Recently I’ve read a couple of posts from other authors on the subject of stereotypes, and that got me thinking of one that I really loathe.
Why do so many movies and TV shows insist on making the computer/technology expert a young person? It’s practically required these days. From Abby on NCIS to Fitz and Simmons on Agents Of Shield, it seems that no team is complete without a technical genius who looks young enough to get carded buying cigarettes.
It’s just not realistic. Yes, there have been high profile cases of computer hackers who are in high school, but breaking into a computer system requires much more free time than skill, and high school students tend to have a lot of free time. With some downloaded hacks and a lot of hours with nothing better to do, pretty much anybody can break into just about any computer that is connected to the internet. (And get caught fairly quickly–which is how we know who these hackers are.)
For a team of specialized investigators, criminals, or secret agents, it really makes much more sense to have the tech specialist an older person.
First, experience matters. You don’t get good at making machines do what you want them to do by being born that way (although natural aptitude certainly helps) you get good by doing it a lot. When the crunch comes and you need something up and running right now, you don’t want someone who can figure it out, you want someone who has done it before and already knows how to fix it.
Second, obsolete technology is still in daily use. A surprising amount of the communications infrastructure of the United States dates back to the 1960’s and 1970’s. Being up to speed on the latest technology doesn’t help you much when you’re wrestling with a system that was built before you were born.
Third, even when the physical equipment is new, the design philosophy is based on older technology. New systems are designed with varying degrees of backwards compatibility. Knowing how things were done twenty years ago helps immeasurably with understanding why things are done a particular way now.
The idea that it takes a young person to understand the latest technology just doesn’t hold up.
When you are depending on your high tech equipment to work in a life-or-death situation you want the person who maintains it to be patient, methodical, calm under pressure, and detail oriented–all traits that people tend to develop over time. The hip, happening, rock’n’roll whiz kid with the spiky hair who keeps the music playing at eleven while tinkering with whatever shiny thing happens to be lying around the lab is not the person to whom you want to entrust your life and limb.
So, please, if you happen to be writing a scene in which you need to introduce a tech wizard, considering going against type. Instead of nerdy kid, how about a middle-aged professional engineer who was phone phreaking back when IEEE became TCP/IP and remembers when you had to count the clicks on a trunk line and why.