If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Often, computer geeks who started programming at a young age brag about it, as it is a source of geeky prestige. However, most computer geeks are oblivious to the fact that your parents being able to afford a computer back in the 1980s is a product of class privilege, not your innate geekiness. Additionally, the child’s gender affects how much the parents are willing to financially invest in the child’s computer education. If parents in the 1980s think that it is unlikely their eight-year-old daughter will have a career in technology, then purchasing a computer may seem like a frivolous expense.

Because of systemic racism, class differences correlate with racial demographics. In the Racialicious post Gaming Masculinity, Latoya quotes a researcher’s exchange with an African American male computer science (CS) undergraduate:

“Me and some of my black friends were talking about the other guys in CS. Some of them have been programming since they were eight. We can’t compete with that. Now, the only thing that I have been doing since I was eight is playing basketball. I would own them on the court. I mean it wouldn’t be fair, they would just stand there and I would dominate. It is sort of like that in CS.”
— Undergraduate CS Major

Those “other guys” in CS are those white, male geeks who brag in CS newsgroups about hacking away at their Commodore 64s as young children, where successive posters reveal younger and younger ages in order to trump the previous poster. This disgusting flaunting of privilege completely demoralizes those of us who gained computer access only recently. However, CS departments—which tend to be dominated by even more privileged computer geeks of an earlier era when computers were even rarer—also assume that early computer adoption is a meritocratic measure of innate interest and ability.

CS departmental culture is described in the section “Culture of a Computer Science Department” of AAUW’s Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (pp. 59-60):

Departmental culture includes the expectations, assumptions, and values that guide the actions of professors, staff, and students. Individuals may or may not be aware of the influence of departmental culture as they design and teach classes, advise students, organize activities, and take classes. Margolis and Fisher described how the computing culture reflects the norms, desires, and interests of a subset of males—those who take an early interest in computing and pursue it with passion during adolescence and into college. Margolis and Fisher point out that throughout the life cycle “computing is actively claimed as ‘guy stuff’ by boys and men and passively ceded by girls and women” (ibid., p. 4). This pattern of behavior is influenced by external forces in U.S. culture that associate success in computing more with boys and men than with girls and women and often makes women feel that they don’t belong simply because of their gender. In an interview with AAUW, Margolis explained: “There is a subset of boys and men who burn with a passion for computers and computing. Through the intensity of their interest, they both mark the field as male and enshrine in its culture their preference for single-minded intensity and focus on technology.” Within that environment this particular male model of “doing” computer science becomes the measure of success; however, because young women and men often have different experiences with computers and different motivations to study computer science, this model can alienate women.

Many young men in computer science report having had an immediate and strong engagement with the computer from an early age. That engagement intensified in middle and high school and led the young men to declare a computer science major. On the other hand, many women who are interested in computer science and have similar talent do not report a similar experience. Many of these young women report a more moderate interest in computer science, especially early on, that builds gradually. Distinguishing between an interest in computer science and an interest in computers and technology is important. Historically girls had less interest in and experience both with computers and in computer science. Today women and men are interested in and equally likely to use computers and technology for educational and communication purposes (Singh et al., 2007), but the gender gap in the study of computer science remains.

About three-quarters of the men that Margolis and Fisher interviewed fit the profile of someone with an intense and immediate attraction to computing that started at a young age, in contrast to about one-quarter of the women in their study. Fisher explained, ‘There is a dominant culture of “this is how you do computer science,” and if you do not fit that image, that shakes confidence and interest in continuing.’ According to Margolis and Fisher (2002, p. 72), ‘A critical part of attracting more girls and women in computer science is providing multiple ways to “be in” computer science.’

In other words, at least 75% of male CS undergraduates had parents who were affluent enough to be able to afford computers at a time when computers were very expensive. Clearly, enrollment in CS is a social product of class privilege, not innate ability. Furthermore, this implies that computer geek prestige is an indicator of class privilege, in addition to being connected to technical proficiency.

A child’s gender modulates how her parents invest in their child’s education, as mentioned earlier. For example, girls, on average, typically receive their first computer at age 19, as opposed to boys at age 15. Note that age 19 is no longer high school, but university, when undergraduates have already chosen their major. If women typically receive their first computer as adults, and boys typically receive their first computer as children, then of course there is going to be a gender gap in CS enrollment.

Computer geek culture generally ignores issues of class privilege and male privilege when it comes to computer access, upholding a ranking system that mistakes the social privileges of affluent white males for inborn geek inclinations.


