At Vox on Thursday, David Roberts wrote an exceptional article, Tech Nerds Are Smart. But They Can’t Seem to Get Their Heads Around Politics. But there is a fundamental problem with the article: Roberts really doesn’t understand “nerd” culture. (Still, you should read it.) He started the article by talking about how nerds in the past were at the bottom of the pecking order, but now the “coolest kids” are the nerds. No, not really. When you watch Shark Tank, do you see a bunch a nerds? No. You see a bunch of alpha jerks passing judgement on people who are generally not pushing any new ideas. I think the single biggest “idea” that people come on the show with is some kind of new fashion. Then, as now, the true nerds are lucky if they get a decent job where their nerd abilities can be used.
So just because the billionaire class in Silicon Valley pretend to be nerds, doesn’t mean that they are. Bill Gates? Even at his height, I never would have hired him as a programmer. Steve Jobs? He has a better claim to fashion designer than technological innovator. And don’t even get me started about Mark Zuckerberg — who I will admit is a nerd, but his success has nothing to do with it. So when a writer goes searching around Silicon Valley looking at all the “smart people” and wondering why they are so stupid about politics, I just laugh. They are stupid about everything — except “business,” which is far more about being ruthless and soulless than it is about being smart.
But Roberts does get to the heart of the matter in a section titled, “The quasi-libertarian anti-politics of the tech nerd.” I would use the word “glibertarian” — a person with a vague sense that the government is bad but without having given it any thought at all. But Roberts is actually focused on the fact that these high tech wunderkind just dismiss politics and assume that the two “sides” are equally wrong. Take, for example, the following image from Tim Urban’s Wait But Why:
Obviously, this is the kind of graph that shows a complete lack of interest in the subject. The main problem is not that it is wrong. The main problem is that it is conventional wisdom. It is what you will read on the opinion page of USA Today everyday. It shows that the writer might be able to dig into the science of climate change. But he has absolutely no interest in digging into politics because he doesn’t think that there is anything to know. In other words, when it comes to politics, someone like Tim Urban is totally postmodern: there is no truth — just opinion.
Think about that for a second. Because if there is no truth in politics, there is no truth in nature. If the proper policy on global warming is just whatever is between the Democrats and the Republicans then why are we even talking about the science? The Republicans have good ideas? Well, I would have agreed with that 20 years ago. But since then, they’ve abandoned even the idea of revenue neutral carbon taxes. And who are these Democrats in the “crazy zone”? Really, what are those people saying that is equivalent to the total denial of decades of climate science? That the Earth is going to turn into the sun? I really don’t know. But I do know this: Tim Urban doesn’t have a clue either.
The fundamental problem is that people like Tim Urban aren’t that smart. I know that I’m a minor league genius. I’m not boasting — it’s just a fact. But that isn’t why anyone should read me. There are far smarter people than I am around. But the one thing that I’m really good at — the one thing that people like me (smart but not that smart) are good at — is knowing what I know.
The problem with the Silicon Valley whizkids — and successful business people generally — is that they think that success in one area means they are brilliant at everything. And the society buys it! This is why we constantly listen to idiot billionaires tell us what we should do about the macroeconomy.
So will it matter if people like David Roberts keep pounding on people like Tim Urban about what is actually going on in politics? I can’t see how. One of the reasons that libertarianism appeals to “smart” people is because it is so simple. It isn’t tainted by the real world. And so the kind of people who can explain global warming are generally not the kind of people who have the intellectual tools to deal with something are messy as politics. And they don’t even want to deal with the fact that half of the American political system is effectively fascist and post-fact. That would screw up their very notion that knowledge can save the world.
There are different kinds of intelligence. It isn’t surprising that the tech wunderkind don’t have a clue about politics. And let’s not forget: the world is working fairly well for them. Thus far.