Tech Isn't All Brogrammers, It's Still Nerds Building New Things

And that's a good thing.
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R. Stanley Williams works at HP Labs, and he has for a long time. In the video of him that I am watching, his pony tail flows out over his blue-collared shirt, and onto his lumpy sweater. He wants to tell us about Leon Chua, the Einstein of circuit theory, and the mathematics of voltage, charge, current, and flux. 

He thinks—though there is some controversy—that he has discovered the memristor, a fundamental piece of circuit theory that Chua's equations predicted. Regardless, he is working on devices that are down on the bedrock of computing. It's all CMOS logic and bits and math. This guy believes that he is changing the fundamental possibilities of computation and information storage. 

And Silicon Valley is filled with people like this. They design chips at Intel. They come up with new machine-learning techniques at Google. They redefine data centers at Facebook. They design programming flows for GPUs at Microsoft. They refine antennas at Apple. And it's not just the big places. It's all these small semiconductor shops down in Sunnyvale. It's people working on photonics and optimizing memory manufacturing and building lasers. 

Most of the media's attention might be focused on things that are closer to consumer consumption: Snapchat, WhatsApp, Oculus Rift, Uber, new phones, smartwatches. The new new new new thing. It's easy enough to forget that people like Williams exist. The face of technology isn't nerds with ponytails, but legions of fresh-faced youths pouring through the glass doors of a zillion startups into tastefully appointed lobbies, sipping on kombucha from company refrigerators. Brogramming, &c. 

But that's not really what's happening in most of Silicon Valley or the technology world at large. And that so many people have come to think that it is drives me a little crazy.

Are there some young guys who say stupid things and build silly companies, more than 200 of which end in ly? Sure. For every funny startup, there are nerds (and I use the term as one of endearment) like Williams, who loves engineering and math. These aren't bros. They say things like, "At least theoretically, with one simple layer of CMOS, we can address as many as a thousand layers of memristors and each memristor layer could have as much as a terabit of memory associated with it. We're all of a sudden looking at petabits of information in a square centimeter device." The pitch of Williams' voice bends upward as if he's just corrected you on the square volume available in the Star Trek Enterprise. "OK?" he says. "What can you do with that?"

Think about that: that's one million gigabits in a one square centimeter device. What can you do with that? 

I am watching this video because HP announced the creation of an initiative to build The Machine, not just a next-generation computer, but a next-generation way of thinking about building computers. A big component of this system are the memristors that Williams began to work with in the mid-2000s. Is this going to work? Will they be able to manufacture devices like memristors?

 This stuff is difficult to cover. If journalists knew enough about circuit theory to adjudicate between competing experts whether Williams had discovered Chua's predicted memristor, we would probably be designing circuits ourselves. 

That's a major reason why you don't often hear about the people doing the technical work. But they are the heart and soul of what we call Silicon Valley, not the business guys hanging around SOMA or that weird Yahoo AOL futurist dude, or the clowns that Valleywag lampoons.

The tech industry is not perfect. It needs to become more diverse and think more deeply about how the industry's products open up new possibilities for increased inequality and surveillance. But the idea that the brogrammer (a total caricature in itself) is somehow the avatar of tech is just absurd. 

Live long and prosper, ponytails. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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