Techies unite to revive 'silicon spirit'

Mark your calendar and brush off your best pocket pro-tector. The countdown has begun for National Techies Day, the first attempt, as a nation, to give the digital crowd a little respect.

To be sure, not everyone is on board. Some might argue this isn't the best year to honor those who build, program, and run businesses using computers. Y2K and all that.

And given the pervasiveness of technology in everyday life, some say a celebration is unnecessary. As one newspaper columnist in Silicon Valley complained recently: "Around here it seems like every day is Techies Day."

But the goal of celebrating America's technology class is to head off a growing shortage of skilled workers, vital to sustaining the information revolution. And doing that means changing popular perceptions of the technology culture, which some critics say is losing its "soul."

Techies Day itself is Oct. 5, though activities leading up to it have already begun.

At the core of the event (which no one is arguing should be a national holiday) is this unmistakable and, for many, unsettling fact: Teenagers still aren't gravitating to the math and science classes that are central to America's new information economy. The education gap leaves experts scratching their heads. Sure, negative stereotypes persist of computer scientists and engineers as not the coolest kids on the block. Labels like "geek" and "nerd" are hard to shake.

But Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was just on the cover of Newsweek under the image-jolting headline "Bill Just Wants to Have Fun." And the stories of Internet founders who made millions while eating pizza and listening to "Hootie and the Blowfish" are by now legend.

Not the 'coolest' field

So why isn't the technology field a hot career path? "The nerd factor is still strong," says Michaela Platzer, vice president of the American Electronics Association in Washington and author of a recent study chronicling the shortage of skilled technology workers nationwide. Techies Day is an attempt to change that. Aside from naming a day in honor of the technology field, organizers encourage schools to use the day to promote math and science. They're also asking technology professionals to get into the classroom that day and talk about their careers.

So far, about 1,300 organizations, educators, and technology workers are planning events nationwide. Trying to buff the image, Diane Kegley of CNet, one of the co-founders of Techies Day, says, "The Beastie Boys in their approach to digital music are techies. The people who fly into the middle of hurricanes to take measurements are techies, too."

Techies Day is also getting a push from the Clinton administration, which champions more computers in schools and wants to spread technology skills to the poor and to other demographic groups still on the sidelines of the Information Age.

The celebration comes at an interesting time in the popularization of high technology. Internet companies are forming at quadruple the rate of two years ago, and the amount of venture capital pouring into technology has set a new record this year. Still, the stock-market magic of the Internet world has worn thin. Some firms are actually suffering losses when they go public and others already public are watching prices stagnate or decline.

Yet even as the technology world comes to earth a bit, a new, less-than-flattering depiction of the new tech millionaires as selfish and money-obsessed is emerging from the literary world. David Kaplan's recent book, "The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams," paints an unattractive portrait of techies and their Silicon Valley culture. Writes Kaplan: "Passions have become mere professions; impulsiveness is now compulsiveness.... The Valley once was a new machine. It changed the world. It may do so yet again. But the machine has no soul anymore."

Is a backlash building against techies?

Po Bronson, author of "The Nudist on the Late Shift and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley," worried recently that a backlash against techies is building. "Scorn and jealousy directed at the haves by the have-nots is now pervasive," he wrote. Jealousy of technology's newly wealthy may be misplaced, however. Aside from the hard work it takes to strike it rich, most of those who sleep in their cubicles and live on fast food don't ever make it big. And even those who do often find challenges not unlike star athletes and celebrity entertainers who sometimes struggle with too much, too soon.

Indeed, a cottage industry to help the newly wealthy is already springing up. Stephen Goldbart helped found the San Francisco-based Institute of Money, Meaning and Choices to provide workshops and individual counseling for those with "sudden-wealth syndrome."

Wealth at a relatively young age before values and a sense or proportion have set in is one of the unexpected hazards of the techie culture, says Goldbart.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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