Not All Nerds

By imagining nerds as a race of their own, Silicon Valley tries to disguise its white supremacy.

In the climax to Steve Zacharias and Jeff Buhai’s 1984 frat-house film Revenge of the Nerds, Lewis—one of the founding members of Adams College’s Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity and himself a computer nerd par ­excellence—crashes the homecoming rally to make a declaration. There, he finds himself in the midst of a barely contained black-white racial conflict. Protecting him from a bandstand full of grunting football players—all members of the exclusively white Alpha Beta fraternity—is a line of black brothers from the Lambdas’ national organization. Lambda, it turns out, is a black fraternity. The nerds, only one of whom is black, exploited a loophole in the organization’s bylaws in order to establish their chapter at Adams. In an earlier scene, the Alpha Betas burn a nerds sign on the front lawn of the Lambdas’ house.

Thus situated, Lewis grabs the mic and beseeches the gathered crowd of homecoming revelers:

We have news for the beautiful people. There’s a lot more of us than there are of you… Any of you that have ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down… Join us, because no one’s really going to be free until nerd persecution ends.

One can be forgiven for finding the comparison of “nerd persecution” to the oppression of black Americans more than a bit glib. But for the filmmakers, it was in earnest. It makes sense then that the students and alumni who are inspired to join Lewis in a triumphant chant of “Nerds! Nerds! Nerds!” are, like the Lambdas, a multiracial bunch. Now backed by a multicultural coalition, the Lambdas usurp the Alpha Betas’ leadership position on Adams’ Greek Council, becoming the most powerful political force on campus. It’s the happy apex of the film’s social vision.

In this narrative progression from marginalized identity to predominant position of power, we find the nucleus of Silicon Valley’s mythology: Nerds win. Yet what this mythology has been very good at obscuring, through ritualistic repetition of the revenge narratives of white, male founders, is how deeply racialized the narrative is. Not all nerds are entitled to equal portions of revenge.

There’s not enough resentment toward Silicon Valley. I say that while acknowledging the dripping anger that pervades everyday life in the Bay Area. This was at its most visible during last year’s massive protests against the Google Bus—a metonym for the extensive network of imposing, privately chartered buses that use public stops to pick up and transport tech workers 40-some miles from San Francisco to their offices on the peninsula. These tensions have arisen in response to skyrocketing housing prices and community displacement—both direct consequences of the influx of Silicon Valley money and the regulatory capture of local governments. Some San Franciscans do not wish to live in a suburb of Palo Alto.

A recent issue of Boom magazine gauges this mood by asking the question, “What’s the matter with San ­Francisco?”—which turns out to be the same question as, “What’s the matter with Silicon Valley?” At stake, argue the issue’s contributors, is San Francisco’s historical character as a multicultural refuge and bastion of counterculture. The resentment they address, however, is predominantly focused on issues surrounding economic inequality, which plays into arguments for access and inclusion in the tech industry rather than stronger critiques of its effects.

The tech invasion is almost always described in racial terms. In one of her well-circulated articles on the Google Bus protests, Rebecca Solnit deploys a phrase ubiquitous in the discourse: “Tech workers, many of them new to the region, are mostly white or Asian male nerds in their twenties and thirties.” Yet until recently, we had heard very little about Silicon Valley’s disastrous racial politics.

This summer, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, Apple, and several other Silicon Valley companies published, for the first time, their employee demographics. Here they are:

Google: 61% white, 30% Asian, 4% two or more races, 3% Hispanic, 2% black, <1% other, 30% female, 70% male.

Facebook: 57% white, 34% Asian, 4% Hispanic, 3% two or more races, 2% black, <1% other, 31% female, 69% male.

Twitter: 59% white, 29% Asian, 3% Hispanic or Latino, 3% two or more races, 2% black, 2% other, 1% American Indian or Alaskan native, 1% native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 30% female, 70% male.

Yahoo: 50% white, 39% Asian, 4% Hispanic, 2% black, 2% two or more races, 2% other/not disclosed, 37% female, 62% male, 1% other/not disclosed.

Apple: 55% white, 15% Asian, 11% Hispanic, 7% black, 2% two or more, 1% other, 9% undeclared, 30% female, 70% male.

