620 Comments

I think that both hipsters and nerds are still in the fray for cross cultural exchanges. While YouTube and algorithms can see what's effective in your own country, we still rely on the networks of weebs or their country equivalent to filter what is useful for international audiences.

They do blend into one since the need to find what's good requires major filtering of bad content

Expand full comment

Also while the algorithm will recommend "How to clean an oven quick and easy" because it knows I'll click it, it's my hipster friend who'll send me "This house has people in it" or "Heck" or "My house walk-through" or any of the artsy things he knows I'll enjoy a lot more.

Expand full comment

I think you're overcomplicating the cause of nerd-dom -- I know a lot of people who are definitely classified as nerds, and basically none of look outward for subjects to 'nerd out' over; people become, e.g. Lord of the Rings nerds because they really love Lord of the Rings, not because they imagine they will be seen as 'the LotR person'.

In fact, nerds are stereotyped as generally unaware of / apathetic to social cues and expectations, and developing your identity based on the expectations of others and desire for specific self-perception requires (I would think) an above-average level of social acuity.

This idea also seems to conflict with the fact that nerds group together and bond over shared interests, no? If people became LotR nerds because they wanted to be seen as the Lord of the Rings guy, then surely they would see other LotR nerds as competition instead of allies.

Expand full comment

That's sounds to me more like a "fan?" Do you take "nerd" to be a synonym for "fan?"

Expand full comment

A nerd is just a fan of above average obsessiveness. Or perhaps a fan who builds an identity around their fandom. If you watch the game on a Sunday and maybe go in person once or twice a year and check the scores on Monday, you’re a fan. If you have season tickets and show up every week in costume to tailgate for three hours, you’re a nerd.

Expand full comment

Disagree that a nerd is just a particularly obsessive fan of anything: there is definitely a component of bad taste/low status/generally perceived uncoolness of the thing you care about that's required to make you a nerd. Maybe someone who cares passionately about their sports team or their favorite rapper is a *stan*, but not a *nerd*.

Expand full comment

Being overly obsessed with something is itself uncool.

And you can definitely be a nerd about things that are cool - Star Wars is cool now, and yet Star Wars nerds are a thing (in fact they get dumped on in popular media for being too critical of perceived flaws in new Star Wars). On the flip side, I don’t think people think “guy who has memorized the stats of everyone on the 1995 Dodgers” is in any way “cool”. He’s a nerd.

That said I think there is something to the idea that being obsessed with something perceived as “high class” would not make you a nerd.

Perhaps a better way to put it would be that a nerd is someone who obsessively engages with low or middle brow things as if they are high brow.

Expand full comment

Counterpoint: 'math nerds' are a common type of nerd, but mathematics is relatively 'high-class' I would think (though it's pretty un-cool).

Expand full comment

High school math is not high-class. Being a mathematician / college professor might be.

Expand full comment
Apr 24, 2023·edited Apr 24, 2023

"Being overly obsessed with something is itself uncool."

And you can see this in action in online fandom spaces, particularly old-school fandom message boards, where there's a divide between the unselfconsciously obsessed, and the very self-conscious who compete amongst themselves over who can most effectively dunk on the obsessed and thus have higher status.

(The irony of trying to appear unobsessed by relentlessly dunking on people online is lost on everyone involved.)

Expand full comment

People obsess over whatever they like and got branded nerds if that thing is currently uncool. It's not that they're looking for something uncool to like on purpose. The people who don't stop liking things they enjoy after learning it's low status might be a distinct group, but this behaviour is not at all mysterious.

Expand full comment

All this is so different from when I was a kid. I was a nerd because I was intellectually curious, bad at and disinterested in sports, socially awkward, and had a computer hobby (owning hardware C64 ->8088 ->286, writing programs in Basic, being a BBS SysOp). Cultural interests were irrelevant to my nerd status.

Expand full comment

You’re right. The article in question here is using “nerd” where I would say “geek” is the appropriate term. But I’m using them interchangeably here since our host is doing so.

You were a nerd but not a geek.

Expand full comment

When I was a kid, "nerd" was a Happy Days reference, and using "geek" meant you listened to Dr. Demento. There was no need for any special term for "computer hobbiest", and I don't even remember if there was jargon generally characterizing people dedicated to specific hobbies or genres of fiction.

Expand full comment

Ditto

Expand full comment

Theory: If you are talking about a man, and you judge him to be sexually successful, he's not a nerd. In particular, most "nerd" interests are coded to some degree as child's interests, and adult women don't want to have sex with children.

Expand full comment

There's definitely an element of "nerd" that implies that the person is pursuing their obsession despite that other people - especially women - think less of them for it.

Expand full comment

No, football fans, even the obsessive ones, are categorically not 'nerds'. People who obsess over football stats in a nerdy way are not obsessive football fans, though. They're not the sort of people, typically, who build their identity around a football team etc.

Expand full comment

Then where do you think “Superfan” fits in the hipster-nerd model?

Expand full comment

It's difficult. I was quite interested in not computers, exactly, but computer languages. To anyone who wasn't in the field, this would be incomprehensible. (Would have been?) But I was called a "computer nerd", a "nerd", and a "geek". Now a geek used to be someone in the carnival sideshow who was paid to do something repulsive, like eat a raw chicken. I don't know the history of nerd. And I have no theory at all as to what "hipster" means, but a quick search seems to sort of agree with the post.

Fan is short or "fanatic", which once just meant insane.

I don't think the justifications for the usage can be correct. I think they describe proper subsets of the folks to whom the term is applied to. The usages sound useful, but you're going to need to define them each time you use them if you want to be properly understood.

Expand full comment

I think that, unlike an average fan, a nerd spends a lot of time on studying the subject of his obsession. Anyone can watch the LotR trilogy; but a Tolkien nerd would've read all the books, committed the genealogies to memory, and learned to speak Sindarin and Quenya.

Expand full comment
founding

I agree. I'm definitely a nerd around computers, but it's because I genuinely enjoy thinking about and working with them, not because I want other people to identify me as a computer person. Maybe there's some evo psych explanation for the desire that drives my behavior, like wanting to appear useful to my tribe, but that's like saying "she had sex with him because she thought he had good genes" rather than "he was attractive"

Expand full comment

Yes, this was my feeling. Most nerds I've known, by the extrinsic definition Scott uses here of someone who gets really deeply into the esoteric lore of whatever, aren't doing it for social signalling purposes; they're doing it because they really like the thing. Indeed, their eagerness to talk about the thing is traditionally socially detrimental unless they find someone similarly keen. See also Shadow One-Boxing https://shadowoneboxing.wordpress.com/2023/03/05/geeking-out-about-your-interests/ .

Expand full comment

Someone like Hanson might argue that the calculation is not consciously accessible but still takes place somewhere.

Expand full comment

It's possible, but I think that other behaviors associated with nerds (e.g. low social perception, formation of nerd communities) are opposite what I would expect if this theory was correct.

Expand full comment

Nerds are deeply into things that are uncool, because they like them enough not to care (frequently can't help themselves), and also because there's an identify there. You can haggle over what's uncool, but there are all sorts of things that seem uncool to most, things that have the potential to swing to cooldom, etc. I say this as someone who got my first D&D set in 78 or so, but wasn't overly into D&D, despite having every TSR product (because I had other interests like music, computers, girls, etc.). Note you need the interplay between deeply into, to the extent that's your identify, and uncool (even if only somewhat uncool, you can be so deeply into something somewhat relatively OK/cool-adjacent (and if you're being honest, stories about space wizards and superheroes aren't cool, even if they create good screen spectacle)).

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

This seems right, but Sam may be identifying anything popular as bad. Anything that the servile herd could possibly like must be execrable. The nerd attempts to make the bad thing good by doing a deep dive on it. And yes, sports ball fans are definitely sports nerds.

(For the record, I think Tolkien and Martin are both overrated.)

Expand full comment

Tolkien might be overrated, but his work is still pretty good in an absolute sense.

Expand full comment

"The Hobbit" was an excellent children's story (for the proper children). "The Lord of the Rings" is a truly classic work of fantasy. "The Simarillion", however, was not nearly of the same quality. It was important back story and enriched "The Lord of the Rings", but on second reading it left a bad taste in my mouth. I think it was the metaphysics. There are may others that are a lot worse, but that was foul. Everybody was doomed because some guy centuries ago made a stupid, not even evil, statement. (The evil actions that follow are claimed to be caused by the statement.) It's "the sins of the fathers" writ large, exaggerated, and not terminated after the 7th generation.

Expand full comment

I tried reading the Simarillion, but never finished the slog. The more popular works of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are indeed better.

I think we should judge artists by their best work, not by the average or even worst work. As we can safely ignore them as an audience.

Expand full comment

"Everybody was doomed because some guy centuries ago made a stupid, not even evil, statement. (The evil actions that follow are claimed to be caused by the statement.)"

Do you mean Feanor and his rebellion? What doomed him was (1) his pride and (2) the oath he swore and made his children swear. When you invoke God to witness that you and yours will take back your stolen jewels even if you have to fight everyone in the world up to and including the gods, then that oath will make you stick to it, even if you want to stop.

The first fruits of Feanor's insane pride was the First Kin-Slaying, and the subsequent other kin-slayings were the harvest reaped from the seeds sown. Even when the last survivors, Maedhros and Maglor, wanted to give up, they couldn't; the oath drove them. And even though they did eventually get back the Silmarils, they couldn't keep them because all the blood they had shed in the pursuit of what Feanor bound them to do had made them unworthy.

