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Google tries to make TV techies less white and nerdy

Tech giant's media team tackles TV's clichéd portraits of IT workers

TV hackers are becoming less stereotypical and cringeworthy and more diverse, according to Google, which has been advising shows like Silicon Valley, The Fosters and The Powerpuff Girls on the representation of IT enthusiasts in media.

The company's Computer Science (CS) in Media team, formed in 2015, has been working behind the scenes in Hollywood with the creators of movies and TV shows to help improve their depiction of hackers and IT professionals.

post-mortem report it released this week analyses the effects of its first year of operation, claiming that progress has been made in dispelling the onscreen stereotypes of IT operatives as nerdy, socially-awkward white men - although there is still a long way to go.

"Depictions of computer science are still rare in both popular programming and series influenced by Google," the team wrote as part of the report. "The findings from this investigation underscore the importance of Google's ongoing intervention, and highlight additional areas for improvement in the depiction of the characters using CS."

A quarter of the shows that Google had a hand in influencing and advising featured female computer scientists, while one-third featured non-white CS-based characters, including 15.5% from under-represented racial and ethnic groups.

Google might be jealous of these kind of figures - its own latest diversity figures show black workers make up just 1% of its IT workforce, while only 3% are Hispanic, and 20% of its techies are women. White people form 53% of tech staff and 39% are Asian. 

However, the report also showed that depictions of and references to computer science are still relatively scarce in media, with just 3.4% of characters talking about or engaging in the subject, falling to just 2.2% across what Google deems as 'popular media'.

"Taking steps to address not just the prevalence but the nature of CS in media is crucial," the team added. "As Google continues its work, it is imperative to rely on research-based evidence. While adding additional CS characters to popular media is valuable, the context and nature of those portrayals is just as - if not more - important. Google can be a leader by moving beyond the language of mere exposure to discuss the multidimensional nature of media influence."

While tech and IT roles in film and TV are still rooted in stereotypes, the study indicated that having a tech company consult on the project can have measurable benefits. In the shows and films that Google influenced, the number of IT-focused characters who appeared in the stereotypical attire one would normally associate with a TV computer geek - unkempt hair, glasses, and hoodies - fell by more than 12% compared to the CS team's control sample of shows.

The team also concluded that it should work more closely with shows that aren't specifically about IT, like programmes aimed at young audiences, which often feature techie characters. "This suggests that writers and content creators do find ways to integrate CS into shows through guest-starring roles, or even with series regulars," the report observed.

Picture: Silicon Valley, courtesy of HBO PR (via Twitter)

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