Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hackers and heroes

Recent events have led me again to a contemplation of the equation of hackers and heroes. How is it that an essentially cerebral and sedentary activity gets equated with heroics? And why computing and not, say, bioscience?

If you've read your obligatory Joseph Campbell you know that the hero myth is ubiquitous in human cultures. Each culture adds its own flavorings and decorations, but the general story is the same: a usually young, alone male goes through transformational trials, performs some task that makes a difference to the world, and is then declared a hero.

In the story-telling world, it ends there. You don't get the post-hero narrative, although, like love stories, there is an implicit "and they lived happily ever after." This makes it easy to forget that in real life "heroism" is a moment, not a lifetime. The fireman who saves the baby from the burning building, the batter who hits the World Series-winning home run: this is a moment of glory before the person goes back to being an ordinary Joe.

When Steven Levy wrote "Hackers, heroes of the computer revolution" in 1984, the hero myth was perhaps new to the computer world. By the early 1990's consumer computing magazines were full of hero and superhero images. This presents an odd contrast to the stereotype of the out-of-shape, asocial, code-writing computer geek. Since then graphics capabilities have allowed the hero myth to move to the screen in the form of first-person games in which anyone with the time and inclination can play at being a hero.

Levy's "hacker heroes" were in fact ordinary computer geeks, and not even the first. Levy focuses on a group of young men at MIT starting in the late 1950's, but they had been preceded in the 1940's and early 1950's by those who were truly the first computer programmers, many of whom were women. There was no attribution of heroics to those pioneers, neither at the time nor retrospectively. What changed?

Many of the studies of the decline of womens enrollment in computer science ask a similar question, which is: how did computer science become a male bastion when it had once seemed welcoming to women? And why did it take on a hyper-masculinized culture, with home brew, skateboarding the hallways, pizza delivered to midnight coding frenzies, and heroes?

I don't have, and have not encountered in my reading, an answer to that question. I do want to caution, however that the hero aspiration has a down side that is played out as tragedy. It might be best to limit our heroes to the mythological realm and leave computing to mortals. It just might become a friendlier place for everybody.

1 comment:

Merrilee said...

Thank you Karen, for that thoughtful reflection.