The "Silmarillion" is depressing if you look at it in one way, but it is a genuine pagan metaphysics. Words have real power, and actions have consequences down the generations. You can be doomed by something some guy centuries ago said or did. The tale of Kullvero, which is one of Tolkien's inspirations for the Children of Hurin, isn't a chuckle-fest by any means:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kullervo

Think of Oedipus and the trap he was ensnared in, literally from birth, and how the attempts to avoid the prophecy only served to make it happen. Pagan metaphysics of the Northern variety are particularly grim and harsh.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

I want to stick up for Feanor a little. Yes, the kin-slaying was inexcusable; but recall that his initial speech to the Elves in Valinor was so powerful that even Manwe's messenger was forced to step aside to let Feanor pass. And his speech had power because it was *true*. The Elves were not put on Arda to just sit there in Valinor doing nothing. They had their own work to do, and Manwe was directly preventing them from doing that work; he was forcing them to act against their nature in a foolish attempt to secure their safety. As Feanor pointed out, a gilded cage is still a cage. And, unlike Manwe, Feanor was calling for volunteers, not conscripts.

Feanor's downfall was caused by his blind zeal and rage, not by his desire for freedom of choice. In fact, I would argue that if Feanor had lost his argument, and the Elves stayed in Valinor forever, then Arda would've been lost to Melkor -- also forever.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

Feanor did have virtues, and part of what he said was true - *but* his motives were corrupted, he had already been influenced by Melkor (e.g. drawing his sword on Fingolfin because he did believe he was trying to supplant him and because of a mix of issues around his mother and father) and he was driving on out of pride, grief, anger, and vanity.

The Valar did not handle things well, but on the other hand - Manwe is the rightful King of Arda. He can issue orders to Feanor by virtue of that authority.

Feanor refused to heed any advice, and when you have Namo telling you "Look, this is not going to end well" then you should listen. But he wouldn't, because of his own blindness. And the first act he does is to shed blood by attacking the Teleri when they wouldn't give up their ships. His second act, when he arrives in Middle-earth, is to burn the ships and ignore the Noldor still following behind and waiting for those ships to bring then over to Middle-earth.

He manages to get himself killed in (what amounts to) half an hour after arriving in Middle-earth, again because of his hubris. I agree that the Valar protected the Elves in Valinor, and indeed over-protected them, so he had no real idea of what he was going up against when he challenged Melkor, but ultimately Feanor both claimed that he was being enchained and enslaved and wanted to be free, and put chains on his own sons by making them swear the Oath.

I have some sympathy for him, but not very much. I know there are those totally devoted to the Feanorians, but really the best you can say is "And some of them are not as murderously psychopathic as the rest of them".

Turin is similar, in a way, because again his own pride and grief drives him onward to disastrous choices, but he has the excuse that Morgoth cursed his entire family.

In the end, it comes down to "who's your favourite Elf?" and I am a complete Finrod stan (so I can't forgive Rings of Power for what they did to his character) 😁

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

> The Valar did not handle things well, but on the other hand - Manwe is the rightful King of Arda.

He is the rightful king, yes, but that's the problem with monarchy: when your leadership is utterly incompetent, your only option is revolution. This is the path that Feanor took (yes, Ulmo managed to sneak a few positive developments under the radar, but Ulmo is a Vala himself, he has options that Feanor did not). And I would argue that Manwe started out as a moderately competent by-the-book bureaucrat, and then fell to pieces completely once Melkor rewrote the book. There's a reason that the Elves revere Varda far above Manwe; she did more for them (and for Middle-Earth) than he ever did.

Yes, Feanor refuses to take advice, but can you really blame him ? Would *you* take advice from your jailers ? Perhaps he would've been content to live in Valinor and practice his craft; but Manwe gives him zero reasons to trust his kingly authority -- by making it very clear that, to Manwe, Feanor and all the Elves are subjects (or even slaves) whose duty is to obey, not to think.

That said, yes, Feanor turns into a murderhobo psychopath the instant he leaves Valinor. But personally, I have always felt that Feanor's face-heel-turn was too abrupt, from the storytelling point of view. I suppose you could argue that the oath he took instantly corrupted him, but this feels like a bit of a magical cop-out (and is never explicitly stated). Don't get me wrong, I think that Feanor would've gone full psycho *eventually* (he sadly is that kind of guy); I just find it difficult to believe that his fall was as abrupt as the official chronicles say...

Expand full comment

I should also add that I haven't watched *Rings of Power*, nor am I planning on ever watching it. A pox upon them !

Expand full comment

Simarillion was just boring.

Expand full comment

Overrated compared to what? They're definitely better than average fantasy, and better than average prestigious award-winning "literary fiction". They're more popular than Tolstoy or Dickens, but I don't think that many people who actually read those claim that they're in the same "weight class".

Expand full comment

This is exactly the right question, and Matthias was also alluding to it. Tolkien, (like football, automotive racing, or netflix shows about competitive baking) is the entertainment version of something else (myth, war, bread, whatever). Entertainment is inherently overrated, arguably inherently even bad (overrated and bad both in comparison with something more genuine).

The nerd of whatever kind likes entertainments. Scott calls them 'cultural products', which is the over-category. I'm not disagreeing with him, I'm uniting his point with Sam's.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

Are you saying that football is overrated and bad compared to war ???????

Expand full comment

The US Army has a better historical win-loss record than the Cleveland Browns, so....

Expand full comment

Football's ratings are higher by how many OOM? Nobody has to claim that war is good to note that football is vastly more overrated, at least these days. Presumably there was a crossover point when sport was still recognized to be a safe-to-use-on-your-own-team training for war and also war was rated highly (glorious, etc).

Expand full comment

I don't think that entertainment is inherently bad, just like I don't think that junk food is inherently bad. They're contingently bad, exploits found out by adverse optimization, implicit in the design of humans. Of course, if we'll ever become able to truly redesign humans, it's unclear where the objective vision of "perfect" design comes from, or even whether that concept makes sense at all.

Expand full comment

I think this gets to an important distinction and I think food is the right analogy. Whether or not a food is good or bad is an incredibly complex question, in which you have to consider:

1. Short term nutritional needs

2. Long term nutritional needs

3. The amount of similar foods consumed in the short and long term

4. Short term psychological needs

5. Long term psychological needs

6. Even more esoteric concerns like economics or moral ethics

That candy bar may be bad for you as far as long term nutrition goes, but in moderation sometimes the short term psychological need for something tasty is more important to satisfy.

Expand full comment

This raises the question of whether or not you would self-identify as a 'nerd'. The fact that it's still ambiguous this far into the conversation is excellent and I salute you.

Expand full comment

If we are going to do depth/breadth, I think you need two more things:

The popularist. The popularist likes things BECAUSE other people like them. I actually would argue that this is the sports guy most of the time - he doesn't necessarily care about sports, he's not necessarily up on every stat. What he wants is to be able to talk to other people about sports. He loves inception. He raved about Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. He thought Mad Max Fury Road was the best thing since Green Day and U2. He owns an Apple Product. He at some point attended a Six Sigma conference. He likes whatever everybody likes in whatever moment he finds himself, and this helps him make conversations.

The Contrarian (the other one). He dislikes everything BECAUSE people like it. I think this is actually some hipsters, in the usual stereotype - they don't and can't like anything that a significant mass of other people like. I don't have to list what they like, because it's irrelevant - they mostly define their personalities by disliking.

Expand full comment

Nah, there's plenty of contrarian ways to like things. You just need to like things that other people rarely like. You can like them because other people hate them (pure spite) or because enjoying them requires a lot of effort or background knowledge (snobby variant) or (in the best case IMO) because most people would like if it they gave it a chance, but something about the premise or marketing makes most people falsely assume they would dislike it, in which case contrarianism wraps back around into the useful kind of hipsterism.

Expand full comment

Or you can be a meta-contrarian who likes mainstream things to spite the snobby, spiteful contrarians who seem to make up most of your social circle (while also enjoying the good stuff that mainstream culture rejects).

Expand full comment

I like The Fugs. Top that!

Expand full comment

Captain Beefheart?

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

Incredible String Band? And what band was it with a song containing the way-too-stoned line "I hunger for your porpoise mouth"?

Expand full comment

Country Joe and the Fish. (Not a need, just old.)

Expand full comment

Nerd, I meant.

Expand full comment

> because most people would like if it they gave it a chance, but something about the premise or marketing makes most people falsely assume they would dislike it

You’ve just nailed my love for old and/or obscure country music. I mean maybe it’s gotten less obscure in recent years, but I liked it before it was cool!

Expand full comment

I've got a weird variant of that. I prefer folk songs that are in a foreign language that I can't understand. BECAUSE I can't understand it. Most folk songs have a meaning that I find distasteful, if only because it ends up cycling around in my brain when I've trying to think of something else. And many of them are a lot worse. (I'm thinking specifically of "Banks of the Ohio", but it's merely an example of a huge number.)

Expand full comment

I don't have any problem with this. I'm more thinking, like, what's motivating a person to do these things. I think on Scott's level he's doing it as "Product > interactions" where a person gloms onto a product and has various interpersonal reactions thereby. Like the nerd comes to like star trek, pins his identity on it, then ends up competing with other nerds because that's what the product demands he do if he wants status.

I think some other people come at it from the opposite direction - "Desired personal interactions > Product", or something like that. So, something like "everyone likes inception, so I can't" or "everyone likes inception, so I must" are contrarian and popularist. I think like you said the contrarian often goes "nobody likes this so I must". My gut feeling is the popularist doesn't usually go "nobody likes this, so I can't" - it's just functionally outside of how he selects things in general.

Expand full comment

I like your populist/contrarian dualism, but I don't think the underlying drivers are that different. Both the groups you identify are still trying to fit into tribes, but perhaps their enthusiasms are governed more by the culture they have been exposed to. Some people only have the Disney/Marvel etc option because that's all they know. You have to have an education, or at least be curious before you can start to eschew these huge cultural constructions in favour of something more esoteric, but these cultural aesthetes who proudly wear their disdain for more popular culture still seem mainly to be looking for an audience.

Real contrarians, if they exist at all, must all be living out in the woods in off-grid cabins, listening to Wagner and communing with nature. You'd never meet one unless you got lost on a hike and had to ask directions to the nearest town.

