If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.

Often, computer geeks who started programming at a young age brag about it, as it is a source of geeky prestige. However, most computer geeks are oblivious to the fact that your parents being able to afford a computer back in the 1980s is a product of class privilege, not your innate geekiness. Additionally, the child’s gender affects how much the parents are willing to financially invest in the child’s computer education. If parents in the 1980s think that it is unlikely their eight-year-old daughter will have a career in technology, then purchasing a computer may seem like a frivolous expense.

Because of systemic racism, class differences correlate with racial demographics. In the Racialicious post Gaming Masculinity, Latoya quotes a researcher’s exchange with an African American male computer science (CS) undergraduate:

“Me and some of my black friends were talking about the other guys in CS. Some of them have been programming since they were eight. We can’t compete with that. Now, the only thing that I have been doing since I was eight is playing basketball. I would own them on the court. I mean it wouldn’t be fair, they would just stand there and I would dominate. It is sort of like that in CS.”
– Undergraduate CS Major

Those “other guys” in CS are those white, male geeks who brag in CS newsgroups about hacking away at their Commodore 64s as young children, where successive posters reveal younger and younger ages in order to trump the previous poster. This disgusting flaunting of privilege completely demoralizes those of us who gained computer access only recently. However, CS departments—which tend to be dominated by even more privileged computer geeks of an earlier era when computers were even rarer—also assume that early computer adoption is a meritocratic measure of innate interest and ability.

CS departmental culture is described in the section “Culture of a Computer Science Department” of AAUW’s Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (pp. 59-60):

Departmental culture includes the expectations, assumptions, and values that guide the actions of professors, staff, and students. Individuals may or may not be aware of the influence of departmental culture as they design and teach classes, advise students, organize activities, and take classes. Margolis and Fisher described how the computing culture reflects the norms, desires, and interests of a subset of males—those who take an early interest in computing and pursue it with passion during adolescence and into college. Margolis and Fisher point out that throughout the life cycle “computing is actively claimed as ‘guy stuff’ by boys and men and passively ceded by girls and women” (ibid., p. 4). This pattern of behavior is influenced by external forces in U.S. culture that associate success in computing more with boys and men than with girls and women and often makes women feel that they don’t belong simply because of their gender. In an interview with AAUW, Margolis explained: “There is a subset of boys and men who burn with a passion for computers and computing. Through the intensity of their interest, they both mark the field as male and enshrine in its culture their preference for single-minded intensity and focus on technology.” Within that environment this particular male model of “doing” computer science becomes the measure of success; however, because young women and men often have different experiences with computers and different motivations to study computer science, this model can alienate women.

Many young men in computer science report having had an immediate and strong engagement with the computer from an early age. That engagement intensified in middle and high school and led the young men to declare a computer science major. On the other hand, many women who are interested in computer science and have similar talent do not report a similar experience. Many of these young women report a more moderate interest in computer science, especially early on, that builds gradually. Distinguishing between an interest in computer science and an interest in computers and technology is important. Historically girls had less interest in and experience both with computers and in computer science. Today women and men are interested in and equally likely to use computers and technology for educational and communication purposes (Singh et al., 2007), but the gender gap in the study of computer science remains.

About three-quarters of the men that Margolis and Fisher interviewed fit the profile of someone with an intense and immediate attraction to computing that started at a young age, in contrast to about one-quarter of the women in their study. Fisher explained, “There is a dominant culture of ‘this is how you do computer science,’ and if you do not fit that image, that shakes confidence and interest in continuing.” According to Margolis and Fisher (2002, p. 72), “A critical part of attracting more girls and women in computer science is providing multiple ways to ‘be in’ computer science.”

In other words, at least 75% of male CS undergraduates had parents who were affluent enough to be able to afford computers at a time when computers were very expensive. Clearly, enrollment in CS is a social product of class privilege, not innate ability. Furthermore, this implies that computer geek prestige is an indicator of class privilege, in addition to being connected to technical proficiency.

A child’s gender modulates how her parents invest in their child’s education, as mentioned earlier. For example, girls, on average, typically receive their first computer at age 19, as opposed to boys at age 15. Note that age 19 is no longer high school, but university, when undergraduates have already chosen their major. If women typically receive their first computer as adults, and boys typically receive their first computer as children, then of course there is going to be a gender gap in CS enrollment.

Computer geek culture generally ignores issues of class privilege and male privilege when it comes to computer access, upholding a ranking system that mistakes the social privileges of affluent white males for inborn geek inclinations.


Update (2010/07/30):

Before commenting, please read “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it.

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99 Responses to “If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.”

  1. Adam Nash Says:

    Since a very large number of “privileged” children do not actually start hacking at the age of 8, it’s likely safe to say that hacking at an early age does demonstrate some level of interest & proclivity.

    The two conditions aren’t mutually exclusive, so it’s likely safe to say that if you start hacking at an early age you are both geeky *and* privileged.

    Adam

  2. Cessen Says:

    @Adam:

    I think I agree with what you’re saying, but I think there’s a danger of equating young interest to “true” interest. i.e. “I started at age 8, so this is really a passion for me, whereas you’re just learning it in college to get a job.”
    And I think often that is more the point when doing these age competitions than “I am more skilled than you”.

    I started practicing a lot of my interests at a young age (programming, film making, animation, etc.). And it’s very much the case that none of the other kids around me did those things, including kids that were clearly more privileged than I was. And so I do take it as a point of pride.

    But at the same time, I think I am in error if I take this as evidence of being more of a “true and passionate” geek than someone else. Even aside from the privilege issues involved, I think a lot of people (most people?) find their interests and passions later in life, and I don’t think that should put them below me. I’ve met a lot of amazing geeks that didn’t really come into it until a later age. And many of them are much more skilled than myself, too.

  3. Jayson Lorenzen Says:

    I also agree with the post, and think the analogy using basketball is brilliant. I am one of those who was programming from something like 13 or so (starting in or around 1980), and I am now a software engineer. However I was, and always thought of myself as, extremely privileged to have access to a computer. I had a single working mom and we were pretty much dirt poor. But my uncle, who lived close to us, had a C64 and he worked nights. I was able to use his Commodore and work at it all night most nights. Without that chance I might not be where I am today.

    I feel those who are jumping into CS classes later in life might be at a small disadvantage but by doing so they might also be showing the grit that will see them through it. Computer programming takes a certain type of person, and I feel that person is just a good problem solver. Being good at basketball might be because the person was better at solving the problems of the game. Did that person also have to build or improvise a hoop/court, or organize a team/series? At work I see two kinds of new hires; there are people who went to CS classes because they heard it payed well but they do not like to program (tinker, hack, make), and those who did not go to CS classes, or went after they had been working in the field, but are good problem solvers. I like this second type a lot better personally. Some of the ones that went to school just to get the CS income, do turn out to be good, but I think I see more of the other type sticking around. One of our better hires of late was a wood worker and cabinet maker, that also liked to tinker with Java, and web technologies. I don’t think he has any degree in IS or CS, he is just a hacker, tinker, or maker.

    Well I am ranting on someone else’s post, sorry. Tell em to hang in there and the ones that like it will come through.

    j

  4. Robin Says:

    The whole class angle would never have occurred to me. Although I’m female, I’m also one of those early nerds who got her first computer at age seven and have never looked back. I remember going to hacker conventions during my mid-teens, and there’d be hundreds of guys and maybe three or four females. (Although with that said, that meant we were readily embraced; we’d get all sorts of privileges extended to us that the average guy wouldn’t get. I never had a problem getting approved on any hacker BBS, for example. Entry judges might well reject nine out of ten applications from guys, but they ALWAYS approved the girls, even if the chicks didn’t know shit about hacking or phreaking.)

    But yeah, it would never have occurred to me that simply being able to brag about that is, in itself, a mark of class privilege. It meant I had a father who worked with computers at work, and was able to bring one home for me when they upgraded to better computers. They were able to afford a repairperson when I bricked my first computer by messing around in the file system. And once I showed serious aptitude, they were able to buy me a better computer a couple years later, and keep upgrading it periodically. These things were out of reach for a lot of people, and are still out of reach for a lot of people.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about. I know it’ll definitely come to mind the next time my friends start pulling our their Nerd Peens (i.e.: competing for who had the slowest baud modem, who ran a BBS first, who was the first to have a UUCP connection, etc).

  5. Jayn Says:

    Oh man, this very clearly explains a nagging frustration I had growing up–one that occurred to me but that I haven’t thought about much. I had cousins from a fairly young age who were into computers, yet while I was interested I didn’t have the same opportunities they did (partly for reasons related to me being somewhat of an outsider in the family, but that’s another rant). I still remember my first computer–it was a hand-me-down C64 that my cousins weren’t using anymore. This was ~1994 BTW, so a bit behind the curve there. Our first new machine we bought when I was 16.

    I don’t doubt that my parents would have gotten me a computer at a younger age if they’d been able to–they did get me a couple computer toys when I was younger, hell my father is a technician so I think he’d’ve been just as interested–but we just didn’t have the income that my uncles did.

  6. Restructure! Says:

    Adam Nash,

    I’m wondering though, how those people who started hacking at age 8 or a similar young age were allowed to tinker with the computer. When I was little, we had an IBM PC with a monochrome monitor that displayed two colors: black and green. However, I was not allowed to tinker with it, since it was my father’s work computer. I was taught some basic file system navigation and how to run games to play, but my dad purposely hid certain DOS commands from me, such as “del *.*”, as it might wipe out the hard drive.

    Unless you had an extra computer, why would you let an 8-year-old child “tinker” with such expensive equipment? Also, wouldn’t young children be taught, guided, and encouraged by the technically-inclined parent, versus somehow intuitively knowing how to use a computer, keyboard, CLIs, etc.?

  7. Pazi Says:

    My partner and I are quite similar in many ways: white, transgendered, queer and geeky. One thing that seems to divide us greatly is that she computers from an early age, and was programming as a child. I didn’t get my first in-home computer until I turned 17 or so, and it wasn’t connected up to the internet until well after my 18th birthday. The financial status of our parents (and to some extent, the complications of an autism spectrum disorder on my part which made school difficult and compromised my education) seems to be the biggest developmental distinction.

    The result: One of us is now a software professional, tenured in her field and recently post-op thanks to the surplus income a job in the field provides, with a lot of freedom to purchase tech toys and generally expand her geek horizons. The other is a college dropout (money issues), chronically unemployed, unable to finance her own transition and basically dependent upon handouts from loved ones any time she needs to replace her aging, outdated and often badly-worn phones or computers (and then only when it is urgently necessary).

    Both of us are quite geeky and enjoy tech, but the early support made a critical difference in our outcomes, despite having otherwise comparable experiences of life in general.

  8. Restructure! Says:

    Adam Nash,

    Also, if you arrived here via a tweet that said something like “it means you’re privileged, not geeky”, the “not geeky” part is not my contribution, and I don’t agree with the extra “not geeky” assertion. The post itself does not suggest that the two are mutually exclusive.

