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- True story, ca. 2003
- My first idea was to write about nerds. I've always been fascinated by nerds. I think too little is said about them. Perhaps the most perplexing question about nerds is how they came to be. The evidence seems to indicate that nerds are a product of the computer age. The word "nerd" was used as early as 1951 in Detroit as a synonym for "drip" or "square," according to a Newsweek article from that year on teenage slang around the country. But the modern sense apparently came out of the Lisp-based MIT hacker culture of the 1970's. There is no evidence that nerds were known earlier by a different name. My theory is that there is a certain rare type of person I will call a potential nerd. When enough potential nerds accumulate in one place, a sort of critical mass is formed, and potential nerds are transformed into actual nerds. Nerds may be misfits in the world at large, but nerdiness is an essentially social phenomenon. Prior to the computer age, potential nerds were scattered about, so an actual nerd never formed. But it happens that potential nerds are strongly drawn toward computer programming and are very good at it, so with the establishment of computer science departments at elite technical universities, the stage was set for the formation of actual nerds. Once these first "seed nerds" were formed, a sustainable chain reaction took place, which greatly facilitated the formation of new nerds and eventually led to the advent of the low grade nerd, someone nearly as nerdy as the expert hackers but much less talented for programming. These days, the vast majority of nerds are low grade. One project I would like to undertake some day is a study of potential nerds and the ways they have been perceived throughout history. For instance, I think Socrates presents many nerdy traits; might he have been a full-fledged nerd under other circumstances? Unfortunately, I'm not much of a historical scholar, and I'm a slow reader.
- My idea was much simpler than that. I wanted to write specifically about the nerds in the undergraduate computer science program at Carnegie Mellon University. These nerds, for the most part, are not low grade. Most of them are highly skilled programmers. You will find very, very few people like them in the general population, but at CMU there is a large population of them. Not all CS majors at CMU are nerds, but a pure distillate of nerdiness congregates in a room in Wean Hall known as the undergraduate CS lounge. My idea was to install microphones in this room to record the spontaneous conversation of nerds with nerds and study the strange logic and ever-escalating sarcasm of their discourse. I talked to the dean of the department, and he said I would need to get the approval of the Student Advisory Committee (SAC), a group of CS students interested in the affairs of the department that, by the way, was apparently quite nerdy insamuch as I was assured that heavy users of the lounge were well represented. To make a better case, and also to get some technical assistance with the recording, I consulted with professors in the Language Technologies Institute (LTI). They told me that they would be very interested in my recordings. In fact, they had set up microphones in a computer lab within LTI, but the results had been somewhat disappointing since people using computers don't talk all that much. They were developing techniques for automated speaker recognition and "event detection" (for instance, detecting when someone enters or leaves a room), but they lacked good data to try their algorithms on. I found it a bit odd that they had not taken the initiative to develop such datasets on their own, but I was very happy to have their support.
- I would like to take time now to tell the story of what happened at my meeting with the SAC.
- The meeting room was furnished with rows of desks, and people were sitting on both sides of them. Shortly after I walked in, a man set out a dozen boxes of pizza on an isolated desk near the door, which I will call a table in view of its function. The room slowly filled up, and no one seemed to be paying too much attention to the pizza. Finally, the dean walked in. He is a short man with fine hair. Before going on, I want to say that I think adjective-laden descriptions of a person's character are nearly always arrogant, inaccurate, and unfair. But I'm trying to tell a story, so I will add that he is self-deprecating, meek, and socially inept, not to mention less intelligent than his students (and palpably conscious of that fact, which seems to be his main impetus toward self-deprecation). Still, he runs the SAC meetings efficiently and relates remarkably well with his charges. He would be geeky elsewhere, but at the SAC meetings, his status is clearly that of a square. (Ingoups can be classified by how they conceptualize their outgroups, and for nerds as for criminals, mainstream society is alternately exalted and despised but always fundamentally square.)
- Here is the main reason I thought this story was worth telling. When the dean walked in, a chant rose up. Quiet at first, it quickly gained momentum until everyone in the room except for the dean and me was shouting, "FUCK YOU JIM! FUCK YOU JIM! FUCK YOU JIM!" People were pounding on the desks, and it went on for like a minute. The dean, whose name is Jim, was smiling broadly. When the chant finally died down, the dean looked at me and explained to the SAC, "We have a guest here today who doesn't understand our customs."
- The next thing Dean Jim said was, "I'm here, so you can eat the pizza." If there is a second reason the story is worth telling, it's what happened next. The SAC members all leapt from their chairs and mobbed the pizza table. It was really quite jarring for me. Even though I was leaning against the table, I barely managed to get a single slice of pizza for myself, while others were carrying off plates heaped three slices high.