Expand full comment

You reminded me of a very old Scott post, on hipsters and meta-contrarianism: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/9kcTNWopvXFncXgPy/intellectual-hipsters-and-meta-contrarianism

Expand full comment

Yeah, I was definitely thinking about this while reading this article itself as well. It's way of thinking about things which I had kind of already come up with independently before I read Scott's post and which he clarified and crystallized quite nicely, and which has shaped my worldview of regarding how I interpret most cultural phenomena.

Expand full comment

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

Said by a proto-hipster character in the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

Expand full comment

Oh, _that_ Anna Karenina.

In the movie at least. The book didn’t do much for me.

Expand full comment

LOL. I am your definition of a popularist in every way except for owning an Apple product.

At the same time, I and those around me would likely define me as a rabid contrarian, because I hold many passionate positions on things that are not held by others and I enjoy many hobbies and invest my time and money in things other commonly regard as odd or socially defiant.

I like what I like, and I don't care of you like it or some consensus defines that like as socially acceptable / pro-social or not. I am willing to consider all sides of an argument, even if some of those sides are socially frowned upon and censored.

Does that make me a popularist or a contrarian?

Expand full comment

Yes - this is an important part of the psychological aspect here, I think. Another example, driven by similar tendencies: I know a number of genuinely very intelligent people who fall into what I believe to be "conspiracy theories" frequently (setting aside for the moment Scott's distaste of that term). For these people in my life, one of the root causes of this tendency seems to me to be their psychological need to be the Contrarian and also The Smartest Person In The Room. They need to Know Something That No One Else Does. This, combined with clever reasoning and misuse of data by other conspiracy theorists, and all the usual mental biases that every human falls into, lead them into wildly incorrect conclusions that they, unfortunately, can defend quite well to a lay-person who knows nothing about the topic with seeming intelligence, reinforced by the fact that they *are* genuinely intelligent, in general.

Expand full comment

I get that some people don't get live/TV sports, but basically, there's no better entertainment available for almost everyone (the numbers back it up). If you're not into sport ball, you don't get this. But the world really, really loves sports. In contrast, star wars or LOTR films are this summer's blockbuster soon forgotten. Because let's be honest, they're pretty mediocre. Have you watched new hope recently? It's boring! (Empire strikes back is the only one that really stands up.) And 16 hours or whatever of hobbits just isn't that exciting, particularly without the big screen. Don't get me wrong, I agree sports provide a common touch point, like the weather. But people really, really love and care about sports, even if some think that's stupid (and weather is inherently meaningful/interesting).

Expand full comment

I really enjoyed this.

Expand full comment

Damn I feel I just lost a piece of my identity by witnessint Sam Kriss get mainstreamed on Astral Star Codex like this

Expand full comment

seriously

Expand full comment

Would you... would you identify as a hipster by chance?

Expand full comment

At least we can say we liked him before...

Expand full comment

Yeah... (I didn't know him before but I wanna be a part of this group)

Expand full comment

> Still, surely CTRL+H-ing every mention of “nerds” in Kriss’ post to read “geeks” would be a simple friendly amendment.

Surely the nerds would be more likely to use a sed substitution, like s/nerd/geek/g?

Expand full comment

you have to go through extra steps to get SED to work in a browser blog context, so it starts to become a split perspective between the command-line maximalists and the browser-extension-installation crowd.

Expand full comment

Unrelatedly, Schoen, I immediately thought of you when I saw this: :D

> "Also, what was up with stamp and coin collectors? This seems like a different phenomenon: surely nobody wanted to identify with the US Postal Service."

Also, I pressed Command+H (since I'm on a mac) and my browser windows immediately disappeared ...for a second, I thought Scott had done like the typical 1990s "To fix that problem, press Alt+F4" prank and I fell for it. (except nicer, because it's just "hide windows.")

Other also, for what software and/or OS does Ctrl+H open search-and-replace setup?

> "Surely the nerds would be more likely to use a sed substitution, like s/nerd/geek/g?"

I think that the definition of "nerd" being defended here is a much more wide-ranging and all-embracing definition. (Besides, I notice that when I'm composing a Substack post, I settle for the web-based editor; I'll only use vim and/or CML for the occasional word count. So it's in my interests for that to count within the scope of "being a true nerd.")

Expand full comment

Hi Theodicy!

> Other also, for what software and/or OS does Ctrl+H open search-and-replace setup?

Some word processors (I'm not sure where it was introduced first), including Microsoft Word and LibreOffice.

Expand full comment
founding

I collect coins and I think the description of the hobby (and its putative death) isn't quite right.

1. Rare coins are in fact hard to find, even in today's internet world. They are usually sold in auctions, which might happen online, but still not that frequently. It's not unusual for examples some specific rare coin to be sold only once every few years. If the coin is also obscure, it may not be prohibitively expensive, so this kind of situation isn't the sole province of rich people.

2. One area of collecting is to get all the rare items. Another is to get all the minor varieties of a common item. These varieties may not be very rare, but it still takes a lot of effort to be able to distinguish them and to find them. Some collectors will obtain large numbers of relatively common coins and sort through and scrutinize them to try to identify interesting varieties.

3. An important part of collecting is getting good deals. This is surely a lot harder than it used to be because sellers can more easily figure out what things are worth and you won't find something grossly underpriced in a random antique store as often these days. But filtering through buckets (or online listings) of large numbers of coins can still be fun and lead to spotting good deals.

So I think there is room in the hobby for nerd-like behavior (per your definition). I would argue the decline of the hobby is more due to competition from other similar hobbies (a generation ago you could collect stamps, coins, baseball cards, or rare books/comics - now you can collect beanie babies, Pokemon cards, NFTs, funko pops, action figures, etc.). I think stamps have suffered more than coins because stamp collecting has more of an aesthetic component (which has faced stronger competition) while coins have a historical element that is less well replicated by collecting newer things. This difference isn't obvious in the google trends graphs you posted but I believe is observable from looking at prices of stamps vs coins.

Expand full comment

What happened with those made-to-be-collectible coins with state designs?

Expand full comment
founding

People do still collect those. If you have a huge jar of those quarters in your attic, most of them are still worth a quarter, but maybe a few are worth more?

Expand full comment

I’m a big fan of those. Since the state Quarter series completed in 2008 or so, there was a National Park/Monuments/Historical Sites series and now there is a Notable US Women series. I don’t consider myself a coin collector but I do love looking through my loose change to see if I can turn up one I don’t already have and add it to the book.

Expand full comment
author

What level of coin collection are you doing? I used to collect at the level of "try to get pennies from every year and every mint", I thought that became trivial at some point, and a Google search suggests it's still trivial. Can you give an example of a not-absurdly-expensive coin you would have to wait for the right auction to get?

Expand full comment
founding

I'm a fairly advanced collector.

Here's an example of a coin missing from my collection. China - Yuan Dynasty - 2 cash coin dated 1353. I haven't been specifically trying to buy this coin but I am trying to collect all the dated Yuan Dynasty coins and I haven't gotten that one yet. I got the 1352 in 2014 for $280 and the 1354 in 2016 for $700 and I don't think the 1353 is more rare. I guess it's debatable whether $700 is an absurd amount of money to spend on a coin (it is not the most I've spent on a coin), but at least it's accessible to many people.

I spent like 2min googling and found one auction listing, Noble 2021: https://www.invaluable.com/v2/auction-lot/world-silver-bronze-coins-2956-c-6b14e8f958

(fwiw, I wouldn't buy a coin like this from Noble anyway because I don't think they do a good job of authenticating ancient Chinese coins)

I didn't search in Chinese and there were probably more sales of this coin in Chinese auctions in the last 10 years but I guess not many.

Expand full comment
founding
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

Ah sorry, that Noble coin is actually 3 cash dated 1350, I did a bad job reading/searching. I actually couldn't find any 2 cash 1353.

I don't have a 3 cash from 1350 either though. I did find another example of the 1350 3 Cash sold in a 2016 auction: https://www.numisbids.com/n.php?p=lot&sid=1359&lot=896

Expand full comment
author

Wow, good luck.

Expand full comment
founding

Thanks! I hope I've now successfully established myself as a coin nerd too :)

Expand full comment

Well, for my usage you established yourself as a serious fan. To be a nerd you'd need to talk about the way the coins were minted or how the metal was refined or some such.

I don't think there's an agreed upon usage that specifies this kind of detail.

Expand full comment

I used to collect US coins from every denomination, year, mint, and variety (such as large and small date 1960 pennies). It was kind of like a treasure hunt, knowing you could find something in circulation that was actually more valuable than most people thought it was.

I lost interest in the late 1980s sometime, when I found the volume of new coins dwarfed older coins. For example, for Lincoln pennies, they used to make a few million per year, then a few tens of millions. In the 80s, they started making about 5 BILLION each, and it started drowning out all of the old coins, which basically stayed the same value.

I still pull coins from circulation if I find them valuable. I stopped spending pennies made of copper (pre-1982) for their inherent metal value. I have on occasion pulled a silver or proof coin from circulation. But so rarely, for so long, that I seldom get the thrill of the treasure find.

Expand full comment

Not to mention that the US Mint caught on and instead of issuing one quarter a year they issued one "collectible" quarter for each state. It's not collectible if it's made to be collected.

Expand full comment

Exactly. At that point, you're letting someone else pull your strings.

Expand full comment

I'm not sure the google trends graph works as intended here. If stamp and coin collecting are nerd activities (which is assumed) and if the internet has become less populated by nerds since 2004 with the arrival of everyone else (which I think is reasonable) then we would see the same declining interest in all searches even if nerds never stopped caring about stamps or coins any less.

I also think that stamps, coins, and dinosaurs appeal disproportionately more to children than adults, so your own experience can also be tricky.