  9. If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged. | Geek Feminism Blog Says:

    [...] This post was originally published at Restructure! [...]

  10. temperus Says:

    I’m proud my work-all-day lower-middle-class father managed to scrounge up enough for a second-hand Atari (800XL I think) when we couldn’t afford any cartridges. I learned BASIC before I learned Calculus. I guess I am privileged – privileged to have a kick-ass dad who didn’t have enough time to use the thing himself, and a mother tolerant of all those annoying clicky-beeps. My friends all had tons of games, and fancy things like disk drives… I had Compute! magazines with pages of hexadecimal to type out. And I loved every minute of it.

  11. Tim Says:

    This is an over-generalization. My lower-middle-class father was a steel worker who worked at a gas station part time, and got laid off when the steel mills closed in the 80s. He worked his ass off and even back then recognized what the computer meant. I didn’t get to wear the “cool” clothes, or cool shoes, or have a cool bike… but I had a great computer.

    Now, having said that… he was encouraged by the school who also had a computer and he saw how interested I was in it, and I went to an elementary school that was privileged (i was at the low socio-economic end of the scale), and was privileged that my dad was awesome.

  12. jonnyV Says:

    systemic racism?
    I call B.S.
    Guess it would just be stupid and racist to use common sense in assuming those in CS have an interest in it and therefore may be more adept than another PERSON who in relative terms recently discovered or otherwise found need to pursue it.
    If you cant cut it in CS, hint for ya .. DON’T take it.
    Some people just want to justify their inadequacy without working for anything – just blame the world.

  13. Restructure! Says:

    Note to regular readers: This post has been linked from reddit/programming.


    jonnyV,

    Guess it would just be stupid and racist to use common sense in assuming those in CS have an interest in it and therefore may be more adept than another PERSON who in relative terms recently discovered or otherwise found need to pursue it.

    Yes.

  14. danratheratcbs Says:

    Well that’s assuming you were 8 in the 80′s…

  15. Dev Says:

    I think this subject is much more complicated than you give it credit for. I also think that your post dismisses the hard work and dedication involved in cultivating a skill as nothing more than privilege. As if those rich white guys just sat around and absorbed their hacker knowledge without effort.

    The post attempts to present itself as an academic aside, but I think the tone is more fitting of a rant motivated by jealousy.

  16. Restructure! Says:

    I don’t know why people assume that I, the author of this post, am technically inadequate.

  17. CE Says:

    Gender and class privilege are old stories, but are only part of the story. Certainly in 1986, when I took my first programming class in 9th or 10th grade, I wasn’t surprised that the kid who hacked the teacher’s computer turned out to be the only kid whose father had a computer and taught at the local university in the math department.

    However, by the time I got to grad school circa 1995, the main issue of sexism was largely supplanted by a growing realization that the majority of students were not from the North American continent. I was far being the only woman in the class — there were actually quite a lot of us. However, I was very much in the minority as an American. The vast majority of students were from China, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria, etc. Additionally, most of the professors were non-American, despite the university being a prominent engineering school in the Northeast US.

    This continues to be true today. Of the six IT people hired after me at my current organization, three were from India and one from South America. Supporting your observation, though — all were men. I have yet to see another woman get hired.

  18. Penguin Pete Says:

    You are just about the biggest damn troll in the geek community I’ve seen all week, with at least the biggest chip on your shoulder.

    No privilege – beyond literacy – is required to MASTER every technology. You see that library? You go in there and you read the books for free. Now you know so much about computers that the next time you see a broken one, you can fix it. Offer to trade your services and eventually you either can afford a new one or you get to keep a free one in exchange for fixing two more.

    There’s even a charity that operates on that premise. It’s called FreeGeek.

  19. Restructure! Says:

    Penguin Pete,

    You need to check your class privilege. Not everyone had parents who had time to take their children to the library, and library access often requires having a proof of address, which may make it difficult for people who are living in shelters. Also, literacy is hardly developed in most 8 year olds.

  20. Joel Says:

    From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Instruments_TI-99/4A

    “In February 1983, TI lowered the price to $150 and was selling the computers at a loss. And in June 1983, TI released a redesigned beige cost-reduced version that it sold, also at a loss, for $99. TI lost $100 million in the second quarter of 1983 and $330 million in the third quarter. In October 1983, TI announced it was exiting the home computer business. The 99/4A became the first in a series of home computers to be ‘orphaned’ by their manufacturer over the next few years, along with the Coleco Adam, Mattel Aquarius, Timex Sinclair 1000 and IBM PCjr.

    A total of 2.8 million units were shipped before the TI-99/4A was discontinued in March 1984.”

    I got this in August 1984. I have no idea what it cost, but It was probably pretty cheap by then. I was 9. This was around the same time that you could get a free Timex Sinclair 1000 by going to a ‘how to make lots of money running your own business’ introductory meeting. Computers were not just for the privileged by then. In the mid-80′s you could get a lot of (non-pc compatible) computers really cheap.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    My family didn’t have a computer when I was eight, we had a typewriter. I had so much fun with it (!) I never even thought to ask for a computer. There was also the fact that none of the kids in my school or in my neighborhood had a computer, so there was absolutely no way I could ask for something I didn’t know actually existed. Also, I don’t believe our local library at the time had anything on computers.

    But obviously, it has been assumed that everyone grew up in the same environment that privileged people did. :(

  22. Anonymous Says:

    > About three-quarters of the men that Margolis and Fisher interviewed fit the profile of someone with an intense and immediate attraction to computing that started at a young age

    –> In other words, at least 75% of male CS undergraduates had parents who were affluent enough to be able to afford computers at a time when computers were very expensive.

    Does not follow. Just because someone showed an early interest in computers, it does not mean that they came from a wealthy family who bought them a computer as a kid. Without a doubt, many CS students (and others) spent many years wanting a computer and either having to use one elsewhere or not use one at all. If you can make a stronger argument that 75% of male CS students had computers as children, please do so, but your evidence is severely lacking.

  23. LizM Says:

    @PenguinPete,

    Are you seriously arguing that access to books about fixing/hacking computers is sufficient in the absence of actual computers to practice on? Would you let someone work on your expensive computer knowing that they had never actually done so before? At age 8?

    @Joel, your point is taken in that those prices are certainly much lower than the ~$3000 my mother spent for an Apple IIe around that same time (incidentally, we weren’t remotely privileged in the sense most people use that term, but she needed it for her business). I had no idea computers could be bought so cheaply at that time. However, “really cheap” is relative, and $150 was still a lot ($300-400 in today’s dollars) for a poor family to spend on a computer for their kids to hack on and possibly destroy in so doing. It’s important to keep in mind also that perceptions about the importance of preparing children for future computer science or related careers by exposing them to computers at an early age would have differed by class background as well.

    Also, Restructure! didn’t mention specific years, but I’m given to understand that the computers you mention were part of a price war that didn’t last too long before many manufacturers decided to leave computers alone. In other words, you may have been able to get a $150 computer briefly in 1983 or 1984, but the same would not have been true in 1979 or in 1990. I know I had to spend like two grand or something for the first computer I bought when I started college in 1995, and it was used and too slow to run Win95, and I had to get a bank loan and finance it over 24 months in order to afford it.

    Regardless of who could have theoretically afforded what computer when, though, it’s clear that most people didn’t actually have one until much later than any of us are talking about. According to a 1997 paper issued by the U.S. Census bureau, in 1984, only 7.9 percent of households surveyed had home computers. For those with incomes of less than $10,000, it was about 1.7%. Computer ownership also varied by race and educational level, although I’m not sure how important these factors would be if you controlled for income disparities. This same source also indicates that wealthier kids were almost twice as likely to have access to computers at school as the poorest kids in 1984. Even by 1997, only 36.6% of all households surveyed had computers in the home. (Apologies to Restructure for being U.S.-centric, but I’d be surprised if statistics for other Western countries were substantially different.)

    http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/computer/confpap99.pdf

  24. mathew Says:

    ZX-81, $100.

    I know a couple of people who started their path to software engineer that way. Saved up paper route money to buy the computer.

    So while a privileged background may have made things easier for some, like it makes everything easier, it’s not the case that hacking since age 8 means you must have come from a privileged background.

  25. Restructure! Says:

    mathew,

    Did they work as paper boys before age 8?

  26. Restructure! Says:

    Does not follow. Just because someone showed an early interest in computers, it does not mean that they came from a wealthy family who bought them a computer as a kid. Without a doubt, many CS students (and others) spent many years wanting a computer and either having to use one elsewhere or not use one at all. If you can make a stronger argument that 75% of male CS students had computers as children, please do so, but your evidence is severely lacking.

    Yes, but we’re talking about intense interest, which would be fueled only by actually interacting with a computer.

  27. noop Says:

    First, sorry for bad english.
    I was born in average middle lower class family. Later i grew with mother who didn’t care much about my interests in computing being too busy at work. But, I started reading at 4, and had access to some good books and magazines at school library. During school i could play game consoles only by offering simple repair services to other, more lucky children. I got my first, horribly outdated ZX Spectrum only at 15, but before that I already learned several programming languages using school computers. Today I’m skilled programmer and paid very nice by my country standards and respected at my job.

    Here’s what I’m trying to say. There is no excuse for not teaching you children to read and not giving them access to libraries and book stores. You don’t have to be rich for that. If you earn enough to pay for food and housing, you should be able to afford some books for your child and that’s already enough. Everything else is not important, but still can help, of course.

  28. Tubby Says:

    As a teen in the 70s, I was privileged only in the curiosity and love of science that my parents gave me. Sure, if I had Dad’s wallet to lean on I might have bought an assembled Heathkit. But instead, I bagged groceries, threw papers and went in with a buddy so we could wire up an Elf together. We learned a heck of a lot more that way, I’ll tell you.

    To restate, the American political obsession with economic privilege is stupid and tiresome. There is a more important privilege, and a more destructive gap manifested in our values and ethics, particular as perpetuated by our families. It just doesn’t make flashy copy.

  29. Daniel Martin Says:

    Penguin Pete, I want to hang out in your public library that apparently has computer books that tell you enough to “MASTER every technology”. To get books on computers that are less than twenty years old and tell me something I don’t already know, I have to go to somewhere other than the local public library.

    And it’s a decent library system for most things – http://www.bcls.lib.nj.us – but for technical knowledge? You’re really looking in the wrong place. Perhaps you meant the library at my local community college? I think I saw one of the Knuth volumes there, once. (Checking the catalog shows that they actually have two! Too bad that’s two copies of volume 2 – I guess volumes 1 and 3 aren’t important)

    I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible to get some computer knowledge starting from just a library card and a desire to learn, but the idea that everyone who’s literate has even vaguely equal opportunities is just bizarre.

  30. Jason Black Says:

    I get the point of this article. I really do. I can’t argue that broad socio-economic forces in the 80s and early 90s did largely determine which kids had access to home computers and which didn’t.

    But when I actually think about my own life and the other kids I knew, this article gets me a little steamed because I feel like you’re pissing on my childhood.

    Allow me to clarify.

