by Y Combinator that are explicitly named after Tolkien mythology: Palantir, Anduril, and Varda. Apparently the secret incantation to becoming rich in America is to walk up to Paul Graham and whisper “I have started a company. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
Again, there’s nothing wrong with nerds or nerdy company names, but it’s so little remarked upon how they went from underdog to all dogs in a single generation.
If this thesis is true, and you want to know what culture will look like in ten or twenty years in America, then simply pay attention to who is getting insanely rich right now. And those are cryptocurrency enthusiasts, who are rapidly becoming wealthy as the Bitcoin hyperobject eats the world.
Cryptocurrency, despite being technologically nerdy, is dominated by different cultural forces. The people who’ve been getting rich in crypto are a weird menagerie by contemporary standards, like obscure bloggers, bullheaded libertarians, sex workers, drug users, and now, as it’s approached respectability, open-minded investors not put off by the ethos of the space. These are not like the people in previous land rushes.
Say what you will about this, but at least it’s a change from the classic “Wall Street Bros” and “Tech Bros.” Honestly, I think it’s cool that a sex worker taking payment in ethereum had orders-of-magnitude better returns than Wall Street hedge funds over the past couple years.
Speaking of Ethereum, is Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, a nerd? He has all the trappings sure, like being socially awkward, but his love of crypto is matched only by his hatred of governments. When I went to the exclusive party for the Forbes 30 Under 30 2017 list, Vitalik was the only person I was determined to meet. Of course he snubbed us all by not coming. After the night of ungodly self-aggrandizement I witnessed then I can only say that he made the right decision.
I don’t think someone like Balaji Srinivasan is exactly a nerd. The blogger Gwern, known for his guides about how to get drugs on the dark nets, isn’t exactly a nerd either, and cryptocurrency is why an online blogger like him doesn’t have worry about making a living. No, they’re all something else. Some sort of new realpolitik libertarian, not the old-school kind arguing over moral abstractions like Nozick, but rather a new breed who implicitly understand that to change the culture you need to change the mediums of information and monetary exchange. In this they are more purposeful than the nerds, and perhaps eventually more impactful as well.
Depending on your political inclinations such cultural changes may be either negative or positive in your eyes, of course. I’m not arguing this is a good or a bad thing. Furthermore, making this sort of longterm prediction is always pretty haphazard. The jury is still out as to whether this “trickle down” mimetics will happen at all. But if in twenty years the weird crypto ethos that started in online forums comes to dominate the mainstream, one hint will be that the category “libertarian” becomes as amorphous and exsanguinated as “nerd” is today.
I’ll admit only that all intellectuals go through a pupation phase as nerds.