The geek shall inherit the boardroom
Inventor Tom Pellereau’s victory in The Apprentice is the latest triumph for nerdiness over old-school masculinity.
When a TV columnist starts trying to draw parallels between popular reality shows and the Bible, perhaps it’s time to start questioning said reviewer’s sanity. But Lord Alan Sugar’s selection of a new apprentice in the latest instalment of the supposedly ruthless boardroom talent show The Apprentice really brought to mind the prediction that the ‘meek shall inherit the Earth’. Only in this case it’s a nerd that shall inherit the Lord’s assets.
‘Nice guys can win too’, screamed the Independent in celebration of inventor Tom Pellereau’s surprise Apprentice victory. After a few solid weeks of triumphalism across Fleet Street over the demise of the evil comic News of the World, it was at least reassuring to see a broadsheet cling so fiercely to rhetoric which belongs firmly in the category Lies Grown-Ups Tell To Children.
Still, Pellereau’s moment seemed symbolic, as all of Lord Sugar’s choices seem to try to be. Last year it was plucky working-class-girl-done-good Stella wot won it, and the year before… Well, they all fade so quickly from memory, don’t they? I think one year they nearly gave it to a badger, although we still haven’t managed to cull those bastards.
Anyway, Lord Sugar probably felt like he had a point to prove after dismissing an earlier contestant on the basis that he’d ‘never come across an engineer who can turn his hand to business’. As some wags noted at the time, it was hardly a surprise that a man who made his fortune flogging the not-lamented Amstrad computers didn’t have much patience for R&D or innovation. Still, the inventive, if surprising, win in this season’s The Apprentice on BBC1 tied in nicely with the celebration of UK innovation and high-end manufacturing on, er, BBC2’s Made In Britain series. Next year, they’ll just go the whole hog and give the victory to Matt Smith’s The Doctor.
The rise of the geek in popular culture in general is certainly a by-product of the rise of the so-called ‘knowledge economy’, itself propped up by the mathematical wizardry of late finance capitalism. As Adam Kotsko argued in his recent book Awkwardness, the ‘geek’ is a totem (yes, it’s that kind of book) for the over-educated but understimulated white-collar male at a time when typically ‘male’ virtues of physical strength and overt sexuality are derided in favour of ‘feminine’ virtues of empathy and feelings and stuff.
That these distinctions are, of course, largely arbitrary and frequently incoherently enforced in the social sphere adds up to Kotsko’s thesis that ours is an ‘age of awkwardness’, where the old structures and certainties of social life have been eroded but replaced with informal prescriptions of behaviour. Kotsko holds up the US show Curb Your Enthusiasm as the perfect comedy of an awkward age, observing that Larry David’s sociopath tendencies are the most extreme when he’s breaking unspoken social codes which nobody can defend or explain when challenged.
Likewise, he observes, much of the humour from The Office stems from a breakdown in the old hierarchies and a confusion over traditional roles. In the contemporary, de-unionised workplace of a struggling Western economy your boss wants to be your best mate and counsellor while being able and willing to fire you at a moment’s notice.
Although Kotsko occasionally lapses into the crude Marxism of the bona fide cultural theorist, it is certainly difficult to avoid his implication that if this is truly an era of informal, and formal, strictures over personal behaviour, then we are all geeks now, to some extent. The current hipster trend for ‘geek chic’ certainly speaks to this alienated and confused impulse across youth circles. Yet we should be wary of embracing this impulse as some kind of subversive gesture, as Kotsko implies. ‘Irony is the enemy of serious thought’, Rilke once warned – and he didn’t even need to live through an era where wearing oversized geek glasses without any frames was hip.
It seems almost tragic that the qualities of geekiness are celebrated at precisely the time when being a real geek – intellectually driven, insatiably curious and focused to the exclusion of other aspects of your life – is largely problematised.
None of which tells us much about Pellereau’s chances of success in business. Much of his niceness and geekiness generally seemed to stem from the fact that he was a fairly regular and shy guy participating in a TV format which normally celebrates extrovert show-offs. Generally most Apprentice winners seem to be the middle-of-the-road and the ruthless boardroom backstabbers.
Certainly we heard very little about Pellereau’s famed inventions or plans for a serious R&D strategy to revolutionise Lord Sugar’s business. When we start hearing more about that from the business world, we’ll know something revolutionary might be happening. But, for the moment, having geeks in the boardroom doesn’t seem to be much of a rapturous shift.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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