All the nerds are dead
How Andy Warhol invented nerd culture; why it's imploding
It’s been about a decade since we killed all the hipsters. The last genocide ever perpetrated against white people. There are mass graves, still, just outside the major cities, places we don’t really want to think about: heaped thousands of hipster skeletons, each still wearing the tufts of its big lumberjack beard, sealed forever in artisanal wax. We lashed the hipsters to their fixies and herded them off a cliff. We burst into the Vice offices in Old Street and hacked them to bits with machetes. We put botulism in all the PBR. We made the hipsters kneel down in front of a wall. Wait, the hipsters said, you don’t have to do this, I’m not really a hipster, there’s actually no such thing as a hipster. That’s great, we said. If you’re not a hipster, then this is not happening to you. And then we pulled the trigger.
We had to do it, you understand. These people left us with no choice. They were very, very annoying.
Now, innocent people sometimes wonder where all the hipsters went. They were everywhere, once, and now they’re gone: what happened? Who killed them? What happened is this: hipsterism as the dominant mode of mass culture could only exist under very specific informational conditions. Before the turn of the twenty-first century, most of the things that people said and did simply happened, and then fell away into the past—although it’s true that in certain repressive states there were bureaucracies dedicated to capturing the world as data. Enormous piles of paper documents and magnetic tape. From the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the Holy See received frequent detailed reports on exactly what was happening across its domain; before that, monasteries would keep pedantic records of every Mass and every meal; before that, all human activity, every twitch of every fibre, was recorded in the extratemporal and omniscient databases of God. But from the 1990s on, and increasing every year, people started to individually record every detail of their lives in a single vast and open archive, and this was new.
Around the turn of the century, the world contained around 50 exabytes of data: from the first Mesopotamian documents pressed into clay tablets, through five thousand years of books and pamphlets and diaries, to Shrek. Today, there’s around 65 zettabytes. A zettabyte is a thousand exabytes; an exabyte is a billion gigabytes. (Every word ever spoken by anyone who ever lived would come up to about 5 exabytes: a rounding error. One molecule of DNA contains about a gigabyte and a half: the instructions for building you take up about as much data as Shrek in 1080p.) Almost all the information ever produced by our species has been produced in the last few years. The last man to have read every single piece of publicly available data was the fifteenth-century polymath and mystic Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. (People sometimes make the same claim for Samuel Taylor Coleridge; they are wrong.) He knew the entire corpus of Greek and Latin texts, and also Hebrew and Arabic; he studied Kabbalah with the Italian rabbi Yohanan Alemanno; he could recite the poetry of every European vernacular. A contemporary Pico, meanwhile, would have to read not just every crap novel ever published, but every article in every newspaper, every Facebook post, every page on every corporate website, every tweet, every status report from every wifi-enabled lightbulb. The task is impossible. And so, for a while, we had the hipster.
The hipster was an information-sorting algorithm: its job was to always have good taste. The hipster listened to bands you’d never heard of. The hipster drank beers brewed by Paraguayan Jesuits in the 1750s. The hipster thought Tarkovsky was for posers, and the only truly great late-Soviet filmmaker was Ali Khamraev. The hipster bought all his toilet paper from a small-batch paper factory in Abkhazia that included small fragments of tree bark in the pulp. The hipster swam deep into the vastness of human data, and always surfaced with pearls. Through its powers of snobbery and disdain, the hipster could effortlessly filter out what was good.
