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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Savant so good

When you look at a DVD collection as extensive as my own, you can’t help but notice patterns and trends here and there. For example, you’ll notice that my comic book movie section (yes, I categorize my movies by genre, and yes I have enough movies based on comic books to make a whole subgenre) has a whole lot of Incredible Hulk movies. You’ll also notice that I like Star Trek enough to own the complete series of TOS, TNG, DS9, all six original series movies, and all four Next Generation movies, but not enough to own Voyager or Enterprise on DVD.

Just because I’m a rabid Star Trek geek doesn’t mean I lack standards, for goodness sake.

If you turn your attention to my TV on DVD collection, you’ll notice another trend: I have a thing for savants. Especially dysfunctional savants. Monk, The Pretender, House, Nero Wolfe, Due South—my DVD collection is loaded up with people who have borderline superpowers when it comes to perception and intelligence. But that superpower never comes without a price, and that’s where the dysfunctional part comes in.

Adrian Monk is nearly crippled by OCD. Gregory House is literally crippled, as well as emotionally detached from everyone. Nero Wolfe is a voluntary agoraphobe. Jarod is trying to recapture a stolen childhood, and Constable Benton Frasier is Canadian.

The protagonists of these shows are virtually incapable of functioning in normal society. So they function abnormally, and society has to deal with them. Some make it easy on society, like Constable Frasier. Others make it harder, like Gregory House. The unifying theme is that they’re so good at what they do that society bends around them.

This is, I think, power fantasy for nerds and geeks alike. When a person usually thinks of power fantasies, they look at anime like DragonBall Z, in which steroid-addled monkey-men turn bright yellow and kill everything in a three mile radius except the one thing they were trying to kill in the first place. But power fantasies are not the exclusive domain of pre-teen boys without strong father figures. They’re for everybody, but everyone’s is different.

Nerds and geeks share at least one thing in common, and that’s practicality. Sure, it would be nice to be able to throw planet-destroying fireballs that fail to kill your enemies, but honestly how much would you be able to use such a skill in a given week? On the other hand, you can be smart all day long. So when you speak of geek/nerd power fantasies, you have to think of Henry Kissinger and remember that Knowledge is Power. That’s why heroes like Jarod appeal to us. He’s like a superhero, but his power is that he reads really fast. If that were the power granted to an X-man, Stan Lee himself would appear in his introductory issue (Ultimate X-Men #426: Enter THE READER!) to kill him on the splash page, because it’s really lame to draw someone who’s good at studying.

If you’re a geek or a nerd, your supreme career goal is to be so good at your job that you don’t have to be pretend to like your coworkers. Admit it. That’s why so many of you go into IT. You’re already good at it, and everyone else stinks at it. You don’t have to be nice to that idiot who disabled the firewall so he could send an executable file to himself and left the door open for the server to get crashed by a DNS worm.

Look at him, sitting there. He doesn’t even know what he did wrong.


So we really get into characters like Dr. House, who never met a person he couldn’t insult, or Nero Wolfe, who can berate high ranking public officials for interrupting him while he tends his orchids. These are men who are so good at what they do that they get to make up their own rules.

The most interesting part is that the thing that makes each of these geek heroes a social misfit is the very thing that makes them effective. That’s something that is never explicitly acknowledged by the writers, and is frequently misunderstood by the other characters inhabiting their worlds.

House’s coworkers are constantly haranguing him to be nicer, to be more humane, more normal. The thing they don’t realize is the thing that makes House is so insufferable is also what makes him so effective. If he were to become more like Wilson or, heaven forbid, Cameron then he would cease to be House, and he wouldn’t be able to separate himself from his patients enough to make the kinds of decisions that save their lives. It’s a game for him because he couldn’t win if it weren’t.

Likewise with Nero Wolfe. He never leaves his house, or at least very rarely, and when he does he makes a point of making sure everything is as he wants it. Why is that? Because his brain is a precision machine working at a very high speed. A little friction and the thought process flies apart.

And consider Monk, who is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. He catches criminals that nobody else could catch because he is so anal retentive that little, niggling details that nobody else even sees stand out to him like seven foot tall talking bananas would stand out if ever such a horrifying thing existed.

So getting back to our IT professionals, the thing that makes them socially awkward is the very thing that makes them good at their jobs: If they had friends they wouldn’t be so good at fixing computers.

By the way, I don’t mean to pick on IT guys. I’m just trying to pick a real world example that jibes best with this superhero-by-way-of-knowledge motif that I’m discussing. And make no mistake about it: The kinds of things IT guys do strike awe into the hearts of people who are paying attention. It’s just that not enough people pay attention, and a whole generation of people have grown up not having to know what “10 HOME” means because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have turned computers into something that any nitwit with a few hundred dollars can use.

At least, they can use it until their first BSOD, at which point they probably buy a new computer.