Last week found tech titan Peter Thiel complaining about the depiction of technology in popular culture, arguing that movies with the message that “technology is going to kill you,” were slowing down interest in tech jobs, the tech industry, and the skills necessary to achieve in both. Yesterday, it was Sen. Jay Rockefeller who, during a hearing on immigration reform, suggested that what the United States needs to get back on top in the new economy is pop culture. “If, and I’m just positing, that if we lift the whole subject of sophisticated education, STEM, to a very much more visible level,” he mused. “We didn’t have TV programs called Law & Order, we had TV programs called Science and Engineering and Math and Technology, that’s a stretch, I think it really comes down to some of those human factors. What is it that holds us back?”
The witness to whom Rockefeller was speaking, Jeffrey Bussgang, who has the kind of amazing title of senior lecturer in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at the Harvard Business School, gave an answer that both endorsed Rockefeller’s suggestion that pop culture is a powerful tool to get audiences interested in science, and that underscored how strange both Thiel and Rockefeller’s suggestions are. “Being a geek,” Bussgang said, “is more cool than it’s ever been.”
As I wrote when Thiel first filed his grievance, he has a point in the long term. There are an awful lot of post-apocalypses happening on movie screens because our stewardship of technology has failed in some way, whether through our lax management of technology, or because we wanted too much from it. But nerds are everywhere in popular culture right now, and as they’ve moved to the center of the screen from their peripheral roles as supporting characters, they’ve come to be presented as aspirational figures, not just professionally.