    I grew up in a pretty redneck town in Arizona. We weren’t even close to upper class, or even to upper middle class. I’m the kid who got teased for wearing “floods” because my mom couldn’t buy pants fast enough to keep up with my growth. My first hands-on computer was at school, when I was 11. Competition for the ONE machine (a black-and-white TRS-80 Model 2) was fierce. But that’s where I cut my teeth on BASIC.

    Hooked, I saved my own money for literally three years until I could buy my own, a TRS-80 Color Computer (16K! Woot!). I mowed lawns all summer one year so I could buy a real 80-column dot matrix printer. I scrimped and saved in high school to afford the crappy-ass floppy drive Radio Shack was then manufacturing for the thing. But hey, it still beat the pants off of a tape drive.

    When I went into high school, my parents made what they considered to be a sacrifice on behalf of my education: they sent me to a private Jesuit high school. We had moved by then, and lived in a city big enough to have such a thing. My classmates were all definitely upper class and flat-out rich kids. I was the kid on financial aid, the one who did janitorial duties at school on weekends to help with the tuition so my parents could just barely afford it. And yes, I still got teased for wearing floods.

    Now, the other kids in my school, had they wanted to have a computer, their parents would have had no trouble buying them a top-of-the-line, 8088, IBM PJ Jr. But they didn’t. None of them gave a shit about computing. It wasn’t cool. These were kids whose goals in life included making the football team, banging cheerleaders from the Jesuit girl’s school next door, and arguing over who had been given the cooler new car for their sixteenth birthdays.

    I had a computer, despite barely having two quarters to rub together, because I wanted it enough to make it happen. And when I think about the few other kids I knew who also had microcomputers back in those days, the stories are ALL similar: every damn one of them was in similar financial circumstances to mine, and they all found ways to earn and save their own money to buy a machine.

    Would it have been harder to get a computer had I been black? Yeah, probably. But for myself and my other computer-owning friends, getting one wasn’t by any stretch easy.

    We had computers exactly because we were innately geeky enough. We made it happen, despite our circumstances. The kids who didn’t face the same obstacles we faced, didn’t.

  31. Jayn Says:

    Daniel: or for that matter, I would’ve loved to be able to live somewhere where the local library was easily accessible (screw computers, just being able to borrow novels regularly was beyond me). I grew up in the back end of nowhere–you weren’t getting anywhere by foot or bike.

    it gets a little frustrating for me to listen to some of the stories people tell about growing poor in the city, because any town would’ve been like Disneyland to me, compared to where I lived. (Sorry to say, Jason, but I feel a little like you’re pissing on MY childhood now. Just living close to a population center was a privilege I always wanted as a kid, and never got until I left for university. Which isn’t to say I’m unhappy with how my life turned out, but looking back I wonder how I didn’t go batshit insane from boredom)

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  33. queensgradstudy Says:

    Pazi,

    You seem to be resentful of a lot of things, and placing the blame squarely on your family for not being able to provide you with a computer.

    My family got a computer (4kb of RAM) when I was 17; until then, I had only put my hands on a keyboard once. My high school had no computers until my senior year, when they got 3; but they were for freshmen and we weren’t allowed to touch them. In university, I was able to take a single CompSci course (in Fortran on a mainframe). We got a lab of PCs to use when I was in my senior year there.

    The Internet wasn’t widely available until I was over 30; I got an AOL account when I was 33.

    Nonetheless, I am an IT professional, working at a large university. There may indeed be reasons you didn’t end up in the field you wish, but I don’t think lack of access was one of them. I got a chemical engineering degree, was a volunteer in Africa, and taught English in Japan before I gave in and became a professional developer in my mid-30s.

  34. Brett Glass Says:

    I started programming at an early age, but not because my parents were rich. I got time at a local community college.

  35. Petra Says:

    This assumes to be a good geek you have to start young. I didn’t seriously studying computer science until I was 45. I am now in graduate school studying computer science at age 49. Before I just used computers as a tool. What I lacked in computer science training before age 45, I made up for in math training having done graduate level math. If you have good math skills you can become a geek.

  36. Mackenzie Says:

    There’s a bit generational to this. Having a computer as a kid in 1980 (when they were $1000 and fairly rare) versus as a kid in 1998, when they were $300 and getting to be very common (free AOL CDs everywhere, school expecting you to have Microsoft Word, etc.).

    I was 7 when I got my first computer in 1995 or 1996. It was made in 1982, and my dad picked it up by way of freecycling (though that term certainly didn’t exist yet).

    Before getting my laptop for college, my experience with computers was that they should cost no more than $350 and should last at least 6 years. I still maintain that any desktop under 10 years old is worth keeping.

  37. Mike Roberts Says:

    I started programming when I was 9 with a $215 Radio Shack Coco II. They were unusual in the 80′s, but not prohibitively expensive.

    Even back then, there were two types of computer people, those who used the software that came with it and those that learned how to program. The guy who played basketball may still have spent all of his time playing basketball because that’s what his friends did. You still have to be the right kind of person to program at 8 or 9 years old.

  38. PJ Eby Says:

    My parents couldn’t afford a computer when I was a kid, so I read books and magazines from the public library, wrote programs on cheap paper, and played them out in my head. I learned enough to get odd jobs involving computers, and saved up to buy one of my own.

    Parents and privilege didn’t have anything to do with it. Interest and dedication did.

    Oh, and the library and jobs in question were in a third-world country: specifically, a tiny Caribbean island. So, first-world privilege isn’t really an issue here either.

    The idea that how young you started is “disgusting privilege” makes no sense to me. Should I complain about the kids who got hold of an Altair a few years before I managed to save up for a TRS-80?

  39. Mikael O Bonnier Says:

    We were rather poor since my father died when I was very young. I saved up money from working as an ad deliverer. I bought a Sinclair ZX81 in 1981 for $99 when I was 15 (and now you can buy used ones for much less and also ZX Spectrum). You can find different computer languages for it. I used BASIC, Forth, and Z80 Assembly. You can also buy a used Commodore 64 with disk drive for $50. Then you can program it in many languages. Use old TV:s as monitors. These systems are enough to learn basic computer science. You can also cheaply buy used computer books for your system. Another option is to buy a cheap used PC, say a laptop, and run Basic Linux or Puppy Linux on it. You can also program a used graphing calculator, say a Texas Instruments TI-83 for $15. I bought a programmable calculator TI-57 LCD when I was 16 (after working as a janitor during the summer). Now you can also buy a used mobile phone for $10 that has Java ME MIDP 2 CLDC 1.1. Then you can learn 6502 assembly and all CS concepts by programming on the phone if you load it with JBit. It would be possible to develop other programming languages that could be used directly from the phone. Since you have, for the last 30 years, been able to buy programmable computers for less than basket equipment there is nothing to complain about. Poor people, stop whining and do the right thing. Of course you would need, say a school computer with Internet and a printer to buy these things and print some documentation if you don’t have Internet at home.

  40. John Smith Says:

    I am a white, male geek, and although I don’t (usually) brag in CS newsgroups about hacking away at my Commodore 64s as a young child, I did. At the age of 9, my parents and I made a deal that I had to save up to pay for half of it. So over the next 2 years I worked doing odd jobs for friends and neighbors, and I went without birthday and xmas presents, preferring ‘donations’ to my C64 fund, all to save up that half. It gave my parents time to save up their half too. I think initially my parents thought that me wanting a C64 was just a ‘phase’, and secretly hoped I wouldn’t be able to save my half, so they didn’t have to find a way to come up with their half.
    Anyway, if a kid has a genuine interest in computers (as I did) and they’re committed to it (as I was), then not being ‘affluent’ isn’t really an excuse.

  41. iwas8too Says:

    A few quick comments. First, the claim that early exposure to computers correlates with social class is a very *narrow* claim and I think hard to dispute.

    One could just as accurately claim that a kid owning more than 3 pairs of shoes that were less than 3 months old is a sign of social class. Duh.

    My parents bought me computers (which based on their income level) cost 5% of their gross income! That is crazy and financially imprudent. I would lust after computers in the store, in catalogs, etc. before I got one. I drooled and dreamed about them. Who does this for a kid!

    So maybe it’s a sign of “class” that they were willing to sacrifice (aka invest) in their kids. But this fails the typical Marxist definition of class purely as wealth.

    So I think the authors need to clarify how they define class. One one hand, it’s trivial that any expensive toy will be disproportionally purchased by wealthier families. On the other hand, the sort of early nurturing that can lead to a kid really thriving is not as much a function of wealth (though surely the single parent working 60 hours per week to make ends meet will offer less such nurturing).

    Why boys? Blame the culture. Boys are encouraged to do fighting, competitive things, and video games are a huge driver for computer purchases.

    Why not girls? Girls are encouraged to be nurturing and to play with dolls, etc. I imagine most girls who begged for a computer as much as I did would have gotten one, or at least their parents’ class would not have been a factor (unless lower class people are more sexist, which opens up a can of worms for the article’s hypothesis b/c then one would have to blame their own sexist parents rather than the elitist parents of cocky CS boys.).

    I have a younger sister and a younger brother, and I tried VERY hard to get both of them interested in programming, but neither of them was remotely interested. Our parents were equally supportive of all three of us and I was ready/willing/able to teach them everything I knew.

    Computers are unique in that they (at the time I was 8) offered a large and unencumbered creative sandbox to play in. It is a coincidence that the skills I learned at 8 had bearing on my future career. Nobody expects a kid to be doing something that will, and I would guess it’d actually be discouraged by many parents and seen as un-childlike.

    But surely other kids learn valuable (financially) skills as children. However adults constrain most childhood activities FAR more than they constrained my use of BASIC as a kid. Why? B/c my parents had no clue what I was doing, found all of it highly impressive, and could not meddle in it, ruin it, or indicate that I’d failed at it.

    Contrast this with a young girl who designs a few outfits for her dolls and imagine a parent telling her how the colors don’t match or the fabric is wrong or how it’s too revealing, etc.

    Some questions I think are important are “How can we create the same kind of amazing, creative sandbox for all kids? How do we (as parents) ruin kids’ games and make them less fun and less infinite?”

    It’s a fluke that the economy made my childhood game lucrative today…. that’s not something we can predict, control, etc. The key question is, how can we make all childhood games as utterly fascinating, infinite, and meaningful as my explorations with computers were that led me to find ongoing fascination and fun as an adult?

  42. Mikael O Bonnier Says:

    I guess I should add that I went to a computer science class in school earlier in 1981 when I was 14. That used the Swedish computer ABC 80. Before that I had read computer books in the public library and dry run programs. I had heard about relational databases on radio when I was perhaps 10 and thought that was very interesting.

  43. Amy Says:

    This was a great post. Though, it made me feel kinda old, as the discussion doesn’t really apply to me (the Apple I came out when I was in high school, so there was no way I would have been hacking when I was 8).

    Interestingly, there was much LESS of a gender disparity in computing when I was in college/grad school, than there is now. (The statistics are pretty shocking). I wonder if this could be due in part to PCs being basically unavailable when people my age were kids? We mostly all just encountered them in college.
    (Sadly though, the disparity in racial demographics did not seem any less then than now.)

