Today's topic, one of immense magnitude and of personal significance to us all, shall be Coolness.
Note, my berobed friends sitting in the summer heat, I don't mean cool as in, "Man, remember when it was cool for that week in April? That was nice." I mean that particular brand of cool which, perhaps, many of us find alienating and hostile. The kind that, maybe, got us beaten up in high school and left us poetic-emo-goth-loners, like Peter Parker abusing Venom. After all, when folks outside think of us here @mit.edu, they don't usually think Cool.
The obvious reason for this, of course, is that we're nerds. I say this with love and affection, but also an eye toward reality. After all, society has a word for people who are incredibly smart, who work much harder than they need to, and who are good with computers, and that word is "nerds." And while I enjoy raunchy comedies involving us and revenge as much as the next guy, I think it might be worthwhile to remember just what Cool is, and why it might even matter.
Now, I say this under something of a handicap, since my biggest outlet to Cool has been shut off to me for a few weeks. You see, there are three cable channels I consider the holy trinity of Cool: MTV, VH1, and E!. At first I referred to them merely as the holy trinity of Pop Culture, but then I realized that, instead of merely presenting to us what's hip and new (or, what the big corporations tell us is hip and new (and thus is)), these channels, taken together, help educate the masses in the means of Coolness.
MTV keeps you up to date on the latest "kid news," i.e. that which your 15 year old brother thinks is obvious but your parents have no idea about. Do not underestimate the value of such information in today's society, however stupid it is (Avril Lavigne, I'm looking at you). VH1, with its myriad Top 100 moments and "I love the decade" shows, not to mention actually showing music videos every night, works to inform you of what everyone else in the country knows, or at least should know, about the entertainment industry; that is to say, it gives you a way to start up, or keep going, almost any conversation with any (non-nerdy) American, ever. Finally, E! works to keep you ahead of the game, with its mildly investigative shows and random pop culture roundups, giving you the edge over most of our peers, who just watch MTV and maybe VH1.
Like I said, though, I've been living without these for just over a month now, ever since I discovered that I was, in fact, stealing my cable TV from my landlords (that sounds like it'd be a good story, but it's really not). At first I thought the biggest hurdle would be giving up my Daily Show/Colbert Report addiction, which was indeed quite hard, though I find the internet helps. But, as time went on, I find myself wishing I knew just what the heck Hollywood was up to, what Jessica Simpson was doing these days, or who's starring in the Transformers movie. Understandably, perhaps, these desires met with frustration and confusion at the 'tvte. My own fiancee, a grad and PhD student (and thus typical — but very hot — nerd) told me, "Bill, what do you care about that stuff? What difference does it make to you?"
I was unsure how to proceed, except of course to tell my fiancee she was right and offer to take her out to dinner. You don't become a fiancee for nothing, after all. But, why does being cool matter? What difference did it make to my life if I knew that, say, Sarah Silverman made Paris Hilton cry? On the face of it, very little. Nobody else around here knew that either, for the most part. So what indeed?
Ah, but here we find ourselves today, many of us anyway, wearing black and getting ready to turn our beavers around. Some of us are moving away from academia, some are moving away from MIT, and most, I think, are moving away from the MIT campus. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, the time has come to speak of many things, of songs and thongs and movie flix, and whether Brit's got rings. We will soon be out and about in a world that, sadly, doesn't care about calculus, or C++ or, um, mechanical engineering. All too often, it's a world that cares about Pop Culture, and being Cool.
And so we come back to the idea of Coolness. In my humble opinion, it's not that hard to achieve, at least functionally. Sure, a flashy car and nice sunglasses and a sculpted body make you totally cool automatically, but just being able to talk to most people about something is pretty neat too. We've already got the sciences and, thanks to our copious HASS requirements (thank goodness), the arts covered. We know a lot about a lot of stuff, but there's always more we could stand to learn, and how to generally fit in and understand the gist of most casual conversations is pretty useful, not to mention kinda cool.
Not as cool as a fan might be right around now, but still pretty cool.