That was the theory, at least. In fact, the hipsters were generally very bad at their job. Most of the stuff they liked was awful. They flourished in a brief gap: after we started producing impossible volumes of information, but before we had the technological means of efficiently processing it. In the 2000s, the best tool available was keyword search, the utility of which drops in line with the size of the data set. We still needed people to like things manually. But in the 2010s, we developed algorithmic processes capable of efficiently discerning patterns in the ungodly excess of human cultural production and sorting it appropriately. The hipsters were no longer required. So we shot them all and burned their bodies on a hill. Today, the hipster era survives only as an aesthetic: flash photography, guitar music, tits out. The particular form of snobbery and disdain that powered it is entirely extinct. In the post-hipster era, you listened to what Spotify told you to listen to. If you read a book, it was because the precise pattern of blobby pastel-coloured shapes on its cover contained coded instructions to TikTok’s algorithm that sent it zooming to the top of your feed. Your tastes and preferences were decided for you by vast crystalline machines coiling and uncoiling in the livid molten core of the earth. But these algorithms tend to work in a very particular way. At best, they present you with a caricature of yourself that you then have to conform to. At worst, their processes of cumulative reinforcement serve you up the exact same bilge as everyone else, but shrouded in the aura of individuality. It was at the dawn of the algorithm era that all my Dalston friends started playing Taylor Swift at their parties. A few years ago, I was dragged to some fashion-world event in the Bowery in New York: the room was full of cool young people there to be seen, and they were listening to a playlist of Top-40 pop music curated for them by a proprietary mathematical equation. As someone who had grown up in the hipster age, all these people seemed incredibly lame. The world had been given over to the nerds.
But now, the nerds are dying too.
I think the big tipping point came in 2012, with the release of Marvel’s first Avengers film. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles; I went to see the thing with two of my fraternity brothers. (Long story.) One of them had the bright idea of sneaking in some alcohol, disguised in a large bottle of cranberry juice. He poured out half the juice and replaced it with vodka, before discovering that this cranberry juice was the unsweetened kind, and that drinking even a sip of it instantly dessicated your mouth and made your tongue convulse and sent sharp waves of acid pain zipping horribly through your mucous membranes and into your brain. But he’d spent money on the stuff, so he kept drinking it. After thirty minutes in the cinema, he’d polished off the entire bottle and was starting to show signs of distress. He kept lolling around in his seat. His head seemed too heavy for his neck, and he would disturb the other viewers by mumble-shouting fuck yeah! at entirely random points in the film. The person sitting in front of him turned around and told him to shut up, that some people were actually trying to enjoy their experience and he was ruining it for everyone. The culprit swayed and gurgled and called him a pussy. Then, about halfway through the film, he suddenly vomited an immense quantity of stinking blood-red liquid over his shirt, over the seat in front of him, and over its occupant. He gasped. I’m ok, he said. Then he puked again. Another hot, sour gush splattered over everything in a two-metre radius. This time it had chunks in it. After some tussling, we managed to carry him outside. My hands were sticky with half-digested spew. I’m fine, he said. I wanna see the movie. Viscous dribblings trickled off the edge of his chin. Let’s go back in there, he said. Let me find that pussy in front. I’m gonna kick his ass. Tryna talk like that to me. He stood up, tried to walk in two different directions at once, and fell over. We ordered a cab.
This was, I think, the first and only time anyone has reacted entirely appropriately to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For the last decade, mass culture has been nerd culture, and a nerd is someone who likes things that aren’t good. This is not to say that everyone who likes things that aren’t good is a nerd. Fast food is bad food: cheap, tasteless, unhealthy, and unsatisfying. But if you grew up eating frozen burgers as an occasional treat, and you still find it nice to sometimes stumble drunk into a McDonald’s late at night and wolf down a Big Mac—because it reminds you of something, because it’s the sign for a certain vanished pleasure—then you are not necessarily a nerd. But imagine a person who collects the boxes from every McDonald’s order he’s ever made, who’s yapping with excitement about the new McDonald’s partially hydrogenated soybean-canola oil blend, who can’t wait for them to release the McBento in Japan so he can watch video reviews all day, and who acts incredibly smug every time McDonald’s posts its quarterly earnings and they’re growing faster than Burger King’s. You know exactly what this person looks like. A total failure of an adult human being. Fat clammy hands; eyes popping in innocent wonder at every new disc of machine-extruded beef derivatives. An unbearable, ungodly enthusiasm. Does he actually like eating the stuff? Maybe not. It hadly matters. His enjoyment is perverse, abstracted far beyond any ordinary pleasure. It signifies nothing. This person is a nerd.