  44. Not_your_cliche Says:

    I started programming in earnest at 16, after 2 years putting every penny I had or earned or received for birthdays, Christmas etc. in my savings account for this incredibly expensive piece of equipment (it was 87) and I wanted a C64 costing more than my laptop now. I wanted it because I won 1 day of computing (C64) at a local radio station and I took to it like a fish to water. I never used a computer before and at the end of the day I had written my first program. For two years I had just a book on programming, which I would read and memorize (yes you can learn programming out of a book with no computer, if you are desperate enough). So
    a) you can be a programmer starting at 16 not at 8
    b) being goal-oriented and stubborn helps
    c) one afternoon of coding is normally enough to put b) into good use
    d) you can actually survive being the only girl in the computer course (we had an experimental lab pretty early, probably financed by alumni of the school)
    e) today you can start programming with your cellphone, people who have money for a television, have enough money for the privilege to give their children some programmable machine, old with Linux is enough to start and better than fancy anyway
    f) I was privileged, not because we had money, but because my mother always answered my questions and encouraged me and handed me a library card early in my life

  45. Anonymous Says:

    I agree with an earlier post in this thread. I started at an early age with programmable calculators (my aunt was dating a relatively rich uncle who owned a TI calculator that could be programmed with 32 steps – just about enough to solve a quadratic equation!) – My family was by no means rich – I had to save like mad doing summer jobs before I progressed to a casio fx-602p.

    Eventually, I joined a local computer club where the rich/middle class kid would come along and show off their new toys – pretty much starting with the Sinclair zx-80 and progressing upwards. The were absolutely no girls in the club – which was a great shame in my opinion. It was a good way of relatively poor kids like me to get exposure to this kit, which, at the time, there would be no way I could of afforded – so for that I am at least grateful!

    Nowadays I guess everyone and anyone can afford a computer in one form or another – which is a great improvement from my formative years. Nowadays, I think that this class divide issue is not so great – I see a large number of CS graduates coming through my doors with very varied background (more varied than 10 years ago, where typically kids came from white collar, anglo saxon, male stock).

    My concern at the moment is not where the CS graduates came from, but where they are going to? With an ageing population and retirement ages increasing because or pension funds not being able to cope (thanks credit cruntch) are employers going to be willing to keep these aging CS grads on, or should we start training up on basket weaving and busking :)

  46. Daniel Martin Says:

    Petra, you said This assumes to be a good geek you have to start young.

    I’m not sure what “this” you’re referring to, but the whole point of the post is that there are serious class-, gender- and race-based problems with the assumption that in order to be a good geek, you must start young. (And that such assumptions are often made in various geek communities)

    The CS section in the linked AAUW report in fact explicitly says that breaking the assumption that one must have written programs prior to university is one of the keys to increasing the portion of CS majors who aren’t white men.

  47. LizM Says:

    Sigh. Looks like this thread is degenerating into a special type of e-peen contest, in which “I was hacking from age eight” is bested with “Oh yeah? Not only was I hacking at age eight, but I had to walk 10 miles in the freezing rain and snow to return library books in order to do so!” Restructure! wasn’t saying you have to hack at age 8 in order to be good or successful programmer, etc. In fact, in comments she makes on the linked Racialicious post Gaming Masculinity, she specifically makes the point that you don’t have to start ridiculously young. Rather, this is the point of the post as I read it:

    “Computer geek culture generally ignores issues of class privilege and male privilege when it comes to computer access, upholding a ranking system that mistakes the social privileges of affluent white males for inborn geek inclinations.”

    Yes, it was possible for some kids whose parents couldn’t just buy them a computer because they asked for one to learn programming from library books and borrowed access to computers or to mow lawns to save money to buy their own computer. This doesn’t mean that no privilege is at play even for these kids.

    For instance, libraries vary greatly in what they are able to provide based on the wealth of the surrounding community that funds them. Rural kids are likely to have less access to a high-quality library than urban and suburban kids. Kids not in walking or public transportation distance to a library will need their parents to take them, which partly depends on the parents to have leisure time and a car to do so. The ability to mow other people’s lawns for money necessitates living somewhere (e.g., the suburbs or certain types of urban neighborhoods) where this is a viable way to make money; you need neighbors close by who probably own their own homes, who have yards, who are willing and can afford to pay a local kid for yardwork. Kids living on a farm are likely to have serious amounts of chores at home and less likely to have the time to devote to doing chores for other people. Boys are much more likely than girls to be encouraged to mow lawns or take a paper route to make money.

    Not to mention that some families that couldn’t afford computers also had trouble meeting basic household expenses; for such families, money earned by a child is less likely to be “spending money” for that child and more likely to go toward household expenses or things that child actually needs. I had a paper route when I was about 11 and a regular job from 16 on. Some of the money I earned went toward CDs and magazines and so on, but a lot went to buying myself clothes, shoes, and school supplies. I certainly never saved enough to buy a computer, and that was with my bosses fudging my paperwork so I could work more hours than my minor student work permit was meant to allow, and when I was able to save a little money, I felt that I had to keep it in the bank in case my mother needed it for something (which actually happened several times).

    Ultimately, how do we expect a kid who may have literally never used a computer to develop a strong interest in programming? A few may, sure, but this is clearly less likely than for a kid with regular access to computers to decide that he or she likes them and wants to learn more about them. Many of the above posters have shared their bootstrappy “against-all-odds” narratives without seeming to realize that that’s what they are. Some people will beat the odds, but beating the odds doesn’t change what those odds were to begin with. These narratives are great for encouraging poor kids to try to achieve to their fullest, but they shouldn’t be used to dismiss the effects of privilege. Kids privileged enough to have computers around the house and be allowed to program on them didn’t have to mow lawns and go without Christmas presents in order to learn to program. Thus, learning how to program is less a marker of “inborn geek inclinations” for these kids than for those that had to go to great lengths to access computers.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t go on to learn programming or that you can’t study CS if you didn’t have a computer to hack when you were in training pants. Of course you can. It also doesn’t suggest that you weren’t more interested in computers than (other) kids who had access to them at home but never learned to hack them. Since most kids with access to computers probably weren’t interested in learning to program them, those who did were in some sense exceptional.

    It does mean that if you were an 8-year-old hacker, you were privileged (if not always wealthy per se) *as well as* intensely interested in computers. (The more interested you were, presumably the less privileged you would have to have been; similarly, the more privileged you were, the less interested you would have needed to be.) Focusing on the “innate geek” part and totally disregarding or even denying the gender, race and class privilege aspect creates a limiting and destructive narrative within computer geek culture and ostracizes those who lacked privilege, such as the black male CS students in the story who were out playing basketball when some of their colleagues were hacking the family C64.

  48. Restructure! Says:

    Thanks, LizM. That was a great comment.

  49. Kyzer Says:

    If “privileged” meant “I didn’t have to cook and clean for my abusive, lazy alcoholic parents, lived near a city in a first world country where there wasn’t gang violence, etc.”, then sure – I’m privileged. But so were an awful lot of people. Most of the UK population met these criteria in the 1980s. My family were firmly working class (but did have jobs) but I was the first in my family to go to university.

    If your idea of a “computer” is one of these bloody expensive ones the Americans preferred (IBM PCs, Amiga 2000s, etc) instead of a cheap ZX Spectrum (£129 new compared to £800 for a “cheap” IBM PC, far less second hand) that plugs into the family TV, then sure computer ownership is for the rich white privileged elite. The UK population had cheap computers and decent public libraries thanks to Andrew Carnegie.

    Owning a computer doesn’t make you a programmer. Wanting to program one, and IGNORING social and parental pressure to go play football or basketball or whatever in order to focus on programming, and learning about it in the library, that’s what makes you programmer. And I feel safe saying that most children in the UK in the 1980s had good opportunity to learn to program if they wanted. Very few took that opportunity because it didn’t excite them like it excited me. It thrilled me back then and it still does today.

    So what do you want to do? Do you want to fill computer science departments with people who don’t really have a passion for CS, but happen to be female or black? Why? What would that prove? I’d like there to be more passionate CS geeks, but I’m not going to assume that there are millions of us out there. We are our own minority.

    If kids are passionate about something, it doesn’t matter what their colour, gender or social status is, they will struggle to get what they want whatever the circumstances. I didn’t need to be encouraged into computing by parents or culture, I just saw what computers did when I was young and thought “WOW!”, in much the same way young kids stereotypically seem to like dinosaurs or robots.

  50. Jason Black Says:

    @Kyzer: “Wanting to program one, and IGNORING social and parental pressure to go play football or basketball or whatever in order to focus on programming, and learning about it in the library, that’s what makes you programmer.”

    Amen.

    @LizM: “It does mean that if you were an 8-year-old hacker, you were privileged (if not always wealthy per se) *as well as* intensely interested in computers. (The more
    interested you were, presumably the less privileged you would have to have been; similarly, the more privileged you were, the less interested you would have needed to be.)”

    This is where we disagree.

    Look, I don’t deny that issues of race and class privilege have strong effects on people’s general long-term earning ability, access to education, and so forth. Where I disagree with the premise of this article (and your admirably eloquent support of it) is this:

    The article puts forth a hypothesis, one which you’ve summarized very nicely, that one can essentially trade privilege for passion along some sort of sliding scale. That, as you put it, the more privileged you were, the less passionate you needed to be about computing in the first place.

    However, that hypothesis makes a prediction: we should expect children of privilege to pursue computing at higher rates than their non-privileged counterparts.

    Consider: under a null-hypothesis that innate geekiness (which I will loosely define as an a-priori inclination towards computing that comes from deep within one’s self) is not correlated with privilege we should expect some percentage X of the population _across all social strata_ to exhibit innate geekiness. That is, if we had some sort of geekiness detector that we could wave over newborn infants to measure it, we’d expect to find values of X within poor populations to match those in rich populations, at least to within sampling noise.

    The article’s assertion, and what you’re saying, is that fewer of the poor X% are going to actually succeed in gaining access to computing at an early age, because the obstacles they face are greater, while more of the rich X% will do so because the obstacles they face are less severe.

    Now, if one can in fact excercise the benefits of privilege to make up for shortcomings in innate geekiness, then we have a prediction:

    Rich X%-ers with only mild innate geekiness will blossom into kick-ass hackers at higher rates than their poor counterparts because it’s easier for them to get their hands on a computer.

    On the surface, this argument feels quite plausible. It sounds right. I get it. But it doesn’t match my experience.

    I recognize that I’m working from a small sample set, but nevertheless, that prediction is not borne out at all in the data of my experience.

    As I said, I had the dubious fortune to go to high school with some three-hundred snobby rich kids who had privilege in spades. The article’s hypothesis predicts that X% of them should have been able to parlay their privilege into computer expertise, _regardless of mild or strong innate geekiness_. Conversely, the article predicts that a smaller fraction, perhaps only 0.1*X, of non-privileged innate geeks should have achieved the same expertise, on the strength of our unusually high degrees of innate geekiness.