Expand full comment

I don't know a ton about coins, but I can tell you there are 100s of sports cards from fairly obscure regional issues (like cards that were inserted in a bag of potato chips from a regional chip chain, etc), that wouldn't sell for more than $100 but which people can spend years and years trying to acquire.

Also, WRT to collecting: This is definitely not dead. I believe that sports cards are one of the top five selling categories on Ebay, and two years ago a company that grades sports cards and coins-- Collectors Universe-- was bought out for just under a billion dollars (I think $870m, or somewhere in that range). That same company is currently grossing around $500k a day in grading fees. Also, one of my good friends buys/sells Funko Pops, and his business grosses eight figures a year. There is still a ton of money that gets spent annually on physical collectibles.

Expand full comment

And this is basically just hunting/gathering, tying directly into what makes people hunt mushrooms and birds. Basically, we've mapped hunter/gatherer ability to understand terrain/ecosystem/etc. to pursuits like sports stats, coins, stamps, etc. Hunter gatherer may not have had the same sort of numerical stats, but were doing very much the same thing.

Expand full comment

I think you're vmissing the economic angle: coins and stamps were readily available, and relatively cheap (in fact, they were money!). You'd occasionally get exotic money from elsewhere, a letter from elsewhere, you start a collection. That's basically a poor person/society hobby. Same with collecting sports cards that came with gum, that's very, very humble. People collect other things now, in part because they've got the money to do so. E.g., there's an enormous community of guitar pedal nerds spending outrageous amounts of money on enormous pedal collections they really don't need or use, and without the resources that you would think would support the habit. (The weird question is why it shifts from hi-fi equipment to, e.g., MTB, even before advent of digital music/streaming, perhaps just fashion, people buying guitar pedals now rather than used cars, or people spending (wasting) money on high end coffee rather than cigarettes) And also obviously because mail has died, as has cash (who would carry around a penny these days, let alone look at what year it might be, etc.?).

Expand full comment

I think your point 3 really nails it. The chance of finding a good deal at the "expense" of a layperson is much smaller than it used to be since it is trivial for them to do some basic due diligence. This is further evidence of Scott's point of the internet disrupting traditional sorting roles, but from a slightly different angle.

Expand full comment

I'd qualify this by saying that it's harder to do if your plan is to sell the collectible without adding any value to it. But if you're buying collectibles that can be submitted for third party grading (sports cards, Pokemon/Magic/Yugioh/anime cards, coins, action figures, factory sealed video games, comic books etc) it's not all that hard to make six figures a year buying 'raw' collectibles, grading them, and then selling them for a sizeable mark-up.

Expand full comment

one area where collecting is still thriving is around pinball/arcade machines. a fair number of people might stock a few of these in their garage at any time and watch local listings, swapping out their machines whenever they spot a deal. there’s still enough listings along the lines of “my grandfather passed away and left this Adams Family pinball machine nobody uses: free to anyone who can haul it away” that you can have some edge by being “an insider”.

go further into the gray market of “these arcade machines aren’t licensed for sale in the US but somehow still made it into the country” and this becomes doubly so. i know one person who started as an enthusiast collector and wants to open an actual arcade, but in the process has discovered it’s far more profitable to just operate a warehousing/marketplace operation.

i can’t say for certain why this area of collecting has lasted longer than the others, except to point out that the transaction costs are higher due to a combination of transport costs and in some places gray-market overhead — both of which scale with distance.

Expand full comment

It's actually just about the good deal, not the "at the expense of." Back when you could frequently find unbelievable (e.g.) guitars at pawn shops, the joy wasn't putting one over on the poor pawn shop owner, but getting some incredible pre-CBS strat you could never, ever afford. And there was the lottery aspect, because pre-internet, you were never really sure what you had.

Expand full comment

Collecting isn't just about acquiring the rarest items, it's also about acquiring complete sets. I'm not a collector myself, but I've known some (stamps, coins, comic books, hockey cards) and they have all looked for complete sets. This provides added interest since rarity becomes relative, and completing a set isn't just about finding that last piece but about finding the person willing to trade it to you.

The ebay theory still applies though.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

And once you completed the set you can just expand it. I've known a video game collector who wanted all the LucasArts (or maybe it was Sierra) adventures as part of his collection and started with just wanting to get one PC version of each, then expanded to other platforms, then expanded to other language versions, then expanded to....

Expand full comment

I'd guess many coin collectors got their start being patient enough to sort through change to see if they had e.g. a wheat cent or silver dime, but first of all, who pays with cash and gets change, and the chances of finding something collectible are orders of magnitude smaller than, say, the '90s. And stamp collectors would have started saving the stamps on mail sent to their house, but how frequently do you get stamped mail anymore?

My 79-year old father goes to stamp shows, because one of his hobbies is to buy sheets of old but common unused stamps for less than face value. They are still valid postage, and then he uses them to personalize the stamps he puts on letters he sends to various people. And most of the other people at stamp shows are about his age. He does have some stamps he thinks are interesting that he's held onto, but the dealers at the stamp shows think they're common and uninteresting. So there's a decreasing number of stamps that might be "worth something" and a net loss of collectors in the hobby, and then every time a collector dies and his heirs have no interest in his collection and that many more stamps make their way to dealers who now have one less buyer.

Too bad "sending paper letters with vintage but still valid stamps" never caught on with the hipsters.

Expand full comment

The widespread adoption of email created a world where a letter is almost certainly junk mail or a bill. Nobody looks forward to hearing from a good friend from across the country now when picking up the day’s mail. If letters are not interesting why would stamps? The same for coins. Nobody uses cash, and getting a pile of coins with no significant value (inflation) is just an annoyance. These objects have passed into irrelevance. Still, it seems like some little pieces of joy and wonder have passed from our lives.

Expand full comment

I think this is definitely part of it: when I was a kid (the 90's), you could kick-start a collection by just taking the stamps off the mail; but this is not the case any more.

Also, probably not relevant, but the decline on the graph also corresponds to when the USPS changed the glue on stamps so that you couldn't easily remove them from the envelope. At least in my case, this took much of the charm out of the hobby (although probably having less free time as I became an adult was the main necessary and sufficient cause of my abandoning the hobby).

Expand full comment
founding

Collecting has not in the slightest died out. People collect more things than ever, like sneakers, funko pops, vintage cars, guns, antique ceramics, anime figurines, magic cards, etc.

Expand full comment

Right?!? I found that part of the analysis bizarre.

I never know whether such blindspots are due to social milieu - our author seems to run in a social circle that, indeed, might have so much money to make collecting irrelevant, but that's not the case for the cast majority if folks, at all! - or individual proclivity - if he never liked collecting, posits spurious reasons why others do, and erroneously concludes from their deterioration that it must have fallen out of favor.

Regardless, Scott's confident assertion of an uninformed and wrong proposition always throws me off when I encounter it here. I think because I usually find him to be such a careful, observant, and thoughtful cultural critic - it flies in the face of many reasons I enjoy his analysis and find it unique and worthwhile.

Expand full comment

Many very easy examples like music gear, where the focus of collecting has shifted (because, e.g., old guitars got too expensive), but is still going on like crazy (from boutique pedals, to old synths, drum machines, etc.). Lots of gear these days have small runs, companies go out of business, you can't find an X to buy, but X remains affordable (because there's not too much demand, either).

Expand full comment

I agree ... as someone with a medium sized (~2000pc) record collection (I guess this makes me a hipster as well as a nerd?), I’ve seen a few boom busy cycles since the 80s but there are certainly still plenty of places to get records and various ways to nerd about about them - the level of detail on discogs’ database is certainly proof of that! Although it myy also add some weight to Scott’s point since discogs definitely made collecting rare or valuable albums both much easier and much less fun.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

What about people who like high culture? Or bird watching? Or astronomy? Are they nerds? They often have in depth knowledge about their hobby.

Expand full comment

I think being a nerd requires being a bit socially clumsy about your interest, and talking or signalling about it in situations where most people don't expect it. So being a nerd about completely mainstream stuff like pop music or football is not possible, that's just fandom. Being a nerd about very well known and relatively well-respected stuff like classical music or birdwatching is rare, because most people who are classy enough to care about the thing in the first place are also classy enough to know when to shut up about it. But comics? Star trek? Power metal? They have fairly low barriers to entry *and* most people don't care about them, so there's plenty of opportunities to bring it up to people who don't want to hear about it.

So that's why I think nerdery usually attaches itself to the typical targets.

Expand full comment
Apr 20, 2023·edited Apr 20, 2023

Huh, I'm mostly socially adept, but think of myself as a nerd. I guess nerd for me means; loves reading books. And I want to talk about favorite books with my nerd friends to find new books to read.

Expand full comment
Apr 28, 2023·edited Apr 28, 2023

IDK about that...what about people who are really interested in Music in general, especially in the technology behind music production etc., and who can name lots of obscure stats about music, but they are not fans of a specific band? Would they be considered "Music Nerds"?

Expand full comment

Being a nerd comes from obsessive interest in low-status things. People who are naturally obsessively interested in high-status things are lucky enough to be able to obsess over their hobby without losing status. If you're obsessed with collecting wine then you're sophisticated; if you're obsessed with collecting Dr Pepper then you're a nerd.

Expand full comment

There can be a perception that people interested in high status things are boring though, or snobbish. So there is a social cost potentially.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

Yeah - I guess the commenters above think everyone who likes classical music is a billionaire opera lover, but as someone who's musical preferences are mainly dominated by 20th century classical music, I think the social costs are considerably higher than they are for liking any particular popular group or style a bit too much or too earnestly

Expand full comment

Yeah, I read about a study once (unfortunately I can’t find it) where people who were told that someone likes opera generally reacted that they thought this person was high status but it reduced their desire to talk with that person.

Expand full comment

The social costs may be as high but I would need to be persuaded that they were "higher." I feel like if people want to avoid you because you talk about boring stuff then they don't care if that boring stuff is Prokofiev or MCU - they just don't want to talk to you. So I would think a low-status MCU bore is still worse off than a high-status Prokofiev bore, because at least you've got the high status part.

