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The Myth of the Geek

Friday, 1 August 2014

geekmythStereotypes. They're everywhere in Hollywood movies: the dumb jock, the popular kid, the under-appreciated-person-with-a-heart-of-gold, … and the socially inept but academically brilliant geek.

These stereotypes exist for a reason. If you're a rushed (or lazy!) scriptwriter, and you don't have the time to develop realistic characters, then just use a stereotype. Easy!

There is no shortage of stereotypes, and because these stereotypes are commonly used, they are already familiar to the audience. So a lazy writer doesn’t need to work hard writing carefully crafted dialogue to create a character. Want to introduce a dumb jock? Show them playing sport, and then show them making a dumb comment. Job done. A popular kid? A single short interaction with a few high-fives will do the trick. A socially inept yet brilliant geek? Show them solving some impressive-looking problem, and show them being awkward in a social interaction. If you’re feeling particularly uncreative dress them in clichéd “geek wear” from the 60s.

I'm sure you can think of many movies that feature a cast full of stereotypes. I also bet that in many of these movies, characters are introduced in exactly the ways I’ve described above.

So why does this matter, and what does it have to do with Information and Communication Technology (ICT)?

As noted elsewhere in this issue, careers in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) are available. In fact, highly available: companies are struggling to fill positions, since there are shortages of skilled people.

These careers, for instance Business Analyst, are also highly rewarding. Not only do they pay well, but, more importantly, they are personally rewarding. They offer diverse opportunities to solve real problems by applying ICT.

However, despite all the positives of these careers, students are not flocking to study ICT. Why not? Well, the Myth of the Geek has a lot to do with this.

Firstly, linking ICT skills with social ineptness makes ICT careers less attractive. I mean, who wants to be seen as socially inept? The reality is that solving business problems requires communication and teamwork. You have to work closely with stakeholders to understand the problems, the context, and then work with colleagues to develop a solution. All this requires strong communications skills, both written and verbal. Indeed, these communication skills, as well as ability to work in teams, are high on the list of skills that employers look for in ICT graduates.

Secondly, portraying geeks as being implausibly brilliant sends the message that ICT careers are only for the super-smart, for those who live and breath code. This discourages anyone from considering an ICT degree, unless they are part of the very small minority who consider themselves (rightly or not) to be super-smart. The reality is that while ICT graduates do have technical skills, one does not have to be brilliant to learn these skills. More importantly, these technical skills are taught in the course of the degree. We do not assume that students at the start of their university degree have any experience in programming, or in computing (beyond the very basics).

So, the typical Information Science student is not someone with poor social skills. Strong communication skills are important, and are developed during the course of the degree. The typical Information Science student is also not someone who is a brilliant technologist, or who has years of experience in programming.

Hollywood’s lazy overuse of clichéd stereotypes has a lot to answer for.

Finally, next time you see a movie that features anything relating to computing, bear in mind that very very few Hollywood depictions of anything to do with computing are even remotely plausible, let alone accurate. That impressive looking collection of text on screen? It’s probably just a fragment of code from an old library … or the HTML source of a webpage.

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