    Yet, when I look back on the kids I actually knew who, however they managed it, got ahold of computers and bothered to learn how to do anything with them, not a damn one of them was in the rich set. They could have. It would have been easy for them. But they didn’t.

    I think Kyzer’s comment comes closest to explaining why: those kids had _every_ door open for them. They had the luxury of choosing how to be successful during their pre-teen and high school years. Adolescence being what it is, a time of intense pressure to fit in and achieve success in the _social_ pecking order of the high school community, those kids somewhat naturally chose to parlay their privilege into social success (they used their money to acquire the materials to host underage keggers on weekends when their parents were out of town; they showed off their new cars when they turned 16 and took the girls out for rides; they could afford to use fashion as a mark of prestige and hip, “in-ness”; etc) rather than academic success.

    Notice, though, the way you’ve explained the article’s premise in terms of a sliding scale between innate geekiness and privilege _also supports the claim of people like me who did achieve early-life access to computing_. It’s EXACTLY because we were in the 0.1*X fraction, who had enough passion for it to make it happen, that we did make it happen.

    Those of us who had fewer doors open to us had to choose with considerably more care. Not having the opportunity to parlay upper class privilege into social success, we were in a sense doubly-unprivileged. Lack of money was its own hurdle in everything we did, but lack of money was also a stigma within our peer group that closed many of the doors of social success to us. Those of us who were innately geeky to the degree of 0.1*X, we made computing happen for ourselves because that was one door to success that was socially open to us (that is, nobody was pressuring us away from it), and because it’s the door we most strongly longed to go through.

    It’s a conundrum. On the surface, one would think that privilege should have led to the existence of a lot of upper class CS whiz-kids. It should have. You would think it would. But it doesn’t match the paths any of the actual computer jockeys I knew back in those days took in successfully going through that particular door.

    I suppose it’s possible that some sort of large scale survey of kids who came of age in the 80s and early 90s would find these “programmers of privilege”. But I didn’t see them, and at that time I was in a place where, if they existed, I certainly should have seen them. Instead, all I can do is look around at the rich kids I grew up with and ask “ok, so where were they?”

  51. iwas8too Says:

    LizM –

    I appreciate your argument, but how is computer science any different from any other career in this respect?

    Suppose a young woman is interested in fashion design or medicine. Isn’t she more likely to be given significantly more support toward either of those goals if she’s from a marginally wealthier family compared to a marginally poorer one?

    Notice that the article does not claim that CS contains higher numbers of kids who grew up marginally richer than any other comparable profession.

    Instead, the complaint seems to be focused on the lore of the 8 year old coder where the young age is viewed within the profession as a badge of honor.

    Let’s compare some other disciplines… Are there any fields in which starting late and having no advantages count as a badge of honor? Picture a doctor saying, “Yeah actually I never wanted to be a doctor at all or had the slightest interest, but then a few years ago I decided I was tired of being poor”.

    Maybe in fields where latent talent wins the contest such a boast would connote status: “Yeah I was a desk clerk at a hotel but I heard about tryouts and so I went to the batting cages for a few weeks and now I’m starting for the Yankees”, or “I was homeless and they were shooting a movie and I was asked to be an extra and then the next thing I knew I was being cast in all sorts of roles, etc.”.

    These “latent talent” stories are pretty much fairy tale stories.

    In the real world, success is usually a function of passion and years and years of dedication.

    It’s trivially true that anyone with access to more resources is more likely to indulge a passion, but unless you idealize the “latent talent” narrative, what’s so horrible about a narrative that focuses on early passion?

    What, I ask, do you think the ideal world would offer in the way of CS professional bragging rights?

  52. pinboard July 30, 2010 — arghh.net Says:

    [...] If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged. « Restructure! "If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged" via @laurelatoreilly [...]

  53. James Says:

    Your assumptions are simple and irritating.

    Some of us used the computer at school any chance we could because it was the only computer available in our TOWN.

    Some of us didn’t have parents who could afford a computer.

    Some of us read magazines and books and went to the library because we DID have passion to learn about anything computer related.

    Some of us wanted to learn how to build the games we had played.

    Some of us were lucky enough to visit our more wealthy relatives on occasion, who would let us use their computer during the visit.

    Some of us were poor, but still have hacked since we were 8, even though we didn’t own a computer ourselves. We sure were jealous of our friends though.

    Not all of us were privileged. Some of us worked jobs as children, some of us stayed after school to use the computer and walked home at night in the snow.

    Sour grapes much?

    You could make this kind of silly correlation with anything:

    “The best drivers are people who were privileged as children and whose parents bought them cars at 16.”

    “The best football players are the ones whose parents bought them a football very young.”

    “People who are more skilled at swimming had pools as children and people who are faster runners had full-sized tracks in their back yard.”

  54. Rob Sayers Says:

    @james I came here to say pretty much the same thing.

    I was obsessed with computers since I first discovered them, I read piles of magazines before I ever touched a keyboard. Once we had them at school, I used them every chance I got. My main privilege was the fact that the middle school staff recognized my passion and bent the rules to allow me to use them more often.

    In fact, being poor helped quite a bit, my first computer was an Apple II in the mid 90′s. It was a dinosaur when I got it, but it’s open/hacker friendly nature and the fact I had many programming books encouraged me to explore and program. Had I been privileged, I would have had a newer PC with no obvious programming environment and would have been doing the same thing all the other kids were doing with their computers instead of learning programming.

  55. Anonymous Says:

    “Picture a doctor saying, “Yeah actually I never wanted to be a doctor at all or had the slightest interest, but then a few years ago I decided I was tired of being poor””

    Find me a group of doctors trying to outdo each other by having started performing surgery at young ages and you may have a point.

    Some people know what they want to do from a young age. Others bounce around a lot before settling on something (my 50-year-old MIL is STILL bouncing around). Either is fine, but when people act as if the first is better than the latter, that’s when we have problems. Neither is an indicator of skill levels.

  56. iwas8too Says:

    @anonymous

    I know a lot of doctors and the typical story is that they had some event or situation in their young life that motivated them to pursue medicine, usually a sick relative (and sometimes they themselves were sick). This is how they developed passion about medicine from a young age, often manifesting this by volunteering in a hospital, etc.

    One of my friends, a surgeon, used to travel to the Philippines and perform surgeries during undergrad b/c lax regulation allowed him to do this.

  57. iwas8too Says:

    Clarification: I used the doctor example b/c I wanted to point out how we *expect* passion/caring in our doctors and would be a bit offended if we thought they were in it for the money, etc. But when it’s CS and someone is bragging about a lifelong passion suddenly it’s about class privilege :)

  58. Anonymous Says:

    There’s a difference between “I was interested in this since I was 8″ and “I was doing this since I was 8,” especially when the latter carries the tone of “and thus I’m leeter than you.”

    Granted, with the doctor situation, I don’t know any, so no comments on that specific area. But hearing “I was hacking when I was 8″ when you yourself didn’t even get to touch a computer until you were 10…gets a little frustrating. It’s like being told you’re inferior because of something you couldn’t even control.

    (I’ll admit this hits a few nerves with me, due to personal circumstances.)

  59. iwas8too Says:

    @anonymous

    True, but that sort of attitude is annoying in any area of life. Until I read this thread, I hadn’t know that very many other people started at age 8 like I did. :)

  60. LizM Says:

    @Restructure!: Aw, a compliment from Restructure! !! I am duly flattered!

    @Kyzer: Yes, that is privilege, and yes, an awful lot of people are privileged. 49% of the population have male privilege, X% of the population (depending on your country) has white privilege. You don’t have to be in the top 5% of household income to have privilege, although of course if you are, you have a lot of privilege.

    I was born in ’77, so without doing research I haven’t got time to do, I couldn’t speak with knowledge or conviction about the availability of computers at lower price points, nor do I have any clue about what computers Brits or other non-US Americans preferred in the mid-1980s, so I’ll defer to you on that. There are actually 2.5 times as many Carnegie libraries in the US as in the UK and Ireland (for a much larger population of course), but I’ve never been to one and couldn’t speak to the level of computer access they provided here in the 80s. I’m from a midwestern university town that just about worships its public library, and this is reflected in its much-greater-than-average funding, but the only thing you could use their computers for in the mid- to late-80s was looking at the library catalog as far as I know.

    But these specifics are limited in usefulness, I think; you say you saw what computers did and fell in love with them, but what if you hadn’t seen them? Most schools didn’t have computers available to kids in the 80s where I was in school (we had one per classroom at one elementary school I went to and none at the second, which oddly was in a much wealthier neighborhood, but the information I found suggests the vast majority of all public US schools had none at all), and I can think of only one person I knew who had a computer at home before like 1990, and she had two working professional parents (a lawyer and a physical therapist, I believe). Also, you ask if I “want to fill computer science departments with people who don’t really have a passion for CS, but happen to be female or black.” Assuming that you don’t think that more white males than others are *innately* passionate about CS (granted that most white males are not)–as in, there’s some sort of recessive gene or something–don’t you think participants in the CS geek subculture might start thinking of more ways to instill a passion for CS in women and non-whites, hopefully before they have to choose a major? I would hope that every department is made up of people passionate about their subject, but I don’t think what I wrote before really touches on what CS departments should do to close gender and racial gaps, which wasn’t really the point of the post.

    @Jason: Thanks for your response. I am not a programmer, a geek, or a programming geek (well, I may be a little geeky, but not along the CS lines, and not enough to have serious geek cred), so I don’t have personal experience to draw on except for having had some CS acquaintances (who were all white, male and upper middle class). I am reconsidering the way I expressed my thought about a continuum of privilege and interest; it seems extremely likely to me that what you are saying is true, that the richest kids were not the ones drawn to programming when compared with, say, middle-class peers, despite greater access to computers, precisely because their social opportunities weren’t as limited by lack of wealth and by factors such as physical attractiveness or social adeptness (i.e., the richer you are, the less attractive and suave you have to be to have a cool social life). Also, in my experience in the 80s (and it certainly seems even more true now), the very richest kids had little unstructured/unsupervised time compared with less wealthy kids, which is what would seem necessary in this case. A middle-class kid might have the privilege to wander down to the library when a rich kid is off at yachting camp or someplace. Thus, I would expect to see middle- to lower-upper-middle-class white males at the top of the bell curve–people with enough privilege to have and pursue such an interest but not so much that it prevents them from having or pursuing it. A wealthy kid would still have to have less passion in order to access a computer on a regular basis than a poor kid, but certainly for programming you would have to have enough interest to play around on the family computer beyond playing Space Invaders, which is more interest than most kids of any class probably had. Like, for me, reading was one of the things I was extremely passionate about, so when we couldn’t afford to go to the bookstore and buy books, I would get them from the library or read whatever I could get for $0.10 at a yard sale. This doesn’t change the fact that poorer kids in general lag behind richer kids on measures like reading skills or number of books they’ve read, both statistically and in my own experience, or the likelihood that, if I had been Black, I would have been too distracted by my inability to relate to 99% of protagonists to develop a passion in the first place.