Expand full comment

Ah but this is part of the signalling too. High-status hobbies only seem boring or snobbish to lower-status people. So by bragging about your high-status hobby you're fully committing to "I don't care about the opinions of low-status people anyway, my peers are all high-status".

Expand full comment

You seem to be assuming that people who like high brow things have a high status social milieu that they share these interests with.

Expand full comment

I think that's true in part, but I also think there's the degree and specificity of interest. I'm also going to use "geek" instead of "nerd" here, because, like Scott, that seems to me more in keeping with definitions like "obsessive interest in low-status things."

So, my dad was a hobbyist and an obsessive learner. He taught a college course in science fiction literature, he had thousands of opera records, he loved astronomy, he spent lots of time watching sports. And in each case he learned a *lot* about the subject. He read the periodicals, he knew the backgrounds of the important people, he learned the history, he studied the techniques. And while I don't know what he was like socially, he certainly conveyed every last detail to his children.

But I would not consider him a geek, not because opera isn't a geeky interest, but because he was focused on what was actually relevant. That is, he could tell you Maria Callas' greatest recordings, but he couldn't tell you which notes she'd gone slightly off on in a famous aria. He could go on at length on the themes in Stapledon's Last and First Men, but he wouldn't write fan fiction on it (or read it, unless written by one of his students who chose writing a short story over taking a final exam - that resulted in a lot of fan fiction).

So, if he were interested in a tree, he would study the trunk, the roots, the branches, the leaves. But a geek would learn who planted the tree, who landscaped the forest, and how many leaves the tree had each day from 1975-2011. And he would go to conventions devoted to discussing all these aspects of the tree and more, with a main speaker who had pruned it 10 years ago. And he would argue about which season had the best leaves until his face turned red.

So I think someone can be an opera *geek,* where they know a tremendous amount of extraneous opera trivia. At the same time, if you're not an opera fan you might not be able to differentiate an opera enthusiast from an opera geek because you don't know what's important and what's not in the world of opera. So from the *outside*, you don't think anyone's an opera geek. But within that community I suspect there are recognizable geeks.

Expand full comment

Well, that's a different type of nerd than me. nerd = loves reading, (to me)

Expand full comment

I have an obsessive interest in Classical Greek literature. It's certainly high-status, but I do it in a rather low-status, nerdy way, and certainly talk about it too much.

Expand full comment

Wow, why is that high culture? I love those things and consider myself a nerd? I also love sports.

Expand full comment

Why is what high culture?

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

To me, being a nerd requires a degree of swimming against the cultural tide.

It's weird and unpopular to be into trains, so the fact that you are indicates you have a bit of character (or are socially oblivious, which is also kind of endearing).

The problem (and I think Kriss alludes to this) is that nerd stuff went mainstream in the past few decades. Of the 10 highest-grossing movies of the 2010s, 6 are Star Wars or Marvel films. There's no longer any sense that nerds are the underdog.

But what does it say about you when you wear a Star Wars shirt? You're pledging allegiance to the biggest, most popular club imaginable. Is that a brave stance? Those people always make me think "if you lived in the SW universe, you'd be on the side of the Empire".

In general, I am creeped out by effusive public adoration for things that are near-universally loved. Like The Beatles. Or bacon. Or dogs. Or science (Neil DeGrasse Tyson's whole shtick). Regardless of how I feel about those things on the object level, there's no glory in joining a culture war when you're signing on to the winning side.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

That swimming against the tide though could be either due to not caring what people think, or being completely oblivious to that other people can't and won't share in the emotional experience. If it is the first they usually don't broadcast; the latter case is the one people usually see, which the other humans find pitiful, rather than glamourous (The opposite of what was intended).

Expand full comment

I also think politics got involved here and the sort of person who wears a Star Wars shirt is often judged as an alt-right weirdo who thinks that Kathleen Kennedy is genuinely evil for hiring Rian Johnson, whether or not that judgment is correct.

Expand full comment

Is that the case? I don’t think I’d assign any particular political valence to someone wearing a Star Wars shirt, but if I had to, I’d be more likely to assign a leftward one.

Expand full comment

Yes. As far as I can judge, Star Wars has always been pretty solidly inside the typical american moderate left consensus position and its fans also seem to be around there politically. Trekkies as well. It's the military scifi types that can arguably be described as rightish in some sense, but from everything I've heard even those tend to skew strongly left in voting patterns (just not quite as strongly as other nerd groups).

Expand full comment

Interesting. I never associated Star Wars with anything political. I guess I grew up with TOS, in a time and place where kids weren't especially political about anything.

Expand full comment

It's quite weird. Star Wars is about the heirs of the true king rightfully overthrowing his supplanter and reestablishing the true monarchy. I.e., it SHOULD be an extreme right position, in favor of inherited monarchy. But most of the fans that I know are left of center. (This may be selection bias. Even so it's pretty strange.)

Well, OK, I only saw the first two films, and after that studiously ignored it. So this may be wrong. But that's definitely my impression of what it's theme is.

Expand full comment

Yeah, you're way off. Original trilogy Star Wars is about a farm boy that answers the call to adventure and overthrows space Nazis to establish a republic. You might have been thrown off because one of the characters is a princess, but she never rules anything. Princess is a ceremonial title, so the hero can rescue a princess, in line with old fantasy.

The prequel trilogy is about how democracy can turn into fascism. The sequel trilogy is the original trilogy, except with a girl, and a poorly received middle movie.

What you described is closer to Lord of the Rings, especially Return of the King, whose fans do tend to be right leaning.

Expand full comment

Mmmm, the rebels' full name is literally the Alliance To Restore The Republic, there was never a king in any meaningful position of authority. Lea is a princess because her mother was a queen (and that would technically mean Luke is a king, but he's never called that. He's a Jedi Master, and the mastery is that of knowledge not authority). Lea's mother was a queen of a single planet (which is Star War's equivalent of a small locale) who served her people and was beloved by them.

Expand full comment

Leia is a princess because the hero has to rescue a princess (and then marry her, which they seem to have been aiming for before swerving to "no, they're actually brother and sister").

It has nothing to do with real monarchy and all to do with spectacle. You can't have a Saturday morning serial SF movie without a Space Princess!

Expand full comment

Star Wars' politics is all over the place, and "its politics" can be either the implied politics of its heros, or the politics of its makers.

In the originals, the implied politics is pure fantasy-style medieval morality : There is Good, there is Evil, the Empire and most everybody who fights for it is Evil, the Emperor is the raw personification of Evil and Immorality, the Rebel Alliance and most everybody who fights for it is Good, so Good in fact that they can transform indifferent or chaotics semi-evil individuals like Han Solo into Good, Luke Skywalker is the personification of Good, and he triumphs over Evil by first refusing to fight it on its terms, then converting his most important aide into Good. The material victory of destroyed death stars and tie fighters serve merely to underlie and accentuate the moral/spiritual victory of Luke over the Emperor, with the possible exception of the first movie where the material victory is the whole deal. There is a God in the universe, not personal and with sides, but a God nonetheless, and it's on the side of the Rebel and specifically Luke. Despite the medieval vibe, things are vaguely (sane) lefty and civil righty, Aliens and Droids fight side by side next to humans (and that, as we will know later, is a huge deal after the Clone Wars), the Rebel Alliance is always the friend of the natives, the Empire is always the oppressive jerks, which also hate Aliens because they are different.

In the prequels, things are a lot more morally gray. First, the good guys are winning, the Republic is in control, and its good... on paper ? In reality, the Republic is a bloated ancient mess, full of corruption, and it's core-centric, meaning the rich worlds of the core are given more attention and resources than the backwaters of the outer rim. This sounds like libertarianism 101, a government that has lost its way and is now jerking off the money of its tax payers over less than nothing, while corruption and crime rages over its territories. There is several sub-plots of mega corporations being bad and enforcing their nonsense with violence, but that's not necessarily counter to libertarianism. A central figure is the Jedi Order, which we used to unconditionally revere in the originals, now we get to see how it's an utter failure in its final days. Taking children from their families, imposing draconian emotional codes, letting the Republic go astray, using a slave army they don't even know who commissioned it, letting a horny oblivious cocky entitled teenager next to a mastermind manipulator, etc.... The prequels sometimes imply that it's ultimately good the Jedi was destroyed, that this was the Prophesy of the Chosen One all along and it was the Jedi who just misinterpreted it in their typical self-centeredness, the Force feels much more impersonal and amoral, much more aloof. We witness the rise of the pure raw Evil, he's a politician (how libertarian), he also nominally belongs to some ancient order opposed to the Jedi and he uses this to his advantage sometimes but he's really just obsessed with power and zero-sum control. He's so devoid of anything human except the raw nietzschean hunger for power, that he laughs and rejoices when he is disfigured in a fight because it ultimately gained him power, whereas the former horny teenager with a heart of gold screamed in agony despite being the second most powerful man in the galaxy, because he lost his youth and his woman.

All in all, the prequels are very libertarian. The fact that the antagonists in the entire later 2/3 of the trilogy are separatists doesn't undermine this, they are only bad because they are controlled by mega corporations and ultimately Sidious, and fought for by ruthless machines, but the people of CIS were defnitely good freedom-loving folks who were just sick of the Republic's bullshit. The prequels are more topical, the originals' only connection to reality was perhaps the vietnam-inspired Endor land fight, a war that ended ~10 or more years before the movie was made. The prequels meanwhile was concurrent with Iraq's invasions by a coalition that thought of itself as democratic. The prequels features on-the-nose themes like Manufacturing Consent and a weary public that has been lied to in the process of trading freedom for security. It's also necessarily more rushed and contrained in its artistic freedom : it needs to set things up for the chronologically-later trilogy.

