Sunday, October 27, 2019


On the fly, can you tell the difference between a nerd and a geek? Until recently, these two words were terms of derision. But, to get on the same page, what do they actually mean?

Although they are virtually synonymous, a sliver of differentiation harks back to their original usage. Nerd, or geek, refers to someone who may be “obsessively studious, offbeat, bashful, or socially awkward.” But nowadays, nerd confers a degree of pride in single-minded expertise, while geek retains its old derogatory reference to eccentric carnival performers. Indeed, the term computer geek sums up the contemporary perception of arguably the most high-functioning band of technical performers that exist in the world today.

As nerds and geeks emerged from laboratories, research departments, and the back-office into daylight, and then entered corporate boardrooms, what type of impact are they having on society and the global economy?

To attempt an answer, it may be useful to recall former schoolmates who were deemed goofy and overly fixated on S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Stereotypically, pupils who were dubbed swots or brainboxes stood apart and mostly pursued non-mainstream hobbies. In his controversial book titled Unnatural Selection: Why The Geeks Will Inherit The Earth, Mark Roeder explains why people with geek-like traits, and high cognitive abilities, overwhelmingly populate the hi-tech industry.

Suddenly, kids who might have been mocked in school and ignored at social functions are now the ones driving the digital revolution. Ostensibly, the poster boy for geeks is none other than B. G., and I’m not referring to one of the Bee Gees. Based on the unprecedented pace of technological change, corporate leaders like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zukerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, would seem to have disproportionate power and influence. Unfortunately, monitoring mechanisms or, more broadly, adequate regulatory oversight seems to be lacking. Clearly, there is a glaring knowledge gap and mismatch between these tech titans and lawmakers, who we expect to provide ethical and legal guidance for the technology industry. Unwittingly, could we be swapping past hierarchical domination by absolute monarchs, military despots, politicians, and robber barons with the hegemony of tin-eared nerds? 

To moderate the behaviour and mindset of future generations of technogeeks, there are those who advocate the migration from S.T.E.M. to S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) - a novel approach to curriculum design. Comparing the two tracks, the American writer Julie Schumacher observed: “The literature student learns to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyse, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrast, is a technician - a plumber clutching a single, albeit shining, box of tools.

Essentially, proponents of S.T.E.A.M. seek to blunt the rough edges of the so-called plumbers with their cutting-edge tools, by steering students away from narrow, technical courses to an integrated curriculum that encompasses the arts, humanities and social sciences. The aim would be to help youngsters appreciate the complementarity of technical and non-technical disciplines. In the words of another famous nerd, Albert Einstein: “all disciplines and forms of inquiry are branches from the same tree. This suggests that knowledge is analogous to multiple branches emanating from a tree trunk which together form the basis of human curiosity.

Left to their devices, many parents would gladly sign off on a vocational-based syllabus centred on, say, computer programming that would provide immediate and guaranteed post-graduation employment for their wards. “To be, or not to be”-come a plumber, as the Bard might have enunciated, or to follow in the footsteps of poet laureate William Wordsworth, should however not preclude young minds from inculcating critical thinking, creativity, team work, adaptability, and other soft skills as essential capabilities in a changing world.

No one can predict the future of work with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that it will be more digital than analog-driven, implying that tomorrow’s in-demand workers will be technically sophisticated. But to avoid a science fiction-inspired Revenge of the Nerds scenario, it behoves us to ensure that S.T.E.M. adherents acquire the requisite skill sets and emotional intelligence commensurate with the level of responsibilities they are likely to command, going forward.

Although he was a controversial figure, no one ever accused the late co-founder of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs, of being a one-dimensional computer geek. Over the course of his legendary career, Jobs was able to infuse his company with passion, class and ethereal beauty that permeated Apple’s brand and products.

Credited with - or accused of - spinning what was called a reality distortion field through the sheer force of his personality, Jobs’ opinion of his main rival was very revealing: “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste, they have absolutely no taste. I don’t mean that in a small way. I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their products.” Tellingly, Jobs’ creative flair and famed affinity for calligraphy were emblematic of his status as a S.T.E.A.M. maverick who was way ahead of his time.


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