20 December, 2005

Cultural Anthropology


Field notes on the Technology Nerd Subculture

Synopsis: A brief exploration of the nerd subculture in and around “silicon valley” during the decades of the 1980’s and 1990’s through 2002


As a personal observation, most of this semesters reading and viewing can be fairly construed as a series of opinions in search of a science. The field of cultural anthropology has become somewhat self correcting of late although some of the more egregious examples are still taught. It is in that spirit that I offer the following.


This field researcher spent the decade of the 80’s observing and participating in the nerd culture at the very center of it all, the venerable Hewlett Packard Company. More specifically, from within the HP television network where the entirety of the culture was open to observation. In the ‘90’s this researcher participated in the venture capitol funded start up stock option frenzy that ultimately ended in the high-tech burst of 2000 and ends with a stint at a highflying software company that had it’s own version of Enron management.

Hewlett - Packard

HP at the time was still an Engineers company, its marking philosophy was called “the next bench” where one engineer would “sell” to the guy on the next bench over and was mockingly (however accurately) described as selling sushi and sake as “cold dead raw fish and warm white rice wine”. The year I started at HP it became a 10 Billion dollar corporation - however 1/10th of that figure was the first generation of Laser printer which was a full “OEM” from Cannon, with the only contribution from HP being the plastic case. This was a sign of the changes to come.

As HP has close ties with Stanford – at a time when there were no “F” grades, it became a running gag among the nerds that you could always tell a non engineering Stanford graduate as they would announce the fact within moments of meeting, we figured there was some graduation requirement class that taught one how to casually drop the factoid that they were indeed a Stanford graduate.

When the personal computer became a marketable reality HP stepped up to the plate and introduced 4 totally different computers. The first was from the instrumentation side and was a engineers “wet dream” color vector graphics, mainframe horsepower and a little scroll wheel right on the keyboard (this was pre mouse). Not to be left out the calculator group came up with an oversized calculator complete with a full QWERTY keyboard and nifty little magnetic strips that would be manually pulled through a slot where one could store or upload data. The third entry was a UNIX hacker’s “must have” a luggable case complete with a plasma display and built in Ethernet and modem, just the tool if you wanted to crack banks. The final entry that year was the infamous touch screen, complete with a monochrome (green phosphors) screen and only one real application, an electronic rolodex that looked like and acted like its physical counterpart. The one glaring missing piece of information was that you could not move one bit of data from any of them to any other!

General observations

This is a male dominated culture although there are notable exceptions.

It is neither a patrilineal or matrilineal culture. It does sometimes run within families. However for the most part the participants are self selected.


There are two broad but overlapping classifications of nerds; the hardware centric geeks and the software “Code heads”

Hardware nerds

While by no means a excusive activity the hardware nerd can often be observed at electronic “swap meets” - a direct continuum of the barter market place from the earliest dawn of civilization. They will often have entire rooms of their dwelling dedicated to their avocation. Disdaining popular gadgets (unless there is a justification) these poor souls may spend months in search of some obscure, hasn’t been made for 10 years part just to restore some 20 year old device that has long since been obsolete.

The “Code heads”

There is a greater percentage of female “CodeHeads” and for the most part seem to be able to maintain some degree of general societal norms. The males in general tend to be less physically active and their entire world is contained within the confines of their particular software tribe. The more extreme examples of this work in a mental environment where it is so abstract that whatever rudimentary societal normal language and social skills they may have acquired have atrophied to the point where they can no longer function without someone else taking responsibility for basic life support While for the most part they are hardware agnostic some will exhibit a religious frenzy over a particular brand of hardware.

There is a broad continuum of “tech nerd-ness” from the bearded Unix guru to the 40 something single head of household with her first PC starting a “Blog”

Examples of the former seem to be cut from the same mold. They tend to be almost exclusively male, physically they tend to be overweight bespectacled bearded forty something’s often single or in a childless relationship. Examples of the later can be found all over the web.

Historical Nerd Indicators

Early tech nerds (in the pre computer days) were often Ham radio license holders and this is a still a positive indicator of “nerd ness” but has become a rapidly dwindling subculture in the internet era. Other indicators are model railroads, radio controlled aircraft and other technology “toys”.

The roll of the tech nerd has evolved over the years, often starting as a semi skilled technician, a necessary part of any technology based company but not socially accepted by the “front office” clique. In the mad frenzy of the mid ‘90’s this long standing paradigm had been turned upside down, both by the success and the acceptance that cubic $’s brought to some and the courting of the Venture Capitalists.

Mating rituals

mostly hypothetical”. This is not to imply that nerds don’t mate, as noted above the female nerds seem to be more in line with societal norms and have little difficulty once that decision is made. For the males, until the nerd has reached the stage of success where his material assets overcome the lack of social interaction skills or one manages to mature enough to acquire a minimum of the requisite social skills most mating ritual is purely hypothetical or lived vicariously through more socially accepted members. Substitutes for physical interaction are the “virtual” relationships which range from the adolescent Laura Croft fantasies through “Eliza like” programs to the various “adult” toys and entertainment options that can (for some) be acceptable substitute.

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