Revenge of the nerds

January 8, 2019 (1679 words) :: Reflections on Paul Graham's 2003 blog post about nerds, and what it illuminates about the tech industry today.
Tags: startups, ideology, personal, underdogs

This post is day 8 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.


In today’s piece, I’d like to talk about a 2003 blog post by Paul Graham called “Why nerds are unpopular”.

[Paul Graham is a Silicon Valley-based startup founder, investor, and writer. He’s best known as one of the creators of Y Combinator, an extremely prestigious startup accelerator that made early-stage investments in the likes of Airbnb, Reddit, Dropbox, and other billion-dollar juggernauts. His essays have had a lot of influence on many startup founders and programmers, myself included.]

I’ve previously written about how Paul Graham used to be one of my heroes, and how I’ve since realised that his opinions on topics like “diversity in tech” and “economic inequality” are terrible. [That piece was prompted by him blocking me on Twitter, and it went semi-viral, presumably because a lot of other people had been blocked around the same time. It was written over a year ago, and my political views were a lot more tepid then, so forgive me if that post reads kinda lukewarm.]

In this piece, I want to focus on what Paul Graham says about “nerds” in his 2003 essay, and how it’s symptomatic of a particularly toxic mindset in the tech industry. Because the whole “revenge of the nerds” trope is one that I suspect lots of people in tech believe, even if only on an unconscious level. Not everyone, of course; people come to the tech industry for all sorts of reasons, and for some, it’s just a job - one of the few decent jobs still remaining. But I do think there is a sizable minority of people who are attracted to the tech industry because they think they deserve the associated wealth/power/social status.

I’ll try to explain what I mean through my own experience of first encountering the essay. It’s not a super fun time for me to revisit, but here you go: when I was a teenager, maybe aged 13-16, I went through a phase where I didn’t have a lot of IRL friends and so ended up spending a lot of time on my computer. I was playing video games, trawling sites like bash.org and 4chan (definitely cesspits of the internet, FYI - not recommended), and building dumb websites.

So I came across “Why nerds are unpopular” at a very pivotal time of my life. It resonated, hard. I bookmarked the page and read through basically all of his other essays, searching for more wisdom. In Paul Graham’s writing, I felt like I had finally found an answer, a reassuring narrative that I could cling on to. Reading his essays gave me hope that things would get better for me, because I was smart and hardworking and liked coding. Knowing that wouldn’t necessarily stop me from resenting the pretty and popular and well-adjusted people, but at least I could compensate with a feeling of innate superiority, as fuel.

In other words, it gave me a way out. If I was smart, and worked hard, I would succeed in the “real world”, even if I was currently not doing so well in the staging ground of high school. I seized onto that, and subconsciously crafted a kind of underdog story as my self-narrative: I just had to keep working hard, and eventually capitalism would bring me justice through valorising my skills. In the “real world”, I would get what I deserved: a prestigious career, money, social validation.

If you read Paul Graham’s original piece, you can see that kind of reasoning leaking through, even if he never says it explicitly. If you’ve ever watched the movie The Social Network, you can see it in there, too. There’s also the eponymous film “Revenge of the Nerds”, which I haven’t seen myself but which seems to have a similar underdog narrative. The general thrust of the ‘revenge of the nerds’ fantasy is of someone (usually a young man) who is intelligent but misunderstood or otherwise socially ostracised, and who struggles in a particular environment. Eventually, he finds a way to latch onto a different hierarchy (usually to do with monetising his skills/knowledge) and obtains a sort of targetless ‘revenge’ in the process, accumulting untold wealth and power (especially over women).

It’s kind of funny to me that I found that narrative so compelling, even though it was very clearly a gendered one that wouldn’t really apply to me. I guess I was able to overlook that in my quiet desperation for a narrative. (danah boyd has written a really gorgeous piece on the gendered aspects of this sort of resentment, and how it can manifest as misogyny among men; I consider myself lucky that I managed to escape that, at least.)

