In a BBC article, Rory Cellan Jones asks why the UK doesn’t produce more computing companies. One issue raised is the low profile of STEM industries. The current highest rated comment claims the problem is an “anti-intellectual culture”. Quoth the poster:
Anyone who is good at academic things (including computing) gets labelled a nerd, whilst we fete footballers etc whose only “skill” is to kick a bit of leather around a square of grass.
Oh noes! My wonderful nerdy intelligence is being overlooked in favour of a lunkhead overpaid footballer, or a pretty auto-tuned pop star! Anti-intellectualism as the source of all our woes — I don’t buy it. I think the problem of the low profile of technical industries in the UK is being mis-diagnosed.
The Fallacy of the Individual
I believe the problem is that the media — and people in general — focus on individuals, not teams. I couldn’t find a term for this on Google, so I’m going with the “fallacy of the individual”. Probably for simplicity in our thinking — or insert your favourite evolutionary psychology theory involving tribes and monkeys here — people focus on individuals as being responsible for good work, and seem to overlook the large teams that those individuals are usually part of. In STEM fields, good work tends to require a team, and thus there are few notable outstanding individuals. (And no, your favourite silicon valley thought leader ninja guru evangelist doesn’t count.) Thus, STEM workers get less media attention than fields where it is easier to pick out talented individuals or obvious figureheads. Journalists interview individuals, not teams.
Everyone fetes the pop-star, like Britney Spears — or whoever is a more suitable current reference (I’m old!). But they are just the figurehead for a larger , unheard-of team — the songwriters and producers and technicians and dancers and manager and all the others that clearly contribute to the success of a record. Pop is primarily treated by everyone as being about an identifiable figurehead. It’s not as if more nerd-friendly areas are immune, either. How much do the media like reporting on Tim Berners-Lee when — no offence to the guy — he is only a very small part of what the web has become? Valve have a huge amount of goodwill in many gaming communities, but how many times do you see Gabe Newell (their head) mentioned as synonymous with Valve? Or Zuckerberg as synonymous with Facebook? They may lead the company, but it’s not like it’s Zuckerberg who’s responsible for building and running one of the largest websites on the Internet — it’s a large team of engineers that does that. Further nerdy examples abound: Linux as belonging to Linus Torvalds, Warren Spector as responsible for Deus Ex, Stan Lee as the figurehead for Marvel and so on.
Sports and acting are a slightly special case because everyone sees the star at work, and enjoys watching them. No-one enjoys watching me code. C’est la vie, but it’s not some bizarre anti-intellectualism. If anything, the fact that sports is looked down on is a form of intellectual snobbery. Sports stars are a combination of natural talent and hard work, just like any other line of work, so why should they be looked down on for “kicking a bit of leather around a square of grass”? You could equally look down on me for sitting here and “banging a few keys on a keyboard”. It helps no-one to tear each other down or complain about undue high wages. (Where’s the complaint that Gabe Newell is wealthier than any footballer, just for “making a few silly games and a digital storefront”?)
The Way Forward
So what can be done to improve the image of computing or STEM? I think some people give too much importance to traditional media, and I don’t see that grooming respectable faces to put on the TV is necessary or suitable. I never see superstar lawyers shown on TV — and doctors only usually turn up in the newspapers in cases of malpractice — but I don’t see that that damages their recruitment much. And when scientists appearing in the media become less than exemplary (hello, Baroness!) it can hurt more than it can help.
Everyone can see what a footballer or a doctor does — who knows what a computer scientist or civil engineer does, day-to-day? We should try to show what it’s like to be engaged in our profession when we can, and be mindful that we naturally face more of a struggle than other fields. (Putting computing into schools should help with this public awareness.) But that’s no reason to declare war on other fields and whinge about anti-intellectualism. If you’re so intellectual, don’t just sit there complaining — help to work out a realistic solution.