That these disclosures weren’t made willingly hasn’t stopped Apple from hosting a victory lap of events to celebrate what they see as their comparatively less shitty numbers. In the critical responses these disclosures ­elicited—matched in tone by each company’s self-flagellating press releases—the lack of diverse representation has been framed as a problem to be solved. The solution, all seem to agree, involves fixing “the pipeline.” American educational institutions, “K-16” as they say, simply aren’t producing enough diversity to meet demand.

“So,” says Google, “we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in education.” Apple recently donated $100 million of equipment to President Obama’s ConnectED initiative “to bring cutting-edge technologies to economically disadvantaged schools.” Other companies have been taking similar approaches. What better rationale than diversity for even deeper incursions of the private sector into American education? Such investments promise big payoffs. The so-called edutech industry is worth billions of dollars; the for-profit and charter school industries are valued in the trillions.

Criticism of the diversity problem, however, has been bored with itself. Headlines slouch under foregone conclusions. A typical one reads, “Facebook’s diversity numbers are out, and they’re exactly what you’d expect.” Silicon Valley is “white and Asian,” has been the mumbled refrain. The diversity problem is one that’s daily experienced, but only occasionally confirmed. One of the earliest such confirmations was at the height of a previous tech boom, in 1998, when the San Francisco Chronicle revealed in its own investigation of Silicon Valley demographics that “blacks and Latinos are more likely to work in factory or support jobs than whites and Asians.”

Without a strong critique of Silicon Valley’s diversity, that problem becomes a naturalized feature of our social landscape. We drift into the kind of boredom that makes us susceptible to the argument, put forward by figures like Walter Benn Michaels, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Ferguson, Missouri, mayor James Knowles that identity politics is a distraction from the real problems of class and inequality. As if the labor movement would still be strong if only ethnic studies had never happened. As if the difficulty of thinking about how race and class mutually determine each other is reason enough to give up.

Silicon Valley monopolizes our national ideas about the future, aided by a presumption that the industry is exceptionally progressive when it comes to race. It’s this monopoly that turns the idea of putting iPads in the hands of every child into an urgent need. If we are to challenge Silicon Valley as the shining embodiment and most aggressive promulgator of a neoliberal future, then we need to attack its futurity. We can start by emphasizing how woefully retrograde it is—how 19th century its economics are, certainly, but especially its racial politics.

The conflation of whites and Asians uses diversity to dramatize a crisis of diversity. When we hear repeated that Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn are 91 percent white and Asian, be warned that Asians are being used as human shields. When it comes to leadership positions, there is no “white and Asian” problem. There, it’s a “white and male” problem. Where Asians are overrepresented is in “tech” positions. Whites lead, Asians code. Solnit has been absolutely correct in her insistence on the parallel between Silicon Valley and the Gold Rush era. Then, as now, California profits off coolie labor.

If we never talk about Silicon Valley’s white ­supremacy—which is precisely what we’re talking around when we talk about diversity—it’s in part because “white and Asian” appear to conflate so naturally. The history of this association extends back to the late-19th century, when Asian immigrants, who were legally excluded from entering the country, began petitioning for citizenship as whites. In the context of the technology industry, the association emerged in the postwar period, whence emerged the notorious stereotype of the Asian “model minority.”

This stereotype took hold in the years following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended Asian exclusion and instituted a system of preferences that favored technical professionals. It’s also during this period that the character type of the “nerd” appeared in popular culture for the first time. The nerd, keyed to facility in math and science, helped differentiate the overly intellectual mavens of postwar technoscience from effete, humanistic “eggheads” and milquetoast “squares.”

No surprise, then, that the “nerd” type so easily attached to the mostly Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese scientists and engineers who were being imported en masse after 1965 to address a shortage of technical workers. This influx redoubled in the 1990s, with the expansion of the H-1B visa (nearly 75 percent of which go to East Asians and Indians each year), which was recently reinvigorated by Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration reform lobbying group, The stereotyping of Asians as racially gifted in math and science is a consequence not so much of their academic habits as shifting immigration and corporate priorities.

