Revenge of the Nerds' Stereotype

by Braddock Gaskill

I must admit to a certain fantasy. I sit down at a bar on a slow night, order a Guinness, and the bartender, eager to make conversation, asks me what I do for a living. "I do a lot of things. Machine vision, software, largely math with computers". Hearing the magic word, the bartender without hesitation asks "So, what do you think of the new Windows XP then?". And I punch him.

The proliferation of home computers and Internet use has had both good and bad effects on those of us who must reluctantly identify ourselves as computer-related professionals. On the plus side, the mystique that the only people who can understand computers are autistic genius social misfits has largely disappeared with the unveiling of e-mail savvy, IMing grandmas.

On the negative side, the general populace, having now been exposed to daily use of PCs themselves, seems to have decided that, far from being the autistic nerd geniuses of the 1980s, anyone who deals with computers is someone who specializes in, relishes even, their daily ordeals of desktop computer frustration. Since I work on algorithmic explosive simulation on computers, I obviously must be fascinated by their tales of Windows 2000 modem driver hell, especially in my off hours over a cup of coffee.

Nearly worse are the gaggle of MCSE-certificate toting, JavaScript cut-n-pasting, aspiring computer "professionals", who must certainly prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There seems to be one in every circle, and they seem thrilled to be able to share their PC Magazine expertise on the latest 3-D video hardware with me, their apparent comrade in arms. After all, I not only read about the exciting world of computers, but am actually being paid the big bucks to live the dream, and thus should be able to provide them with some fascinating war story anecdote from the field, about how the polygon rendering rate of the latest ATI video card has deeply and personally effect my psyche.

This all goes well beyond mooching free advice. Solicitation of free advice is an age-old disease many professions from lawyers to doctors to plumbers suffer from. Perhaps I leave myself more open to the above conversational issues because of my liberal dispensing of detailed free advice and equipment to friends. However, there is a qualitative difference between the type of conversational topic prejudice a computer-related worker faces and mere cornering for free advice. The typical man on the street seems to think I should be genuinely thrilled that he can relate to me in the debate of the controversial merits of the MS Office paper clip. It seems like the general public has not yet learned to discriminate between the many computer-related fields and applications, and has flattened the entire professional landscape to the eager pager-wearing, after-hours LAN-party gaming system administrator in their office.

More horrifying to me is, when relieved in a social setting of a barrage of computer-related topics and questions, a loose acquaintance actually expresses surprise that I'm talking about something other than computers. This must surely relate a gross breakdown of my ability to break out of my IT stereotype. It seems that if I manage a new introduction without mention of my profession, I can happily avoid the topic of computers indefinitely, without lack of conversational material. Indeed there is nothing worse for all involved then conversation about computers with an unknowledgeable audience.

The fact is that like most technology professionals, I hate the nitty gritty of computers. The only thing I dread more than attempting to get a new network card installed, is having a conversation about attempting to get a new network card installed. Operating systems and hardware drivers are a necessary evil that give me a platform from which I can effectively build elegant systems in mathematics and software. While I will happily geek-out as much as the next guy if confronted with a knowledgeable fellow, one who can actually engage me in intelligent conversation about cryptographic architecture, that shouldn't condemn me to topics of conversation relating to my bartenders new DSL connection. Until then, I'll resort to an accurate if incomplete self-description of "independent contractor" upon introductions, and hope the other party doesn't pursue the issue.

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