The nerd doesn’t like bad things because of their actual qualities; the nerd likes bad things simply because they’re there. What counts is collecting, itemising, consuming. This is why it’s almost impossible to be a nerd about anything worthwhile or good. The person who knows exactly how they make the reindeer brain jelly at Noma or the turnip carpaccio at L’Arpège might be unbearable to talk to, but they are probably not a nerd. They are still interested in the sensuous qualities of the thing. The person who can identify every item in Valentino’s spring-summer 2006 collection is also not a nerd—but the person who can tell you the resale value for every hideous Supreme hoodie is. A nerd keeps shelves of godawful young adult fiction, organised by colour, but a person who—to take a completely random example—has an obsessive, all-consuming interest in the literature and mysticism of the medieval and early modern eras is entirely normal and fine. Nerdery is when you slurp happily from the toilet, and come up grinning and ask for more.
This is why nerds are always so belligerently defensive about the dreck they choose to consume. They are mortally offended by the suggestion that Marvel might be somehow less good than Chris Marker, or that K-pop might be worse than Rimsky-Korasov. A kind of inverted snobbery; a snobbery against value as such. It’s not enough that the things they like are, by definition, globally hegemonic, blotting out any other form of mainstream cultural production—if there is even one person who still tries to consider things by some measure of quality, it’s like a needle sticking sharp in their side, a constant tiny unbearable pain. Any kind of judgement feels like a personal attack against the individual nerd, which it is. It feels like a form of discriminaion, a coded bullying, which it is. It’s the imposition of an entirely foreign system of distinctions: like trying to give a mark out of ten to the sun. Why are you judging? Why are you hating? Why do you keep saying these things are bad? Nerd culture is never bad, because it’s not attempting to be good. Its only function is to exist.1
In a way, I admire the nerds: their limitless affirmation. They love the world, and to love something terrible is a heroic act. They could desire the eternal return. I can’t imagine what it would be like, to wake up every day to all this mediocrity, and then clap two hands to the side of my face, and squee. They are pure. The deep, profound, almost spiritual purity of a four-month-old puppy, astounded and delighted by a pile of its own shit.
There have been nerds for a while now; long before nerd culture took over the world. The true father of the nerds is not JRR Tolkien or Gary Gygax; it’s Andy Warhol. In Warhol, you see everything that would later become the dominant mode of mass entertainment. As Baudrillard saw, what makes Warhol’s art unique is that it is, strictly speaking, not art:
Whatever light one casts on the object Warhol, the Warhol effect, there is always something enigmatic about him which wrenches him out of the paradigm of art and the history of art. The enigma is that of an object which offers itself up in total transparency, and hence cannot be naturalised by critical or aesthetic discourse. It is that of a superficial, artificial object which succeeds in preserving its artificiality, in shaking free of any natural signification to take on a spectral inensity, empty of meaning… Warhol was the first to bring us modern fetishism, transaesthetic fetishism—that of an image without quality, a presence without desire.
Warhol’s images are banal not because they might be said to be the reflection of a banal world, but because they are products of the absence of any interpretative pretension on the part of the subject. They are products of the elevation of the image to pure figuration, without the least transfiguration. Not transcendence any longer, but the rise and rise of the sign which, losing all natural signification, shines forth in the void with the full gleam of its artificial light.
Warhol himelf preferred less elevated terms. He flatly described his soup cans as ‘the synthesis of nothing.’ Or see his famous 1963 interview with Gene Swenson:
Warhol: Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself without being under a strict government; so if it’s working without trying, why can’t it work without being Communist? Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody. Swenson: Is that what Pop Art is all about? Warhol: Yes. It’s liking things. Swenson: And liking things is like being a machine? Warhol: Yes, because you do the same thing every time. You do it over and over again.
