The Myth Of The Boy Genius

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.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
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17 Responses to The Myth Of The Boy Genius

  1. LindaGHill says:

    I learned Fortran, would I count? haha. Very good points, especially that the chances of EVERYONE having the latest of everything in any given situation are slim.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Yeah, I learned the old FORmula TRANslator, too, along with COBOL and BASIC.

      • LindaGHill says:

        Yep. In high school we had to fill out cards with pencils to feed into the room-sized computer. If we were really good, we could make a banner.
        And then there was the time I first discovered a game that required 2 megabytes of hard drive space to play. 2 megabytes! They didn’t make hard drives big enough for that!!

        God, I feel old.

  2. I never noticed this, but I guess it’s a relic from the time of technology being a young man’s world. At least in theory. Though, I spent 10 minutes trying to explain Youtube to my parents today, so I guess it’s still true in some respects. I’d love to see a middle aged or elderly computer hacker.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      See, my mother is a retired book designer who started when “cut and paste” meant using a razor blade and a glue stick, and she’s kept up with technology and now uses Creative Suite (whatever version they are up to now) and in terms of that application, she’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know. And my father is a mechanical engineer who tends to build his own computers, televisions, and stereos.

      Maybe I just have a strange family.

      • The trick is to keep up with technology. A lot of people let things fall by the wayside because they cling to older ways or don’t see the point. I have met people who have trouble with “cut and paste” and argue that it’s easier to type everything in again. So, I think it’s all about mentality.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Also granted. I’ll admit that my automotive locksmithing skills are sadly outdated, because my experience is with mechanical locking systems and locks are all pretty much electronic these days. I still don’t trust them, though–if your car battery dies they become useless.

  3. sknicholls says:

    I dunno, my husband is a genius rocket scientist computer and design prototype engineer who has been with Lockheed Martin for 27 years. His son and his nephew can run circles around him (though he finds it embarrassing and hard to admit).

  4. Dave Higgins says:

    I always liked Q from James Bond; he really felt like a genius.

    I am not sure if it is about the young being more clued in, or about youth being part of the media’s obsession with superficial beauty; where are the young geniuses who look like they spend 18 hour days routing cables or running tests in labs? Even Abby’s non-mainstream look is the polished end of Goth.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I loved Desmond Llewellyn as Q, he had exactly the sort of feel that I expect from a tech genius.

      And pretty much any continuing character on television has to be pretty. Even the new generation Dr. Who monsters are hotties.

  5. lackofharmony says:

    I think Neo from The Matrix was probably and example of the “superior” hacker that I’ve enjoyed. He was in his early to mid-thirties and he wasn’t perfect. He spent nights huddled in his room doing nothing but hacking and his days working at a dead-end job. In fact, his only real redeeming quality was when he dove off into the sci-fi deep end head first.

  6. Very true, thank you for posting this.

    To everyone commenting that old people or young people do struggle/not struggle with technology…

    I do think it’s not a matter of whether this stereotype is real, as cliches are real things that get used so often they become, well, cliche. I think it’s a matter of not presenting the cliche as the norm, which you highlight nicely in this article.

    One could argue, so what? What’s the harm? Well, what mostly bothers me is that it’s the “boy genius” whenever it comes to science or technology. Intellect and preferences aren’t gendered, but we learn to think they are because of such common representations that leave out the woman. Or, when they do bring women into a television show, there’s instantly a romance arc that’s almost as bad as the cliche of the lady tied to the train tracks while the villain laughs.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      The way I see it, a male character can be a techie, or a combat character, or an investigator, or the leader, or whatever role he is playing in the group, but female characters are almost always written to be The Female Character first and foremost, with a job tacked on as an afterthought. Kaylee and Zoe in “Firefly” seem to be exceptions, but they are rare in television.

  7. In distopian movies its always the young Asian nerd who knows everything techy. Boring. Can’t they give the Asian a decent role once in a while? But I hate the smart wise-cracking kids in sitcoms more–or the adorably cute little kids who come on set at the end of a sitcom series.

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