Beware the nerd

You might as well pour whisky into a computer

The concept of the nerd, introduced to denote a particular screen-fixated, software-crunching, emotionally retarded product of the knowledge economy, is of wider application than we typically think. A colleague recently referred to the "philosopher nerds" who come off the academic production line in English and American philosophy departments. It occurred to me that there are nerds in almost every sphere of human endeavour - even poetry nerds and religious nerds, able to block with their monomaniac chatter two of the most important avenues to the higher life.

The drink nerd is an especially interesting case. He (though it may be a she) is not so much an expert in vintages and terroirs as a master of the digestive tract. He will tell you of the intestinal after-effects of island malts, as compared with malts from the Highlands; he will give detailed accounts of his attempts to digest or regurgitate the beers of Scandinavia or the brandies of Spain. He will distinguish the Pinot Noir from the Cabernet Franc by their contrasting diuretic effects, and give a long emotionless discourse on the amount to drink at lunchtime, and the best way to breathe into a breathalyser.

The mark of the nerd in every sphere is the attempt to see all problems as technical, and all people as imperfectly constructed machines. Those aspects of drink which speak to the emotions, which call to us from imaginative or spiritual regions, make no mark on the nerd's perceptions. He is just as likely as the rest of us to drink more than he should, to become voluble and incoherent in his cups, and even, from time to time, to display shadows of erotic sentiment in a face otherwise brightly illuminated from behind. It's just that none of it means anything. Talk about the place of whisky in the culture of Scotland, and he will respond with an account of the hangover he had when last in Edinburgh. Evoke the valleys of Madiran, and the pilgrimage to St James of Compostela, and he will respond with a manual on the Tannat grape.

You might as well be pouring whisky into a computer as into the mouth of a nerd. Drunk or sober, cheerful or intense, he is incapable of noticing you. A kind of learned autism governs his discourse, and even if he addresses you with the intense technicalities which are his nearest approach to feeling, punching his words into your eyes as though typing on a keyboard, it is not really you whom he is addressing. He is accessing your software, and wondering for the thousandth time how such a design fault could have arisen, which allows expert code to be programmed into mortal flesh. His expertise in aromas and palates, noses and fruits, will be displayed on his face like a web-page. But however long you stare at it, you will never know what it means.

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