This is the secret manifesto of the nerd. The greatest lie the nerds ever told us was that being a nerd had something to do with being unpopular, being uncool, being outside the cultural mainstream, being unusual, being creative, being funny, being different in any way. Andy Warhol was cool, this slight shy serious closeted bespectacled nerd who lived with his mother; possibly the coolest person to have ever lived. He was popular; nerds have always gravitated to the popular; nerds have always delighted in the flat infinity of the Same. He liked things. Being a nerd has always meant being a machine for liking things. The nerds were the messianic faithful, awaiting the incoming of the algorithm. Waiting to fuse themselves with machines. To live in a world where you could like something simply by pressing a button. Waiting for the utopia where let people enjoy things is the whole of the law.
But as Baudrillard concludes, ‘not everyone has the good fortune to be a machine.’
Look: I have seen Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. I have a finite number of waking hours left—statistically, around 278,000—before this brief strange experience of life and light and warmth gives way to an eternity of nothing that will last for the rest of time, and I spent two of them watching Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
It is not a good film. There’s a premise that seems to carry some imaginative potential—what if you shrank yourself down to a subatomic scale, and found in the tiniest spaces of reality, where all the laws are different and objects can occupy multiple places at once, that every minute fluctuation in the quantum field throws up teeming Boltzmann entities, that there is an entire world down there?—but it’s all instantly squandered. No fun paradoxes. No games with space and time. All you get are stupid CGI fight sequences and stupid CGI characters with stupid names. All these characters also talk in the exact same register; they all seem to be fleshy mouthpieces for a world-consuming hivemind that speaks exclusively in lame quips. The fictional camera floats around its simulated environments in a way that bears no resemblance to the actual process of looking, or even the rich seductions of a physical lens distilling interesting scenes out of physical space. This is not a film that speaks to the visual imagination, the human condition, or the erotic instinct. Like I said, it is bad.
But Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is no better and no worse than any of the other blockbusters we make now. The same wet bilge that’s been sluicing out the flanks of the culture industry for years, leaching into the groundwater, making all our trees grow weird and spindly and all our children disturbed. What’s changed is that people appear to have noticed that this is bad. They regret surrendering two hours of the only life they’ll ever live to something called Kang the Conqueror. They are left baffled and slightly angry by the entire experience. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was supposed to be a major blockbuster, and instead it’s one of the worst-performing and worst-reviwed films in Marvel history. In response, the company has gone into panic mode. They will be releasing three films instead of four this year, and instead of four TV shows there’ll be only two. They can’t improve their product, because their product is inherently terrible; the only strategy is to desaturate the market. Slow down the thudding cycle of the machine; it’s giving people a headache. It is geting harder and harder to like.
People used to like superhero stories for a very simple reason. We are boring and frustrated; we’d like to be more than what we are, but instead everyone is somehow less than themselves. You can feel your existence fraying away at its edges. Whatever life should have been, it isn’t this: not plasterboard bureaucracies staffed by people with irritating vocal tics; not slow-withering marriages, not hair falling out, cartilage wearing thin, dreams unfulfilled, places unseen, books unwritten and unread; not Netflix automatically queuing up the next episode; not this couch, this laundry, this glum darkness of 11.26 pm on a Saturday night, this screen, this life that will not be remembered, emptying its nothing into the nothing that ever was. But that’s what you get. So you have superheroes, people who live in the not-this. They can fly: where would you go, if you could fly? They can turn invisible or stop time: what hideous crimes would you commit, if you could turn invisible or stop time? They can beat anyone in a fight: how would you live, if you weren’t afraid?
But this is not exactly an escape, and not exactly wish-fulfilment either. As Adorno and Horkheimer point out in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the point is not to serve as a false alternative to your miserable life; it’s a kind of punishment:
The culture industry does not sublimate: it suppresses. By constantly exhibiting the object of desire, the breasts beneath the sweater, the naked torso of the sporting hero, it merely goads the unsublimated anticipation of pleasure, which through the habit of denial has long since been mutilated as masochism. There is no erotic situation in which innuendo and incitement are not accompanied by the clear notification that things will never go so far. The Hays Office merely confirms the ritual which the culture industry has staged in any case: that of Tantalus. Works of art are ascetic and shameless; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish.
