“Blasts from the Past” is a collection of re-published articles dating from wa-a-a-y back to the time when I was publishing sf fanzines (1970s), through to some more recent articles published on (and about) the early days of the web (1990s).
I hope that things have changed a little in programming circles since I wrote this 13 years ago, particularly with regard to the gender balance… but I’m not so sure!
This Rough Magic
(First published in July 1996)
From time to time as part of training for my job I attend computer programming seminars of various kinds. The most important is the annual Microsoft Tech Ed conference.
Now, whenever I go to one of these events, it immediately strikes me what a heterogenous collection of people are in attendance.
With no exaggeration at all, the audience is always 95% to 99% male. At least 30% of the attendees have beards and are bespectacled. Well over 75% are wearing jumpers, cardigans or short sleeves (depending on the weather), and look as though wearing a suit or even a tie would be absolute anathema to them. By far the majority have a distant, dreamy look.
What is very depressing to me is that I fit this stereotype perfectly.
But I’m also very puzzled. Certainly when I did my graduate diploma in computing, the students did not fit this stereotype; indeed the gender balance was almost equal, and the dress sense of both men and women was far more formal.
It seems there’s a great difference between the students of computer science and those who end up as practictioners of programming and the more technical side of things.
As I looked over the audience at the last such conference, it slowly began to dawn on me that there was a strange and compelling similarity between this group of people and that of another such group as described in history and legends.
Computer programmers are, in fact, wizards.
Think about it.
A group of almost entirely male. usually bearded, practioners of art which is highly arcane to the general public. A group of unworldly men absorbed in their books and their learning. Men who spend most of their days staring into a glowing crystal screen, muttering and cursing at it.
These people treasure special methods of doing things written in obscure languages. These methods may have been inherited from others, or found in special texts, or may have been worked out painstakingly by themselves by trial and error. Certainly they treasure their private libraries of methods and tools which they can use to alter the way things work. What is an algorithm if not a spell? What is a spell, if not an algorithm written in a difficult to understand language?
In the world of the computer, these people have real power to affect reality, and to conjure up things that were not there before.
There are some who have sold their souls to evil, and who create spells/programs which attack and destroy the work of others. Others, more pure-minded, who have dedicated themselves to the common good.
Looked at in this light, it is no wonder that there are so few women among this group. Wizards, both in Terry Pratchett’s books and in real legend, are an exclusively masculine lot. Witches operate in a different mode and gather in different groups. Not for them the lure of obscure knowledge and power, more the practical application of skills to everyday life.
For the wizard, often the more esoteric the knowledge, the more difficult the language, the more obscure the task, the better. How else to explain the popularity of cryptic programming languages such as C++ and Lisp?
The obsession that these people have is a strange one. It is certainly the lure of power, enormous power, within a particular sphere. It is the power of creation and destruction; of life and death, if you like. But the world in which this power is wielded is not the real world. It is the universe of cyberspace.
For all the increasing dominance of computers in our workplaces and our everyday lives, it is hard to imagine that these dreamy, bearded souls who are wizards or programmers depending on how you look at it, are ever likely to control the world.
Shakespeare, as always, knew the truth of it when he has his wizard-Duke, Prospero, recall wistfully:
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported,
And rapt in secret studies.
– The Tempest, Act I Scene II