The classic battle between nerds and brutes is one of brains versus brawn. In the geek films of the 1980s that introduced and immortalized this conflict—Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, Ghostbusters, Sixteen Candles—the nerds are always outcasts and misfits. And these fables all end the same way. Through a combination of smarts and good fortune, the nerds demonstrate some unique prowess, by means of which they join the ranks of normals. The outcasts aren’t so different, after all. Everyone hugs, cue music, roll credits.
It always should have been obvious that life doesn’t work this way. Real outcasts and misfits don’t enter the mainstream through quirky self-effacement turned tender sympathy. Misfits often stay misfits, even when fortune, power, and influence comes their way. And when it does, an outcast never forgets that he (yes, of course, he) was once cast out. If able, he takes revenge—preferably by burning down the institution of popularity itself.
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In some cases, that power and influence is stolen through violence. In 2014, Elliott Rodger killed three women at a UC Santa Barbara sorority house (and three more people elsewhere). In a video uploaded before his rampage, entitled “Elliot Rodger's Retribution,” Rodger explained that he carried out the attack to punish women for rejecting him.
Thankfully, the misfit’s torment rarely ends in bloodshed. Revenge is more commonly sought through symbols. The thousands of instances of online abuse that torment people—particularly women—every day online exemplify this effort. But to weaponize that effort requires coordination, as in harassment campaigns like Gamergate.
Coordinated efforts require a lot less coordination when big money is behind them. An example of this entrepreneurial nerd revenge appeared during Prime Time last night, as if out of a nerd film gone awry. As reported by The Daily Beast, Palmer Luckey, the 24-year-old co-founder of the virtual-reality company Oculus VR, has been funding a pro-Trump, non-profit organization called Nimble America.
Among other things, Nimble America operates the Reddit channel r/The_Donald, which deals partly in creating and transforming memes into symbols of alt-right white supremacy, disseminated in support of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, making Luckey a near-billionaire. And Luckey confirmed that he used some of those proceeds to help fund Nimble America. He had apparently became interested in the group after seeing some of its image memes on Facebook and decided to help. What better way to troll than to become king of the trolls?
It’s not the first time. When it came to light that the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel had revenge-funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media, many were taken aback with shock. But as I argued at the time, Thiel’s behavior looked a lot more like very well-funded internet trolling than anything else. At best, Thiel did it “for the lulz,” as they say on 4chan—just to take pleasure in watching the outcome. And at worst, as dark vengeance against the very idea of being slighted. Here, the consequences are less important than the feeling of victory for having brought about results.
The purpose of trolling is not the abuse, not directly, anyway. Its purpose is to demonstrate an ability among the ostracized to exert control.
Luckey-funded Nimble America is less veiled (and less stylish) than Thiel’s Gawker contretemps. It announces proudly that “shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real.” Posting to Reddit as NimbleRichMan, his Trumpist alias, Luckey told his fellow outcasts, “The American Revolution was funded by wealthy individuals … you can't fight the American elite without serious firepower.” If Thiel appears to support Trump in order to save capitalism from democracy, Luckey does so in order to help geeks become sovereign in this replacement society.
It may seem strange that Trumpism would find a home in socially liberal Silicon Valley. But the same fear of marginalization that draws white America to Trump also has a stronghold in geekdom. For the nerds, it’s not the twilight of mainstream, white power that terrifies. Rather, the endless night of dorkship’s impotence. This is also why libertarianism mates well with computationalism (the idea that the world is best understood and operated through computers). Both adopt a burn-it-all-down attitude toward the institutions that have held them back. What is “disruption” but the act of stripping everything from society and reinventing it inside the computer? Big business acts as a binder for all these ingredients. America’s long dream of electing a business leader as president (Perot, Romney, Trump, etc.) dovetails so well with Silicon Valley’s belief in entrepreneurial success as the ultimate sign of prowess and competence. It’s more surprising that everyone in the Valley doesn’t support Trump than that Thiel and Luckey do.
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A little over a year ago, Palmer Luckey appeared on the cover of Time magazine: a chunky boy in a dorky green polo shirt donning an Oculus headset. Barefoot on a beach, he jumps improbably into the air as if to demonstrate the preposterousness of this young man executing such an act without technological mediation. “The Surprising Joy of Virtual Reality,” the title reads, “And why it’s about to change the world.”
Successfully exerting force of any kind on the universe is the ultimate goal of nerddom. Silicon Valley just institutionalized the idea. That common mantra—“change the world”—means nothing more than “witness myself the force I can exert upon it.” This is also why political values are always only accidental in the orbit of the technology industry, and why its ultimate political value is the libertarian drive to end politics entirely, anyway. Technocracy is meant to take its place, with Silicon Valley gripping the scepter.
Technology presses toward an elsewhere. In some cases, that elsewhere turned out to be populist. A place for everybody, even if in reaching it technology stripped away individuality. The weird diversity of Geocities and blogs and MySpace was distilled into Facebook. Information discovery of all stripes became Googling. Hundreds of mobile handsets became one black, glass rectangle. In so doing, Silicon Valley proved that it could do more than just sell spreadsheeting machines to bean counters. It showed that they could alter the way people live, think, and behave.
It is thus perfect poetry that the ultimate technology of elsewhere, the VR headset, would underwrite Luckey’s deliberate meme farming for Trump. It is the final nerdly dream—to exit the material world and to enter, with full senses intact, one that would replace it completely. Those who see VR as a temporary, occasional tool for entertainment miss the obvious truth of its ambition. VR is a symbol of the misfit’s ultimate victory over a world that would hold him back from other victories. A tool with which to fashion virtuous, mediated lives outside the boundaries of cruel, brutish normalcy. The nerds never wanted to become popular. They want to end populism entirely.