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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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