Saturday, January 23, 2010

Of "Geek Shortages"-and "Geek" Dissent

According to Kate Drummond of Wired's Danger Room, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is worried that young Americans are losing interest in computer science. (Drummond quotes the Computer Research Association to the effect that "computer science enrollment dropped 43 percent between 2003 and 2006.")

Of course, we hear this kind of thing all the time, and much of it is misleading, because of

* The cherry-picking of data. The year 2003 was a peak for the enrollment of U.S. citizens in IT training, according to the National Science Foundation. In fact, it was the crest of the field's mid-'90s spike-a trend confirmed by the CRA's own historical stats. The drop in the number of IT students following the end of the tech boom euphoria was perfectly natural.

* International comparisons which fail to take proper account of demographic differences or differing definitions of key terms across countries, as in the widely cited 2004 figures which had China producing 600,000 engineers to the U.S.'s 70,000-promptly and convincingly debunked by this Duke University study. And finally,

* The tendency to focus exclusively on supply, ignoring questions of demand-which is to say, whether or not there is actually a demand for all those trained personnel (and therefore, a real paucity of IT-trained personnel such as is implied in the headline).

All of this led the usually bland Robert Samuelson (normally given to repeating the usual neoliberal pieties) to write of "A Phony Science Gap."

That's certainly not to say I think all is well, but I think this sort of rhetoric confuses more than it clarifies, with the error generally on the side of alarmism and sanctimonious speeches about how "the kids" are signing up for easy but useless majors (ironically, often coming from journalists who steered clear of math and science majors during their own college days, like Tom Friedman) that distract from more significant economic problems, and more relevant and practical courses of action.

Far more interesting to me than the piece itself is the commentary left by readers, some 136 posts so far.1 The dominant note in these threads is the frustration of computer scientists at outsourcing, H-1 visa policy, stagnating incomes and alienating workplaces-a far cry from that '90s-era image of hip, freewheeling start-ups and nineteenth-century Edisonade dreams the media still sells in the twenty-first century, and rather more in line with what Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her study of college-educated, "high-skill" workers who find themselves looking at the same insecurity, underemployment, lousy conditions and crummy compensation as their less-credentialed brethren, 2005's Bait & Switch.

The common response to critiques of what was once called "the New Economy"-and in particular the lot of workers within it-was that while unskilled workers might have to just "suck it up" (empathy was not a strong suit of this rhetoric), the remaining twenty percent-essentially, those who went to college and got marketable four year degrees-would share in the benefits of growth, growth, growth!

It would be going too far to call this a social contract; call it an understanding instead. But the results of playing by these rules (and it is hard to picture anyone who hewed more closely to those rules than those who went into the field that was supposed to be the New Economy's crowning glory) have not been as advertised. Especially in this moment of record job dissatisfaction, it may be a sign of the times that the web site of a magazine traditionally associated with Silicon Valley libertarianism is a scene for the expression of these very considerable discontents.

1. Incidentally, a second thread of commentary regarding this very same article, and proceeding along much the same lines, can be found at the Huffington Post.

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