    But, again, money isn’t the only type of privilege at play here. E.g., it’s much harder for girls to pursue unpopular interests or ones that they are discouraged from pursuing by parents or peers because we are so socialized to be people-pleasers and to put others’ wishes above our own interests and desires. As CS has been gendered masculine for a long time now, girls are discouraged from pursuing it, and this is even more likely to be true in poorer families, which tend to have more rigid ideas about adhering to traditional gender roles (see here for instance: http://robles.callutheran.edu/~mklassen/doc/GITEFinal.pdf). Programming or reading sci-fi all day long might limit dating possibilities for both sexes, but being seen as undateable is much worse when you have been led to believe, as girls tend to be, that appealing to boys is the number one most important thing you must do. Being white, I don’t want to try to analyze what hurdles a Black kid might face apart from socioeconomic issues, but I wouldn’t doubt that they exist. I’m getting away from Restructure!’s point I think and also getting extra rambly, but what I’m getting at is that acknowledging the role of privilege doesn’t mean that wealth is the only or even the predominant factor in who becomes Super Programmer Geek in the end. It seems a lot of people here are getting defensive about their passion and what they had to do to indulge it (I was seriously waiting for someone to say they had to crawl over broken glass to get FORTRAN books) and that they like to think of their accomplishments as completely owing to their hard work and passion, and I totally get that. I’m proud that I pursued my interests and accomplished stuff too, but I also try to note where I have privilege and how that has affected my interests and accomplishments.

  61. Sprinkles Around the Web 7/23-7/29/10 | Sliver of Ice Design Says:

    [...] If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged. Often, computer geeks who started programming at a young age brag about it, as it is a source of [...]

  62. mankenlik ajansları Says:

    You seem to be resentful of a lot of things, and placing the blame squarely on your family for not being able to provide you with a computer

  63. Jason Black Says:

    @LizM: “It seems a lot of people here are getting defensive about their passion and what they had to do to indulge it”

    Well, yes. I suppose we are. But only because for a lot of us that was our whole lives. And we did work hard as hell for it. Someone else, in a different situation, would have had to work harder still, but that shouldn’t discount how hard I personally may have had to work for it.

    Basically, just because there are starving kids in Ethiopia or whatever shouldn’t diminish anybody’s accomplishments towards any particular field of endeavour when that person has dedicated themselves from a young age towards that field. I mean, I’m sorry the world isn’t a perfectly fair, egalitarian place. But it’s not. I can only have lived the life I did, under the circumstances I was faced with. Some folks had it easier than me, some had it harder. Neither of those truths should take away from what I was able to accomplish on my own through my own motivation.

    And I’m not exaggerating (not by much, anyway) when I said it was our whole lives. I got up in the morning, dressed, and endured my days at high school. I put up with the social ostracism of being a geek and having no money. Then I came home and programmed. All afternoon, usually. Every day. I’d stop for dinner, do as little as I could get away with on my homework, and program some more.

    My stupid 16k TRS-80 Color Computer was a sanctuary. It was a refuge. It was one thing in my life I could control. It was one thing I could succeed at. It gave me intellectual challenges that kept me from going stir-crazy in the culturally stultified world of Phoenix, AZ, in the mid 80s.

    I loved my computer. I put uncountable hours of time, effort, and yes passion into it. Into learning how to control the machine. Learning how to express raw ideas in the rigorous language of the computer. Learning how to use the computer as a laboratory, to answer questions about the physical world that I couldn’t visualize on my own. Using it to build tools to make the machine more useful.

    I wrote endless N-body gravity simulations, which were painfully slow even for small values of N. I wrote simulations of wave propagation, constrained to two dimensions because hey, I only had 16k. I wrote plenty of games, arcade style and text adventure. I wrote a word processor because, having mowed lawns all summer to buy a printer, I didn’t have any money left over to buy one. It was primitive, but it worked and I wrote a couple of terms papers with it.

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my computer may have saved my life. That sounds melodramatic, I know, but socially speaking I was utterly miserable in high school. If I hadn’t had a computer with which to free my mind for a few hours a day and give me a feeling of success and accomplishment that was present _nowhere_ else in my life, I don’t know that I’d have made it.

    That’s how much it meant to me. It’s a very emotional subject, all the more so because I did, in fact, work very hard and make significant sacrifices in order to get a computer in the first place. I suspect my feelings in that regard are hardly unique.

    So when Restructure! comes along and tries to discount the accomplishments people like me achieved through our own bloody hard sweat and tears, by essentially saying “oh it doesn’t matter because the very fact you had a computer is a-priori proof that you had it easy,” it’s hard not to get defensive. It’s hard not to say “bullshit I had it easy! You didn’t live my life. You don’t know what I went through in order to have a computer in my life.”

    Undoubtedly, other people in the world would have–and did have–a harder time getting a computer into their lives at the same age as I did. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard for me, too. So yeah, when somebody tries to dismiss not only the struggles me and kids like me went through to get a computer, and thereby negate the value of what we gained through the hard work we put into learning how to master our computers, you’re bound to touch a nerve.

  64. Jayn Says:

    Jason, here’s the thing about calling out privilege–we (well, I anyways) don’t do it to discount what you have done. The point is more that you should be aware of it.

    I respect that you put a lot of work into getting a computer. I’m not going to say you didn’t. But even so, you had opportunities I didn’t–something neither of us could control, and which I’m not blaming you for. Still, I would like you to try and be aware of them. That’s all I, and I think Liz and Restructure as well, want from you.

  65. LizM Says:

    James:
    But Restructure! isn’t saying that the best hackers are those who started at age 8; she’s saying that hacking at age 8 is something that some geeks brag about, presumably either because it enhances their geek cred (“I’ve been a geek longer, therefore I’m a bigger geek and more awesome than other geeks”) or because *they perceive* that having done it for longer means they are better at it, or both.

    Anon:

    “Some people know what they want to do from a young age. Others bounce around a lot before settling on something (my 50-year-old MIL is STILL bouncing around). Either is fine, but when people act as if the first is better than the latter, that’s when we have problems. Neither is an indicator of skill levels.”
    This. It’s my experience that people with higher SES are more likely to have a solid career path chosen by the time they are teenagers or starting college, often earlier (disregarding childhood favorites such as cowboy, ballerina, rock star, or my future husband’s choice of “cop astronaut”). This especially seems to be true for traditionally high status fields like medicine and law. It’s less likely for poorer parents even to encourage small children to think about “what they want to be when they grow up,” partly because occupations are much less a matter of choice and more of circumstance within the lower classes. The problem is, as you said, in acting as though the best doctors are the ones who knew they wanted to be doctors in pre-school, which doctors probably don’t do but computer geeks apparently do.

    iwas8too:

    Yes, socioeconomic status correlates with family support for educational endeavors in general, not just in CS. The difference I think is that computers were, in the 1980s, expensive and relatively rare. If, in order to develop an intense early interest in computers, you actually needed to have a computer (as Restructure! originally argued although many have disagreed), then more privilege is at play than for most other interests. For instance, a child interested in fashion design might start by making doll clothes out of scraps (which I actually did, using a 50-year-old sewing machine). Relatively little socioeconomic privilege is at play here as an old-ass sewing machine or needle, thread, fabric scraps and sketch paper are inexpensive and easily obtained. So, if I brag about designing doll clothes at age 7, I’m not ostracizing a large number of people who couldn’t have done the same thing because they never saw a doll until college or were unfamiliar with clothing. If, on the other hand, I brag about being sent to some expensive sewing camp or about something I did that only the expensive sewing camp made possible, then I am failing to recognize my privilege and its role in my early accomplishments and passions.

    “Notice that the article does not claim that CS contains higher numbers of kids who grew up marginally richer than any other comparable profession. Instead, the complaint seems to be focused on the lore of the 8 year old coder where the young age is viewed within the profession as a badge of honor.”

    Yes, this is what I take as the point. The issue doesn’t appear to be so much who is pursuing CS (although there are serious issues of representation there) as what is considered to provide geek cred to others in the field. To brag about how much hacking you did when you were 8 as though that proves your skill or innate passion is to disregard the privilege that went into your being able to do so, even if that privilege did not extend to your having your own computer.

    I agree about the latent talent narratives. Although there may be latent talent in certain areas (or not), I can’t think of any area where latent talent by itself would lead to success, and narratives that suggest otherwise are indeed fairy tales. (I’m thinking here of “Good Will Hunting,” in which the main character apparently came out of the womb doing vector calculus and made up for a lack of opportunity with INBORN TALENT and SHEER WILL. Sure. Okay.) But I think these types of narratives ultimately serve the same function as the “hacking-since-8” type of narratives, and that function is to occlude the function of social class and other forms of privilege. If one person was born into a poor family but doing differential equations in kindergarten, these narratives imply, then something must be wrong with other poor kids who can’t add two one-digit numbers in 5th grade, just as hacking at age eight must be a marker solely of intense interest in geeky activities and not also of privilege.

    As far as “fields in which starting late and having no advantages count as a badge of honor,” it’s hard to say offhand. Sometimes these narratives are held out for the purpose of demonstrating that it’s never too late to follow your passion or what have you, but aside from something like writing, where “latent talent” comes into play, I can’t think of any where the narrative is especially familiar. However, it isn’t necessarily as typical in other fields to brag about starting early as others are arguing it is in CS. I can’t imagine a doctor bragging about only going into medicine for the money after having no interest in the field, but I also have a hard time imagining a bunch of doctors sitting around arguing about who the better doctor is based on the age at which they first developed a strong interest in medicine. Don’t people who are inclined to boast about their professional prowess usually boast about tangible achievements, such as how they cured a disease or wrote the Great American Novel or made a bunch of money? And while the fact that someone, say, published their first novel to critical acclaim at age 18 might be held up as noteworthy, this scenario isn’t held up as the best or only way to be a successful writer or as evidence that that novel is therefore superior to someone else’s critically acclaimed novel written when he was 50.

    It’s difficult to say what should confer bragging rights in CS, partly because I’m not in CS myself and partly because bragging is perhaps by definition playing up whatever makes you sound awesome while correspondingly playing down whatever doesn’t, whether it’s leaving out or justifying something that makes you look bad or ignoring non-boastable elements such as privilege or “good luck” which contributed to your success or awesomeness or whatever. Bragging about your current skills or recent successes is probably preferable to boasting about how you were a child computer prodigy, however, because although you still can’t discount the role of privilege in these accomplishments, at least you aren’t necessarily reinforcing the idea that the only way or the best way to be a CS geek is to start hacking at age eight. The linked article includes a finding that men are much more likely to report an “intense and immediate” interest in CS while women of similar talent report a “moderate” interest that “builds gradually.” However, thought there are at least two ways of getting to the same point, because CS is both coded as masculine and a male-dominated field, “There is a dominant culture of ‘this [the first one] is how you do computer science,’ and if you do not fit that image, that shakes confidence and interest in continuing.” The problem isn’t that the eight-year-old-hacker narrative exists but that it dominates and excludes other narratives.