Yet the figure of the nerd makes it easy to accept the rhetoric of “white and Asian” predominance, and thus grant Silicon Valley a baseline level of diversity that downplays its racism. An entire culture industry of nerd-revenge narratives has helped promote this fiction. The mythology of the avenged nerd grew out of the biographies of figures like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak: straight, white, male outcasts who transcended their nerdiness. It came from films like The Social Network, The Internship, and Jobs; television series like Silicon Valley, Betas, Big Bang Theory, and Start-Ups: Silicon Valley; and novels like The Circle, JPod, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest. 

In these narratives, two conventions in particular give us a clear idea of how race produces futurity. The most surprising of them is the multiracial ensemble cast—surprising because it uses the group to represent a culture that prides itself on the self-sufficient individual. It’s not so surprising, however, when considering the Utopianism that swirls about the trope (think Star Trek’s postracial vision). A character in Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley offers the following schematic: “They always travel in groups of five, these programmers. There’s always a tall skinny white guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.” The show’s featured cast matches this profile exactly, as do the ensembles in The Internship, Beta, and JPod. Diversity in these narratives tends to be a purely formal, algorithmic problem. The kind of problem that we can “move the needle” on, to quote Twitter’s press release.

The other convention is the nerd figure itself, which has been increasingly racialized, not merely through the hyperbolic term genius, but also through gestures at genetic difference. Skinniness, fatness, ponytails. Asperger’s syndrome, autism—accusations of which Douglas Coupland popularized in his pre-dot-com novel, Microserfs (“I think all tech people are slightly autistic”), and that celebratory profiles of Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg have helped revive. Sherry Turkle, in her early-1990s study of MIT computer-science students, describes their bodies in immediately recognizable terms: “their pimples, their pasty complexions, their knobby knees, their thin, undeveloped bodies.” What’s more, she points out, is that they transvalue their “ugliness”: “habits of self-denigration among computer science students coexist with their sense of being a privileged elite.” And while these traits might present as ugly, the Australian writer Mark Roeder argues in his new book Unnatural Selection: Why the Geeks Will Inherit the Earth that they’re a mere distraction from the deeper racial difference between nerds, who are more highly evolved, and normal folk. Apparently nerds portend not only the future of our next generation of schoolchildren, but the future of humanity.

Race in “Silicon Valley,” as it is in Silicon Valley, is a speculative fiction. An idea to be played with—material for comedy, not tragedy. There, the race problem is a problem of inclusion and diversity, not racism, and certainly not white supremacy.

White nerds get their revenge, while Asians have to invent other narratives.

As Julia Carrie Wong has recently pointed out, at risk in allowing Silicon Valley to control the narration of its diversity problem is how it lulls Asian Americans into believing that they’re enjoying the privileges of whiteness when no such revenge is being doled out to them. Even though, as the sociologists Paul Ong and Evelyn Blumenberg have shown, “No other minority group has contributed more [to Silicon Valley’s success] than Asian Pacific Americans,” there is still the problem of the so-called “bamboo ceiling.”

It makes a kind of sense, then, that racial resentment towards Silicon Valley has been appearing primarily in fiction written by Asian Americans. In Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a Taiwanese immigrant turns to entrepreneurship and escapism after enduring years of racist microaggression and career stagnation in the Valley. In Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, a Japanese programmer is let go from his plum job in Palo Alto after he objects to its use of his work in weapons development, sending him and his family into a downward spiral of poverty and depression. Hari Kunzru’s Transmission tells the story of an exploited Indian programmer, lured to the Valley by false promises and an H1-B visa. These are stories of how Silicon Valley exploits its technical labor, and they reveal the sizable fissures between “white” and “Asian.”

None of this is to argue for more inclusion, or more revenge narratives with Asian nerd-heroes. As Jeff Hammerbacher famously said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” What we need is more resentment—in particular from the nerds who will never get their revenge. The denial of their revenge reflects not just Silicon Valley’s racism, but more importantly, the strategy of an entire industry to use race—in rhetoric and policy—to open new markets and manage labor. It’s an old story, an old way of making money.

More resentment, not just for the economic inequality Silicon Valley so joyfully propagates, but also the rot of its diversity rhetoric. As it maneuvers itself to profit handsomely from hoodwinking our next generation into a virtual future that looks a lot like our ugly past, we are best reminded that the boardrooms of Silicon Valley bear far more resemblance to the Alpha Betas and their burning nerds sign than the vengeful, revolutionary Lambdas.