The Modern Day Geek

Introduction:

When I began studying at Portland State University I noticed a trend. Many of my classes, from math to chemistry, seemed to have pretty balanced demographics, but then when I went to my computer science classes they were overwhelmingly dominated by white males. I became curious, what factors made it more likely for someone like me to end up in this class than someone of a different gender or ethnicity. Looking ahead to the career that I hope to have in the future I looked towards many of the biggest companies in the field to see if they were facing the same gender and ethnic deficits that I see in my classes, and it was quite clear that they were. For my looking in the mirror blog post I chose to look at how modern programmers are portrayed in media, specifically in the movie The Social Network and the television shows Silicon Valley and Mr. Robot. Popular culture largely depicts programmers, software engineers or “tech savvy” people as males, and this portrayal has far reaching implications in our society. 

The Social Network:

The Social Network is a movie that is loosely based on the creation of the social media platform Facebook, and also on some of the lawsuits and controversy that came from it’s inception. The main character Mark Zuckerberg, who eventually creates Facebook, played by Jesse Eisenberg, displays some of the characteristics that we see in older nerd tropes including being an introvert, problems with communication, and being very smart. Where there were some surprises for the portrayal of programmers is in the supporting cast. Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker, the creator of the music application Napster, Andrew Garfield plays Eduardo Saverin, the cofounder of Facebook, as well as Armie Hammer who plays the Winklevoss twins, two fellow students of Mr. Zuckerberg who would end up sueing him for stealing their idea. All of these characters brought a different view of programmers and software developers as members of select fraternities and privileged groups, generally living a life of glamour and being a part of the “cool crowd”. Ying-bei Wang points out in Facebook, Made in Harvard: Youth, Stereotypes, and Exclusivity in the Information Age that “The Social Network does an outstanding work transforming a computer geek into a hero of the Information Age.” and how “with the arrival of the Information Age, geeks have enjoyed more positive evaluation because of their computer skills.” This is a new light that we see programmers, techies, and geeks being portrayed in, but it still carries some of the same tropes from earlier years.

Silicon Valley:

My next artifact that I chose to use was the fourth episode of the HBO series Silicon Valley, Fiduciary Duties. The episode revolves around the main character, Peter Hendricks, having issues with explaining his vision for the future of his company, Pied Piper, and what his software will actually do. Already this synopsis is similar to established tropes for tech-types, trouble putting a concept into words. There is a host of awkward conversations throughout the episode, from the character Peter Gregory’s address to the crowd, with the untimely inflections to his abrupt conclusion of his welcome speech, to the Pied Piper group’s conversation with a couple of paid actresses who are hired in order to get conversations going with guests at the event for members of the software development community in Silicon Valley, directly making the joke that to get these people to talk, you literally have to hire someone to coax them into it. There are plenty more jokes on physical characteristics, such as the character “Big Head” being unable to simply toss a hacky sack higher than a few feet. I do understand that Silicon Valley is meant to serve as a platform for discourse on some of the ridiculous facets and stereotypes of the tech industry in Palo Alto. While the show does bring some of the valley’s glaring deficiencies to light, it still falls back on aged jokes about the nerdy programmer for it’s main punch lines.   

Mr. Robot:

My last artifact was the pilot episode for the USA series Mr. Robot. The episode centers on the character Elliot who is a quasi hacker vigilante. He works at a cyber-security firm called All Safe by day, but uses his hacking skills to turn in individuals to the police who deal with things such as child pornography or cheating husbands to their wives. Elliot exhibits some of the same characteristics as characters from the other artifacts: antisocial, trouble communicating with others and most obviously being he is a male. Where Mr. Robot differs is that the show’s lead character is of a minority background. I found this very surprising as, to be honest, I had assumed he was another white man. With few exceptions, programmers in TV shows and movies have been white males. While the narrative of the programmer being an introvert was told in all three of my artifacts, I was surprised to find there was some truth to this. In the article Personality Types in Software Engineering, Luiz Capretz states that “(his) research found more introverts (57%) than extroverts (43%)” and that “the software field is dominated by introverts, who typically have difficulty in communicating with the user.” Even though these characteristics are present in the real industry I believe popular culture exaggerates it past what you would typically see in the real workplace, thus distorting the audience’s view of programmers.