  66. fred Says:

    I think it’s fascinating the twists and contortions people will go to in order to justify and explain their own failures. Privilege this and privilege that. Why is it that successful people never complain about having been “under privileged” as a child? Indeed, most successful people who were “under privileged” as a child see it as a HUGE badge of honor. I know I do. I think, “Look where you started and look where I started. But look where I am today. I who had nothing have gone so much further than you who had everything.” But losers can’t say that so they have to invent reasons for their failure. Otherwise, they’d hate themselves.

  67. LizM Says:

    @Jason: I appreciate you sharing your story. It’s clear that you and many others here didn’t have the level of economic privilege that Restructure! suggests in the original post. It’s starting to seem to me (from this thread alone, as I don’t frequent the online or IRL arenas in which nursery-school hacking is apparently bragged about) that perhaps some of those self-identified geeks who started young are perhaps less boasting about how awesomely skilled or geeky they are because of their early passion and more trying to convey how central computer programming was in their youth and adolescence, how it gave them not only a hobby but a much-needed creative outlet and refuge from the relative poverty and social ostracism they faced or at least thought about most of the rest of the time. “Programming saved my young life” isn’t the same as “I’m a more authentic geek than you because I started way younger,” and I totally understand and can relate to the emotional aspect of it.

    I wonder, though, how typical you are… that is, of all the kids who studied CS in the mid- to late-80s (assuming you went on to do that in college), how many had computers in their house because their parents could afford them and how many had to mow lawns or pick up bottles by the roadside or whatever? I’ve known CS students whose privilege involved having rich parents with like 8 extra computers laying around that they could not only hack but take apart and reassemble, but no one who had to deliver papers in order to have a computer. I’m just wondering to what extent each group is represented and whether the narrative we’ve been discussing dominates because it is common or for other reasons (e.g., its emotional appeal). It’s a fair point to say the narrative linking economic privilege and geeks doesn’t accurately describe you if it doesn’t, there’s no question about that, but what percentage of CS majors could possibly have come out of the less than 2% of the poorest households that had computers?

    Also, we tend to think about privilege as something we don’t have: we notice those privileges we lack and usually not those we possess. When someone points out our privilege, we immediately think “but I’m not privileged because I wasn’t X or didn’t have X!” Wealthy white males tend to disregard privilege altogether or may acknowledge the importance of money but then turn around and say that poor people are just lazy or get pissed off about affirmative action. Poor white males notice their own lack of socioeconomic privilege but don’t think about or understand what it means not to be white or male or heterosexual or able-bodied, etc., or how they personally benefit from sexism even if they are geeks who are not getting laid. White women involved in feminism tend to focus on being equal with white men and disregard what this means for a woman of color. I know growing up poor and female made me resentful of poverty and sexism, but I never gave any serious thought to racism until later, and it was much later before I thought about heterosexual, able-bodied and other types of privilege. Most people never do unless they have to. Having one or more dimensions of privilege definitely does not mean that you had it easy or didn’t have to work hard to achieve. You obviously did have to work for what you wanted, and no one’s faulting you for not being born in the developing world or being poorer than you were and having to work harder still, or for not having to mow lawns just to help pay for food and electricity rather than being able to buy computer stuff with the money.

    I think also that a lot of the reason male geeks get defensive about privilege is because, if they were teen outcasts per the stereotype, they can’t stop thinking about themselves as being at the bottom of the totem pole, and because they’re reluctant to see how their counterculture replicates oppressive elements of the dominant culture (and really, this seems to be true in any counterculture).

  68. Restructure! Says:

    Jason Black,

    Now, if one can in fact excercise the benefits of privilege to make up for shortcomings in innate geekiness, then we have a prediction:

    Rich X%-ers with only mild innate geekiness will blossom into kick-ass hackers at higher rates than their poor counterparts because it’s easier for them to get their hands on a computer.

    No, of course not. Jason Tocci of Geek Studies studied geeks for his dissertation, and one of the commonalities he found among geeks is that geeks were socially ostracized in some way. There is also some evidence that suggests social ostracism causes people to spend lots of time alone pursuing an interest. It’s not a simple equation of wealth correlating with geekiness, as there are other social factors.

    I’m still digesting this idea, but it seems to make sense in my case. I socially ostracized, depressed, and abused as a child, which made me overthink things and distrust people.

    On the other hand, the first time I started programming was 15 or 16, and I found I was naturally good at. I basically could type out correct programs on the first try in 3 minutes, all the time, while others took the whole class period and had to take their work home. (The programs weren’t complex, as the class was for beginners.) I could also draw correct flow charts with pen on the first try, all the time.

    However, the only reason I took the computer class was by chance, because my best friend wanted me to take the class with her. Previously, I didn’t like the idea of getting into computers, because I didn’t like the idea of sharing characteristics with my abusive dad (a programmer), who was also sexist and racist, because I feared that I would turn out like my dad. I was always trying to be the opposite of who my dad was. (Now that I am older, I know that being a programmer and being a sexist racist bigot are two different things.)

    Anyway, the point is that a lot of our opportunities are a product of chance and luck. If my friend didn’t guilt me into taking the class with her, I would never have discovered that I had some skill in something that took little effort. (Of course class privilege, as in being middle class, also helped me tremendously throughout my life, since most of my friends are less class-privileged than I. I also know some people who are seriously marginalized economically and have never touched a computer.)

  69. Restructure! Says:

    What, I ask, do you think the ideal world would offer in the way of CS professional bragging rights?

    There isn’t a right answer to this, because pissing contests are just social activities to establish social domination over others. E-peen competitions can be about any arbitrary thing, from knowing obscure programming languages that nobody else knows to knowing underground rappers that nobody else knows.

  70. fred Says:

    restructure writes, I didn’t like the idea of sharing characteristics with my abusive dad (a programmer), who was also sexist and racist, because I feared that I would turn out like my dad.

    But you did turn out just like your dad. You just don’t realize it.

  71. James Says:

    Counter-example:

    My parents couldn’t afford a computer until I was already finished with high school, and that was a cast-off.

    From the age of 10-11, up until then, I spent a lot of time after school using the one 8-bit computer they had, with the one programming manual and stacks of BYTE magazines, thanks to a friendly teacher who took pity on me.

    If it weren’t for that teacher, I’d probably be broke, out of work, and desperate like most of the people who graduated from that high school are now.

    I’m betting I’m far from alone.

    Generalizations are dumb.

  72. Pazi Says:

    @queensgradstudy

    I’m not saying something resentful — I’m giving a side-by-side comparison of the difference privilege made in terms of exposure to technology in the case of two individuals with superficially-similar upbringings.

    I’m not sure why you’d consider yourself competent to correct me as to *what* caused my current situation, but your own fortunes do not imply that I could’ve gotten the same sort of outcome, save for some kind of deficit in ability or character.

    (For starters, you don’t mention anywhere in your story being homeless and broke in the middle of the school year, or how that affected your path, so I’m willing to bet that there are reasons for that and some profound asymmetries in our two cases.)

  73. snobographer Says:

    For me it wasn’t computers, but my brother was bought electric guitars and amplifiers and other various accessories, which cost a pretty penny. He always had to have an Ibanez Flying V or some shit to play “Smoke On The Water.” He’d periodically sell or pawn this stuff for cash and then he’d be bought new stuff all over again. Because we have to encourage his interests! This was his future we’re talking about!
    When I, the girl, expressed an interest in music and signed up for actual guitar classes, after much hinting and pleading and seething resentment, I eventually got a nylon-string acoustic from a garage sale.

    Also, earlier in childhood I was heavily into astronomy, talked about it all the time, checked out books from the library on it, watched “Cosmos” religiously. I asked for a telescope for Christmas, a cheap used one of which would have cost less than one Ibanez Flying V. Instead I was given this bullshit kiddie chemistry set from the toy store.

  74. KPR Says:

    I was programming at a very early age, and in no way did my family have enough money to expose me to a computer or the software I needed. I just did what I could, often on a beat-up machine that we got at school. At one point, a teacher got a hold of some software for me because he saw an opportunity to help me grow. It’s not ultimately about class systems. If it were, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I was able to program at a young age because I had a passion for it and worked really hard to pursue it. I took whatever help I could find along the way, often from teachers in our very poor school district.

    I would hate to think that people read these demographic findings and believe the derived opinion enough to overlook the simple truth that if you work hard at something you love, no matter how or from where you come to it, you can always rise to realize a better future for yourself.

    The basic idea at work in this article seems like it could be true for some people, at least to a certain degree, but is really an over-generalized complaint.

  75. Lika Says:

    I was one of the few kids in my elementary school who grew up with a computer, and that’s because my brother worked like two jobs during his high school year to buy one for for the family. My brother forced me to learn how to type, and not surprisingly I was the fastest typist when I was in grade 7 by a WIDE margin. Students would marvel by how quickly I could touch type while they were still looking for the letters on the keyboard and think I was so smart, but it had nothing to do with superior ability and everything to do with the fact that I had a computer to practice on.

    Yes, we were a poor Chinese immigrant family, and yes my brother worked harder than most teenagers to get that computer while my parents tried to keep their kids fed, but it would be unfair for me to brag about being able to touch-type at age 9 or 10 while no one else could in my school when the fact was I was the only one in the class who had a computer to practice on from home.

    The thing I didn’t grow up with was a gaming console, and it drives me batty when male gamers (my female gaming friends never do this) feel the need to show how much better they are than me at gaming or act all incredulous and “how could you not?” about my inability to play them without taking into account that most of them grew up playing a Nintendo or Sega or whatever it was, and I didn’t.

  76. Anonymous Says:

    1) Correlation does not imply causation.
    2) Anyone who suggested that “systemic racism” overprivileges blacks in terms of the possibility of having a career in the NBA would be derided as a racist. What you’re doing is just reverse racism.

  77. Penguin Pete Says:

    @ “Restructure!”

    Wow, you actually have the nerve to type this?

    > “Not everyone had parents who had time to take their children to the library,”

    Libraries come one to a neighborhood. You typically pass one walking on the way to school.

    > “and library access often requires having a proof of address”

    Just to come in the door and have a seat and read?

    > “which may make it difficult for people who are living in shelters.”

    Never been to a library in your whole life, have you? Homeless people frequently use the library *as* shelter. In major cities it’s a problem because they take up so many seats and bathe in the bathroom.

    > “Also, literacy is hardly developed in most 8 year olds.”

    Speak for yourself.

    Well, since you’re ‘about’ page feels it necessary to declare “I am heterosexual” first, I guess this isn’t the only issue you have. And you might want Randal Munroe’s permission to use that cartoon. Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is a satire site.

    @ Daniel Martin

    By request, public library catalogs listing Donald Knuth:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=%22public+library+catalog%22+knuth+donald

    Behold, they exist. You’re going to have to make a claim that doesn’t fall apart with one Google search before you get good at trolling.

    @ Everybody else

    The people who say “it cannot be done” should not be discouraging the people doing it.