And it worked, for a while. It was part of the patchwork of ideas that drove me to work as hard as I did before, during and after college: working when I didn’t need to, when I should have been actually enjoying my life and becoming a person, because I just needed to be better than everyone else - it was part of my self-image. I even tried to psychologically alter my own desires so that I wouldn’t need actual “leisure” time, because working (on paid work, or open source projects, or anything that felt like a means of proving myself) was just what I enjoyed.

That Buzzfeed article on millennial burnout that recently viral has a paragraph which especially resonated with me:

I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them […] My new watchword was “Everything that’s good is bad, everything that’s bad is good”: Things that should’ve felt good (leisure, not working) felt bad because I felt guilty for not working; things that should’ve felt “bad” (working all the time) felt good because I was doing what I thought I should and needed to be doing in order to

For me personally, though, it was about more than just optimising myself to “win”. For whatever reason, I always had this belief in myself as innately correct, and I was just waiting for the emergence of a system that would validate that. That was fundamental to my self-image for a while, and it’s something I still struggle with, even now (and that I’m sure has fucked me up in all sorts of ways). That’s where the whole “revenge” aspect comes in: it was about an amorphous retribution to having endured a situation where I was not “winning”.

There’s something so persuasive about the idea that you were right all along - that you were the underdog, but then you overcame obstacles and triumphed. Everyone wants to be the hero of their own story. And so when that possibility is offered to you - when you’re “rewarded” for working hard in school with an envious job in Silicon Valley, or the opportunity to start a fast-growing company - you seize onto it. It feels like something you deserved because you worked for it, and maybe even suffered for it. You’ve found a hierarchy (the tech industry, or startup culture, or just plain old capitalism) that has lifted you up, and in the process, has affirmed your sense of self-worth. That hierarchy then becomes part of your identity. You treat any criticism of it as an attack on you, and so it bounces right off.

I suspect that accounts for at least some of the ideological resistance to criticism that seems all too common among people who have done well in the tech industry. People who were validated by the system - and maybe even rescued by it - end up defending that system, and have a hard time seeing its flaws. For some, the tech industry is a saviour, and a refuge, and so they bristle at the idea that it’s less than perfect. In their minds, they’re still the underdog - they’re still the heroes of their own story. They can’t see that things have shifted, and that the hierarchical microcosm in which they’ve been able to succeed isn’t universally correct just because it was good for them.

That’s not to say that the system they “escaped” is necessarily any better. But something being “not worse” than something else doesn’t necessarily shield it from ruthless and relentless critique.

Because the tragic and disappointing truth about the “real world” - buried in the long-winded terms & conditions that we all just scroll through without reading when we’re born into this hellscape - is that it also sucks. Whether or not someone is able to generate a lot of “revenue” doesn’t mean they have the “right answers”, as Paul Graham breezily says about Bill Gates in his blog post. Success as an entrepeneur or worker is not necessarily any better of a valorisation function than, say, popularity in high school. It’s only defensible as a sorting function if you actually believe in the rationality of capitalism as a mode of production, and you accordingly value people according to how good they are at navigating capitalism. But even on its own terms, capitalism has empirically been kind of shitty lately. And I think once you realise that, the glamour of tech entrepeneurship (and the revenge-of-the-nerds fantasy sedimented within it) begins to lose its magic. You start to see the flaws in the “deservedness” narrative that underpins the current distribution of wealth and power.

I’ll stop there, because it’s almost midnight and I haven’t yet figured out the secret to writing these things safely before the deadline. I do have a lot of related thoughts on what it means for Y Combinator to be so good at picking successful startups (as in, what it means in terms of how technology is developed, and what possibilities for the future are foreclosed), and also on the role that “people who have succeeded within the system” should play in movements to challenge the system, but I’ll save those for other blog posts.

Thanks for sticking with me. Until tomorrow.


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