Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Assistant Professor
University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies

The eighties’ core of the thing

Nerd:     an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits <computer nerds>
- nerdish /'ner-dish/ adjective
- nerdy /-dE/ adjective
 (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary)

“The present is the current picture, and its contemporaneous past is the virtual picture, the mirror image.”
(Gilles Deleuze, Time Image)

The eighties’ core of the thing. (just a bit of constructing history)
The revival of the eighties is in full course. And outside of the decipherable area of the fashion industry a silent nostalgia penetrates our attention filters. Retro, Sentimentalities, the good old times. Drag out once again the computers from the past and check whether the old diskettes are still working. Go to www.classigaming.com and download an emulator in order to check out if the old classics are still fun to play with. The probability of condensor nostalgia is in the air. Behind all that however there seems to be more than simply the memory of one’s own youth. Yesterday’s freaks are adults today. Many of them remained in the computer industry, some others pursued completely different paths. Between the memory fragments a feeling seems to urge, which requires more than just a collection of anecdotes. The subculture of an era - that one of the home computer - wants to have a history; one wants to know, what has remained.

Since 1982 when Commodore launched its C64, video games became common knowledge. Atari had conquered the American and European living rooms with its VCS flying and had established the microprocessor as leisure machine. Everybody knew, what he had to expect of a home computer. But word was going quickly around that there are numerous other uses for a home computer, than only playing; but as programming is not a collaborative task, the home computer had to move from the living room into the youngster’s room. Released from the parental supervision quickly evolves a subculture, which is being perceived instantaneously as such by the outside world. Movies like War games (1983) describe early, what one has to imagine as a computer freak, a Nerd : intelligent but lonesome the hero David (who defeats Goliath in the guise of a military super computer) lives in a world which is defined by computers. Misunderstood by parents and classmates he is a champion in his task. He knows the machine.

The image of the pale – male – adolescent, engulfed in his computer’s  program code, has become a symbol. And the eighties are marked by the Nerd’s institutionalisation in his own subculture. One gets networked, exchanges games and programs, creates codes in order to be respected by the community, which is rating by ability.  Some of this subculture’s jargon and social structure filters leaks to the outer world, is being picked up by the culture industry’s machinery and is aired to the public. The legend continues.

Seemingly simple the home computer subculture reaches a symbolic density, which is nourished and enhanced from different directions. Though computers are being perceived since a long time as powerful cybernetic instruments, the possibility of generating a virtual world by the way of addition and subtraction is still fascinating. The Nerd’s knowledge is understood as a classic mystic science, the suspicions we feel for the black box computer is its basis. So its symbolic capital seems to derive from the occult, therefore its value, its usefulness for the Pop culture, which is always in search of imaginary depth.

The difference between the owner of esoteric know-how and those who remain shut off from it, generates also in the case of the computer freak and his unenlightened environment cultural differentiation and with that, - making meaning.

What nowadays is everybody’s wisdom is being prepared here: there is no possibility to go around the computer; the machine overtakes important functions in nearly all areas of life. The required specialized know-how for fabrication, programming and operating those gadgets and programs creates a multitude of knowledge-gaps and knowledge-communities, so that social differences are developing around the computer. Contemporary complexity of social and cultural dimensions around the computer won’t allow any more the former overview on the whole branch but only several glimpses into different areas of it. The social separation in knowing and unknowing people constantly recedes from the line between digital and analogue, it is now inside the digital field itself. The expertise and its resulting hierarchic evaluation within possible subcultures has to draw back in separate fields of computer culture, must specialise and precise.

The intermediary of technology overtakes with growing diversification the task of guiding the flow of information from knowledge to knowledge-gap and from know-how to know-how. The apparent levelling or new-orientation of the computer nerd’s clandestine knowledge (for instance to exhaust the hardware, overclocking) breaks open also the social structures and their subcultures and provides room for new ones. The former exclusivity cannot directly be required; it has to legitimate itself newly. Simultaneously it becomes obvious that the experienced and glorified past is directly connected with the present success. The retreat into the youth’s room in the eighties, is to be seen as a parade of triumph in the present. Revenge of the Nerds (John Katz) may very well be integrated into the pop culture as a story of success.

Here it is considerable, that the Nerd doesn’t abandon his sanctuary, but his knowledge is being transformed into social esteem; the acceptance of the different particularities in his subculture is going to be prepared. In War Games David’s love story is not a result of his assimilation to the rest of the world – the object of desire – the athletic Jennifer – is conquered via the computer, and not passing it by. The symbolic order rewards the Nerd in fulfilling his romantic teenager fantasies. The computer loses successively its character of an unsocial machine.

So in the eighties evolves – an image of the computer as a machine that provides a lot of fun, as a sexy life-style-object, as a positive status-symbol; an important headstone was set for the success of the mass-article computer. While in the sixties and seventies at American universities hackers were dealing with mathematical and informative problems, now nerds were working with sound and graphics, bustle about in a colourful game-world and made zeroes and ones vanish behind the monitor’s surface.

In the beginnings of the nineties, when the Ms-Dos PC starts to rule out the home-computer, it thrives on  strategies and codes which have developed in the home users area, it processes them and allows them to take their place in the internet-culture.

What remains from the eighties Nerd-culture is not the cosy feeling of those who still remember, but the image of a time, when much of what has shaped the social machine computer just had arisen; the phenomenon’s complexity aggravates the controversy and the urge for glorifying or rejecting conceals a period’s cultural productivity, in which the microprocessors developed from numbercruncher to reality engine. Their history remains to be written.

Bernhard Rieder and Mirko Tobias Schäfer designed the program for the exhibition electronic kindergarten. www.dvision.at  

Date November 2002 Category News

Der 80er Jahre-Kern der Sache (oder, das ist halt Geschichtsschreibung)
translated by Olga Kessaris

2000 - 2022 Mirko Tobias Schäfer

made with Müller