Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, two computer geeks worth more than $300 billion put together, are posturing to fight each other in a mixed-martial-arts cage match. The dumb backstory: Facebook, which was Zuckerberg’s follow-up to a girl-rating website started in his Harvard dorm room, has been building a competitor to Twitter, a website for yelling at people online that Musk, who once made his tunnel-digging company manufacture flamethrower-like devices, bought for $44 billion in a fit of pique last year. Then a senior Meta executive implied that Musk’s leadership of Twitter was, well, not sane, and Musk was like “😅” (or whew, lol in emoji), and then some tweep warned him that Zuck does jiu-jitsu now, and Musk went, “I’m up for a cage match,” and then Zuck agreed, or at least posted that he did on the internet.
What to make of this? Turning sports competition into a proxy for corporate triumph is nothing new; just think of the Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s obsession with yacht racing. But to invoke hand-to-hand combat, and infliction of actual physical violence, as a jostle for computer-app supremacy does ring new bells. Over the past three decades, thanks to the massive profits of the tech industry and its magnates, mental strength seemed to overtake physical burl on the path to success, and as a cultural value. But nope, it sure didn’t.
Decades ago, when gadgets were new but muscles were not, the two were cleaved. Their archetypal representatives in school, nerds and jocks, were always at odds, in both real life and pop culture. Their squabble had raged for many years—the square-jawed football player with the blond cheerleader on his arm bullying the thick-rimmed-glasses- and pocket-protector-wearing math geek—but the battle reached a new peak in the mid-1980s, when computers (and lasers, and space travel, and other domains of geeky delight) inspired a fresh variety of nerd. Films such as Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Real Genius (1985) staged the quarrel in modern terms, while The Breakfast Club (1985) and Back to the Future (1985) connected it to the mid-century prototype. The theme: People with smarts but missing brawn can use technology (among other means) to win out, David-and-Goliath-style, over the physically adept but mentally deficient. The nerds were underdogs, and their fictional victories charmed us because they seemed unlikely.
Then the nerds began to win, for real. Technology grew from a hobby for weirdos into a world-changing force that generated unfathomable riches. Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, John Carmack, Jerry Yang, Sergey Brin, and others proved that nerdom offered a quick route to wealth and power. Computer science joined finance as a source of money and the opportunities it unlocked. Being a nerd wasn’t a condition to be overcome, but embraced. Computer life became normalized, overtaking previous ways of being. Competitive video games got recast as eSports, and nerds chipped away at the glory and spectacle of athletics. Conditions traditionally associated with the nerd archetype, such as social anxiety and autism, became more widely understood and accepted. Once an outcast, the quiet, strange geek became hegemonic.
But power is power, and the kind gained from algorithmic acrobatics only amplifies the desire to wield more of it. Even a billionaire lives inside a human body, and those bodies decay into inevitable death. That terror, along with the wealth and independence to dictate one’s own time, gave rise to a new, ripped tech leadership. Swole Jeff Bezos became a meme when the Amazon founder started bulking up. Peter Thiel’s injections of the blood of the youth offer another example, along with the venture capitalist Bryan Johnson’s $2 million-a-year assault on aging. Zuck’s pursuit of extreme fitness, including his obsession with martial arts, falls into this camp as well. And Musk: Though hardly chiseled, he is physically imposing, and he has claimed to fast and take Wegovy to maintain a fit and healthy look. The nerd-CEO’s mighty body has become an apparatus for securing and extending his power. Why settle for mental dominance when you can have strength, sex appeal, and physical conquest too? In that pursuit, the nerd flips into being a jock.
In the movies, jocks and nerds often fight for sex. Musk and Zuckerberg aren’t fighting over a girl, but they might as well be. Social media hosts sexual politics and power: Zuck’s original hot-or-not-alike Facemash; the revenge fantasies of incel communities; the conventional attractiveness common to the influencer economy. A fight for social-media supremacy is always also a fight for the conditions of companionship.
In the mid-19th century, when rules and organizations for many sports first formalized, the British athletics advocate John Hulley borrowed an offhand line from the Roman poet Juvenal to define the early principles of Olympism: mens sana in corpore sano, “a sound mind in a sound body.” The idea was that youth should receive both an intellectual education and a physical one. There was a catch, however: The youth in question were generally boarding-school students, and therefore wealthy and mostly male—the sons of those who ran society, and their inevitable successors.
Over the following century, the spirit of mens sana in corpore sano spread, but few outside the elite had the opportunity to put it into practice. Instead they honed one aspect or the other, cementing a split that would evolve into high-school cliques and their associated stereotypes. No matter how many times public schools might emblazon Hulley’s slogan or its lookalikes on a gym wall, it couldn’t overcome the pesky problem at its core. The best way to have a sound mind and body has always been the same: Just be rich.
Musk and Zuckerberg’s spat amuses because it’s childish—and therefore brings these figures down to Earth. It also feels authentic: You and I get into dumb dustups on social media, and these mega-billionaires are no different, in a way. It might even make them seem more embodied and therefore more real—two rich guys willing, at least in theory, to duke it out for social-media mastery. But the feud also disappoints, because it shows how poorly our culture has reconciled the dualism of mental and physical capacity, even in its most prominent successes. Nerds are still stuck inside their heads, wishing they could express themselves as bodies, and jocks are still inclined to come out swinging. Who needs either one of these jerks? The battle between the nerds and jocks was always kind of fake. At the highest levels of society, nerds and jocks cannot be distinguished. Mostly, they are bullies to the rest of us.