Update (2010/07/30):

Before commenting, please read “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it.

147 thoughts on “If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.

  1. Mackenzie

    These “first” computer ages…are they “first computer in the home to which the person has regular access” or “first computer of their very own”? Because there’s a 12 year difference between when we got a computer for the whole family to share and when I got a computer.

  2. Shauna

    I’m another of those women who only got into computer programming in college. My sister surprised me the other day by pointing out that our high school had offered a computer programming elective. I have absolutely no recollection of this. I don’t know how I went to that school without finding that out. I remember getting stuck in sewing class one year because I didn’t want to do band or chorus and that was “the only other option”. Had they stopped offering te class? Was the class full? I was one of the brightest kids in my year, with a demonstrated interest in math and science. I brought logic puzzles in as presents to my math teacher. Why did no one suggest programming to me?

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I see a theme in a lot of the more defensive comments here, for instance (example chosen at random):

    Parents and privilege didn’t have anything to do with it. Interest and dedication did.

    But where does that interest come from? How can you be interested in computers if you don’t know anything about them? It takes a little bit of chutzpah to look at a machine and think “I’m goin to take that apart” and “I can make it work different”. Sometimes it takes a bit of explanation of what programming is for people to get hooked. Sometimes it takes a parent or teacher pushing you when you don’t understand it at first. And sometimes it takes a parent with the resources and willingness and open-mindedness to provide you with opportunities These are privileges – maybe not all capital P privileges, but they’re helpful things that not everybody gets, you know?

    Think of privilege and interest as additive, not exclusive. A more privileged person needs less interest in a subject in order to master it. Doesn’t mean a very interested, under-privileged person might not be able to get there. Doesn’t mean a privileged person who’s bored by the subject is ever going to bother with it.

    When you look at any particular computer geek, you don’t know what combination of interest and privilege got them to where they are. Obviously they need at least a little of both. But the assumption that a person racked up those extra decades of experience because they are just that much more interested in computers than a person who’s newer to the game is what bothers me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating the exploits of people who coded their first program while in diapers – as long as we also celebrate the triumphs and recognize the interest and the talent and the value of people who just started working with computers the other day.

    1. Kite

      I just want to say that I think Shauna’s comment above is brilliant. “Privilege and interest are additive, not exclusive.” WORD.

    2. PJ Eby

      “””But where does that interest come from? How can you be interested in computers if you don’t know anything about them?”””

      I found out about them by reading. In the library. As I mentioned in my comment (i.e., the one you quoted from).

      The thing that I find insulting is the idea that my interest or aptitude are the product of some mysterious privilege, rather than the fruits of my own curiosity and the choice to follow that curiosity with action.

      If I am privileged, it was only in having parents who encouraged me to read books in the first place, and helping me get a library card. The rest was almost entirely up to me.

      “””When you look at any particular computer geek, you don’t know what combination of interest and privilege got them to where they are. Obviously they need at least a little of both.”””

      Really? What privilege did the other kids on that island have? The privilege of not being in an even poorer third-world country? At what point does the concept of “privilege” become meaningless?

      “”””But the assumption that a person racked up those extra decades of experience because they are just that much more interested in computers than a person who’s newer to the game is what bothers me.”””

      I’m not sure where you’re getting the “more time = more interest” from; somebody with more experience and less interest could nonetheless still have more skill than someone with more interest, but less practice. I just think it’s insulting to dismiss everyone who studied computers as a kid as being privileged, when quite a lot of those people (like myself) had to work hard to get that first computer, and *didn’t* have it handed to them by rich parents or through public access at a library or school.

      1. Jayn

        “Really? What privilege did the other kids on that island have?”

        A bit of an aside, but were you able to get to your local library on your own (say, walking or biking, or maybe riding the bus?). If so, that’s a privilege you had that I didn’t, even in Canada.

        (I’m not trying to attack you–I just always hated living where I did as a kid, so posts like yours hit a couple sore spots for me.)

        Don’t think any of us are attacking your skill–this isn’t about skill. It’s about the attitude that starting at an early age is PURELY a product of interest, when in reality it was a lot easier for some people than others to find ways to explore that interest. Obviously, some people were able to get there through a lot of effort. This post isn’t really about you–it’s about people WITH privilege, since they’re the ones who aren’t aware of how it shaped their lives. Those of us without have always known.

