The "smartest man in the room" is a kind of wish-fulfillment for reasonably smart people, because he's not just clever but incredibly glib. As popularized by people like Doctor Who/Sherlock writer Steven Moffat and the creators of American shows like House and Scorpion, the "smartest guy in the room" thinks quicker than everybody else but also talks rings around them, too. He's kind of an unholy blend of super-genius and con artist. Thanks to the popularity of Sherlock, House and a slew of other "poorly socialized, supergenius nerd" shows, the "smartest man in the room" has become part of the wallpaper. His contempt for less intelligent people, mixed with adorable social awkwardness, and his magic ability to have the right answer at every turn, have become rote.Later, she offers up a preliminary hypothesis that the intelligibility and force of the archetype derives from the widespread experience of consumers who feel themselves to be at the mercy of incomprehensible devices and therefore of the helpful nerds in their lives who better understand these things. I actually don't think the world is particularly more technologically incomprehensible now than it has always somewhat been in network-mediated extractive-industrial societies, but tech-talkers like to say otherwise because it consoles them that progress is happening rather than the immiserating unsustainable stasis that actually prevails, but that is a separate discussion. I do think Anders strikes very much the right note when she declares The Smartest Guy in the Room archetype a "wish-fulfillment fantasy," but I am not sure that I agree with her proposal about how the fantasy is operating here.
What is perplexing about the Smartest Guy in the Room archetype, as well as for the more ubiquitous savvy but awkward nerd archetype, is the combination in it of superior knowledge and social ineptitude. Anders proposes that this fantasy space is doubly reassuring -- securing our faith that helpful people will always be around to navigate the incomprehensible technical demands of the world, but that we need not feel inferior in our dependency because these helpful people gained their superior knowledge at the cost of a lack of basic social skills nobody in their right mind would actually choose to pay. The gawky awkward nerd is as obviously inferior as superior, we get to keep our toys with our egos intact, and everybody wins (even the losers).
All this sounds just idiotically American enough to be plausible, but seems to assume that few of her readers -- or anybody, for that matter -- actually identifies with the nerds. Anders seems to have forgotten that she begins her piece with the assertion that The Smartest Guy in the Room is "wish-fulfillment for reasonably smart people," that is to say, the self-image of her entire readership. And of course the truth is that nearly every one of her readers do identify with the archetype, indeed the archetype is a space of aspirational identification in culture more generally, an identification which fuels much of the lucrative popularity and currency of spectacular science fiction and fantasy and geekdom more generally in this moment. That is the real problem that makes the phenomenon Anders has observed worthy of criticism in the first place.
Anders describes the Smartest Guy in the Room as someone who has "contempt for less intelligent people, mixed with adorable social awkwardness, and [a] magic ability to have the right answer at every turn." It is crucial to grasp that what appears as a kind of laundry list here is in fact a set of structurally inter-dependent co-ordinates of the moral universe of The Smartest Guy in the Room. He doesn't happen to be right all the time and socially awkward and contemptuous of almost everybody else, his sociopathic contempt is the essence of his social awkwardness, rationalized by his belief that he is superior to them because he is always right about everything, at least as he sees it.
Before I am chastised for amplifying harmless social awkwardness into sociopathy, let me point out that the adorable nerds of Anders' initial formulations are later conjoined to a discussion of Tony Stark, the cyborgically-ruggedized hyper-individualist bazillionaire tech-CEO hero of the Iron Man blockbusters. Although Anders describes this archetype in terms of its popular currency in pop sf narrative and fandom today, I think it is immediately illuminating to grasp the extent to which Randroidal archetypes Howard Roark, Francisco d'Anconia, Henry Rearden, and John Galt provide the archive from which these sooper-sociopath entrepreneurial mad-scientist cyborg-soldiers are drawn (if you want more connective tissue, recall that Randroidal archetypes are the slightest hop, skip, and jump away from Heinleinian archetypes and now we're off to the races).
The truth is that there is no such thing as the guy who knows all the answers, or who solves all the problems. Problem-solving is a collective process. There is more going on that matters than anybody knows, even the people who know the most. Even the best experts and the luminous prodigies stand on the shoulders of giants, depend on the support of lovers and friends and collaborators and reliable norms and laws and infrastructural affordances, benefit from the perspectives of critics and creative appropriations. Nobody deserves to own it all or run it all, least of all the white guys who happen to own and run most of it at the moment, and this is just as true when elite-incumbency hides its rationalizations for privilege behind a smokescreen of technobabble.
The sociopathy of the techno-fixated Smartest Guy in the Room is, in a word, ideological. Anders hits upon an enormously resonant phrasing when she declares him "an unholy blend of super-genius and con artist." In fact, his declared super-genius is an effect of con-artistry -- the fraudulent cost- and risk-externalization of digital networked financialization, the venture-capitalist con of upward-failing risk-fakers uselessly duplicating already available services and stale commodities as novelties, the privatization of the "disruptors" and precarization of "crowdsource"-sharecropping -- the "unholy" faith on the part of libertechbrotarian white dudes that they deserve their elite incumbent privileges
Perhaps this is a good time to notice that when Anders says the Smartest Guy in the Room provides "wish-fulfillment for reasonably smart people" her examples go on to demonstrate that by people she happens always to mean only guys and even only white guys. She does notice that the Smartest Guy does seem to be, you know, a guy and provides the beginnings of a gendered accounting of the archetype: "the 'smartest guy' thing confirms all our silliest gender stereotypes, in a way that's like a snuggly dryer-fresh blanket to people who feel threatened by shifting gender roles. In the world of these stories, the smartest person is always a man, and if he meets a smart woman she will wind up acknowledging his superiority."
That seems to me a rather genial take on the threatened bearings of patriarchal masculinity compensated by cyborg fantasizing, but at least it's there. The fact that the Smartest Guy keeps on turning out to be white receives no attention at all. This omission matters not only because it is so glaring, but because the sociopathic denial of the collectivity of intelligence, creativity, progress, and flourishing at the heart of the Smartest Guy in the Room techno-archetype, is quite at home in the racist narrative of modern technological civilization embodied in inherently superior European whiteness against which are arrayed not different but primitive and atavistic cultures and societies that must pay in bloody exploitation and expropriation the price of their inherent inferiority. That is to say, the Smartest Guy in the Room is also the Smartest Guy in History, naturally enough, with a filthy treasure pile to stand on and shout his superiority from.
From the White Man's Burden to Yuppie Scum to Techbro Rulz, the Smartest Guy in the Room is one of the oldest stories in the book. And, yeah, plenty of us are getting "kind of tired" of it.