The sequels are..... I don't know. I would say woke, but even wokism has a bit more consistency and coherence than the most coherent and consistent sub plot in the later 2/3 of the sequels. The first movie is a bad rehash of A New Hope, because woman protagonist now. The later 2 are probably not even human writing, but maybe the ramblings of GPT-1. If I had to put a name on its politics, it's greedy individualistic "Jerk off now and fuck what happens later", it's new-agey, "Be yourself, follow your passions, insist on your opinions and be stubborn even with people who you yourself admit know much better than you" are its prime commandments. Just, be yourself bro, do whatever you feel like. It's preferable if you can be a woman or black while being yourself, but don't bother, be yourself bro, bro ? be yourself, just be yourself and give us money, we don't actually, like, get this whole Star Wars things, here are some space lazers, here are a kinda-gay-but-we-will-never-actually-say-this-outloud-because-dude-china-will-fuck-us-up couple, now give us some money, here is a purple-haired chick doing some pointless gesture involving a space ship, now give us some money. Here is C3PO losing his memory in a very sombre moment whoooooops IT'S A JOKE HAHA GET IT ? now give us some money, here is chewbacca dying in a very sombre moment, oh my god chewbacca he's one of the original band of heros he's dead now WHOOOOOPS IT'S A RELIEF MOMENT, GET IT ? now give us some money. Etc, etc, et-fucking-c.

Rogue One is probably my best movie in this entire Star Wars category, right up there or exceeding The Empire Strikes Back. It's extremly dark, it has a WW2-in-1940 atmosphere. No one is good, but one side is murdering like there is no tomorrow and discussing insane unhinged plans for everyone else, and everyone else is just being flawed humans trying to do their best. Everyone dies, for something that they probably thought was futile in their final moment. The Evil is really fighting this one while yawning and with one hand tied behind their back, it's inconceivable that this fractured opposition is going to do anything interesting.

And I haven't even touched the Expanded Universe yet, every work of which is written by a different author, sometimes several. Star Wars is very big and very messy.

Expand full comment

Nice reply! I never gave anywhere remotely this much thought to star wars. TOS were great childhood movies for me, the other 6 I mostly dismissed as stuff I couldn't get into due to bad writing but somehow thought I should watch, and I haven't seen or read the rest. I enjoyed your deeper analysis.

Who were the maybe gay but not expressly gay characters in the sequels?

Expand full comment

I think the "socially oblivious" part is actually important to identify someone as a nerd; it's not just that they have eccentric hobbies, it's that *we know* they have eccentric hobbies because they don't realize how boring that stuff is to normal people.

Expand full comment

This depends on whether you're talking about the person's friends, or those passed on the street. I suspect that those passed on the street judge a person purely on "socially oblivious" without knowing what their interests are. (Except for folks who blatantly advertise it, of course. But I suspect that is a small percentage.) But being "socially oblivious" tends to have lots of signs that seem to be readily noticeable to those who aren't "socially oblivious". And that, I think, is the primary meaning usually assigned to either "geek" or "nerd". I don't know about "hipster". Only those who know most such people have any idea what their particular obsession is, and they generally don't care, either.

Expand full comment

Populism is always creepy but a lot of what becomes hip becomes a creepy fetish. Coins, stamps, hummels, Rambo guns, IPAs, fantasy sports leagues, disco…

There are cool hunters who keep their mouths shut (for selfish reasons, or just because they know they lucked out) and then there are those who cant keep their mouths shut. Something becoming hip is just enough of the latter (or enough social spin) to create enough inertia and then the herd makes it all creepy. When something you like becomes popular, it’s time to move on.

I was lucky to know NdGT well before he was publically cool, and I knew he would one day become that - once Sagan was out of the way.

Expand full comment

I don't think it's fair to say that things nerds like going mainstream somehow makes nerds no longer the underdog. It's totally possible for nerds themselves to be disliked, but stuff they like to be widely enjoyed (the obvious analogy would be someone arguing that racism is over because hip-hop is so widely enjoyed).

I also wouldn't say that nerd stuff only went mainstream in the last decade, it's not like the first 3 Star Wars movies were obscure arthouse pictures. I think the reason Marvel took off is just innovations in storytelling: movie producers finally figured out a way to adapt the gloriously arcane and convoluted lore of superhero comics in a way that could appeal to mainstream audiences in addition to nerds (much how George Lucas figured out how to get mainstream audiences to love the space operas nerds had been enjoying for decades before 1977).

Personally, I wear Star Wars shirts from time to time. What it says about me is that I like Star Wars. I don't like Star Wars to be brave, I like it because it's good (except for the sequel trilogy, obviously, which is terrible). I actually did notice a while ago that even though I liked the Star Wars movies a lot I rarely wore Star Wars shirts or listed them among my favorite movies. I realized this was probably because I didn't feel like it said anything about me that I liked Star Wars since so many other people did. I then realized that was dumb, if I liked something I should celebrate that I like it regardless of how many other people do. So I bought some Star Wars shirts.

Expand full comment

Comic book movies had always been pretty popular.

Superman was the top grossing movie of 1979 despite coming out in 1978. Superman 2 was the second top grossing movie of 1981. Batman was the second top grossing movie of 1989. Batman Returns was the top grossing movie of 1992. Batman Forever was the top grossing movie of 1995. Spider-man was the third top grossing movie of 2002 (behind Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies).

That's about all I can be bothered looking up right now but you get the idea, superhero movies have been popular since the 1970s.

Expand full comment

I feel like the only innovation of the MCU was to get people to feel the same way about less well-known characters, and to maintain this long-term. It's not particularly novel that superhero films are popular, it is notable that it's been over a decade with new films every year and they're still doing well at the box office. Interest will inevitably decline, but for now at least people seem to be on board with it running indefinitely without any reboots - can't really say the same for Superman, Batman or Spiderman.

I also think it helps that we're at a time where the CGI is good enough to enable the more spectacular scenes from comic books, certainly films like the Avengers and Dr Strange would have been hard to pull off 20 years earlier.

Expand full comment

I'm not sure there is any innovation of the MCU. It seems to me that the filmmakers are just good at making mass-market films that connect to each other.

Expand full comment

I consider that a useful and important innovation. The comics these movies are based on run for years and are deeply immersive. The movies we've gotten for the preceding 40 years were often okay standalone films or short series, but did nothing for those long term stories. A quick trilogy followed by a reboot and another set that covers a lot of the same content (origin story + some main villain of that series) is not the same thing.

Expand full comment

And not even getting deep into the bench. Leaving serials aside, Batman took thirty years (and a TV sensation) to get a theatrical release. Superman took forty. Marvel's most popular character and team had to wait till the 2000s. (Though somehow Blade beat them by a few years, possibly because he didn't really read as "superhero".) Superman still hasn't fought Brainiac on the big screen, let alone most of his second-tier villains. They'd routinely come up with "new" ideas that did the same thing as established comic book devices (e.g., the molecule chamber in Superman II for gold kryptonite) because Hollywood screenwriters didn't *read* that stuff.

The MCU (leaving the Hulk aside, since that's kind of incorporated after the fact) started with a B-tier hero (perforce, since they'd licensed all their A-tier characters to other companies). They started by making people care about Iron Man fighting Ironmonger, and pretty soon were making Groot a household name. And they routinely distilled pretty uneven or actively bad comics storylines (e.g., Civil War) into coherent and effective narratives.

That's qualitatively different from previous successful superhero films and franchises. It won't last forever because nothing does, and there are arguments that the cracks are beginning to show. (Though they've had duds in the past and bounced back from it.) But it's a heck of a run.

The oddest thing given their source material is how weak their villain game is. For every Loki or Killmonger, they've probably got three Ronan the Accusers or Malekiths who barely exist except as vague antagonists. (Again, they've been prevented from using a lot of Marvel's real heavy hitters like Doctor Doom, but still.) Despite that, they've created the sort of superhero shared world that Marvel pioneered in the 60s and DC ran with in the 70s and 80s, which no one had ever even really tried to do on a Hollywood scale. And they've (mostly) made it work.

Expand full comment

Always? There was a long time before 1979.

Seriously, putting huge amounts of money into superhero movies is pretty new, for values of "pretty new" that don't apply to everyone here. Special effects needed to become good enough.

Expand full comment

Well...the Tarzan movies were pretty popular all through the Depression, if we want to consider Tarzan an early superhero. But there's definitely a sea change in the 90s when it becomes much more plausible to add amazing superpower effects with CG. "Superman" was according to Wikipedia the most expensive film ever, and spent a huge amount on stunts, but the falling price (and increased safety) of doing stuff in post-production probably became a big factor in the 90s, which might have caused people to reach for superhero movies featuring stuff that would've been absurdly expensive in the days when it had to be done with models, wires, and stunts.

Expand full comment

>Well...the Tarzan movies were pretty popular all through the Depression, if we want to consider Tarzan an early superhero

By that standard, Robin Hood could be considered an even earlier superhero, and his movies have been hits as far as back as 1922. But I think the nerdy part of comic-book superhero movies comes from the "comic book" part rather than the "superhero".

Expand full comment

Hmm, I dunno. I wouldn't call Robin Hood a superhero, because he's an ordinary man, but with abilities that can be acquired by superb training. Tarzan was supposedly extraordinary, possessed of abilities no human not similarly raised by apes could achieve. I agree it's a thin distinction, but it holds for me -- the one anyone can do, the other is "built in" somehow by one's birth and rearing, and cannot be duplicated by any amount of training. One could readily argue John Carter is a superhero, but no movies were made of him in the old days, and I don't think he was ever as popular as Tarzan.

I'm not sure I agree with your second distinction either, because Scrooge McDuck and Richie Rich were also very popular comic books, but haven't made it to techno-fantasy CG movies, because while making a walking-talking duck, or a Richie Rich car that's 100 yards long and has its own swimming pool are certainly challenges for CG, I feel like they wouldn't really appeal to the techno-fantasy nerd. Conversely, the reason the techno-fantasy heroes were found in comic books in the first place is because comic books are the earliest form of "CG". You can draw stuff that is visually compelling but completely impossible to photograph because it can't be found in the real world. Which is why I think the comic books are where you find the kind of superhero that appeals to nerdy types, and its the superhero archtype that is the appealing aspect.

