June 22, 2007

My hovercraft is full of turtlenecks

According to a editorial in the May 31 issue of Nature, dealing with science and technology at DHS ("The safety catch"),

Although opportunities exist to use technology to improve performance at the margins, much of the work is about the efficient application of simple techniques. Patrolling the borders requires little more than a pick-up truck and a pair of binoculars; managing immigration paperwork plays to the skills of adept clerical staff, not turtlenecked hackers; and patrolling a coastline can be done as well in a 1950s-era cutter as it can in a hovercraft. [emphasis added]

The reference to "turtlenecked hackers" took me by surprise. Nature's editors are certainly following George Orwell's admonition "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print" -- a Google search for {"turtlenecked hackers"} yields their editorial and nothing else. But in this case, they may have followed the will-o-the-wisp of originality into the swamp of reader bafflement. I mean, it's true that I'm not exactly obsessed with clothing styles, but I've been at least a marginal member of the hacker category for a long time, and you'd think I would have noticed the turtlenecks.

We're talking about the "computer enthusiast" sense of hacker, not the "computer criminal" sense for which some people prefer the term cracker. I've never spent any time in the company of computer crackers, so I don't have any idea how they stereotypically dress -- but a search for {turtleneck hacker}, without -ed or quotes, does turn up a 2001 newpaper article "From convicted hacker to dotcom backer" with this passage:

Schmitz comes to the door. He is wearing a huge black suit, a black turtle-neck shirt and a pair of extraordinary black and white shoes that would not look amiss on a golf course. He is carrying a pair of dark glasses and wears one of those super-expensive Breitling watches that can send out an emergency signal if ever he gets into trouble.

However, this seems more like the signature outfit of a dotcom entrepreneur than the characteristic dress of a computer security threat. And I think this is the key to Nature's confusion -- they've been seduced by Steve Jobs, whose turtlenecks have become legendary (e.g. "The man, the myth, the turtleneck: Apple CEO Steve Jobs", 3/6/2006). Jobs is neither a hacker nor a cracker, but a high-tech marketer, though at least he's in the right industry.

And it does seem that the leaders of that industry have embraced the turtleneck. For some sartorial stereotyping hot from the engine-room of cybercreation, there's this play on words from "Valleywag Hotties: Quarterfinals results" (as of 6/21/2007): "In a round of clear winners, one race went turtleneck-and-turtleneck." Neither Steve Jobs nor Jim Buckmaster is exactly typical of the "hackers" you'd hire in place of "adept clerical staff" for "managing immigration paperwork", but at least we've figured out where those turtlenecks came from.

Returning to the passage from Nature, the turtlenecks are not the only jarring bit of technological iconography. I freely admit to ignorance of current directions in coastal patrol technology, but I think of the hovercraft as one of those 1960s visions-of-the-future that turned out not to be such a great idea in practice (even if The Matrix kept the flame alive by making Morpheus a hovercraft captain). Charles Hageman Frey made hovercraft disappointment the theme of an online magazine piece in 2000, "Where's my damn hovercraft?":

Hovercrafts--we were all suppose to have hovercrafts by now but instead we got little computers and moving walkways. Why? ... The main restricting element is having enough space to try to construct one of the machines ... the mere number of people who have enough space to tinker about with a hovercraft device is minimal.... Perhaps it will be soon now that Mr. Gates and some of his silicon valley cronies have gotten themselves decent housing with large garages and huge backyards, but then again they have their millions to count, not to mention they are all nesting with families.

But a 1997 Business Week profile of Alan Shugart, the co-founder of Seagate, suggests that hovercrafts were already discarded as toys in Silicon Valley 10 years ago: "[his] interests include collecting wine and gadgets -- he has a hovercraft he's never used -- and politics, where he ... tried to get his dog, Ernest, on the ballot in nearby Santa Cruz in 1996."

So if Steve Jobs took on the challenge of coming up with insanely great technology for the Coast Guard, I don't think that hovercrafts would be part of the pitch.

All of this highlights the difficulties of trying to choose those concrete and characteristic details that anchor an abstraction in the reader's mind. What do hackers wear? Well, if you've been imprinted by pictures of Steve Jobs keynotes at Macworld, that would be a turtleneck. What would be a high-tech way to patrol a coastline? Well, the hovercraft was the last new type of over-water vehicle to be invented, even if the idea was first tried out half a century ago, and lost technological momentum a couple of decades later.

And in Frey's remark about hovercrafts, he tried to characterize the set of successful high-tech inventors as "Mr. Gates and ... his silicon valley cronies". But Redmond's a long way from San Jose, both geographically and socially. Metonymy's a bitch.

[If you'd like to revisit the Monty Python sketch that inspired this post's title, a transcript is here, and you can watch it here. And I'm not the first person to have substituted something other than "eels" in {"my hovercraft is full of __"}.]

[Update -- David Vinson suggests:

Maybe the "turtlenecked hackers" is not a reference to costume, but to posture (and/or body type), i.e., turtle-necked rather than turtlenecked. Sometimes I am guilty of peering at my own computer screen in a very turtle-necked manner (although I am "geek" at best, not "hacker").

True enough. But this is an occupational hazard of early-21st-century humans in general, including that "adept clerical staff".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 22, 2007 07:40 AM