Last week I had the pleasure of attending my first Nerd Nite. If you’ve never heard of it, they’re an organization with branches in dozens of cities around the globe with a simple program. They take over a bar one night a month and have smart people give short talks. This month’s topics included an innovative ice-cream maker discussing her methods and launch of a thriving business, some San Francisco historians discussing an early-20th-century suburb made of abandoned trolley cars, and a biological engineer talking about antibody synthesis. They talk for about 20 minutes, leaving time in between to head back for a refill, and that’s about it.
And I think it’s totally genius. Here’s why:
Learning new things is fun. Smart people are interested in all kinds of things, and it’s too easy to get trapped in your same old circles in terms of new information (look up ‘filter bubble’ if you don’t know what I’m talking about. This is one of my favorite topics to think about right now). If you go out once a month with your coworkers or friends, you end up hearing about the same kinds of things. This is guaranteed variety. Plus, it’s low-impact (short talks) and high-enjoyment (you’re in a bar, not a classroom). So it’s not the commitment and stress of continuing education or the doldrums of a company self-improvement workshop. The format makes it easy to pay attention and get something unexpected and fascinating out of any given night.
Conversation topics provided. As may be well known from spending time with me ever (or following my Twitter), I like few things more than a pint with friends, but sometimes conversation runs dry and you end up talking about the same old things as always. How’s work? What TV shows are you watching right now? The weather — my god, the weather. Here, you have something novel introduced as part of the night out that immediately sets you off. In fact, my second-biggest disappointment of the night was the fact that my friends were ready to head out right after the talks ended. A wasted opportunity to soak in and chew on the weird and mind-expanding things we just heard which could have probably kept us going late into the night.
The best ‘scene’ in any bar. My biggest disappointment though was not taking better advantage of the very full audience to meet some new people. Here we have the most finely self-selected crowd at probably any bar in the entire city. How can that room not have been filled with some of the smartest, most interesting people I’m likely to meet? Again, not filtered the way an industry networking event or interest-based meetup would be, but centered around a more diverse but equally sharp point of similarity — the desire to keep learning. And, well, also drinking.
I won’t pretend every second of the night was a wild success. They could stand a slightly bigger venue as it was almost uncomfortably full. The third talk was a bit dry (and admittedly a bit over my head). But in terms of concept and value, I’m extremely impressed and satisfied. See you there next month maybe?
An intriguing passage from a terrific essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education…
What’s not asked in the review and the interview and the profile is whether a King book is worth writing or worth reading. It seems that no one anymore has the wherewithal to say that reading a King novel is a major waste of time. No chance. If people want to read it, if they get pleasure from it, then it must be good. What other standard is there?
Media no longer seek to shape taste. They do not try to educate the public. And this is so in part because no one seems to know what literary and cultural education would consist of. What does make a book great, anyway? And the media have another reason for not trying to shape taste: It pisses off the readers. They feel insulted, condescended to; they feel dumb. And no one will pay you for making him feel dumb. Public entertainment generally works in just the opposite way—by making the consumer feel like a genius. Even the most august publications and broadcasts no longer attempt to shape taste. They merely seek to reflect it. They hold the cultural mirror up to the reader—what the reader likes, the writer and the editor like. They hold the mirror up and the reader and—what else can he do?—the reader falls in love. The common reader today is someone who has fallen in love, with himself.
Narcissus looks into the book review and finds it good. Narcissus peers into Amazon’s top 100 and, lo, he feels the love. Nothing insults him; nothing pulls him away from that gorgeous smooth watery image below. The editor sells it to him cheap; the professor who might—coming on like the Miltonic voice does to Eve gazing lovingly on herself in the pool: “What thou seest / What there thou seest … is thyself,” it says—the professor has other things to do.
…which brings up a point I sometimes wonder about. Today’s best mathematicians and programmers spend entire careers perfecting algorithms to define our tastes based on past choices. Amazon, Netflix, and increasingly even places like Google and Facebook try their darnedest to figure out what we like, so they can find more of it to feed back to us. The social-sphere makes it so we only ever see and hear things we like from sources an awful lot like us.
Are we maybe losing out on a huge opportunity to grow by shutting ourselves into a predictive model of experience? Who will make the opposing model, that doesn’t load you up with similar stimulus to what you’ve had, but seeks to help fill in the gaps you’ve never explored? Where is the model that challenges us by offering: “You seem to listen exclusively to music influenced by 90’s alt-rock… maybe try a neo-classical cellist for once?” (may I personally recommend Julia Kent, a recent discovery whose album Delay got its hooks in me to a surprising degree).
As everyone races to prove they know what you like based on where you’ve been, there could be a huge opportunity for the person or company who arrives to help you learn based on where you haven’t.