So much for the myth of the 'alpha geek'

David Brooks of <i>The New York Times</i> has been so wrong about the big story of our times--Iraq--that I'd expect nothing less when he declares for the new geek insurgency.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

Over the years, I've become inured to David Brooks' predictable platitudes about politics and culture. He's been wrong so often on the big story of our times--the war--that I automatically tune out his musings on contemporary culture. But after stewing all weekend about his most recent New York Times column, I've got to get this off my chest.


Writing about the ascent of the "alpha geek"--a contradiction in terms?--Brooks cobbles together a series of easy generalizations regularly tossed around as shorthand to explain more complex developments. Call it cliche as socio-economic analysis. To wit:

The future historians of the nerd ascendancy will likely note that the great empowerment phase began in the 1980s with the rise of Microsoft and the digital economy. Nerds began making large amounts of money and acquired economic credibility, the seedbed of social prestige. The information revolution produced a parade of highly confident nerd moguls--Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin and so on.

At last he didn't peddle past the idea of the techno-elite as a tribe of bad-smelling, social losers with barely enough sense to wipe the snot off their faces. But Brooks' assignment of a present-at-the-creation date for the "nerd ascendency" to Microsoft and the digital economy in the 1980s is subjective. He could just have easily moved the time line back to around the birth of Fairchild Semiconductor and the myriad successful tech companies later founded by its alumni.

And let's not forget the likes of Hewlett-Packard and other sundry start-ups, which put Silicon Valley on the map. But that was long before the emergence of the era of 24/7 naval-gazing, so I suppose that doesn't count as much today.

The news that being a geek is cool has apparently not permeated either junior high schools or the Republican Party. George Bush plays an interesting role in the tale of nerd ascent. With his professed disdain for intellectual things, he's energized and alienated the entire geek cohort, and with it most college-educated Americans under 30. Newly militant, geeks are more coherent and active than they might otherwise be.

If anyone has the address of this "geek cohort," please pass it along. Until then, I think that's utter hogwash. I've watched several generations of college-educated Americans under 30 and beyond and, truth be told, there's nothing in that history to suggest the current crop's presumed group sensibility is going to last into middle age. And the only "newly militant geeks" I can point to usually surface when Twitter goes haywire during another of its prolonged brown-outs.

Barack Obama has become the Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes. They honor him with videos and posters that combine aesthetic mastery with unabashed hero-worship. People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.

The iPhone hordes! Hide the women and children before they get "i-mashed." Hoo boy. Brooks must have received special dispensation from The New York Times copy desk because this is rhetorical overkill to the point of being ridiculous. If there's a political darling among the nerd set these days, it's probably Ron Paul (though Obama definitely has the coolness factor). But defining a generation by the popularity of a commercial product is a Madison Avenue cliche waiting to be born. Maybe the ghost of Lionel Trilling will get so worked up about the cacophony of the blogosphere it will soon haunt the ramparts of Columbia's Morningside Heights.

So, in a relatively short period of time, the social structure has flipped. For as it is written, the last shall be first and the geek shall inherit the earth.

Um, sure David. On the basis of the most flimsy evidence, we're expected to believe that a fundamental societal transformation is under way. I suppose that's not as over the top as your Candyland declarations cheerleading our way into Iraq. But it's as equally rooted in unreality.