      2. Shauna

        I wasn’t trying to single you out or attack you – your comment was simply grabbed at random as one with a common theme. To say that you, personally, did or did not benefit from privilege would go against the whole thrust of my argument: that people are complex, and their lives are complicated, and interest and hard work and skill and luck and privilege can all combine to produce a brilliant programmer or a person who doesn’t even know how to use a search function. You say, “Don’t assume I’m privileged because I’ve been programming from a young age.” I’m saying, “Don’t assume someone lacks interest or skill because they haven’t.”

        As a side note – for all the people chiming in to say they had access to computers without being privileged, don’t forget that there’s a response bias here. The people who wanted to learn computer science when they were young, but couldn’t find a way to do it and subsequently pursued another field, will not be frequenting a geek-focused website and posting their stories.

  3. gin

    I think this discussion would benefit from much more rigorour about dates (and countries). It’s easy to imagine your access to computers was the same as everyone else’s, and to downplay your luck/advantages.

    Take a person graduating from CS in Australia (my country), this year, 2010.
    S/he is probably 21 (3 year degree + exams allowing University entry @ 18 years). So, born 1989.

    In 1997, when s/he was 8 years old, less than half Australian households had a computer, according to Australian Government figures. Less than 50%! And Australia is a wealthy, first world country. Do you see the room for entrenched gender stereotypes, lack of money, or parent discouragement to present further obstacles?

    Even in 2008-2009, the same statistics show 22% of Australians still have no home computer access. (As Kite described). Also, 42% of children with home Internet access use it 2 hours a week or less. Note, this may NOT be by choice.

    If you tell me schools or libraries make up for this, I have trouble believing you. *ALL* schools I attended had the same rule: no students in classrooms or school buildings without teacher supervision. And I reckon teacher supervision would rather cramp you hacking style. Computer access at public libraries near me is severely time limited (due to so many people, so few computers). I expect if you tried to hack, your membership would be revoked.

    And while you’re about it, take a look at how your country ranks in this computer ownership data. Canada, US and Australia are not doing so bad, but are under 100%. Niels, note Netherlands is no.4 in the world, and that even people in neighbouring countries such as Germany (60.6%) and Belgium (37.7%) have quite different experiences.

    1. Niels

      Hi Gin, thanks for digging up some hard data, I think it’s what this discussion lacked.

      I never denied that there are real socio-economic divides, nor am I denying I was privileged. Indeed, all of us here are lucky to have access to computers even now. There is always a tier below you, and we should all be thankful we were born in our respective affluent societies. Even lower-class America has it better than, say, Haiti.

      That being said, look at Romania at place 46, with only 12.9% computers. Romania has roughly the same population as Australia, about 22 million. If these numbers would translate directly into percentage of hackers, it would hardly be a contest. Still, Romanians are everywhere in CS, working at top Universities in the States and Europe. Like Dutch tourists, you’re likely to find a small pocket of them wherever you go. What this shows is that sometimes people succeed despite the odds, and not just one or two, but an entire generation of engineers did, in Romania. Numbers are just numbers, don’t be fooled.

      Privilege is real, of course, both material and genetic. But it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle. All things kept equal – class, race, number of siblings, brand of peanut butter you ate as a kid, etc. – there are still less women in engineering than men. This is evidenced by the simple fact that as the numbers you quote improve, the percentage of women engineers is not going up. We’re already fixing these problem and it’s not helping.

      Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there will be geek girls reading this and take me for some chauvinistic asshole who thinks women are ‘too dumb to do computer stuff’. Au contraire, I think people in general are too dumb to do computer stuff, and I would like nothing more than to see more smart women enter the profession so that we can instantaneously double the number of competent people, and perhaps drain off some of the excess morons.

      The author boldfaced some line for the ‘why so few’ article but missed the one I think was most important in that particular outtake: “This pattern of behavior is influenced by external forces in U.S. culture that associate success in computing more with boys and men than with girls and women and often makes women feel that they don’t belong simply because of their gender”.

      ps: dear author, if you’re going to link to another article as a reference for some statistic or other, make sure that you link to the actual source, and not other blogpost that actually doesn’t back it up.

  4. Waldo

    The role of economic and gender privilege in computer-science success (academic or professional) is a real problem, and one that mostly goes frightfully unacknowledged. I am very grateful to the author of this article for bringing it into light this sharply and succinctly.

    But I think the article goes too far in some of its other assumptions. In particular, it overestimates the significance that the CS world ascribes to the started-younger-than-thou contests.