Still, at least the Tantalus-ritual was effective; at least it incited desire. The culture we produce on Planet Nerd has nothing to do with desire whatsoever. Everything is sterile, mercilessly unsexy; no eroticism, not even visual pleasure. Compare it to any of the dumb action films of the 80s and 90s: sweatingly carnal men roped in thick wads of muscle, grunting around the rainforest, blasting bullets in all directions. The effects might be janky by modern standards, but they at least manage to hold your gaze—which is the least we should expect from the instruments of our domination. Nerd culture, meanwhile, is basically quite boring to consume. Instead of the sadistic fantasy of being a superhero, doing fantastic things that ordinary people don’t get to do, the Marvel movies are about nothing more than themselves. A tedious panoply of different trademarked intellectual properties, all of them essentially just minor versions of their own action figures. The sole pleasure is the crossover. What if Iron Man met Thor? If the Bog-Bastard fought Pencil-Guy, who would win? The latest phase of the MCU is about multiverses: endless parallel iterations of the same lame quipping guys for you to itemise and collect and consume. A vision of the unbearable surplus of data that brought us here.
Marvel is failing because they thought that most people were nerds: that mass audiences would actually want to delve deep into their joyless multiverse and slog through all its lore. Nerds like that sort of activity; nerds don’t need to actually like the things they like. But not everyone has the good fortune to be a machine: most people are not nerds. Most people will passively accept culture produced under the regime of alibidinal information-sorting algorithms, if it’s the only thing available—but only up to a point. After that point, they will simply check out, which is exactly what they’re now doing. It’s not just Marvel: nerd culture is collapsing everywhere. Sequels and franchises no longer drag as many people into the cinemas. The ecstatic boyband fans have gone quiet: increasingly, new music in general is being oucompeted by Spotify’s century-long back catalogue. Over the last year, sales of books in print went up by 4.2%—except for young adult novels, which have declined. As I’ve argued previously, algorithms in general are starting to collapse. The nerd world is dying. And since the nerds gravitate towards homogeneity and popularity, their extinction will be total. Soon, very soon, every single one of them will be dead.
What hapens next? Maybe our post-nerd future will involve a return to genuine mass art. Maybe things will be good again. That would be nice! But I wouldn’t bet on it. The problem remains: we are still producing an unbearable volume of information; we still need some way to sort through it. The regime of the hipster was an inefficient way of sorting it; it died. The regime of the nerd was an overefficient way of sorting it; it is dying. The last remaining option is mal d’archive, the Kang solution: you ease the weight of all this cultural stuff by simply destroying it all. Like nerdery, this impulse has been waiting in the wings for a long time. It is also an emergent property of large stores of information, this drive ‘to burn the archive and to incite amnesia, the thing refuting the economic principle of the archive, aiming to ruin the archive as accumulation and capitalisation of memory.’ What comes after the nerds might be a descent into pure and infinite barbarism. We might finally become humans without any culture at all, not adorning our bodies, not singing songs, but fixed in terror by an endless stream of data that we spend our lives desperately trying to scrub away. We might remember the age of algorithmised junk-culture, faintly, as the last time we were not in a losing war against the records of our own words and deeds. In the end, we might regret the passing of the nerds. We might want them to come back.
Some more important qualities of nerd culture, or the culture without qualities, the form mass culture takes when its paradigmatic consumer is the nerd. Obviously it must always come in franchises: big blocs of pre-sorted information. Each bloc demands to be swallowed whole. You can’t pick out one or two pieces; you have to watch five hundred hours of cinematic universe, and read the tie-in novels, and buy the toys, and wear the hat. You are not someone who consumes entertainment media; you are a fan, like a fan of a sports team: loyal for life. You do not make demands of this material; it makes demands of you. The sensory pleasure of art is de-emphasised. But maybe the most characteristic feature of nerd culture is its total lack of irony. Nerd culture might sometimes gesture at self-reference, but it’s always actually deadly serious. Its camp value is nil. It can not be played with, or queered, or enjoyed against the grain. Its surface is impenetrable and perfectly smooth.