Monday, February 28, 2011

"Image Enhancing" Has Nothing to do with Photoshop

After listening to Gail's informative presentation on 'Unlocking the Clubhouse', I began thinking about the issue of image in computer science. Many disciplines have their own Hollywood representations, glamorous (though unrealistic) portrayals of their field. Archaeology and anthropology have the Indiana Jones films. The English department has The Dead Poets Society. Even physics has a photogenic ambassador thanks to Professor Brian Cox (on whom People magazine bestowed the title of "World’s Sexiest Quantum Physicist.") In fact, the only area I can think of without such a superstar is accounting... sorry, accountants.

But I digress. While some may find "image" to be a trivial matter, the importance of public perception shouldn't be so easily dismissed. A positive image of computer science is important for recruiting diverse talent to the field. There are many capable, intelligent people who may pass over CS as a career because of misconceptions about the job of computer scientists. Dilbert-esque scenarios of cubicle rows and "code monkey" work may spring to mind. I think that a key part of recruiting more women to CS involves breaking down stereotypes of the field. In that respect, I think the media can have a role in reshaping people's perception of computer scientists. One of my favourite recent examples is Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, featuring the grey-hat hacker Lisbeth Salander (pictured). Another favourite of mine is the television show Numb3rs, a crime drama that follows two dramatically different groups of people - a team of FBI agents and a group of academics - who collaborate to solve crimes using the power of applied mathematics. And as tacky and cliché as the 1995 movie Hackers seems today, to my ten year-old self it was the coolest thing ever.

Is the use of technology in such media unrealistic? For the purpose of entertainment, there's bound to be some exaggerations for dramatic effect - but that's missing the point. The point is to break down preconceptions of what "kind of person" uses computers, and what they use them for.

(Have any favourite fictional scientists of your own (female or not)? The comments section is wide open!)


Gail Carmichael said...

Not sure if you've seen it but I love the pilot web show on Dot Diva. Their funding was designed specifically to improve the image of CS.

Liz Allen said...

Actually I hadn't seen it before, but the pilot is hilarious! I think it was a good (inclusive) choice by the writers to have both the conventionally-girly and tomboy characters.

Gail Carmichael said...

I totally loved it too! :D Apparently not everyone did though. It's interesting reading the comments even below the video. Personally I can't wait until they make more episodes.