Implications and Observations:

I think one of the most interesting details about the over representation of the group of people I belong to, male programmers specifically that are white, is that the over representation of them in popular culture is reflective to what is present in the industry. Looking at the recent diversity reports from Facebook, Intel and Google, three very large software companies, it becomes very apparent that this is true. In the tech related jobs in each company males make up well over fifty percent of the workforce, while white males make up the majority of that percentage with Asian males relatively close behind. If from a young age kids only see groups of people doing certain jobs, represented in specific ways, then I think it is safe to assume that they will only associate those types of people with that job. This seems to be one of the problems with how programmers and really any “computer-oriented” jobs are represented in popular culture, as far as movies and television shows are concerned they have almost solely been portrayed as white men with few exceptions. I think this is partly why we see such large gender gaps in the industry. This is supported by Lori Kendall’s statement in White and Nerdy: Computers, Race and the Nerd Stereotype where she says “people seeking to hire computer programmers often look for signs of nerdiness as proof of intelligence” and that “After several years of gains for women and minorities in computing education and occupations, those gains seem to be reversing.”  It is my belief that if pop culture devices can include more people from varying backgrounds then more people with diverse backgrounds will be inclined to become programmers.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, I believe that many of the old tropes of programmers, techies, or people who like computer stuff really, are still present. Themes of weak physical aptitude, anti-social tendencies and awkward personas continually get brought up in popular culture. While these themes are still prevalent, there are new themes that are being brought to audiences. Sexual appeal, glamour and prestige are a few new characteristics being attributed to programmers in movies and television shows. Personally I can identify with some of the characteristics attributed to programmers, but I can still get a laugh out of the jokes that may come at my own expense because I know that they are overly exaggerated. What I see as a serious issue though is that while some  movies and shows have made leeway representing underrepresented groups, such as Mr. Robot having a minority lead character, there is still a long way to go in order to make the field more inclusive.  

Learning Moments:

The two biggest learning moments for me came during the research analysis worksheet and the annotated bibliography. The combination of these two assignments achieved what I believe to be one of the larger goals of the looking in the popular culture mirror blog post and this class as a whole. The research analysis worksheet gave me insight into how people such as myself get portrayed and often stereotyped in popular culture. It taught me how to approach a media device by not taking it at face value, but by asking critical questions as to its purpose. On the other hand the annotated bibliography led to a wealth of information confirming that there are many problems with the media’s portrayals of programmers, and then how these portrayals have larger second and third order effects. I learned more on how to use available tools for research and analysis. Where I think the looking in the popular culture mirror blog post is a good chance to share my findings with others, the research analysis worksheet and the annotated bibliography are what allowed me to make the connections between the representations of programmers, why those representations exist, and the effects of they have.

References:

Personality Types in Software Engineering, Luiz Fernando Capretz, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 58, Issue 2 February 2003, pages 207-214

Facebook, Made in Harvard: Youth Stereotypes, and Exclusivity in the Information Age, Ying-bei Wang, Selected works of Ying-bei Wang, Bowling Green State University, Spring February 22, 2014

“White and Nerdy”: Computers, Race and the Nerd Stereotype, Lori Kendall, The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 44, Issue 3, June 2011

 

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About loganhmil

I'm originally from Lincoln City, Oregon. Attended OSU for a year before joining the Army. Upon completion of my enlistment I enrolled at PSU and began working towards a BS in computer science.

12 thoughts on “The Modern Day Geek

  1. I really liked your post. I remember from being a 80 / 90’s kid, when being a dork or a nerd was non ironically or otherwise, and meant you were a “loser”. I really appreciate this day and age, where people are more free to express themselves. While I am not equating LGBT to being a nerd, it is a bit of a better world, when individuals are safe (for the most part) to not hide their identity.

    Also, there are some awesome non white nerds in history, not a lot, but some.

    Steve Urkel

    Or if you like real people, good on Mr Neil Degrasse-Tyson

    • Jarrett,

      I really agree that today’s age, for all that we have wrong with it, is still in my opinion better than 10 or 15 years ago. A big part of that that I’m happy to see is that growth in freedom of expression, there’s not a cookie cutter mold for how to be. Thanks for the examples by the way, I absolutely love Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Cosmos became one of my favorite shows, up there with Planet Earth, when it got onto Netflix. I think one of the things that bothers me most about the trope of kind of dogging on the nerd, is that you’re effectively trying to shut down a person for being smart. I don’t like the idea of anti-intellectualism, and I think this is a point that Neil deGrasse Tyson brings up time and time again. If we want to have a productive society, you can’t stifle scientific thought. Thanks!

  2. Hi Logan!

    I was hoping you could answer a question for me. First.. is coding and programming the same? A few days ago I was sitting at the library and a group of (I’m assuming programmers) sat next to me. They got into this apparently very passionate debate about which coding program is more visually attractive. That day I learned I dont know what attractive means. 🙂 What’s your vote?

    • Hey, is it Imaya?

