Bring In the Nerds

I’m calling it now: Within forty years, the American people will put a computer science major in the Oval Office. Twenty years ago, around the time most current Harvard College students were born, this prediction would have seemed unlikely at best. But, now, as a generation that came of age alongside the personal computer transitions into seats of power, it is inevitable.

My first experiences with computers were like those of millions of other Americans. In 1994, my family brought home its first personal computer, fully equipped with MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows 3.1, and, most importantly, SkiFree. This was a time when floppy disks that were actually floppy were giving way to rigid disks that held an astonishing 1.44 megabytes; black screens with blinking prompts were giving way to standardized, ubiquitous graphical user interfaces like Windows; and the sentiment that computers belonged exclusively in the office was giving way to the realization that computers might not be just for work. By the time millions of kids pushed aside Encyclopedia Britannica and popped in the Encarta ’95 CD-ROM, it was clear that personal computers in the home were here to stay.

The next wave came quickly. Dial-up modems and computer programs like America Online connected users through their phone lines to the internet where they could "surf" the World Wide Web, a network of documents and files on servers connected with hyperlinks. And, now, the number of internet users worldwide has risen from near zero to near two billion. We all know this has transformed the world. Still, beyond certain exceptions (for example, Al Gore and the internet), a definite divide between computer scientists and everybody else has persisted. The stereotype of the computer "geek" remains strong. The computer scientist is bespectacled, withdrawn, and socially awkward. And he is invariably a “he.”

In our public discourse, this divide is most salient between political leaders and computer scientists. For example, a number of weeks ago, when Wikipedia went black to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act introduced in Congress, it became a subject of much discussion that the most powerful people in the United States, on the floors of the Senate and House, had referred repeatedly to computer scientists as "nerds." In a rare display of bipartisanship, several lawmakers prefaced their (uninformed) comments with "I’m not a nerd, but..." and other condescending remarks. These lawmakers included Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), Rep. Carrell Issa (R-Calif.), and perhaps most charmingly, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who suggested, "Maybe we ought to ask some nerds what this thing really does...Let’s have a hearing, bring in the nerds."

Let’s bring in the nerds, indeed. In thirty or forty years, our generation will occupy the highest political positions in America. It is quite possible that a future President of the United States of America took Computer Science 50 with Senior Lecturer David Malan ’99 last semester. Of course, we cannot predict who might take the top political spot in the United States decades from now, but it is clear that our generation is going to be the most computer-literate generation of leaders in American history.  

Off the top of my head, I can think of several prominent student leaders just here in Harvard College who represent the type of person who may be leading the United States in the future. One is Peter D. Davis ’12, who started Harvard Thinks Big, and, with Max D. Novendstern ’12, founded CommonPlace, a Web site for civic engagement.  He has been a reasonable voice of the Occupy movement, and he exemplifies the kind of computer-literate leader that will become the norm in the next decades. Another is Eric Hysen ’11, former vice-president of the Undergraduate Council, computer science concentrator, and current software engineer at Google. On campus, he was the most efficient and methodical leader I’ve seen here, taking the problem solving skills one learns in CS and applying them everywhere. Leaders like Eric and Pete will become more common in the coming decades, as it is natural for members of our generation, who grew up with computers, to apply technological solutions to age-old problems.  

The number of students studying computer science is spiking, and a consensus is growing that students should have a basic grounding in CS as part of a liberal arts education. In the next decades, displays of ignorance and disrespect towards “nerds”—like recent ones in Congress—will become relics of the past, and, at some point, I believe the first computer science major in the Oval Office will sit down at her desk, smile, and switch on her computer.

Seth A. Riddley ’12 is a history of science concentrator in Mather House.

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