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"The Nerds Have Won"

Brian Hayes

Last January, when America Online announced its plan to absorb the Time Warner media empire, The New York Times quoted one marveling observer as follows: "The nerds have won. This deal really validates the Internet." The comment left me thoroughly puzzled, because my own first reaction to the merger agreement had been exactly the opposite. For me the news inspired no visions of teeshirted nerds marching triumphantly through Hollywood or liberating Madison Avenue from the tyranny of suits; the nerds I imagined were gnashing their teeth at the prospect of more commercial clutter on the Web and more "portals" to the Internet that open only at the command of proprietary software. What the merger seemed to validate was the idea of the Net as virtual movie theater and shopping mall, which is not a notably nerdish vision.

Of course it all comes down to the question of who's a nerd. The commentator quoted by the Times was David Readerman, a San Francisco investment banker. From his point of view, the managers of America Online may well appear to be hard-core nerds. Compared with their counterparts at Time Warner, perhaps they are. America Online represents the "new media"—meaning the Internet and all its accoutrements—whereas Time Warner is (or was) a bastion of "old media"—television, film, ink-and-paper publishing.

From another point of view, however, America Online is the very antithesis of nerdishness. Veterans of the "real" Internet reserve their most withering contempt for America Online newbies, who are assumed to be technically inept as well as ignorant of all the customs and lore of the Net. In certain forums, an address brands you a "hopeless luser." (I am doubtless guilty of such snobbery myself, although I must also state for the record that I have an AOL account.) Given the company's online reputation as the last refuge of the clueless, it seems bizarre to send America Online marching forth as the standard-bearer of the nerds. When the merger plan was reported at the Slashdot Web site (whose slogan is "News for nerds"), there was certainly no victory celebration.

The rhetoric of warfare between nerds and suits can get comically overblown, as if this were some cosmic struggle between the defenders of civilization and the barbarian hordes (it's never clear which is which). In fact, if the conflict exists at all, the outcome will surely not be conquest by either side but cultural assimilation of both. America Online and the hundreds of other glittering new dot-com companies are not decimating the nerds; they're enriching them. At the same time, the influx of grad students with stock options has got to alter corporate culture. But whether the mechanism of change is war or intermarriage, the effect on the Internet is equally profound. Hence this seems to be a good occasion for reflecting on where computer networks have come from and where they might be taking us. Does the future of the Internet lie in mass entertainment and marketing, or can it also remain a medium for scholarly and scientific exchange? Is there life beyond the com domain?

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