The votes are counted, the campaign planes back in their hangars, and it’s safe to watch TV commercials again. Election 2012 is over and a winner has been declared. No, not the president who topped the national vote. Nor the advisors who got him there. The winner isn’t even those pollsters who best read the national mood. The undisputed king of the 2012 election is instead an analyst of pollsters: Nate Silver, The New York Times’ numbers-geek king who most achieved the seemingly impossible feat of seeing through the sturm and drung, correctly predicting the results of all 50 states’ votes in the presidential contest.
Across the Internet, Silver’s feat is being hailed as the greatest political achievement since Charlemagne united the warring tribes of Europe. Across the land, America is celebrating Silver’s single-handed victory in the hard-fought election campaign.
That the great champion of 2012 should turn out not to be a candidate or participant in the election but an analyst of the work of other analysts illuminates just about where the cultural conversation sits today. Across the spectrum — from food to film, sports to politics, we are in the thrall of meta-meta analysis, where every action becomes a conversation about itself. In the battle between big-picture forest people and micro-detail specialist tree people, the tree people have not just won, but have succeeded in branding big-picture talk a soup-to-nuts fraud.
Everywhere the tree people are setting the agenda and calling the tune. In some spheres, they fight with statistics. In others, they fight with fanatical devotion to certain mediums such as the comic book adaptation or the self-aware sitcom that they will argue has rendered all else obsolete.
The result has been a broad canvas of discussions in which the participants seem far more concerned with winning the Biggest Smartypants at the Table prize than with discussing core issues and values.
One instant effect of this uprising has to make our always male-skewing cultural landscape even that much more antagonistic to women. Conducting cultural dialogue as a brutal death match, in which numbers are wielded like broadswords, may be satisfying to some, but a glance at any blog’s comments section shows that those drawn to that sort of discussion will be disproportionately discontented, socially awkward males.
Here, then, is how the days of the Nerds’ Ascendent have been playing out across our culture:
On many days, it seems like our political conversation has become a living enactment of an Aaron Sorkin fantasy; brainy, intense, driven (mostly male) people shouting statistics in brutal combat, like a modern-day reenactment of 300 without the rippling, oiled abs. On a good day, the conversation is dominated by stats-obsessed bloggers debating whether one candidate’s use of “18%” or the number 250,000 is a lie or a mere exaggeration. On a more typical day, the buzz is overwhelmed by debate of whose likely voter screen is most accurate and how many points to shave off for a house effect.
A sporting interest in a political campaign is well and good. The horse of horse race coverage left the barn long ago. But now, not only has the meta-meta-narrative swallowed the narrative, but it has become so specific in its details, so focused on technical understanding of data, that it is no longer a dialogue in which mere mortals can engage; the public is simply meant to stand in awe until the ultimate statistic is declared, and the pretenders are vanquished.
The discussion may be satisfying to some, but it’s hard to believe that our era’s numerically driven attempts to tackle the eternal truths are going to be remembered fondly, if they’re remembered at all. When one looks back at the great political opinion shapers of history — Aristotle, Montesquieu, Lincoln — it was not their ability to rattle off stats like a tommy gun that made their words resound through the ages.
Granted, politics in the end are about something more consequential than providing mere rhetorical uplift in our conversations. Ultimately, there are matters of concern on the line upon which statistics do shed a great deal of light — health care costs, for example. But a technocracy only takes you so far until you bump into some basic-principle matters — how much coverage, for example, does one feel the government should provide its citizens? But that is on the hard issues. When it comes to horse race concerns, if there’s not a little room to go beyond statistical concerns, to delve just a bit into poetry, then for what do we need horse race analysis at all?
In no sphere is nerd dominance more pronounced than in American film. It has been decades since teenage boys captured the imagination of studio marketing departments and became the major focus of big-budget filmmaking. Since Star Wars hit the screens in 1977, studios have been slavishly attempting to woo its fans and their heirs (and by now, grandheirs), to provide them with ever bigger, effects-driven blockbusters to shake them up roller-coaster-like and have them lining up for more. Teenage boys’ dominion over the box office has only lately been challenged by the rise of teenage girls as a demographic in their own right, able to fuel hits such as Hunger Games and the Twilight films. However, despite the widely heralded rise of the female audience, one glance at this year’s box office shows that despite those exceptions, it is still very much a boy’s world when it comes to blockbusters.
