Jane Wakefield: Glamorous geeks do Hollywood

Apparently we need a techie hero to persuade the younger generation that geek is chic
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Renault: Well Rick, you're not only a sentimentalist, but you've become a patriot

Rick: Maybe it seemed like a good time to start

Renault: It might be a good time for you to disappear from Casablanca for a while

Rick: Mm yes I'd like to but I've got an important piece of Linux programming to finish first.

These are the immortal final lines from the classic movie Casablanca but with a new twist -- Humphrey Bogart has become a nerd hero. Yes I know it sounds implausible and I admit it is unlikely to grab the hearts of the box-office public but a Hollywood hero is what the industry is demanding.

Interest in tech jobs is at an all time low -- and the tech firms of Silicon Valley are losing £4bn a year due to lack of talent (poor dears) so, according to US experts, it is time to glamorise geekiness.

High tech needs a Hollywood makeover in order to rekindle interest among kids, the experts say. They have found that school children are, based on their viewing habits, far more likely to want to be Ally McBeal or George Clooney than a Linux programmer. Shocking news, especially given the fact that to truly emulate Ally McBeal children would have to forgo their diet of hamburgers in favour of a weekly carrot and the odd leaf of lettuce.

Such perverse behaviour confirms that American youth are all mad TV junkies who have completely lost the plot and forgotten that the best thing in life they could possibly be is a middle manager for a software company with a nice house in Silicon Valley and a personal organiser.

In truth there is nothing wrong in wanting to be a lawyer or a doctor but for the tech industry, short of skills for years and now screaming for talent, there is a desperate need to persuade young people that tech is also rewarding and fun. If Silicon Valley is to keep its golden dollar-sign gates it needs to lure students back to the study of maths, computer science and engineering in order to turn them into the corporate geeks of the future.

So researchers have put their heads together and come up with a typically American solution -- what tech needs is a cool tech show. So possibly the new Fonz will be resurrected sporting not a leather jacket and quiff but an I LOVE JAVA t-shirt, a pair of bottle-thick glasses and a malodorous smell.

A canned-laughter teen show with a geek rather than a sports jock as the hero that sends girls swooning may sound unlikely -- until you remember the deeply disturbing 70s show The Brady Bunch, which took as it premise the idea that teenagers were always smiling and liked to hang out with their parents. Suddenly the Geek Hero doesn't sound so far-fetched.

While the researchers have the right idea -- that TV is sadly the way to win the hearts and minds of teenagers -- a greater sea-change needs to happen before people will view geekdom as the height of chic. I myself have in the past proliferated the cliche that geeks like Iron Maiden and have BO, but zero social skills.

In fact, coming from the arts side of the fence at school and university -- before I crossed to the dark side of technology -- I confess that I used to jeer at the maths swot for his (it was always a he) perfectly wall-paper covered exercise books, his unsullied pencil case with perfectly pointed pencils and his inability to make friends with anyone other than his teacher.

Now that I know how much programmers can earn per minute I occasionally experience a twinge of regret about having devoted my youth to Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence rather than to Linus Torvalds. Even so I can't help feeling that even with this hindsight I would still have chosen arts subjects over science. All the persuasion in the world would not have convinced me that I would enjoy sums or using bunsen burners or programming.

The Internet has, of course, done its bit to make IT sexier, with dot-coms proving you didn't need a degree in computer science (or in fact a degree of anything other than front) to make a million. Unfortunately, though, all the glamorous dot-coms have now lost a million. With the rest of the technology sector currently hanging its head in shame over the smallness of its share prices, anyone could be forgiven for not seeing tech as the best bet.

In the UK, 55,000 people lost their jobs in April alone, and if anyone was to say to their mates down the pub that they had thought of a cool idea for a funky new dot-com he or she would be chased out of town.

The government is doing its best to persuade the current generation of girls that IT is exactly where they want to be. Just as in the 1950s a shortage of teachers forced the government of the time into the drastic action of recruiting women into classrooms -- gasp -- so history is repeating itself as e-minister Patricia Hewitt tries her best to persuade 21st century women that learning Perl script is as easy as knit one, pearl one.

According to Hewitt, we need to recruit one million new tech workers in the next five years. Currently only one in five computing graduates in the UK are women and across the IT, telecoms and electronic sectors as a whole women hold just one in ten of the tech jobs.

At a "Women in IT" conference in March, Hewitt was pleased to hear firms like Microsoft and IBM making the right noises about employing more females -- talking about making working hours more family-friendly for instance -- and for her part the e-minister is launching a new magazine for girls about science and technology. Called Spark, the mag will come out every term.

Although I confess I haven't seen the magazine I can't help thinking the idea is going to be cringeworthy in the extreme -- reminiscent of Grange Hill's ill-advised "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign. If anything was likely to turn you into a crack addict then the sight of Zammo and his drug-free mates giving you the thumbs-up and belting out that dreadful hit was likely to be it.

I just hope Spark doesn't have the same effect on girls about to decide on their academic path. It should not attempt to emulate teen mags like Just 17 and Sugar, with fashion pages about how anoraks can be fashionable or a quiz to check you know your Cobol from your Python. But I have a dreadful feeling that it will do just this and, without meaning to, put girls off IT for good.

Being a woman in technology I suppose I should be a better role model and I apologise for my cynicism. So in an attempt to make up for my dreadful pessimism throughout this article, I have racked my brains and come up with the perfect person for the job of tech hero.

And the winner is... Clippy!

I don't know why everyone is busy searching for a geek hero when we already have a megastar amongst us. Clippy, the little paperclip icon that lives on all our desktops was recently, in a very clever piece of marketing, abandoned by Microsoft and put out to tender. The little icon, which the software giant finally admitted was useless and annoying, had his own Web site set up, complete with CV and an online poll for what his new job should be.

It is obvious -- Clippy should go to Hollywood. He should become the new face of technology, the geek hero, the animated saviour of the industry. The icon we all love to hate should become a true icon -- a kind of James Dean of the desktop (but without the premature death).

He is perfect for the role and also sums up our ambivalent attitude to technology. Like our PCs, our mobiles and all those other bits of technology we carry around -- he is annoying but necessary, well actually not necessary at all and very annoying but somehow grows on you, especially when you think you are going to lose him. It is a tale as heart-wrenching and heroic as any Hollywood epic and who could resist the little fellow.

So come on Clippy, get recruiting.

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