It started in 1983 with WarGames. By 1984, Revenge of the Nerds and The Last Starfighter confirmed it. By the summer of 1985, it was undeniable: Real Genius, Weird Science, My Science Project, Explorers—hell, even the highest-grossing movie of the year was about a kid who hung around a lab-coat-wearing professor who was building something called a “flux capacitor.” Nerds were in.
I was 11 years old that summer, and the flood of tech-themed movies hitting theaters was almost as good as playing “Beyond Castle Wolfenstein” on my Apple IIc. Almost. We might not have known it 30 years ago, but the nation witnessed a cultural shift that summer. All of a sudden, knowing about technology, programming, and data wasn’t something to relegate you to the bleachers during the sixth-grade dance. (Not that something like that ever happened to me—no sir.) No, by 1985, knowing those things was a source of power, of heroism.
In retrospect, it makes sense. The country was somewhere between waist- and neck-deep in the PC revolution. In 1980, 1.4 million PCs were in use. By 1985—two years after Time magazine had made the PC the “Machine of the Year”—that number had grown 13-fold, to 19 million.
Another thing the country was waist-deep in was an economic funk that started in the 1970s and continued through a double-dip recession from 1980 to 1982. A postwar economy built on manufacturing was, 40 years later, painfully slowing down. There was a fear that “we would be a nation of burger-flippers on a long slide toward immiseration,” says Silicon Valley kingpin Marc Andreessen, a direct descendant of these primordial nerds. Cue Billy Joel’s Allentown.
Out of this industrial darkness shone a bright, blinking, LED light. A bunch of college dropouts on the West Coast had started creating new empires built on code. At the time, IBM was already galactically big: Its market cap in 1985 meant the company accounted for 6.4 percent of the S&P 500, a degree of dominance no company has ever beat. Now Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs were opening up entire new territories with their products—and earning enough money to make Pablo Escobar blush.
Ellison’s Oracle and Gates’s Microsoft would join Sun Microsystems, Adobe, and Silicon Graphics to become part of the legendary IPO class of 1986. Gates would see his net worth skyrocket $350 million dollars on the first day of Microsoft’s offering. Business publications (like this one), which had previously deified silver-haired Groton alumni who likely stuffed guys like Gates into lockers, ditched varsity lacrosse for the computer club.
That a possible way out of our malaise should occur in the computer labs along the Pacific coast was fitting, since the other contributor to our economic anxiety lay across that ocean in Japan. “The spirit in the country, at least as I experienced it,” Andreessen told me, “was ‘we're all doomed and Japan is taking over.’” What really rattled our cages was Japan’s new, technophilic game. From the Sony Walkman, to Panasonic TVs, to Casio watches, we were getting our clocks cleaned by an entire nation that seemed way more comfortable with—even enthusiastic about—technology than we were.
So American pop culture did what it does best when encountering something unfamiliar: We stereotyped them into racist caricatures. Remember Long Duk Dong in 1983’s Sixteen Candles? He was supposed to be Chinese, but racism doesn’t discriminate too carefully. Perhaps you recall a gadget-laden kid in 1985’s Goonies actually went by the name Data? And last but not least,that pioneering work of cross-cultural studies, 1986’s Gung Ho, co-starred the same guy who played Long Duk Dong.
The interesting thing wasn’t just that we were racially insensitive—we’ve been doing that for centuries—but how we were racially insensitive. A group of people who were portrayed as being socially awkward, rigidly rational, and really good with technology? Sounds familiar. “The stereotypes being used against Asian people were, in many ways, the same as what were being leveled against nerds,” says Ben Nugent, author of the book American Nerd: The Story of My People. In this particular moment, it seems, America needed to champion our nerds so they would bring the heat to those nerds across the ocean.
What made 1985 so important isn’t just the number of movies that came out celebrating technology and the people who used it, but how differently those people were portrayed. You have to go back only one year earlier, to 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, to see the old-fashioned stereotypes on parade. But a year later, with Real Genius, things changed. Michelle Meyrink has the distinction of having co-starred in both movies. “Revenge of the Nerds completely played up that stereotype,” she says, “but Real Genius had Val Kilmer, and Val Kilmer’s cool.”
You can’t really underestimate how big a deal this was. Val Kilmer is cool. He’s also irreverent, charming, and in 1985, matinee-idol good looking. Kilmer’s portrayal of Pacific Tech senior Chris Knight is a game changer: no longer are “good with computers” and “has had sex” mutually exclusive.
Think about what this meant to kids that summer. Think about some specific kids: Larry Page is 12 years old; Marissa Meyer is 10; Andreessen’s 14. Today’s leaders in and around Silicon Valley were hitting these movies at just the right age. “Seeing Real Genius was certainly transformative for me at the time,” Andreessen says. “That film had a huge impact and is still the best of its kind.”
Any number of factors made the computer necessary. With the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984—it was the computer “for the rest of us,” remember?—Steve Jobs made them more usable. But 1985 is the first year when they started to become cool. Being a good programmer or a good engineer doesn’t put you on the periphery anymore; it puts you at the center. Those teenagers seeing Real Genius and other movies go on to become one-name famous: Larry & Sergey; Marissa; Biz & Ev; eventually, Zuck. ExxonMobil is one of the biggest companies in the world and has been forever—can you name its CEO?
Since 1985 computers have gone from being usable to indispensable. A decade after Real Genius, the Internet and mobile tech put a connected computer in every pocket. We now own several computers, and we interact with them constantly. And that means we’ve changed as well. It’s now a given that we know about e-mail, file-sharing services, streaming video, and GPS. An Apple unveiling rivals major sporting events. A college grad’s dream is no longer an executive-training program or a white-shoe law firm, but a software startup in the Valley.
Thirty years later and a funny thing has happened: We’re all nerds now.
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