You’ve all seen it on every procedural at this point. They have to have a minimum of one geek, one social pariah who works the technical magic that is completely impenetrable to both the other characters and the audience. Television wasn’t this way twenty years ago, it’s an invention of the Internet age, these digital nerds who wave their hands and pull information out of thin air. Hell, the entire CSI phenomenon is a virtual ode to nerds, not even bothering for the most part with having the obligatory gruff older detective who provides the old-fashioned know how to complement the technomancy of the younger generation. As far as I can tell, they’re all multiple PhDs in fictional sciency stuff that gives them license to push buttons and string together random phrases of technobabble. Sure they get to carry guns too, but that just underlines how cool the geek has become. Once they let you carry guns, you know that you’ve gone mainstream.
Hollywood made this myth brick by brick with every painful depiction of keyboard savants, and is it ever painful for anyone who knows the slightest thing about the technology being shown off. I have almost committed multiple homicides because of people who think their CD drive tray is a cup holder looking at me like I’m the idiot while insisting, “well, just enhance the picture.” Pictures don’t enhance. The pixels are there or they aren’t. Grainy security cam pictures do not become hi def with the press of an imaginary button only the hacker knows about. Fingerprints are rare. DNA results don’t come back in three minutes in the basement. And no, there is nothing you can patter away into a keyboard that will hack into the Pentagon and give you access to files.
Movies and television have conjured computer geeks into modern wizards in perhaps the truest sense of the word that has ever been realized, conjuring hidden knowledge from the very air with arcane language and the clattering of fingers. The reality of a computer expert is a black screen full of white text, completely impenetrable to the untrained, but too intimidating for an audience according to the standards of Hollywood. Fancy monitors and slick touch interfaces, anything to put a visual face on the black hole of text that represents real coding. Never mind that there’s a reason coders type. Text is the most efficient form of communication yet devised for interface with the human animal, a dense soup of information that can nonetheless be engineered into speech and processed into meaning like lightning. Graphical interfaces? Touching the screen to select things? That’s nice for your mp3 player, but if you want to tell the computer to do something complicated enough that it would take sentences to explain to another person, you’re going to need words not pictures. If words weren’t more efficient, our vocal cords would have atrophied by now in favor of charades and pictionary.
There’s a sort of worship to it, an info age acknowledgement of powers beyond the ken of mere mortals. Our entertainment worships the hacker, but invariably misses the point, damaging the foundation of the very thing it idolizes, like cro-magnons worshiping iron by washing it in water and crying at the rust. The effect is being idolized without understanding the cause.
But assigning the difficult to the category of magic trivializes the act even while glorifying it. Intelligence becomes a gift, something that is assigned at birth, and whose chosen sons and daughters easily learn the chants and motions of some secret brotherhood. By this process skills and intelligence become a predetermined destination, not a process of unending work and effort. It’s like the old joke about how a plumber charges $150 for hitting a pipe once and fixing a problem. It’s itemized as: ten cents wear and tear on the hammer, $149.90 for knowing where to hit it. If we systematically attribute skill to magic, that joke twists from reflecting the value of experience to mocking us with someone who knows something we don’t.
Hacking, computer whizbangery and all manner of other nerdy pursuits are beloved by Hollywood. Never has a writer been able to pull out such a variety of deus ex machina with so little effort. But show the effort. Don’t just toss a kid three PhDs and explain that he’s a genius. That means ignoring that genius or not, this guy did the legwork, he did the thousands of hours of work to be where he is at today. He wasn’t just born with it. This isn’t just a complaint about some perceived slight to the smart people, it breaks the system for everyone else too.
If knowledge is just a matter of having been born a genius and handed degrees and magic abilities by a lazy screenwriter, then there is no reason for anyone else to try at all. It becomes an excuse for anyone who isn’t a genius to not try at all, because if there is no notion that ability comes from effort, than effort becomes a waste of time. How many times do you have to tell someone to use their damned brain and figure out something for themselves, to just google for options or things to try, before you realize that they have been trained not to think in the first place, that if you have to think you’re already unqualified since someone can do it without thinking.
That’s the way you destroy a society. That’s how you end up with not enough engineers and scientists and ten million people who call tech support when their monitor flickers and a handyman when a picture won’t stay straight.
Amongst the right groups of computer people there is a hacker ethos, a culture that surrounds the term. It hasn’t the slightest thing to do with piracy, or breaking into servers, or even computers themselves at the end of the day. Hacking is using your brain, plain and simple. It’s figuring out how to make a cabinet door close that keeps swinging open, it’s tooling around under the hood to work out what that noise is coming from the engine, it’s wanting to know how things work.
You can keep your geniuses Hollywood. Geniuses without the drive to excel flip burgers along with everyone else. Don’t show me people who do magic with a few strokes on the keyboard. Show me people who think.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.