In 1996, a documentary called “Triumph of the Nerds” — the title is a play on the 1984 American comedy film Revenge of the Nerds, which featured fictional fraternity wars and characters with wildly impressive names including Booger, Wormser, and Ogre — gave the world an up-close-and-personal look at the giants of personal computing. Steve Jobs. Steve Wozniak. Bill Gates. Paul Allen. Everyone was there.
The real-life stars of Triumph of the Nerds changed the world forever, perhaps in ways we don’t yet understand. Today in Silicon Valley, decades later, things are still busy, busy, busy — but instead of slowly churning out life-changing innovations painstakingly crafted in garages, many of the area’s latest exports seem, well, rather dicey.
Forget the goofy, superfluous apps dreamed up in overpriced loft-style office tracts. Forget the growing army of multitasking robots, some of which will obviously one day grow surly and may attempt to quietly murder us all. Forget the brazen Silicon Valley attempts to “invent” things that have clearly already been invented — buses and vending machines and water and question marks — by blithely relabeling them things like Bus-a-techapalooza, Vendotechama, Waterrrrrrrrrr.com, and Quinsight End-of-Sentence Query Consulting.
No, the worst offense from Cupertino and Mountain View is subtler and more insidious. In a sense, it is the true revenge of the nerds. I’m speaking, of course, of the tech community’s repeated attempts to annihilate the nation’s remaining social skills and common sense.
Oh, Silicon Valley: Clouder of the obvious! Marketer of the preposterous! Great lozenge of dysfunction! No offense, but it might be time to wall you off, just until we figure out what is going on.
Take the latest hot-off-the-presses profile in Vanity Fair, which takes readers “Inside Silicon Valley’s Secretive, Orgiastic Dark Side.” Adapted from an upcoming book detailing “the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley,” the article rolls through various grisly details surrounding an alleged rash of 1970s-style orgy parties running rampant in multiple proverbial subdivisions of Zuckerberg Hills.
Lo, and beware, for apparently trouble is afoot at the tech-nerd corral, at least according to Vanity Fair: Silicon Valley’s wild and carnal “cuddle puddle” parties — apparently this phrase is actually uttered in real life, by adults, with a straight face, and I’m sorry, but I can’t stop laughing — are highly problematic, but not for the obvious reasons any ten-year-old could guess. No, no: They would be fine, but they’re rife with various inequities and gender-related pitfalls for female participants!
Well, blow me down. Who on earth would have guessed? “Free love” parties benefit powerful men? Stop the presses! Oh, never mind, just search an old-fashioned library for “truths as old as time,” then promptly toss the ancient text out the window. When your culture’s on an obsessive gender-equity roll, after all, sometimes there’s only one gear.
My concern, in the meantime, is more practical: Who taught these people basic human relations? The article goes on to feature a non-anonymous, non-monogamous couple — one of them invented . . . wait for it . . . the hashtag! — who earnestly launched a company, gave it the same name as an illicit party drug, and devoted it to developing a “nonjudgmental (artificially intelligent) friend who will support your path to more self-awareness.” Meanwhile, they note, dealing with real people can be a real bummer: “The future of relationships is not just with humans but A.I. characters,” one told Vanity Fair.
We desperately need a resurgence in basic social skills and common sense.
Here are a few life facts: First, a nonjudgmental computer friend is not going to inform you when you are messing things up, so good luck on your path to “more self-awareness.” Second, for heaven’s sake, the last thing our culture needs is “more self-awareness.” Exaggerated or not, the tales of cuddle-puddle-related terror have a message, and that message is clear: In many circles, we desperately need a resurgence in basic social skills and common sense.
As Wired noted in late December, the rise of tech culture is of little help. “The number of teens who get together with their friends every day has been cut in half in just fifteen years. . . . College students in 2016 (vs. the late 1980s) spent four fewer hours a week socializing with their friends and three fewer hours a week partying — so seven hours a week less on in-person social interaction.” That’s a massive deficit in “building social skills, negotiating relationships, and navigating emotions” — and it’s largely been replaced with screen time.
Now, to be fair, Silicon Valley isn’t all bad. FaceTime is a good invention and is nice for communicating with long-distance relatives. I like Instacart. Uber is marvelous! Perhaps we could put a big, beautiful door in the wall surrounding Silicon Valley, and hire some no-nonsense consultants to keep the nonsense ideas inside. (“Raw water,” the latest tech-boom craze that involves paying $36.99 for two and half gallons of liquid that might have rolled off your neighbor’s roof, is one example.)
Or perhaps our friends in tech just need bigger fish to fry. According to a recent report from the New York Times, “computer security experts have discovered two major security flaws in the microprocessors inside nearly all of the world’s computers,” leaving them vulnerable to major hacking and theft. Sounds like a problem in need of a fix!
I know, I know. Where’s the fun in that?