American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent (Scribner, 2008). Before I get into the review, I just want to acknowledge my own validation. This year, at SXSW, I asked at every session that talked about the web and site/software development from a non-white male perspective (so girls & games, black tech bloggers, etc.) this one question: Is not having group X participating in the creation of Y a problem?
"Voice Recognition software works better on men's voices because a bunch of engineers are sitting around in the lab and they say: 'Charlie, come over here, I want to try your voice,'...Over time they build that social environment into the software. Camera film was created by these chemists and when they wanted to try it out, they said, 'Hey Charlie, come over here,' and Charlie's a white guy, and so in the end the cameras work better on white people because you have all these white people trying it out and fine-tuning it. Not because these guys are racists but because of the social environment in which it's getting created."
And while, I didn't go into SXSW asking a kind of begging question, this was my hypothesis. So, you know, this is why race, gender, age, etc. matters in what we do and how we create what happens online and on our computers. I'm not sure of the solution but I do know more of us need to consider this.
Moving on. Now, to be clear, I'm not a nerd. I have nerdish tendencies to be sure - I dislike small talk. I'm comfortable, perhaps more comfortable, being alone. I prefer reason over emotion. I like straightforward communication. I read comic books. I spend all damn day in front of a computer and then come home at night and do it some more. That said, I'm far from socially awkward and while the current state of my gut might suggest otherwise, when I'm physically active, I usually excel at the activity. Nugent's book focuses heavily on traditional/historical concept of a nerd - the intellectually and socially machinelike folks and those who are nerds by virtue of their social status.
Nugent spends a lot of time discussing how the concept of "nerd" came into being and spends a lot of time in California writing about lots of different nerd groups - the ren faire folks, the cosplay types, the sci-fi nerds (in fact, he spends a lot of time with a sci-fi society that meets just down the street from me in a building I pass every time I go to Miss Martini's place) - and all of them are fascinating. As Nugent notes, he isn't apologizing for or celebrating nerd-dom. He's just trying to understand why. I found the "why" to be one of the most compelling and fresh reads in a while.
The conceit of Nugent's book, however, is this - he was once a nerd. Up until a fateful trip abroad in high school, he was this Dungeons & Dragons playing, computer loving socially awkward kid with friends of equal lack of stature. The true story is really Nugent's trip back down memory lane as he finds his old friends and talks to them about their lives then and now. His candid struggles with the guilt of leaving those whom he once considered his best friends behind for the allure of acceptance is heartfelt and real and worth it.
This is a fast read and it's highly recommended.