There was a time, back in the 1970s, when so-called trainspotters — bald, bespectacled middle-aged men, obsessed with train locomotives, could be seen skulking around railway stations, armed with crumpled WH Smith notepads, Thermos flasks, ham sandwiches, and binoculars. They carried out their train and transport fascinations individually, or as part of larger gathering, logging the names and numbers of passing locomotive engines into their crumpled notebooks, and taking photographs to document their meticulous observations.
The trainspotter group shares similarities to another nerd sub-species, the bird watcher. And, to a certain extent, they fall within the umbrella Science nerd category, colloquially known as ‘anoraks’. But, these days, you don’t see too many of them about. It’s a bit of a mystery, but like any group species it evolves, grows, dies out and eventually becomes extinct. There probably aren’t that many exciting locomotives travelling through Network Rail’s infrastructure these days, and contemporary trains aren’t that exciting.
So, what’s taken the place of this leisure experience, one that merges a love of lists and charts with object recognition and industrial/design engineering?
There are many nerd sub groups out there: stamp nerds (too old school), car nerds (too mainstream), and Science Fiction nerds — but it’s a ‘neo-nerd’ group, the gadget nerd, that seems to show both the classic nerd traits of the trainspotter, as well as bringing something new into play. They exhibit that nerd characteristic of spending ridiculous amounts of time waiting around to access the objects of their obsession. Gadget nerds are known to camp out at Apple stores — in some cases days ahead of a product’s release date — to simply buy the latest iPhone, and to participate in the community atmosphere of queuing with fellow gadget nerds who share the same passion for Apple products.
In the age of the internet, the web alleviates the need to loiter on train platforms to catch a glimpse of a particular train speeding past, or to queue for days outside an Apple Store to guarantee the purchase of an iPhone. You can view train videos on YouTube, obsess over the iPhones at various Apple and gadget focused websites, and even buy the actual thing through the Apple Store app — all without visiting a physical store.
Whereas most people only ever saw trains as functional engineering, like lifts, that got them from here to there, geek nerdery over mobile phones does reflect a wider social interest in mobile devices. They are shiny status symbols, we carry them in our pockets and they are very personal to us, often containing valuable information — our contacts, photos, and so on — and we use them for social media, to find out what is happening on Facebook, and Twitter. It’s all part of the larger social pressure, and perception, of social relevance.
Gadget nerds, with their fickle brand affiliations, and obsessive focus on esoteric product qualities that normal consumers would never even be aware of, are the trainspotters of the 21st century — endlessly excited by and fascinated with the shiny icons of the age.