Why Geeks Succeed

The New York Times book review column by Jessica Bruder covers a new bestseller by Alexandra Robbins.  The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth is, according to the review, a profile of “students who are overlooked, disparaged or completely dismissed” in high school.

My focus on the "geeks of color" is based on my own time as a teacher, in Ngaoundal, Cameroon.  The equivalent of 7th-10th graders (College en francais) was somewhat different from high school in the USA.   Some of the classes were packed with 55 students, 3 to a bench.  They all wore uniforms, which kept any class distinctions out of the classroom.

In Africa, the Geeks, or best nerdy students, were respected by their peers, evidently much more so than their nerdy equivalents in the USA.  But they share something with USA nerds.   The rest of USA society looks down on the Geeks from Africa, Asia, and Latin America... not because they are geeks, but because we consider all people from southern hemisphere countries to be equivalent.  Equivalently poor, equivalently informal, equivalently primitive.   Trading with an African is "externalizing", even if the African knows how to fix the Toshiba laptop and clearly prefers it to the older Gateway, despite the fact that the Toshiba has a power adapter plug problem and the Gateway is "fully functional".

During my two and a half years in Africa, I developed a very, very, very strong preference for certain people ("friends") over others.

I developed a keen sense of who I could trust, who I would die for, who would die for me.   In no case did this sense have anything to do with the race, language, or nationality of the person I trust.

Trust is externalized confidence.

There were several things you could probably distill that were common among people I could trust in Africa.   When you are alone, in a pioneer post (first Peace Corps volunteer placed in an area), you have to stop relying on familiarity to guide your choice of friends.  But you find that your choice of friends in Cameroon or Zaire is the single most important indicator of a successful service.

Kind of like the thing that you remember most from College is not the "selectivity, region, or programs" but the friends and roomates you have.  It is Guanxi.

Nelson Mandela is a geek.   We need to trade, to externalize our trust and confidence, with the best and brightest in the developing world.  People who know how to shrewdly buy used computers, carefully rejecting some and bidding up others, these are smart people who will, with our help, succeed in Africa, Latin America and Asia.   Boycotting them may mean less externalization.  But it's like refusing to meet the geeks and the nerds at your high school because you belong to a different social class.  If you refuse to trade with them, you are an asshole.

Someone else will trade with them, and that person may not care.  That person may insist that they can only buy the Toshiba laptop they want if they agree to take the old working Gateway they rejected.  That's how toxics along for the ride happens.  If you are really really sure that the "fully functional" Gateway laptop they don't want is legal and fair, and the Toshiba they really want bad is "e-waste", then you just are not much of a geek, are you?   I can see why someone as stupid lacking in technical expertise as you would buy a shredder and tell all your friends you are an environmentalists because you sold neither unit.

The geeks and nerds in the USA need to band together with the geeks and nerds in the developing world.   We need to externalize our trust, develop trade relationships, and woot!

20th Century Fox, via Associated Press
Anthony Edwards, left, and Robert Carradine in “Revenge of the Nerds” (1984).


Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School
By Alexandra Robbins
436 pp. Hyperion. $25.99.


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