Yesterday, Wired.com published an article titled “Meet The Brilliant Young Hackers Who’ll Soon Shape The World” about a group of seven college-age men who seem quite bright and quite interested in computers. But unlike what the headline of the profile suggested, the young hackers — five of them white and, again, all of them men — do not seem to be shaping the world in any way at all.
The publication was hammered online for what seemed like yet another stock profile of the next potential Sergey Brins or Elon Musks. Magazines love these kinds of stories, which reflect a monolithic, and dated, view of the tech world. “Same piece on computer men pub'd every 6 months for 32 yrs, be the lack of change you wanna see in the world,” wrote Meredith Whittaker, founder of Google Open Research, on Twitter.
In an unusual move, Wired’s new editor in chief, Nicholas Thompson, who joined in January, took to Facebook late last night to respond to a deluge of criticism from readers.
“The piece ran in the print magazine as ‘Meet The Nu-Nerds.’ But the online headline, ‘Meet The Brilliant Young Hackers Who’ll Soon Shape The World,’ alongside the pictures of all the guys, one after another, suggests that only men code,” he wrote. “This isn’t at all what we wish to imply.” Wired therefore changed the headline to, “The Genial, Brilliant, Candy-Loving Hackers of Stetson West.”
According to Thompson, the piece was commissioned six months ago, which means its genesis occurred during the tenure of Thompson’s predecessor, Scott Dadich. During his four-and-a-half years at the magazine, Dadich pushed Wired away from tech and into boring aspirational design porn, rosy, breathless access journalism, and conventional subjects. But the disconnect between the packaging and substance of “Nu-Nerds” suggests, simply, a story that fell apart: its writer, Tony Tulathimutte, who is also the author of a satirical novel about four young Stanford graduates weaving in and out of Silicon Valley, was dazzled by some precocious college kids who can use computers, sketched out some Big Bang Theory-esque scenes, spun up half an angle, and invented a neologism — “nu-nerds” — to cover it all up. The result is a middling narrative that has only one message: Computer boys are fascinating creatures, with many habits worth noting — they have brilliant minds, for example, but dirty floors — and should be studied carefully even if they have yet to accomplish anything.
This explains some of the awkwardness of the story, which can’t decide what it’s about. Is it about “the next generation” of technologists “grappling with the Big Issues keeping the rest of us awake at night,” or is it just about seven charming college friends in the Boston area? Is it about the apathy of talented young male coders who already have it all? Is it about how tech-savvy millennials don’t use Facebook because they came of age in a post-Snowden world? Is it about nerds who defy stereotypes or nerds who are pretty much as stereotypical as possible?
The idea that young white American men will continue to “shape the future” through programming is both inaccurate and depressing
Tulathimutte writes: “Lest you picture some Revenge of the Nerds tableau, they wear the archetype lightly—no snort-laughs or Comic-Con merch; only one pair of glasses, tapeless.” In fact, the profile relies on lame clichés — the subject who learned to program on a graphing calculator in high school is a trope, as are the author’s asides about feeling old — and paints the nu-nerds as walking stereotypes. They cite Reddit and Hacker News as their favorite social networks, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs as their heroes, and they love “taking things apart and putting them back together.”
The article failed on many levels. It is solipsistic: The idea that young white American men will continue to “shape the future” through programming is both inaccurate and depressing. It lionizes its subjects with no evidence that they are truly bound for greatness. It portrays “technology” as synonymous with computer code, to the exclusion of medicine, energy, robotics, and the zillions of other types of technology that actually are shaping the future. It falls hard for the Zuckerberg fallacy, which assumes founders who fit the mold of young, driven, computer nerd are destined for great things. It drones on about privacy, late capitalism, political apathy, and computer ethics in its multiple attempts at a plausible thesis.
Profiles of young male hacker savants are disheartening because they are so common. Here’s a good one from The New York Times about a 21-year-old entrepreneur named Seth Priebatsch.
“I’m not anti-money,” he says. “I like nice bikes, I like nice computers. I like that money is a representation of success, but the actual entity itself is not interesting for me. There is little that I would want that I don’t have, and the things that I want money can’t buy.”
He doesn’t pause.
“I want to build the game layer on top of the world.”
Have you heard of Seth Priebatsch? No? Despite his Times profile, Priebatsch has not done anything remarkable to shape the world of tech in the seven years since the piece was published. According to LinkedIn, he is currently the “Chief Ninja” at LevelUp, a mobile payments platform. And yet his sort — young, hypomanic, five-sevenths-likely-to-be-white computer men — keep having profiles written about them.
Here’s Tulathimutte on his young hypomanic white computer man, David Dworken:
After class, David and I head to a café, where he continues to stonewall me on everything: politics, religion, class, dating life. At a time when young people are accused of oversharing, I find his aversion to disclosure interesting. “I, by default, am going to keep things private and let it become public when there’s a sufficiently convincing reason for it to be public,” he says. Like when? “When it’s beneficial in terms of career prospects.” (One thing, more than any other, that he wants the world to know: “Bug-bounty programs are good.”) Someone like David, who deeply understands and values privacy, shares only what he wants. He’s out here fixing bugs to secure our privacy; all he asks for is some privacy of his own.
In his Facebook note, Thompson grabs Tulathimutte and yanks him out of the way of an oncoming bus, then throws himself and Wired under it. But in an attempt to apologize, Thompson makes the situation worse. He cites “a scene in the story of a meeting with the woman who runs the college’s official hacking group” and the kicker, which is hilarious in itself because it gives away the fact that the piece had no purpose at all. “The Sthackers aren’t ambassadors of their generation; they’re just seven freshmen on one floor of one dorm of one college in one state in one country on our one and only planet.” These things are supposed to be redeeming qualities of a story that Thompson believes was simply packaged wrong. Then he twists the knife, letting us know that Wired has a special diversity-conscious list — “20 Tech Visionaries Who Are Creating the Future” — in the same issue.
Here’s my take: The story was not only packaged wrong, it was bad. A better headline would be “Read about some fuckboys eating candy” and the entire story URL should be redirected to the Twitter feed of Safia Abdalla, an open source developer in Chicago who wrote,“It doesn't matter how many keynotes I give or how much code I produce or how many articles I write. I will never be enough for the mold.”