  78. Jayn Says:

    Nitpick:

    “Libraries come one to a neighborhood. You typically pass one walking on the way to school.”

    You’re assuming everyone walks to school. Some of us live in places where independant transportation requires a driver’s license.

  79. fred Says:

    jayn-

    Every school has a library. And public libraries let you check out 15 to 20 books usually for a month. So unless you’re going to say that you were too rural to go to school or that your parents didn’t have a driver’s license…

  80. numol Says:

    @Restructure!:

    Great article, great blog. Wish you didn’t have to deal with such ignorant comments.

    @Penguin Pete, jonnyV, Jason Black, fred, queensgradstudy and too many others:

    These points have already been made better than I could make them — by Restructure!, LizM, Lika and Pazi to name a few — but since you obviously weren’t listening I’ll repeat them myself:

    Your experiences are not everyone’s experiences. Stop acting like you didn’t have some privilege, even if you weren’t rich; everything is relative, even $50 – $100 for a computer is a big sacrifice or downright impossible for a lot of people, not everyone had/has access to a library or any other way to get programming books — and factors like race, gender identity, and sexual orientation do count. And if you got or were allowed to use a computer for free somehow, that also makes you pretty lucky.

    All these arguments that “if you couldn’t get access to a computer/programming books, you didn’t want it badly enough or weren’t working hard enough” are pure, ridiculous Logic Fail, as is the argument [basically the same one, but less disguised] that pointing out privilege = “sour grapes” or “excusing failure” or “reverse racism” (and/or that “poor people are lazy”). And the article was not trying to discount how hard any of you had to work for your passion — the point was clearly to point out that having had the ability to study computers from a young age is a privilege. End of line.

  81. Jason T Says:

    First of all, thanks to Restructure! for sparking and hosting an interesting debate.

    Second, I just want to chime in to remind us that wealth is just one kind of privilege. Restructure! mentions other kinds of privilege here, too. This is not to imply that everyone programming since they were 8 was privileged by wealth, but, statistically speaking, those who are lifelong programmers likely had SOME privilege or another. Examples include coming from a cultural background that saw children’s education in private schools as a viable route worthy of an entire family’s fiscal sacrifice, or even just looking similar (and thus unthreatening) to other people in the group one wants to belong to.

    To be clear, nobody here is arguing that having privilege makes you a bad person, that you have sinned by benefiting from your privilege, or that privilege removed all barriers to your personal and professional goals. Rather, what Restructure! is condemning – and what we who have enjoyed privilege should join in condemning – is using privilege to keep out others who lack privilege.

    Verbal battles of geek authenticity are one way that privilege is exercised to keep others out, perpetuating a myth that one needs to have a certain background in order to succeed in certain fields. Geeks do this a lot. I don’t think all the geeks who participate in such practices MEAN to actively exclude others, but sincere self-analysis demands that we not pretend the effect away to make ourselves feel better.

    I also want to point out that acknowledging that racial issues exist is not the same thing as “racism.” Pointing out that white kids in the ’80s were more likely to have access to technology is acknowledging a racial issue, not making a racist allegation.

    In the interest of full disclosure: This is coming from a white male in his 30s who grew up with computers, majored in computer science awhile before switching out to take more classes on literature, mythology, and comic art, and later got a PhD with an ethnographic study on what it means to be a geek today. I’m not heaping scorn upon groups I belong to myself here. I’m pointing out practices that are problematic for us to willfully ignore.

  82. Chris Beach Says:

    I responded to this with a blog post:

    http://www.chrisbeach.co.uk/view/diary/are_we_geeks_by_privilege

    As an aside, I think it’s absurd that the author blames “systemic racism” is responsible for discouraging black CS students. The quoted black CS student is basically saying that black kids generally prefer playing basketball over programming computers. That’s not an indictment on racism in white society

  83. Restructure! Says:

    Chris Beach,

    Ten years ago, my parents could afford a computer. But twenty years ago, they couldn’t, and we had one on loan from my Dad’s employer. But that wasn’t the dawn of my geek tendency. Lego, K-nex, Construx and other Mechano-esque building tools started it for me.

    Interesting that twenty years ago, you got the type of toys that are marketed to boys and not girls. This is male privilege.

    Dad sat down with me after school and taught me extra maths, explained technology, and showed me how to write my first computer program. I was curious, and he was a good teacher. That’s not a bourgeois trait. It’s his personality, and mine.

    No, this is a bourgeois trait. I mean seriously, not everyone has a dad who is formally educated in maths, technology, and computers. There are many people whose parents do not have a university education, and they cannot help their children in school. The children do not get extra education outside of school, and they are more educated (in maths, for example) than their parents.

  84. Chris Beach Says:

    Restructure,

    I’ve never once heard a guy cry “female privilege” because he was denied dolls as children. Likewise, it’s absurd that you should claim “male privilege” because Lego is marketed at boys. Lego is marketed at whichever demographic buys it. If boys toys are bought for boys and girls toys are bought for girls, so what? If girls want lego I’m pretty sure their parents are free to buy it for them. If they don’t want lego, that’s fine too. You can’t socially engineer these natural gender preferences out of the human race.

    As for a father wanting to teach his son, and a son wanting to learn – this is NOT a bourgeois trait. My Dad didn’t get a uni education (he dropped out in the first year as it happens). He was educated in maths at a state school like everyone, rich or poor, in the country village where he grew up. His interest in technology came from a natural desire to learn and understand. You don’t need a uni education to want to pass on that desire to your children, as evidenced here.

  85. Jayn Says:

    Point of interest–PARENTS buy toys. So if it’s marketed in a way that suggests that girls don’t want them, they’re less likely to buy them for girls than for boys (as it turns out, I had Legos myself. No K’nex though, which always looked like more fun). Some people have parents who are stuck in a binary gendered frame of mind, and even if their kids asked for them, they wouldn’t buy dolls for boys or a chemisty set for girls.

    And I think you missed her point, which is that regardless of how your father learned that information, he HAD it. A father who doesn’t cannot pass it on. And even those who do have it can’t always teach it to their children. My father was often too busy with work when I was a child to spend much time with me (and even at 12, my grasp of math was probably better than my mother’s). That limited how much I could learn from him.

    (And as a side note, I have on occassion wondered if I would have learned as much from him had I had a brother he could have spent time with instead)

    One last thing on privlege–it’s far easier to notice when you don’t have it than when you do.

  86. fred Says:

    jayn writes, One last thing on privlege–it’s far easier to notice when you don’t have it than when you do.

    And it’s far easier for one to blame their shortcomings on “privilege” than to accept responsibility.

  87. coefficient Says:

    chris, maybe black kids prefer basketball to computers, but so do white kids. that’s not a slight on black culture, it’s simply true of american culture in general, black and white.

    nerds are a small subset of any population, and in order to develop any interest that might have sprouted there needs to be an environment in which that interest can prosper. for an interest in computing, that means access to computer hardware. my friend and i inherited tons of used computer equipment from my techie bbs-running dad, so we used to muck about with it a lot, and these days my friend is a software engineer. i’m in corporate communications, even though i was interested in computer science at that age too, but my talents always lay elsewhere (or maybe i was just always better at verbal reasoning and too lazy to bring my math up to snuff).

    access to the hardware is an element of class privilege. even if you’re scavenging 386 components being tossed out by a school you still need an environment where you can play with it in peace, have consistent access to electricity, etc.

  88. coefficient Says:

    there are always going to be people who rise above the (extra) obstacles in their way but they’re seriously driven badasses who would have succeeded anyway.

  89. coefficient Says:

    oh one more thing

    “I’ve never once heard a guy cry “female privilege” because he was denied dolls as children. Likewise, it’s absurd that you should claim “male privilege” because Lego is marketed at boys. Lego is marketed at whichever demographic buys it. If boys toys are bought for boys and girls toys are bought for girls, so what? If girls want lego I’m pretty sure their parents are free to buy it for them. If they don’t want lego, that’s fine too. You can’t socially engineer these natural gender preferences out of the human race.”

    the early gendering of people via stuff like gendered baby clothes, gendered toys, etc is one of the ways that the social constructs of gender perpetuate themselves. a guy who like dolls is obviously a pussy/faggot and so anyone who prefers them, for whatever reason (i’m usually pretty suspicious of ‘innate talent’ or ‘innate interest’ like we had tonka trucks on the veldt) will learn to not prefer them, real fast. can you imagine your average american dad actually giving his son a doll if the son wanted it? more likely it’d be time for drastic action.

    similarly, a girl won’t be given legos while her preferences are forming, a guy will. if by some happenstance her preferences still form along the lines where she’d want lego or chemistry sets as opposed to dolls or clothes, she will meet resistance. see above the post where the girl wanted the chemistry set and got diddly, while her brother got expensive guitars. this is what the academic discipline calls ‘gender policing’, where people who stray from their mandated gender roles are shamed or coaxed back into them by peers and authority figures.

    though i think it’s debatable how much marketing plays a role. even if the marketing of barbies and legos was gender-neutral, there’s still the (in my view) more important factor of the kid’s classmates shaming them into ‘normality’.

  90. Sam Says:

    The point of the article is to try to “prove” that any accomplishment on the part of whites is the result of “priviledge”. In this case the target is extraordinary facility with computers on the part of “geeks”, who are white.
    It doesn’t matter if he or she was raised by rats and lived in a dumptser~ “white priviledge’ by definition renders even the most extreme hardship or disadvantage irrelevant along with any ability, interest, talent or effort on the part of the white person. If you are white, anything you accomplish is not an accomplishment at all; it’s really just a manifestation of “white priviledge”.
    Seriously, the people here really believe that sort of bull, and a lot of other stuff just as absurd.

  91. Restructure! Says:

    Straw man. Why don’t you read the link at the bottom of the post?

  92. Sam Says:

    Oh, I thought I was “deflecting”.
    I am such an ignorant cracker.

  93. Noop Says:

    I’m surprised about how could this subjective, shallow and pointless whining could gather interest of so many intelligent people and how best posts from the opponents are getting bashed in most ridiculous ways. People, don’t waste your time arguing with arrogant and frustrated losers. Don’t feed trolls.

  94. Sam Says:

    “Straw man. Why don’t you read the link at the bottom of the post?”

    I did go on and check out the link, Restructure.
    It is an excellent primer on how “white allies” can properly sit, stay, roll over, fetch, cheerfully accept the occasional verbal b!tch slap from their masters and otherwise be good, servile dogs.
    Only fools, whatever their heritage, would consent to go along with it.

  95. multicast » Blog Archive » Public Policy Causes Slow Internet Says:

    [...] (An ISDN user? Almost. ISDN was introduced in 1988. Image from Restructure.) [...]

  96. I blame the Patriarchy for my technical incompetence. « Restructure! Says:

    [...] If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged. by Restructure! [...]

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  98. 2010 The Year in Bookmarks @ Hyperextended Metaphor Says:

    [...] If You Were Hacking Since Age 8 It Means You Were Privileged [...]

  99. Hacking Tutorial Says:

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