Living in the age of information, it’s become incredibly simple to find, well, information. But what about processing it? You needn’t look further than things like the resurgence of white nationalism and homophobia to see that while we’re finding information, we aren’t processing it. We’re scrolling, but we aren’t learning.
Thankfully an international organising endearingly dubbed Nerd Nite is doing its part to resolve this distinction. Operating in more than 90 cities, Nerd Nite is a monthly evening of ideas and discussion for the layman. Broad, sweeping issues hacked away at by likeminded people. The Sydney brand of Nerd Nite is especially intimate, going down at an inner-west pub allowing those in attendants to listen, process and question several topics, all the while with a beer in hand.
From marriage equality to technology to sex to insects, Nerd Nite covers it all with the help of speakers from academic and professional backgrounds. Of course, the events wouldn’t be what they were without a hefty amount of crowd participation.
We caught up with Nerd Nite’s person on the ground in Sydney, Miriam Capper, to learn more about the event, and what she has up her sleeve for the coming months.
The Neversphere: To start things off, how did you first become involved with Nerd Nite?
Miriam: My first brush with Nerd Nite was to witness my honours supervisor talk about aggression and make countless Star Wars references. I figured it’d be so much more entertaining when we were both a few drinks in (correct) and after that, I was hooked. A couple of years later I took the reins after the Fabulous Jessica Grisham had her run and here we are!
The Neversphere: Nerd Nite offers us a peek behind the curtain of some of society’s most pressing issues. What are some of the topics that Nerd Nite has addressed in the past?
Miriam: We’ve had some pretty pressing topics discussed from Marriage Equality (from none other than Tiernan Brady, the campaigner behind Ireland’s YES change) to laws around climate change (shout out to Tim Stephens). We’ve also peeked into some weird and wonderful topics including training human males to breastfeed, the genetics of rare abilities, sperm functionality, the truth behind the insanity plea, and the science of invisibility.
The Neversphere: What has been a stand out moment for you during your time with Nerd Nite?
Miriam: We believe that anyone can be a nerd about anything – we have people from hardcore gamers to international industry leaders so I have plenty of favourites to pick from. A real stand out for me was former president of the British Psychological Society Prof. Peter Kinderman. He got people so excited and angry and curious about his ideas for radical change in how we think about mental health.
He spoke about how we keep diagnosing mental health issues as though they’re diseases where he suggests they’re a natural part of living (i.e. of course someone who married the wrong person and didn’t follow their dreams is depressed). He suggests moving away from this model of disease, medication, and labelling (because who wants to be with or work for someone who’s psychotic or depressed*) and instead understanding symptoms as normal products of how we perceive and respond to the world. The talk really affected everyone in the pub that night and made me really think about how we interpret the world around us.
He also gave this talk at the podium where Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address. They probably didn’t have be there though.
The Neversphere: What sort of audiences do you see at Nerd Nite? Does it change per topic, or does Nerd Nite Sydney now have its own legion of followers?
Miriam: We have a solid nerd following but we also get people who are introduced to the night because of specific speakers, they generally get swept up in the fun and come back for more.
The Neversphere: Having experienced Nerd Nite first hand, there’s so much interaction with the crowd from the speakers. How important is audience interaction for Nerd Nite?
Miriam: It is of utmost importance Mike. Heckling is highly encouraged. We can all listen to talks on TED or podcasts and drink beer in the comfort of our own home so being able to ask questions and join in is not only more enjoyable but helps cement the learning. None of our speakers are safe, the most exciting times are when the audience disagrees with the speaker and we have lively debate.
The talks themselves are also often interactive. We’ve had spiders for audience members to play with, virtual reality goggles from a psychologist’s exposure therapy, and an array of flavoured condoms gifted by a sex doctor (this was more of a take-home task than interaction at NN…as far as I’m aware).
The Neversphere: Given that it’s an international community, with events happening the world over, is there ever any collaboration between the events?
Miriam: That’s right we’re in 90 cities across the globe…an underground network of nerds. The events are independent – though the Nerd Boss’s share ideas online and have a yearly international get together. Some Nites are mostly post-grad talks seeing if their ideas hold up to honest drunk scrutiny, others, like New York, are huge events in auditoriums where people have to pitch their ideas to get onto the waiting list to speak.
As most Nerd Nite’s are in the US they collaborate with the Smithsonian to have a big yearly international Nerd Nite Fest. It would be great to get the Australian NN’s together for a big festival… Thanks for the idea Mike!
The Neversphere: What are some of the topics you’re keen to address with Nerd Nites to come?
Miriam: I’m an obsessive podcast fan. I’d love to get some podcast producers in to talk about their topics and how they go about making their information so sharable and exciting. I’m also really intrigued by the idea of micro-dosing on LSD and mushrooms, and the politics around which drugs are given legal status (intrigue thanks to ‘On Drugs’ podcast). I’m currently on the hunt for researchers in this area so we can have a big drug fest in the pub.
The Neversphere: Your home of Friend In Hand makes for an almost living room-eqsue energy at the events. Do you find that hosting the events in a pub creates a more open and honest atmosphere? (a la Pub Politics)
Miriam: Definitely. I find that people feel much more free to ask questions when outside of the traditional lecture theatre environment. Also, speakers know they can relax, swear, joke, and don’t need to uphold a holier-than-thou pretence about their professional demeanour. It’s more about a community sharing ideas and talking openly about their research and experience than an ‘I talk, you listen’ environment.
The Neversphere: What does the future hold for Nerd Nite Sydney in terms of growth and presence in society?
Miriam: Right now our audience is generally postgrads and young professionals. I want to get a broader audience involved, this shit is exciting and I want everyone to be able to experience these monthly mind explosions and make it accessible to any Tom, Dick, or Harriet. One of the ways I want to do that is by adding more comedians and weird nerdy acts to the event to get people in so they can see that we’re not just a bunch of drunk scientists staring at graphs.
We’ve got a big 2018 I’m currently in the works organising and I cannot wait to share it with you!
The Neversphere: The next event…how much are you willing to reveal?
Miriam: If you secretly love The Notebook and have strong feelings about Taylor Swift you’re going to want to come along to Tuesday’s 21st November event. More revelations here.
Nerd Nite November
Can music bring you back from dementia? and Creating unsocial media in a social media world.
Tuesday, November 21
The Friend In Hand, Glebe
*NN doesn’t agree with labelling people in this way but unfortunately society does it all the bloody time.