Something funny is happening to the population of Earth. And not funny in the same way that watching cyclists ride into things is funny – and slightly satisfying.
These days, the line that defines what it means to be a nerd has been blurred. Acronyms that almost nobody understood 10 years ago like ‘BRB’ or even ‘LOL’ have become part not only of everyone’s vocabulary, but I hear people actually vocalising them in conversations. Being a computer nerd now doesn’t mean you know how to install a program or navigate the internet – it means you have a more intimidate knowledge of the Linux command line than you do of a woman’s bra clip.
What my average friends know today about computers is what made me a computer nerd in the past. It’s so much more work to be a computer nerd now than it was in the past.
I base this claim on my family.
The middle brother of our family of three brothers was, growing up, definitely not a nerd. He was of the cool kids, and had far more social skills than I ever did. While I was mashing ‘have sex with lady’ commands to Leisure Suit Larry on the 486 my dad bought us for ‘school projects’, he was outside running aimless circles around the garden improving his cardio-fitness or some such nonsense. I was only 14. My idea of exercise involved a wad of tissues and 5 minutes of alone time.
But then, a few years later something happened.
He bought a computer. Nothing too fancy – something I’d scorn at, but it was more than good enough for World of Warcraft, which he spent a good number of hours on a week. He is also almost finished a degree in computer science and works as a software developer.
Then there’s my darling mother. Of the 5 of us in the family, she is on Facebook the most. She also watches far more TV series than any one of us, and has taught me one or two things about computers. And who do I ask if I have an Excel problem? Why, mommy dearest of course.
Seemingly the last to adopt the ‘fancy’ computers of today is my dad. He’s an electronics engineer by trade, and in the last few years has not only completely digitized his audio visual production, but he knows more about video and sound editing than he’d ever admit to. Why, I’d even seen him program some hefty looking code for the control system he uses to control some 50-odd slide projectors.
But what happened? Where was the turning point? When did average humans become computer users akin to what made me a nerd 15 years ago?
My bet is communication.
The one thing that stands out above all of the things I have seen in my life as a computer nerd is the evolution and popularization of using the World Wide Web as a social platform. See, instant messaging as most people know it now is actually a relatively new development for those of us that have been on the internet for a while. Today’s always-connected always-communicating internet that we’re so used to is something that many people just take for granted – but it certainly hasn’t been that way for very long.
The first time I really experienced the internet being used in a properly social way was in 2003. Sure, for years before that I’d spent countless hours hanging out in IRC chatrooms talking to strangers, in what could now probably be called the ‘dark web’, but I’m what I’m referring to is using the convenience of the web for real social use. In other words, not just by those of us with a soldering iron at arm’s length but by the general population.
Back in 2002 and 2003, fixed lines in South Africa were rare – only the really fortunate had access to one and they were generally very slpw. The rest of us, using 56K dial up modems to access the treasures of the internet, were stuck using the calling plan Telkom called ‘Infiniticall’ which gave us the ability to connect to the internet during off peak times for R7.00. In other words, we had access to the internet after 7pm in the evenings until 7am the next morning during the week and for the full weekend – and that was only if you subscribed to the R7 call plan – which was almost only for those of us that lived on the web.
What you ended up with then, was a generation of insomniac teenagers who just wanted to spend some time on the internet – at speeds that equate to about 5% of the slowest available ADSL line today. The simplest way to put this into perspective is that pornography came only in the form of low resolution pictures and took some effort to find.
In other words, using the internet for communication was really only done between fellow computer nerds. Even cellphones, the tool used by teenagers the world over to organize everything from a trip to the mall to full scale riots could only make calls and do SMS and that was that. Buying R29 airtime would get you about 50 SMS messages – we didn’t have the luxuries of Mxit, Whatsapp and BBM.
In 2003 I spent a large part of the year in England where I discovered how useful an ‘always-on’ Internet connection could be. I stayed briefly with a friend who is a computer nerd and I saw something remarkable. Even his non-computer nerd friends would use MSN Messenger (RIP) to plan nights out or meet-ups – something I could only dream off. I could see the ‘telephone tree’ system falling away right before my eyes.
These days it’s not even something you spare a second thought about. You don’t consider where we’ve come from when you send ‘self-portraits’ of yourself to your significant other or spend 10 minutes enjoying some high resolution personal time. You don’t consider the times when simply going to the movies with friends meant 15 phone calls to your friends – provided, of course, that everyone was at home since we couldn’t carry our phones around with us (being that they were physically attached to the wall).
Let’s not even get into social media and the likes of Twitter and Facebook.
And the effect on computer nerds from this boom in communication and interconnected society that we live in now?
I’m losing ground. I’m no longer the long haired geek and high-tech low life that I’ve always identified myself as being. Everyone in my family to some degree is more computer literate today than 80% of my matric class of more than 10 years ago. Sure, my knowledge and prowess with computer systems and the internet has evolved to be far more than that of the average computer user, but the average computer user these days can stand on their own – something not possible in days of old.
Because dear friends, we live in a nano-second society.
Productivity is no longer measured in days, but rather hours.
And we have the computer to blame for that. We have the genius engineers that can create something infinitely complicated, but that I can use by just hitting a few keys on a keyboard, or clicking a few times with a mouse.
Computer nerds? We are no longer the elite. We are the normal.
He also hosts the nAvTV podcast and this here website is his domain.