Expand full comment

I liked Star Wars before it was cool.* As a kid I was reading EU books and the SW Encyclopedia, and I loved talking about it. Back in the 90s this was still really obscure stuff. Sure, people knew the three movies and loved them, but anything else was considered nerdy, which I was fine with. My family knows that I love Star Wars, so I sometimes get SW shirts as gifts, which is fine. But it's lacking what it would have said about me in the 90s, when I was both much more into SW and also far fewer people were. Wearing SW apparel feels very different than it did before, to the point where I actually changed my preferences for when I would wear it - always okay around my family who buys them for me, but less often in public places with people who don't already know me.

*-if not obvious, this is tongue-in-cheek given the topic.

Expand full comment

It was very hard to like "Star Wars" before it was cool, because it was an immediate success. But for what it's worth I liked it before it was very cool, because I saw it the first week it came out, and then went back to see it twice more the same week.

Something that may never be repeatable again, given the way movies now work, and the Internet, is that as far as I know nobody in the theater expected that amazing initial scene, with the star destroyer passing overhead from behind and above. I think this was the debut of THX, also, so there was some very special sound processing that nobody had ever seen before. You heard the star destroyer from behind and above, first, a huge noise, and most people in the theater turned around and looked, alarmed. Then this enormous thing went overhead on the screen and people were just blown away -- there were spontaneous hoots and yells, cheers, applause. Nobody had ever seen or heard something like that before.

Expand full comment

I'd like to like things in peace, with no glory about it.

Expand full comment

Agreed. I really liked your https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/open-thread-272/comment/14849819

My view is that both basic tastes and hipsters have their merits. Setting aside status questions for the moment, I view "basic" tastes as simply making good use of current best options and I view hipsters as both Scott and Sam did, as "They discover things, then place them on the altar of Fame so everyone else can enjoy them." Early adopters are useful! I contrast this with an old pieces of advice from Alexander Pope:

"Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."

but _everyone_ can't be the median adopter. If everyone tried to follow this advice, there would be no early adopters and no way for good innovations to work their way into the mainstream.

( I am skeptical of the claim that current algorithms can substitute for the role of early adopter. They _can_ find obscure works that share categories with works one already likes. As to judging whether a novel work is good or not ... _Maybe_ GPT-4 can give useful advice - I don't want to rely on it till at least the hallucination problem is solidly solved. )

Re status:

Leo Abstract wrote: "Sam may be identifying anything popular as bad. Anything that the servile herd could possibly like must be execrable." My view is that this is a terrible heuristic. Many choices are popular for perfectly good reasons. Avoiding them sounds like an echo of the nobility doing everything they could to distinguish themselves from the peasantry, or the rich doing everything they could to distinguish themselves from the poor. When the poor worked in the fields and got tan, the rich tried to stay pale (going so far as to eat arsenic). When the poor worked in factories and got pale, the rich tanned (and courted melanoma and other photodamage). Not a good way to make choices!

Expand full comment

>But what does it say about you when you wear a Star Wars shirt? You're pledging allegiance to the biggest, most popular club imaginable. Is that a brave stance? Those people always make me think "if you lived in the SW universe, you'd be on the side of the Empire".

I'm going to defend myself on this by saying I own Star Wars shirts not out of my own purchasing decisions, but because they're the kind of safe and reliable present your dad gets you for birthdays and Christmas, and I'm not going to refuse to wear a perfectly servicable shirt because its branding might make me basic. I *am* one of those weirdos that sympathizes with the Empire, but I think that's a separate matter.

Expand full comment

"I'm not going to refuse to wear a perfectly serviceable shirt because its branding might make me basic" - I have the opposite instinct, and it annoys me on a meta level that I have it, because it also extends to T-shirt sayings, some of which I find genuinely funny. Hipster-ness may not be wholly voluntary.

Expand full comment

Did you ever play the old space flight simulator "TIE Fighter"? :-)

Expand full comment

Science is not near universally loved. It's actually hated by an awful lot of people - far more than love it.

We who live in nerdland think science is near-universally loved because we don't deal with Those People too much.

But the reality is that they exist and they grossly outnumber us.

All brands of populists hate science because it can say whether or not something is correct. And that's hugely damaging because all of populism are based on falsehoods that you can dispel in like five minutes of basic research.

There's people who claim to like science, but the moment science says something that they don't like, they get extremely angry and defensive.

Expand full comment

Why must it be a war? Maybe I really, truly enjoy the music of the Beatles? Or like bacon? (Liking *all* dogs is over the top, but there are certainly some great dogs out there.)

I know this is going off on a tangent, but I think there's virtue in enjoying things at a basic object level. Being able to exist in the moment, enjoying things for what they are. Which helps with being able to put aside hype, and opinion, and pressure, and just like something for what it is (or not like it for what it is). And yeah, sometimes this leads to forming contrarian opinions, if you're looking at raw data while other people are making decisions based on whatever a nutty politician did while drunk on twitter likes.

Expand full comment

So the true "Nerds" these days are MAGA contrarians?

Expand full comment

I love sports, for the same reason I love chess and modern board games, and tire of most serial drama: the moments of unscripted drama that emerge from highly skilled competition feel rewarding in a far more natural way than having my marionette strings pulled by skilled screenwriters.

I remember that as a smart kid with smart friends, we'd typically watch the same things, and I'd hone in on the principles (joke structure or humor premises for Monty Python, ethical dilemmas for Star Trek: TNG, etc), while certain friends would focus on remembering every fact and every line accurately (and frequently correcting each other). That latter behavior mildly annoyed me back then, and I recognized it instantly in Kriss' "nerd" description

Expand full comment

“Surely nobody wanted to identify with the US Postal Service” Tell that to my Forever 21 U.S Postal Service Priority Mail tube top

Expand full comment

"Also, what was up with stamp and coin collectors?" - they do NFTs these days. It's a bit flippant, but very true: the crowd at an NFT convention is filled with the types of people who would have been stamp collectors 30 years ago.

Also, stamp collecting is dying out because nobody cares about mailing things anymore. And when there is a glut of material, it becomes a self-sustaining cycle as resale prices drop and more people lose interest (or die).

Coin collecting isn't quite dying out. Partially, because it is often a form of {investing/hoarding}. It is much easier to keep a coin in good condition for 100 years than a stamp.

Expand full comment

Do other collects cling to the vain hope that their collection might increase in value by a hundred or a thousandfold in the future? I'm pretty sure that's the hallmark of an NFT bro.

Expand full comment

Obviously you name the car Carcharoth.

Expand full comment

Maybe Huan, if it is nice and serviceable.

Melkor, if you liked it when you bought it, but now it is corrupt and evil.

Elros, if it works well now, but you just know it's going to die someday.

Eönwë if it's loud enough to announce your arrival wherever you go.

Expand full comment

Huan could be good for a Honda.

Expand full comment

If Scott wants car names based on Silmarillion ship names, then I nominated Earrame:

"Eärrámë was a ship built by Tuor in the latter half of the First Age.

When Tuor grew old and yearned for the Sea, he and his wife Idril sailed in it to the West. It was probably built at the Havens of Sirion.

Etymology

Eärrámë means "Sea-wing" in Quenya, from eär ("sea") and rama ("wing")."

There are a few others, though I imagine he'd want to avoid the name of Ar-Pharazon's ship 😁

https://lotr.fandom.com/wiki/Ships

Expand full comment

I was thinking that Aldarion's ships might serve. Númerrámar (West-wing) seems appropriate for a car in the Bay Area, or maybe Palarran (Far Wanderer) if you plan a lot of road trips.

Expand full comment

If I had an all-black massive SUV with reinforced roll bars, I would totally name it "Alcarondas". And I would paint its hubcaps in gold. And then I'd drive it to Area 51. Hubris ? What's that ?

Expand full comment

Wouldn't we all?

If Musk ever gets off his backside/off Twitter and sorts out the CYBERTRUCK, there is an entire generation just *panting* to buy one and name it this 😁

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

For a used car, Bill.

Expand full comment

+1

Expand full comment

I read the original post some time ago. I feel like both the original and this response miss something; I'll try put my finger on why.

Kriss intertwines the deep obsession with a subject and the idea that the subject is bad. The visceral metaphor of the fast food obsessive (relevant Achewood: https://www.achewood.com/index.php?date=02102005) sets the tone for the whole post, and recurred in my mind long after the rest was dismissed. Now, I agree D*sney must be destroyed and the MCU is literally the worst thing to happen to film as a medium, like all sane people do, but I think "D*sney is parodically evil and society-destroying" and "people get hypertrophically interested in subjects" aren't much more related than chance. The chance is just huge. This is the self-deprecating joke about medieval history, but at the wrong target.

Most people are normies. People who are weird in some significant way tend to hope other people weird in similar ways aren't normies, because that would provide them connection they can't find in the general population. People who develop deep, abiding interests in subjects are weird -- find some normal people and talk to them about their hobbies! Hell, ask people who've gone out of their way to watch every MCU film in theatres about stuff like names of recurring characters, you'll be shocked how often they have no clue (running into this IRL was one of the things that really stunned me as to how shallow most people's interests are). However, having deep and abiding interests doesn't inherently come intertwined with the other weird quality of 'looking deep into subcultures'. Many Such People obsess over interminably mainstream subjects, including shit-terrible ones.

