Acclaimed horror author Stephen King once wrote, “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.” If you’re in a certain age group, and you’ve witnessed the last few decades of the evolution of everything geeky and nerdy, then you know that what King wrote is most certainly true.
For all the talk about the latest technologies and the exciting changes that social networks bought to the world, it may surprise some of our younger readers to know that many of these technologies were around as far back as the 1980s.
They were around, but they weren’t so cool. In fact, the people who were actively participating in them were considered “nerds”, and back then, being a nerd wasn’t considered a good thing.
Using a Computer
In the 1970s and 1980s, computers were fringe. People who knew how to use them were considered in par with scientists and academics. The earliest computers filled an entire room, they were noisy, and they took a lot of manual effort to operate.
At least in the early 1970s, when the floppy disk drive entered into the arena, the personal computer became a real possibility for regular geeks around the world to own and play with at home.
Movies like War Games in 1983 and Weird Science in 1985 were manifestations of the sort of dreams every young computer aficionado had, but even in the 1980s those young afictionados were still social pariahs. They were teased relentlessly in school. They were portrayed throughout the media as socially stunted weirdos wearing thick-rimmed glasses with tape fastened to the bridge.
The word “nerd” was a stinging insult. These kids, for the most part, only found solace in the clickety-clack of the mechanical keyboard and the soft, green glow of the monochrome monitor. Computer nerds were a minority, and they were outcasts.
Fast forward over two decades, and the term “nerd” is one of the highest compliments you could dish out to someone. Musclehead jocks and popular cheerleaders in high schools now don thick-rimmed black glasses and wear t-shirts professing their love of all things “nerd”. These days, everyone’s a computer expert. Or at least, they think they are.
Because, hey, now it’s cool to be a computer nerd.
Making Let’s Play Videos
I recall back in 1988, a friend of mine figured out how to hook up his VCR, his stereo, and his Nintendo console to his television set. This task wasn’t quite as easy back then as it is today. All you had to work with was this silly TV/COMPUTER adapter, a collection of splitters, and TV audio connections (if you were lucky).
After piecing this system together through a tangle of wires and adapters, he managed to record himself playing Mario Bros for half an hour onto a VHS video cassette, complete with a background soundtrack of Metallica’s Enter Sandman.
He lent me the tape for a weekend, and I have to say that at first I was very amused that my friend would go through so much trouble to create something so absurd, and I was confused why anyone would ever want to do such a silly thing. What a nerd.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and now you have an entire community of popular “Let’s Play” gaming enthusiasts and streamers who record themselves playing video games (or streaming it live) to audiences of thousands.
My friend was apparently ahead of his time.
While wearable electronics are now all the fad, the nerds of the 1980s had already capitalized on the whole “wearable electronics” concept.
In fact, wearing a calculator on your wrist was a signature of being the ultimate nerd in the 1980s. Even though those watches were around since the 1970s under brands like Pulsar and Hewlett Packard, it wasn’t until the 1980s when calculator watches came in vogue among the young nerd crowd.
At that time, the watch to wear that would identify you as the king of the nerds was Casio’s Databank calculator watch.
Of course, back in the 1980s, being king of the nerds was not exactly a good thing. In fact, it got you targeted by bullies and jocks throughout middle school and high school.
Fast forward to 2015, and things like Android wear are all the rage. Now, it’s no longer a “nerd” watch, it’s a “smart” watch.
Everyone’s wearing them. Everyone wants Google Glass, or some cool alternative heads-up display for humans. Everyone needs a Fit Bit tracking their health habits. Suddenly, wearing electronics is the coolest thing in the world, and everyone forgets that it’s the nerds who thought of it first.
Today, people are instant messaging just about everywhere you look. In the supermarket with their iPhones and Android, at work via Corporate solutions like Microsoft Lync, or from home with the countless IM services and web platforms scattered around the net. Of course, instant messaging wasn’t always this widespread, or even very popular.
Chatting via computer systems was really an activity that was born in 1988 when Jarkko Oikarinen wrote the world’s first IRC client-server software at the University of Oulu in Finland. It was ultimately meant to be a realtime extension of the existing UseNet academic bulletin board forum-style system.
By July of 1990, there were about 40 of these servers across the world, with only about 12 users using it at a time on average. However, that IRC code would form the basis of all future IRC networks like Anarchy net, Eris Free Network (EFnet), TubNet, Undernet, Dalnet and IRCnet.
By the mid 1990s, around the time when I was at the University, there were thousands of users on these networks, all across the world. Dormitories had dedicated computer terminals in a small room, where nerdy students could connect into the mainframe and log into IRCnet to chat.
On a typical Friday night, when all the rest of the college kids were off partying in some frat house and getting drunk, the nerds on campus were all gathered at these computer clusters, snacks and drinks scattered all around, chatting with other nerds at other Universities all across the world.
Today, you aren’t considered a nerd for hanging out in a computer cluster on a Friday night, or hanging out with friends at the local college dive, everyone chatting with everyone else on their smartphones. It isn’t even really anything unique these days – chatting or “IMing” with family and friends is just what everyone does, all the time. But keep in mind the next time you sit down to Skype or have a Google Hangout with someone, that those nerds who were teased relentlessly were actually way ahead of their time.
Were you around during the days of Casio calculator watches and IRC chats? Were you into geeky things before being geeky became cool? Let’s reminisce together in the comments section below!
Source: History of IRC via Daniel Stenberg
Images: @ablekay47 via Flickr, CC BY-SA 3.0, Maridav via Shutterstock, Goodluz via Shutterstock, Everett Collection via Shutterstock, rangizzz via Shutterstock