      I’d argue that you can use coding and programming interchangeably, just the act of writing instructions for a program. Haha it’s been pretty funny to see how big style is in programming. For example some people make a big deal about the difference between tab spacing and just spaces, and the accepted style can change across all languages. My vote, if it works and people can read it, its good enough.

  3. Hey Logan,

    I really liked your post, and I liked it because I classify myself as a lot of the same “identities” we see with the characters you are looking at, white, tech savvy, introverted (mostly), antisocial, and “nerdy”. The biggest difference is that you identify as a man, and I identify as a woman.

    There is a huge gender gap in the field of programming and part of it has to do with media portrayal, but there is a big section that your piece doesn’t touch on (which might not be obvious, because it is the identity I listed above that you and I don’t share)

    But the whole part about the lack of women in the field. When I started school I said I wanted to be a Graphic Designer who focused mostly on coding websites, but I wanted to have the artistic know how to do the design aspects of the job.

    When I applied to the Art Institute they told questioned my career goals. “Don’t you want to do Fashion Design? There are more women in that program, and you’re more likely to fit in there.” They didn’t even give me the chance.

    I have a friend who works as a software coder for a big company that I am choosing not to name, who has opted to give my friend a private office with a lock instead of addressing the 2 male employees that have sexually harassed her.

    A big issue with the combination of gender inequality in the work place, and people who often drift to these types of careers are the barriers that are created due to social skill deficits, and how the U.S. traditionally raises white males.

    Please don’t get me wrong, this has been getting better over time… in most cases, but it is another huge reason why their is less women in this male dominated career.

  4. This is an interesting post! This is a stereotype I’ve never really examined but now that I think about it I see everywhere. The show Big Bang Theory would have been a good resource too. It seems to be a cycle – the media doesn’t represent anyone other than white males in the tech field, and there is an overwhelming majority of white males in tech fields. As Lexi said above, there are other barriers to women in tech, but your post did a good job highlighting the disparity in media. Good work!

  5. Even though I’m not a programmer, I still identify with most of the traits associated with them, so I enjoyed reading your post. I’ve never seen Mr. Robot but your description made me want to give it a shot. Oddly enough, the few computer programmers I know at PSU are not white, but it does seem like whites are over represented in popular culture. Hopefully that will change soon. Your post did a great job analyzing this disparity and enjoyed reading it. Great post!

  6. Hi Logan,
    Your post was very interesting and relatable to myself. I took an intro to programming class during my freshman year because I wanted to try it out. I saw exactly what you saw a classroom filled with white males, to be honest I felt a little bit uncomfortable and choose not to pursue that major any further. My guess is that if it’s that demographic in the class room it must be that way in the real world. I think that might be a factor of why there are so few people of color in computer classes and I think there’s only ne way to change that, by having people of color in that field that are shown to be role models and leaders for the younger generation to change their perception on it.

  7. Hi @loganhmil

    I really liked seeing the progression of your final blog post. It was fantastic to see how it changed from the mentor session we had and the things you went deeper into. I do have a question about something through, are your classes only male? and if not what race of female is there in your class is it white females of are they from different countries? I know that your feedback was to just focus on the stereotype you fit into, but I think something that draws my curiosity is that fact that most of them where white male and I wanted to know if it is the same for females? I now that in my architecture class it is very similar it is mostly white male based, but out of the 4 females we have in class 3 are Hispanic and so I was wondering if it was the same for your major. It really was a great blog though I really enjoyed it and it got to see your perspective on it and have TV shows to back it up.

  8. Hey Logan,
    This was a great post! I never thought how a “modern day geek” is portrayed in media. Although, I did get the chance to watch all three of the media that you wrote about. After reading your post, I have to agree with you that popular culture likes to use white males as the geeky character. Although I am not a programmer so I am not sure what is the actual ratio of a white male compare to any other race and gender.

  9. Hey, I really enjoyed your post! I watch all of the artifacts that you use over and over! Also I find that your conclusion was very interesting. Indeed I think that the tropes that were prevalent in the past when it comes to geeks are still relevant in pop culture. Also, you made a very important point about new tropes emerging. Tropes such as money, prestige and sex appeal. I enjoy these kinds of tropes because it shows a different side of geek culture that I think more of a mainstream audience will find appealing.

  10. I love this post because I too identify as a modern geek, and some people think that the term can be degrading because of the stereotypes our media has decided to generate from it, but I believe it can be used as a loose identity that can take on many different forms for many different people. For me, I don’t know a lot about technology mechanically, but I design, play video games, study HTML, etc, and those activities collectively make me “geeky” but that is only one part of many in my identity. Some people think to be a geek it needs to consume your whole identity but I think otherwise. You used some good examples from TV shows that have a lot of influence in self and other perception of viewers and critics alike.

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