This post responds by thinking the deep and abiding interest in subjects is an outgrowth of those subjects being mainstream, which seems implausible. There are, as alluded, many people into mainstream subjects to the point of making up a significant part of their lives and interests who *don't at all* have that. Tons of people play D&D 5E regularly and have no clue what the rules are. Tons of people catch a lot of sports games without having a particularly good understanding of who plays for their favourite team or what the rules of the game are. These are really basic things, well before getting into deep-abiding-interests like "what is the history of this sport" or "are there other, better TTRPGs I could play". You might not necessarily expect an average fan of a popular TV show to look into the show's production and the life stories of all its main cast, and be unsurprised when they don't. But if you assume they at least know the show's plotlines, you're not protecting yourself from surprise.

One thing none of this quite explains is that the quote-unquote 'nerdy' hobbies were 'nerdy' long before they were mainstream. I specifically allude back to tabletop RPGs here. The fifth edition of D&D is really, genuinely mainstream. (It's also shit.) There's a little bit of a generation gap here -- the older you are the less likely you are to realize how thoroughly mainstream it is -- but nonetheless. This is...really not true for tabletop RPGs in all history. Hell, it's not true for any tabletop RPGs that aren't D&D 5E. It should be fairly obvious that the people who developed deep and abiding interests in tabletop RPGs before 5E was mainstream, or the people who have deep and abiding interests in tabletop RPGs and are not interested in 5E, have something different going on to the people who have deep and abiding interests in D&D 5E. Kriss's point kind of simplifies all of this down. It does genuinely seem that people who develop deep and abiding interests in subjects are more likely to get into ones with certain coding around them -- some good, some bad. This probably correlates with what you see in Big Five personality test interest correlates, which if you haven't seen any you should, because they're hilarious. I've seen so many where the whole Introversion line is anime.

(I have made a valiant effort not to say the quiet part loud.)

Expand full comment

Yeah I found Kriss's whole discussion of nerds pretty bizarre and divorced from anything I've experienced in real life as a self-identified nerdy person.

Expand full comment

I think what's missing is that Kriss uses "nerds" as his foil, but what he's talking about would better be described as fan culture.

If you want a less histrionic version of this conversation, A.O. Scott, formerly the head film critic at the NYTimes, did a Times podcast where he talks about why he left film criticism. He basically says that Hollywood and fan culture have formed a kind of symbiotic relationship where the role of the critic has basically gone away. Fans want what they want. Hollywood gives it to them. And any attempt to interrogate these movies is dismissed as hate.

Expand full comment

I dunno, critical reception and box office performance is still strongly correlated, even for superhero movies, with blatant outliers like Venom being rare. And to claim that Hollywood is not attentive to woke "interrogation" is patently absurd, no big-budget movie remotely challenging NYT-style orthodoxy is going to be made these days.

Expand full comment

> He basically says that Hollywood and fan culture have formed a kind of symbiotic relationship where the role of the critic has basically gone away.

Indie movies, critics and festivals have a symbiotic relationship where mass appeal is irrelevant.

Expand full comment

I think A.O. Scott makes a valid point. I think it is a shame - he was on my short list of critics whose opinion I cared for. I seek critic's opinion, because I watch about 3-4 movies per year, and 0-1 TV series per year. If I'm going to spend that time, I want to select something really good, and critics help me do that.

Expand full comment

Though there is a problem that critics for obvious reasons tend to value novelty *much* more than typical consumers. If you watch dozens of romantic comedies or action movies, the tropes start to look obvious and samey and formulaic. If you watch one of those a year, then those things *are* the story, and there's no reason that you're likely to be bored of them.

Eventually maybe you've seen enough, and move on to a different genre whose tropes are less familiar. Or maybe you don't-- mystery and romance enthusiasts aren't in doubt about how the story is going to end. Engaging with material to analyze and report on it is fundamentally different.

Which doesn't mean it isn't valuable. But contra the old saying, everyone isn't a critic.

Expand full comment

>"People who develop deep, abiding interests in subjects are weird..."

Very this. There are a lot of hobbies that friends recommend to me (insightfully!) that I have to demur from lest it suck me in; Warhammer 40k looks *fascinating*, but I dasn't risk letting it consume my every waking thought.

Expand full comment

A more parsimonious explanation for why stamp and coin collecting died out is that we no longer commonly use stamps or coins (as we no longer commonly use physical letters or money). People have shifted to collecting things like gunpla or shoes.

Anyway, while I agree that a key part of subculture identity is a pattern of consumption, I don't think that nerds are particularly unique in this aspect. Every subculture has expensive, specialized products you regularly consume as a way to participate in that culture. After all, a young girl participating in her aesthetic has to buy clothes and makeup and any number of things. A sports fan has to have a big TV and sports memorabilia. None of this is dying. It is fragmenting as increased wealth and communications have created large profusions of subcultures with mini-celebrities and all that. Which ironically means his thesis on mass culture is the opposite of reality. We no longer have mass culture. We have a profusion of subcultures. (Nor do I believe such subcultures are mainly creatures of algorithms.)

Expand full comment

An even more parsimonious explanation is that trends come and go. Even weird nerdy people aren't interested in being weird and nerdy in the same way that their fathers were, they'll find a new way to be weird and nerdy that they can share with their peers.

Expand full comment

I love it when people use the word "parsimonious."

Expand full comment

‘’Is this bad? I don’t want to say you should never build identity around liking a thing. Most non-enlightened people want to have some distinguishing characteristic, and anything you do - care about a hobby, or a skill, or a political cause - is going to feel kind of cringe. ‘’

At the end of the day the point of both is to fulfill that emotional drive called by Adam smith “the desire to be loved and to be lovely”. When the person trying to be loved is reciprocated they succeed. When we don’t reciprocate we call this cringe.

Other words for this feeling are glory, glamor, beauty, goodness, virtue, worth. It is the most social of all our primal urges. That which is glorified though is hated in equal measure by others; it is how we sort ourselves into tribes.

I am tempted to go on a long rant about how Ethics and Ethos are philosophical and rhetorical schools that focus on this primal agent… but that is off topic so I’ll stop here.

Expand full comment

Good on you for critically engaging with a Kriss essay like this. Kriss has found a way to totally bypass my critical reading skills (of which I’m pretty proud and which is a fundamental component of how I make a living). I just take his essays in as works of art, like being taken in by the melody of a song without really engaging with the meaning of the lyrics.

Expand full comment

Sam Kriss always seemed to have a Jekyll & Hyde thing going on to me, but he seems to maybe have mellowed out after an epiphany about social media ruining everything

Expand full comment

He strikes me as an intolerable person who I wouldn’t want to spend time with. And I fundamentally don’t share his worldview or politics. But I’m an unabashed superfan of his essays. A geek, some might say. Or maybe a hipster? Nerd? I’m thoroughly confused now.

Expand full comment

Kriss and The Last Psychiatrist both give me a similar vibe where it's like, they're writing with such confidence and style but the world they're describing is just utterly bizarre and unlike real life as I'm familiar with it.

Expand full comment

Exactly!

Expand full comment

I haven't read the Kriss essay and I don't know whether I want to, but The Last Psychiatrist came off to me as collecting people to despise. I admit I read a moderate amount of his stuff.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023

Right, but this essay by Kriss uncharacteristically has non-negligible overlap with reality. Scott's response is good, but I'd say that Chapman's Geeks-MOPs-Sociopaths dynamic is still the best overview of this topic.

Expand full comment

Kriss's essays are aesthetically beautiful and emotionally resonant to me but after reading his Wakanda piece I can no longer bring myself to trust whether anything he says is even true or if the whole thing is just a giant troll post. I *think* this is purposeful on his part, but...I also don't have the time to fact-check every confident assertion on Substack.

Expand full comment

They’re both very acerbic, but I find Kriss’ work to be borderline fiction, owing to his tendency to blend discussion of things that never happened with things that did. It makes it hard to pin a particular thesis about reality to his work, and I find it best to take it as impressions and images. By contrast, I’ve always found TLP pretty grounded, though I notice he differentiates only very slightly between cherry-picking examples and constructing general models (which comes across as unfairly insulting if you aren’t paying attention to the distinction).

Expand full comment

Part of what's going on here is that the term "nerd" has undergone semantic shift in recent decades from having a STEM connotation to meaning something more like "fan, especially of some aspect of pop culture." Scott remembers the older meaning, whereas Kriss is using the newer meaning.

Expand full comment

Yeah I agree, geek allows a clearer message.

Expand full comment

It would be useful if we distinguished between three related concepts that often have the same words applied to them:

geeks - people who are good at math/computers/tech stuff

nerds - people who are obsessively engaged with various art forms (often niche)

dweebs - people who have poor social skills

Expand full comment

Sports geek is a thing too. Though maybe it means someone is overly obsessed with the stats and numbers of sport rather than the sport itself, so it could fit in your first category.

Expand full comment

I wonder where "otaku" fits in there. Is it just a trendy foreign word for nerd?

Expand full comment

In my (somewhat of an otaku) understanding, it's the Japanese word for nerd as in 'people who are obsessively engaged with various art forms (often niche)'. If you already have the word 'nerd' to mean 'people who are obsessively engaged with various art forms (often niche)', then it's the specific word for 'people who are obsessively engaged with various Japanese (or east Asian) art forms (often niche)'. If you're the sort to randomly substitute Japanese words for their English equivalents (likely because you're obsessively engaged with Japanese niche art forms) you can substitute it for the general 'nerd' as long as you specify what they are engaged in other than Japanese / East Asian niche art forms (ie, a 'Marvel otaku').

Expand full comment

"otaku" covers more than art forms, for example train otakus.

Expand full comment

I see your point. I was using Johan Larson's phrasing specifically without worrying about how complete the definition was. I think the rest of my point stands... if you're talking about a 'train otaku' (instead of a train nerd) you're either speaking Japanese or an otaku that's using otaku in place of nerd.

You could make the point though that creating functional technology is in itself an art, and thus train nerds are obsessively engaged with an art form. Certainly there is an aesthetic sense to a well-designed piece of machinery.

Expand full comment

Your point is valid, I just wanted to add some context.

Expand full comment