Brogrammers in the vanguard of geek chic
Geek chic ... Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), stars of Big Bang Theory.
It started with the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds. Then came geek chic.
Now, "brogrammers" are hitting the scene. And the stars of The Big Bang Theory, one of TV's most popular sitcoms, are cast as brilliant but nerdy physicists.
The stereotype of the geeky techie that persists in pop culture is fading in real life, thanks to the legacy of industry giants such as Apple founder Steve Jobs and the increasing dependence of more Americans on the skills of those who know how to make their gadgets work. The emerging portrait: Geeks are cool.
Original geeks ... A 1978 file photo made available by Microsoft shows the 11 people who started Microsoft. Bill Gates, is bottom left. Photo: AP
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a cerebral hot spot, has run a "Charm School" for 19 years to hone its students' social and job-hunting skills and erase negative labels. It may finally be paying off.
At the University of Illinois' College of Engineering, the Technology Entrepreneur Centre also offers Charm School every autumn — a one-day workshop that includes tips on "office finesse" and wardrobe. Similar programs are offered under different names at other schools.
"There's been a shift in the portrayal," said Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. "We're all techies now. We're dependent on these people, so there's a power shift, a new kind of respect."
National etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, who runs workshops at universities, says demand has spiked. "We sell out," she said. "There's a wait list to get in. ... In the technology field, they're great with tech but their social skills need help."
Some of the most sought-after advice: body language and dining tips on when to talk or when to pick up a dropped napkin when meeting with a prospective employer.
"There is a movement," said Alana Hamlett, MIT's director of student activities. "It's easy to marginalise the geek type of student. ... You look at Steve Jobs. He was the ultimate nerd and how cool was he? How many cool gadgets this 'geek' created!"
Jonathan Chien, 19, a sophomore from New Haven, Connecticut., double majoring in bioengineering and computer science, said he believed the negative stereotypes about MIT's brainy student body at first. "I thought, 'There are a lot of nerds there. I'm not sure I want to go,' but it changed when I got there," Chien said. "People are just really cool and that stereotype is completely unfounded."
Amanda David, 19, a junior from suburban Detroit who is studying management and architecture at MIT, says students are now much more "well-rounded." "Now, at MIT, the captain of the crew team might be the best at programming," David said. "The stereotype is certainly being challenged. ... Students can make all these things that society values. That, right there, is making the typical geek cool."
Nowhere is the rising status of techies more obvious than in Apple Stores, Turkle said, where geeks are "geniuses" who tend the "genius bar." She sees people of all ages desperate for an audience with them because they can't get their emails or access their Facebook page.
"They're close to hysterical," Turkle said. "They're quite dependent on these geniuses to help them, and those geniuses do," she said. "Those young men and women are not objects of derision."
The dot-com boom of the late '90s that turned obscure programmers into millionaires helped, too. "Forget the fact that they can't make eye contact," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture. "If you're worth $20 million, who needs eye contact?"