    Hacking at 8 is a genuine accomplishment, regardless of the degree of privilege that is often its precondition: a majority of privileged kids with early access to computers still never get to hack. Adults tend to treat it exactly that way – as a childhood accomplishment. It may provoke a juvenile prestige one-upmanship race in an online discussion, but in that way it’s like saying “oh yeah, well _my_ Little League baseball team won Championship So-and-So!” It’s something to shoot the breeze with, but nobody seriously believes that someone who started hacking at 4 is better at it as an adult than someone who started at 12. I’ve dealt with hundreds, probably more than a thousand computer science people in different environments and honestly a significant number of them are elitists, some to the degree of serious asshattery, but even so, no more than one or two ever gave me any reason at all to believe that they ascribed real merit to this kind of age differences.

    I am involved in the hiring process at a large IT company. If I ever had a candidate try to draw particular attention to the fact they hacked something in their childhood, my typical first thought would be “That’s very nice, but does it mean you have no _real_ accomplishments you’d rather brag about?” – and I think that reaction would be pretty typical.

    Now, on the other hand, I won’t deny that an early and lasting interest in pretty much anything is often assumed to correlate strongly to life-long success in that field. So it’s usually not about whether you started at 4 or 12, it’s about the fact that you were at some carefree age and that you could have chosen to spend your copious free time on just watching cartoons or playing in the sand or whatever, but instead you found enough interest in something that’s supposed to be hard and you stuck to it.

    Yes, it correlates strongly with privilege, but I’d be careful about dismissing the statistical value of this particular predictor out of hand. After all, if you know I _didn’t_ get interested in music until I was 20, you shouldn’t of course assume I must be a bad musician, but everything else being equal, you have no outstanding reason to expect me to be good. If you know I got enthusiastic about it at 8, and kept an active interest in it (thanks in part to my parents buying an expensive instrument and maybe paying for lessons) there is some reasonable expectation that I might be good at it.

    Of course, statistical predictors are good for statistics but unfair when applied to individuals. It would be good if we could get people with influence over others’ CS education and careers to be completely blind to this kind of information. But the bulk of the unfairness seems to lie at the point of entry into the computer science world. Once one’s in, well, the problem isn’t over, but I haven’t seen meaningful evidence that the dificulty _during_ studies or work even compares to the difficulty of getting in for those who are just not blessed with an early hacking experience.

    If you give students a programming problem for homework, it will be easier for the ones who have been programming since childhood, and yes, that’s unfair in a way, but it’s infinitely more unfair that some talented kids never had a chance to be among your students in the first place. We can hardly expect a lecturer to assign easier homework to the students who came from less privileged backgrounds; the only hope of a fix is in levelling the playing field at the entry.

    Let me add three minor nitpicks about some broad generalizations:

    The article seems to strongly imply that early computer adoption is not to any significant degree a function of talent or work (“a ranking system that mistakes the social privileges of affluent white males for inborn geek inclinations”). I’m guessing this was not intended, but it comes across that way and probably ruffles up some feathers among commenters.

    The paragraph commenting on the “basketball” excerpt practically equates all white males in CS studies with those people who engage in “disgusting flaunting of privilege” in “CS newsgroups”. Not even mentioning the privileged multitudes who don’t flaunt it, this is particularly unfair to the many white males who got into university just like the black interviewee himself, without the kind of economic privilege that gives one a computer in childhood.

    The premise that early-age-adopter equals had-rich-parents is workable for a general discussion and has a lot of basis in fact, but it is too broad and too oversimplified to be used to draw as concrete and certain conclusions as the article tries to. In particular, it’s not reasonable to transform the finding that “About three-quarters of [interviewed male CS students] fit the profile of someone with an intense and immediate attraction to computing that started at a young age” into a claim that “At least 75% of male CS undergraduates had [affluent] parents”.

    (To be specific, in fairness to early age adopters, a sizeable minority of them were not financially privileged. I know many, many anecdotes of kids getting hooked on hacking and then actively seeking out every opportunity to fiddle with a computer belonging to a neighbour, or cousin, or school – or kids whose parents chose to deprive themselves of some pretty basic comforts in order to save for the cheapest computer possible. This is not to say that there is a level playing field, just that the complete identification of early age adoption with economic privilege is overextended.)

  5. Resuna

    When was this written? About 2000, if it’s talking about college students having been 8 years old in the ’80s?

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