The Times, 29 September 2007


You don’t want to pick a fight with a hardcore nerd, because they have computers, and they’re not afraid to write in. Last week, someone wrote to a magazine, to which I occasionally contribute, and accused me of rambling. With my prose, you understand, not over some hills. He took exception to the fact that I had bracketed sci-fi and fantasy together – thus failing to see that Star Wars is basically physics in the future (good), but Lord Of The Rings is basically the three bears, with more orcs and less porridge (bad). So far, so fair, you might be thinking, because you never take my side. They are quite different: spaceships really aren’t the same as dragons. Then he went on to explain that the only reason we have mobile phones is because of the communicators in Star Trek. And there, I feel, he has less of a point. I pretty much believe that the reason we have mobile phones is because we used to have immobile phones, and really wished we could take them to the shops.

But this, in a nutshell, is the problem some people have with geeks. Not a problem I have, I should add. Me, I like a geek. I even love a couple. I write as a woman whose brother wears socks with the name of the day woven into the sole. Sometimes, he wears them on the wrong day, which I think is a sign of his renegade spirit. My best friend is an atmospheric chemist, and could once be found shooting lasers into the sky for a living, partly to measure nitrogen levels in the atmosphere, and partly because he doesn’t like pigeons. He does, however, like March 14th, or π-day, as it’s known in his circles (3.14, if you’re feeling neither mathematical, nor well disposed to the American calendar). My boyfriend has a complete collection of Deep Space Nine DVD box sets, and sometimes, if he doesn’t know I’m watching, he searches Wikipedia for articles about ball lightning.

I may even be a geek myself - only yesterday I received advance copies of a book for which I wrote an essay last year. A book about an American sci-fi show that ran for 14 episodes, and was cancelled in 2003. I’ve written entries for an encyclopaedia. I’ve just published a children’s novel which features not one but two computer genius children. And, you know, a talking cat.

So you can imagine my horror to find that geeks were being singled out by e-skills, a government-funded organisation for the IT sector, who claim the nerds have a shortage of charm. 30% of employers apparently have problems recruiting IT graduates with business skills, and 40% say the graduates have a dearth of interpersonal skills. E-skills has joined with various universities to help create a new course which teaches not just IT, but what they rather creepily refer to as ‘softer skills’ ie teamwork, accounting, and management. You say softer, I say duller, let’s call the whole thing off, as Cole Porter so nearly once sang.

An additional perk, they hope, is that the new courses will attract more women to IT, a sensible aim given that only 20% of computing graduates are women. Even Microsoft has suggested that the lack of women working in the technology industry was a problem. But then, that might be because they described pregnancy as ‘a particularly acute problem,’ which isn’t, I would guess, how many parents choose to see their incipient offspring. They probably think of them as chronic. I suppose what Microsoft meant was that technology is such a fast-paced world that in the six months a woman is away on maternity leave, things have progressed from the computer equivalent of cave paintings to a speaking, moving hologram, like James Cromwell in I, Robot. And for those of us who remember the last death rattle of the portable cassette player as the first iPod appeared, it sounds plausible. But you can’t quite shake the feeling that Microsoft don’t see why recent mothers can’t download a free upgrade to iron out their glitches.

I think that e-skills, and the employers they’ve surveyed, might be the ones out of step with change. We don’t want geeks to become more like the rest of us, we should all be trying to become more like geeks. Here are some things geeks spend their time doing: watching a lot of telly; watching a lot of films; playing computer games, especially now Halo 3 is out; reading books. Note how none of these is: driving down the wrong side of a motorway for a laugh; causing domestic violence (other than, by accident, when using a broom as a light sabre); attacking strangers in a drunken rage; torturing kittens. We could learn a lot from the nerds.