How much credit do we deserve for who we are?

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900). Credit: The Public Domain Review

I have been thinking about my previous post and what kind of person my nephew would envision if there is one single individual out there who actually invented the Internet. I wish I could ask him more about that, but I am going to take a stab in the dark and guess that his answer would be, a dude — and probably also white (I know the answer would mostly lead to Tim Berners-Lee, but the Internet and the World Wide Web is not exactly interchangeable). This was, and still is, the environment he is exposed to, and often always perpetuated by media as well as decades of generational of cultural portrayals (women stay at home, men go out to work as big bosses). Inventors and people in authority are always dudes. Despite many of his teachers are women more than men, in many cases, they are framed in nurturing roles and are not seen as someone who could, for the lack of a better word, come up with something substantial (again my brain pops up with some mental arguments of contributions of hard science vs social science) that could change the world. He still probably thinks I am a stay-at-home something-something, instead of, whatever I am doing today (I’m still pretty awesome despite academia has made me somewhat doubting my capabilities on a day-to-day basis).

I came upon this excerpt from Clive Thompson’s forthcoming book Coders:

A good programmer was concise and elegant and never wasted a word. They were poets of bits. “It was like working logic puzzles — big, complicated logic puzzles,” Wilkes says. “I still have a very picky, precise mind, to a fault. I notice pictures that are crooked on the wall.”

What sort of person possesses that kind of mentality? Back then, it was assumed to be women. They had already played a foundational role in the prehistory of computing: During World War II, women operated some of the first computational machines used for code-breaking at Bletchley Park in Britain. In the United States, by 1960, according to government statistics, more than one in four programmers were women. At M.I.T.’s Lincoln Labs in the 1960s, where Wilkes worked, she recalls that most of those the government categorized as “career programmers” were female. It wasn’t high-status work — yet.

But when (and why) did it all change?

By the ’80s, the early pioneering work done by female programmers had mostly been forgotten. In contrast, Hollywood was putting out precisely the opposite image: Computers were a male domain. In hit movies like “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Weird Science,” “Tron,” “WarGames” and others, the computer nerds were nearly always young white men. Video games, a significant gateway activity that led to an interest in computers, were pitched far more often at boys, as research in 1985 by Sara Kiesler, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, found. “In the culture, it became something that guys do and are good at,” says Kiesler, who is also a program manager at the National Science Foundation. “There were all kinds of things signaling that if you don’t have the right genes, you’re not welcome.”

We would definitely be staying at home and watching Hidden Figures and the Netflix series The Bletchley Circle this weekend.

Related: Did you know historian, sociologist, author, and activist W.E.B Dubois was also a designer? Check out his hand-drawn infographics showing another perspective of the lives of Black Americans. (There is also a book!)

Also, consider this today: How much credit do we deserve for who, and where, we end up? How much moral credit are we due for where we end up in life, and for who we end up? Conversely, how much responsibility or blame we deserve? How you answer these questions reveals a great deal about your moral worldview.

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