Dork Nation

When I was in high school, I was a bit of a dork. No really, it’s true. Back then even a passing interest in the emerging digital technologies was looked upon with suspicion and would get you beat up during study hall. We geeks were antisocial outcasts relegated to self-created school ghettos while the normal people did normal people things while dressing better.

Over time the things that used to amuse us dorks have slowly wormed their way into the everyday lives of normal people. So while they may still be better dressed, a sociological flip-flop has occurred. The evidence is all around us. Normal people have turned into bigger dorks than any of us could have imagined possible. Collectively, we have become Dork Nation.

The roots of this Borg-like assimilation of the normals were starting to take hold during my college years. It was during this period that modern user interfaces and modern networking technology were developed in the basements of university buildings, research labs and a few obscure computer companies. It would take ten more years before graphical interfaces and easy to use networking were polished into the shiny perfection of the Internet.

It was at this point that everything tipped. I had just moved back to Pittsburgh after finishing graduate school. Strange things started happening. The CMU coke machine was in the news as an Internet Appliance. NPR started giving out an e-mail address for listener comments. They couldn’t quite figure out how to read an e-mail address with the right cadence though. At one point, I got in an elevator and perfectly normal looking people had a conversation about how their Mapquest directions had steered them wrong. Pretty soon, the net had taken over.

These days people can’t be away from their e-mail long enough to collect their carry-on luggage. You’ll see them standing in the aisle, thumbing away on the tiny little keyboard like a 13 year old Japanese schoolgirl. Then, in the next seat over will be a 50 year old business man talking into one of those wireless cell phone headsets that make you look like Jean-Luc Picard after he has been assimilated.

Every square inch of our public spaces seems to be filled with networking and laptops. The worst thing that can happen on a business trip is for you to lose your Internet. You can’t even escape laptops in bed.

It’s suddenly hard to tell the difference between normal people and dorks. The guy you are partying with at the local hip dance bar could, the very next day, be writing code next to me and doing a better job of it. Dorks come with all sorts of different talents and interests now, not just the technical toys that sucked me in. There are dork musicians, dork writers, dork filmmakers, dork artists of all kinds.

You can’t turn around at the movies without running into a dork on the screen. Dork action heroes type search phrases into their laptops and watch progress bars with nervous anticipation. This year, we even found out that James Bond, in addition to all of his other talents, is an expert at cracking the highest levels of computer security.

There are real world dorks in the movies as well. WordPlay, which ran in theaters last year and was somewhat successful, is a heartfelt and loving ode to the crossword puzzle solver. Here we follow computer technicians, librarians and professional puzzle people as they travel to the national crossword puzzle tournament. The tournament provides all the highs and lows of any great sports movie. And as if to show how mainstream the whole thing is, the film interleaves this story with interviews from real famous people who are also crossword geeks. Jon Stewart! Bill Clinton! The Indigo Girls! Mike Mussina! Even the jocks have turned out to be dorks.

In recent years the Christmas season seems to bring out the dork in all of us. This year was no different. Costco, Wal*Mart, and Target were all filled to capacity with TVs that use the souls of engineers to generate a picture. The Apple store had tables with literally several dozen pre-boxed iPods ready to become gifts. Right next to them was another table with pre-boxed laptop computers. Well-dressed people walked through the store mesmerized by the shiny bounty.

But the hottest items of the year were the things you could not find in stock. Regular people lined up in droves to try and find a Nintendo Wii or a Playstation 3. Twice now I have arrived at my local Target at 8am in a failed quest to get a Nintendo box for myself. Twice I have observed something amazing. Near the head of the line were multiple generations from the same family waiting together for their chance to obtain the glowing white box. The kids I can understand. The college students I can understand. The 45 year old camping out all night I have a hard time with. And yet there they are.

And we know they are everywhere because the next morning they get interviewed on NPR. Just ten short years ago this group of people couldn’t pronounce an e-mail address with the right cadence. Today they don’t even read paper letters on the air anymore. Only e-mail. A couple of years ago they ran an infuriating piece on how the digital generation is simply inscrutable to the poor normal people of the world. Now you can catch them running interviews from inside an online multiplayer video game.

The rest of the news media have nothing to be proud of either. The New York Times quoted Joystiq, a haven for geek news of questionable accuracy and even more questionable editorial standards, in their review of the Playstation 3. Time magazine has proclaimed 2006 to be the year of You Tube, with runner up prizes going to del.icio.us and Technorati. I am not even sure what Technorati is for, and there was a link there from the front page of this very site for the entire time I have been contributing.

In the larger view I don’t really know what to make of this. I am not an observer of larger social trends. I just know how these trends affect my daily existence. All I know is that I grew up loving this stuff and now I have an uneasy feeling about never being able to escape it. I can’t escape it in the news. I can’t escape it in my escapist entertainment. I can’t even escape it at home. The other month I went home to discover that my parents had been using Skype and a Skype router at home for what must have been at least a year. There I was with only a passing notion of what Skype even was (although I did think iChat was pretty cool). My parents had out-dorked me.

Maybe this is where the root of my anxiety lies. For all of my life my identity has been wrapped around the notion that I was out on the bleeding edge of the geek universe. But as I have grown older and more mature, this has become less and less true. Everything that I used to think was pretty cutting edge has become so mainstream that even the wankers at center-left news radio stations understand it. This leaves me in an uncomfortable personal position. I have lost my edge. I have been left behind. When the next wave of cool toys hits I’ll be sitting on my porch screaming in a raspy voice at the local kids wondering why they need to play with such a darn fool device when in my day a normal computer with a god-damned keyboard was just fine. The kids will look back at me and try to figure out just how someone can get so old and clueless.