- [Sidebar on Nerd Psychology: As I see it, the SAC members thought as follows. If something is forbidden, there is no question of doing it. The SAC members weren't worried about what people would think or about what the consequences would be if they made an early move on the pizza; the thought of doing the forbidden just never crossed their minds. Similarly, when it became permissible to get pizza, they had no inhibitions about being quite aggressive in securing their shares; in fact not doing so would be suboptimal and therefore wrong. A beautiful example of this kind of nerdy legalism is Richard Stallman's decision to remove the list of naughty words from doctor.el in response to the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA). Stallman is a nerd and the author of the famous kitchen sink text editor Emacs, which includes a program called Doctor that carries on a dialog with the user by simulating a therapist. The program knew about many common English words, including some indecent ones. If you used such a word, the program might respond, "Please watch your tongue!" For the program to understand these words, they had to appear in its source code, which was contained in a file called "doctor.el," and the CDA may have made that illegal, not that anyone at the Justice Department would have ever noticed or cared. Stallman, a fierce advocate of free speech, removed the list of indecent words from doctor.el. It might seem like an act of protest, albeit a strange one -- civil obsequiousness, if you will. And Stallman did protest the CDA, by including a file called "CENSORSHIP" in the Emacs distribution explaining how he had been forced to butcher the Doctor program. But the act of removing the list of naughty words itself was apparently not a protest in his eyes but only an unfortunate consequence of the passage of the CDA. (For the record, he put the list back in after the CDA was ruled unconstitutional in 1997.)]
- Anyway, you have heard the most interesting part of the story, but I suppose I might as well tell you how my presentation went. It went great. I was worried that the students would raise all sorts of privacy concerns, but their main concern was that the computer I used to do the recording would be tampered with, not by outsiders, but by nerds, who couldn't resist messing around with computers. Apparently there had been a similar project initiated by a student in the Art Department, who had installed an audiovideo link between the CS lounge and the art lounge as a means of building cross-cultural understanding. His equipment had been sorely molested. But the students felt they were mature enough to give my idea a try. I put all the emphasis on speaker recognition and event detection and barely mentioned my personal motives. This, it seems, was a wise move, for, as the dean explained, the students have a lot more respect for science than for cultural studies. Just as my presentation was drawing to a close, a girl in the front raised her hand and asked the kind of question I was dreading, though in a friendly way. She asked if I had IRB approval (Institutional Review Board, my preparatory research had disclosed). After explaining to the group what IRB approval was, which inevitably meant discussing some of the concerns they might have antecedently had or, I feared, might come to have once someone suggested that they should have them, I told them that I was working on it. After that, there were a couple of abstract questions about privacy, but the issue did not resonate, and in the end, everyone was excited about my project.
- That's the story of the presentation. The Institutional Review Board is a federally mandated entity that monitors the compliance of experiments on human subjects conducted at CMU with ethical standards derived from the Nuremberg Code. The first two provisos of the Nuremberg Code are that the subjects of experiments give informed consent and that the experiments be scientifically valuable. Normally, informed consent is assured by having all subjects sign consent forms, but this did not seem possible for the "experiment" I planned to carry out since anyone might walk into the lounge at any time. (Damn that Dr. Mengele -- he ruined it for everybody!) Moreover, even though the recordings definitely had value for the study of speaker recognition and event detection, I was advised that it might be hard to convince the IRB of that. Worst of all, the IRB is a mysterious entity whose membership was secret but said to consist largely of lawyers, and the only way of communicating with it was by formal written petition. Apparently LTI had had a hard time convincing the IRB to allow the installation of the microphones in their computer lab. The board was skeptical that recording spontaneous speech was really necessary. Why not just have people read scripts? In the end they were convinced, but the faculty and graduate students of LTI were all required to sign consent forms. I had planned all along to post a sign on the door to the lounge advising people they would be recorded, but I was told that that probably would not cut it. I would have to provide a mechanism whereby people could ask that certain sections of the recording be deleted. I didn't have a problem with that. There would have to be a "kill switch" to turn off the recording. Easy enough. Maybe the kill switch would have to be located outside the room, so that people could actuate it before even entering. That would be harder, but I could try. Pennsylvania, I learned, has its own laws on recording people that are stricter than the federal government's. People set up surveillance cameras all the time, but audio recording is much more carefully regulated, on the grounds that what someone says should be more strongly protected than where someone is, or what they look like. Largely over these issues, LTI pulled out. Now my project had no scientific credibility, or at any rate institutional endorsement. I might fool or charm the SAC, but I feared the IRB. I eventually made email contact with an actual person with access to the IRB, a certain Mr. Chinn. I thought that if I could just convince him, maybe he could talk to the board for me. At first he was enthusiastic about my project and wanted to meet me right away in my office. But I responded to his email too late, and I suggested I meet him in his office, which perhaps made him think less of me. He had thought, I surmised, that I was a professor, but now he realized I was a mere grad student, a dilettante, a poseur, a democratic stalker. He would not even respond to my emails. I toyed with the idea of going ahead with my project without consulting the IRB -- I was told that the odds of a criminal prosecution being brought against me were remote -- but that is just the sort of thing nerds would not countenance. My project foundered there. I am still occasionally approached by people who were present at the SAC meeting and wonder what ever happened.
- I would still like to create a lucid and largely unsympathetic portrait of the nerd subculture, but I guess that will have to wait.
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