Of late, however, it is not only teenage boys that are the apple of the studios’ eyes but their slavishly devoted subset, the fanboys, for whom comic book–based films and new installments of cherished franchises are the alpha and the omega of moviegoing. On the one hand, the fanboys provide a certain screening process for the general public. After all, if an action franchise can hold the attention of a fanbase for decades, it must be doing something right. On the other, however, the love of the fanboys is inevitably a double-edged sword, which filmmakers are forced to grapple with again and again as they dare not deviate a millimeter from the plot bible as described in Issue #277 of the comic book series a film is based on.
Worse still, in developing the projects, the studios’ transparent courting of the fanboys means finding any preexisting nerd touchstone and slapping it onto the screen. Instead, each summer we see another set of established comic book figures taking their turn, or their rebooted turn, in remakes, adaptations of rides, and, perhaps the worst phenomenon of them all, the revisits, as the creators of Indiana Jones and Alien return to their original works to attempt to squeeze a little more life out of them, with a tenth the energy seen in the originals. The fetishists of the very names of their icons are jubilant just to see the posters. For many of the rest of us, summer filmgoing has become more of a chore than a pleasure.
And in the upper reaches of film-buffdom, where Tarantino reigns supreme, the discussion of what a film has to say has become quaint, as the business of true film geeks is compiling a list of the references and winks thrown in for no purpose greater than turning a film into an immense pile of “cool stuff.”
One would think no sector would be more immune to a nerd revolution than the culinary world. After all, whether something tastes good or not is a primordial sensual reaction, and there is, in the end, no arguing with someone who doesn’t like how their dinner tastes, no matter how many statistics you can muster in its defense. But here too, the nerds are on the march. Under the influence of Modernist Cuisine, the 2,438-page, 52-pound bible of deconstructionist cooking, the process of cooking has come to overwhelm the basic joy of eating. Cookbooks have become so complicated and require such an armada of high-tech equipment that their recipes should come with a warning to amateurs: Don’t try this at home.
Recently I had dinner at a restaurant that advertised a certain celebrity chef had consulted on the menu. I was subjected to a 15-minute explanation from the waiter of the elaborate multitiered process by which each dish was meticulously crafted. The food, when it arrived, was quite good. But the fact that it wore its cleverness so prominently on its sleeve did not make it go down any easier.
The rise of TV nerds has been a mixed bag for the public. On the one hand, fanatical analysis of television episodes has provided the intellectual underpinnings a whole generation of celebrated “novelistic” shows, from 24 to Downton Abbey, that require a high level of attention from their viewers. However, after all the Emmys are counted, there really is only so much analysis 40 minutes of gussied-up soap opera can support.
Surveying the flood of recaps that fill the Internet after each episode of your average AMC tentpole, one finds the television nerds falling over themselves to find layer upon layer of meanings every week, in an ever escalating need to declare every night a breakthrough in the history of television. Worse still, it creates the essence of a trees-over-the-forest climate, where those with a fanatical attention to detail endlessly nitpick to prove why an episode of 30 Rock was the marginally less funny than last week’s episode, and how the addition of a new roommate for a supporting character has rearranged a show’s entire ecosystem.
There is a thin line between demanding and self-absorbed, however and so often the nerd favorites barrel across that line with abandon. The show Community, to take an extreme example, became television’s most celebrated discussion of itself in history, with seemingly every episode a self-referential exploration in the nature of sitcoms themselves. Elsewhere, gags on the genre, callbacks to comedy’s greats, and stunt casting overwhelm the basic demands of storytelling.
Even indisputably great shows like Breaking Bad can’t seem to resist shouting out to their nerd overlords. The entire Pollos Hermanos subplot felt like a tongue-in-cheek, meme-ready gag for fans seeking an easy mocking laugh, a tone quite at odds with the rest of the show. Last season, Walt’s “Say My Name” sequence dove headfirst into nerdbait, throwing the show’s dark realism to the winds for a quotable catchphrase.
Michael Lewis’ Moneyball told of how a new statistically oriented school of analysis powered a fresh vision for analyzing success in sports, sweeping away instinct and sentimentality and forging a new model for success. Fantastic news for those in search of an affordable path to a pennant, but lost in Moneyball’s mockery of the old fussbudgets married to this outdated romantic vision is the fact that there was something very beautiful in the old fussbudgets’ outdated romantic vision of baseball. There is little room in the Moneyball world for the notion that sports can just be appreciated for their own sake by a fan not committed to running the crosstabs on WAR for every AAA league at bat over the last three decades.
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