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The End of the Nerds

2008.10.28   prev     next

DANIEL Eran Dilger of RoughlyDrafted.com, at the end of his appearance on Tech Night Owl Live with Gene Steinberg 2008.10.16:

Outside of Apple, what [computer] companies have really invested any efforts in making computers look nice? There’s a couple companies that have made small-run computers with some attention. But by far, by far there’s been very little artistic detail in computing ever. In modern product design, how many products can you think of where there isn’t a huge effort in trying to make things esthetically pleasing? Whether you’re talking about shoes, or cars, or anything ... The majority of products are really interested in making things look nice and feel nice, and have more to them than just functionality. Whereas computers have always been— there’s this kind of nerd police that [are] condescending of anyone who wants things to be nice, and to look nice, and to operate nice. They’ve just always wanted things to look like DOS, and to be as frustrating as Windows. And I’ve always had a hard time understanding that, because it’s such a stark contrast with everything else in the world. I’ve never really understood why Apple’s been the only [computer] company that seemed to understand that.

If you look at the car industry, even in the ’50s, that was a big push of cars: making things look and feel nice. And even if you think of the little Japanese junky cars that we drove in the ’70s to save gas mileage — even those cars were making some effort to look nice. They were trying to look like a BMW or whatever, even if they didn’t have the money to pull it off. But in the PC industry, there’s just none of that. And if you look in the tech media, they’re contemptuous of anyone who tries to push anything— they portray Jobs as being this kind-of snooty artist. ... If you look at online reviews of products, they’re constantly obsessed with specs and details that don’t matter to consumers, and they totally ignore whether the product looks like garbage or not. They just go on, they praise products like the Zune — they were just praising the Zune about how it did this and did that, and played the radio — it was just stupid. Where anybody going into a store could see the Zune; it looked just like it was made by the Soviets in the ’70s compared to the iPod. ...

I find that just odd — that the PC industry, particularly Microsoft’s domination of it, has resulted in products that are so lacking in any sort of esthetic appeal, and purposely so. And that the media reflects that. It’s just so weird, I mean can you imagine picking up Car & Driver or something, and them just talking condescendingly about Porsche making a car with nice-looking body panels, and having a nice interior, and why would we need leather? It just makes it cost so much more. All we want is a $300 HD car from China.

It’s just weird; I’ve found that mind-boggling my entire life. That’s why I’m so happy to see Apple making a rebound, because they’re the only company that cared, and they’ve finally found a way to market their products so that they can actually sell them. And the rest of the industry is just aghast. And I’m enjoying it.

Last U.S. Open, my wife and I turned on the TV in the middle of one of the women’s matches. A young tennis player, not particularly good-looking, wearing a fairly ordinary women’s tennis outfit, rocked back and forth on her feet, a tense, worried look on her face, waiting for the next serve. She was losing.

Across the court from her was Maria Sharapova, the latest in a series of strikingly attractive female tennis players who, while not exactly dominating the sport, are doing quite well. Sharapova was fit, but not in an overly athletic-looking way. Her exceptional beauty would have been apparent in any setting, and her tennis uniform looked more like a very high-hemmed, sexy black evening dress than sports attire. Does my memory deceive, or did she have a sparkling diamond necklace as well, with matching earrings? I think she did.

My wife commented, “Think about how intimidating that must be for the other player. When we were kids, a woman who wasn’t so pretty could go to a sport like tennis as a place where she could excel and not have to compete with that. Now, there are great-looking women on the courts, too.” And of course she was right. A generation ago, stunningly attractive women wouldn’t think of competing in pro tennis, probably out of fear of being stigmatized as a “tomboy.” But now that the idea that women don’t do sports has been expunged from mainstream society (most likely permanently), a lot of very attractive women are saying, hey, I can do that that too — watch this!

For many years, San Francisco’s Castro area was exclusively gay. But — if the third-hand story I heard is true — now that anti-gay feelings are being driven to the lunatic fringe, a significant number of heterosexuals are taking up residence in the Castro, unafraid to live with mostly gay neighbors. And many homosexuals are dismayed to see their all-gay bastion thus eroded.

In the mid-1970s, when technology reached the point that people of average means could actually own a computer, a whole segment of technically inclined but uncharismatic and/or socially awkward individuals, most of them males, found themselves on the cutting edge of a new and influential phenomenon. Suddenly they had cachet, social leverage, that they didn’t have before. And many of them grew up with it and got used to it.

A large part of that cachet was based on how technically forbidding the devices were, and how anyone who took the time to figure out how to use them was building a skillset that made him special and valuable; a veritable genius in the eyes of the non-computer-savvy. But starting with the 1984 Mac, that all slowly began to change. Steve Jobs’s vision was of a computer “for the rest of us” — in other words, for ordinary people who didn’t want to devote great effort to learning cryptic commands and everything else about how computers worked then, but would want to use computers to do many things if they could get around such hindrances. Jobs’s plan was to remove that obstacle, and make computers into a product that non-nerds would embrace and use.

The Jobs vision was at least partially thwarted by Bill Gates et al. for over a decade. But now Jobs is back in the driver’s seat and making his plan a reality like never before. And the tech media, run mostly by the nerds who came of age during the pre-Mac era, is indeed aghast. Can it really be a coincidence that Steve is a charismatic guy who would probably do well socially with or without computer skills? And that Bill Gates is a quintessentially awkward nerd who achieved fame and immense fortune primarily by corrupting Jobs’s vision into the “I-need-a-nerd-guru-to-help-me” kludge known as Windows?

And can it be a coincidence that “Woz,” the other, massively more nerdy Steve of the original Apple, had almost nothing to do with developing the Mac, and seems to have dropped out of the mass-market computer development game shortly after the Mac first appeared? And that he has recently made multiple sour-grapes comments since Apple rebounded under Jobs?

The heyday of the nerds is over. Computers and other mass-market whizbang devices are now designed to be used by everyone, and everyone wants to use them — including the most charismatic and confident among us. And the ones who are most sincere about designing them that way (e.g. Jobs) are the ones who will now be the most successful. Computer nerds are back to where they were before home computing existed: competing unfavorably against the the good-looking, the fit, the physically and socially adept. And unsurprisingly, they hate it.

Dilger, be mind-boggled no more. You were one of the cool people who was also into computing. A rare breed that now is rare no more. The awkward nerd detests the invasion of his not-so-long-ago-established turf by cool people. The cool person sees it as something that should have happened a long time ago.

 

Update 2015.07.10 — “Wimbledon” changed to “U.S. Open”. It couldn’t have been Wimbledon, as its players are required to wear solid white.

 

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