My Coders Will Beat Up Your Coders

Vikram Chandra
Grist Media

In 1892, a British colonial official named Sir Lepel Griffin wrote:

'The characteristics of women which disqualify them for public life and its responsibilities are inherent in their sex and are worthy of honour, for to be womanly is the highest praise for a woman, as to be masculine is her worst reproach. But when men, as the Bengalis, are disqualified for political enfranchisement by the possession of essentially feminine characteristics, they must expect to be held in such contempt by stronger and braver races, who have fought for such liberties as they have won or retained.'

Sir Griffin was certain that Bengalis were unfit for political power because they were effeminate, weak, and it was unthinkable that they might 'represent . . . precede . . . and govern the martial races of India'-that is, certain other ethnic groups within India who were deemed sufficiently warlike by the English. If a Bengali were to demonstrate such aspirations to equality, 'then the English, as the common conqueror and master of all, may justly laugh at his pretensions and order him to take the humbler place which better suits a servile race which has never struck a blow against an enemy.'

The gender politics of the Raj were of course much on my mind while I wrote my first novel in the late eighties and early nineties, as I travelled back and forth between India and America. The British 'Cult of Manliness' had been an essential component of the creed of Empire, which-as above-conflated masculinity, violence, civic virtue, and morality. Even intelligence and intellectual capability were inextricably intertwined with masculinity; women and all others who exhibited symptoms of femininity were fuzzy headed, illogical, and easily overcome by emotion; they were incapable especially of scientific reasoning and therefore self-knowledge and progress. The state of the world-women without power, Englishmen ruling Indians- bore out the truth of these propositions.

By now, I'd read my Edward Said, and I prided myself on being aware of the ideological mechanisms that transformed local contingencies of history and culture into Nature itself. The attractions of Nick Carter, Killmaster, seemed altogether more sinister now that I had listened to many scholarly deconstructions of imperial American masculinity. But at the time, I didn't question much the demographics of programming. The meetings of the special interest groups of HAL-PC devoted to programming were all-male; I think in all my years of consulting work I met one female programmer. This was just the way things were. The male programmers I met were often astonishingly generous with knowledge and technical advice, and yet, the very same men were also abrupt and outright rude. Indians are frequently taken aback by the American virtues of quick intimacy and bluntness, which come across as shockingly bad manners; I knew to discount for this, and understood that our own predilection for face-saving, izzat-preserving niceties made us maddeningly opaque and slippery to the average American. Still, these coders were deliberately obnoxious by anyone's standards, especially online. They ad-hominemed, flamed, name-called, dismissed, despised. Not to put too fine a point on it: these guys were assholes. Pre-eminence amongst programmers was often decided by competitions of assholery, a kind of ritual jousting.

This unfortunate condition has only intensified over the decades. The 'masculinization process' that [Nathan] Ensmenger describes [in his illuminating social history of computing, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise] has resulted in a contemporary American culture of programming that is overwhelmingly male, as one can see at conferences, on websites and blogs. The metaphors used within this world of one-man armies are very often martial. Teams working against impossible deadlines go on 'death marches.' Finding and fixing defects in software is a painstaking, detail- oriented task, one which Grace Hopper might have compared to housekeeping; but in the parlance of many programming shops, the most proficient bug sweepers are 'bug slayers.'

In March 2011, David Barrett, CEO of Expensify ('Expense Reports That Don't Suck'), blogged about how his start-up wouldn't hire programmers who used Microsoft's very large and elaborate .NET framework, which-according to him-provided ready-made, assembly-line tools that turned these programmers into drudges capable of only mass- producing pre-designed code, the programming equivalent of fast-food burgers. No, he wanted passionate programmers who could write 'everything from assembly to jQuery, on PCs to mobile phones, [and code] hard core computer graphics to high level social networking.' Barrett wanted Einsteins, not Morts-fair enough. But this is how he described his Einsteins:

'As you might know, we're hiring the best programmers in the world. Sure, everyone says that. But my coders will beat up your coders, any day of the week. For example, Mich is barely 5 foot tall, but is a competitive fencer. Witold is a 6'3'' former professional hockey player. Nate practices knife fighting for fun.'

Over a few days, I read hundreds of comments and blog posts debating the merits of Barrett's case against .NET programmers; some argued that many great programmers used .NET, and that other frameworks had as many bad or lazy programmers. The discussions were long and nuanced. But nobody seemed to notice his very literal conflat ion of omnivorous intellectual curiosity with manly combat skills. He extends his fast-food riff-'Programming with .NET is like cooking in a McDonalds kitchen. It is full of amazing tools that automate absolutely everything'-but then turns the metaphor into a paean to programmer-as-blood-soaked-pioneer:

'The sort of person [we are looking for] grew up cooking squirrels over a campfire with sharpened sticks-squirrels they caught and skinned while scavenging in the deep forests for survival. We don't want a short order chef, we want a Lord of the Flies, carried by wolves into civilization and raised in a French kitchen full of copper-bottomed pots and fresh-picked herbs.'

'A Lord of the Flies in a French kitchen' neatly catches the geek machismo and extraordinary privilege that are essential ingredients in the cultural paradox that is Silicon Valley. Wages are so high here, Rebecca Solnit reports, that 'you hear tech workers complaining about not having time to spend their money.' Depending on which San Francisco neighbourhood you live in, your rent rose by anywhere from 10 per cent to 135 per cent over 2012, driven up by young techies outbidding each other. In the booming restaurants and cafes, there's a general disdain for government, which is often described as fatally broken, in desperate need of 'disruption,' that condition beloved of programmers and venture capitalists. Workers' unions are regarded as anachronisms that hold back progress. Company founders chafe at any restrictions imposed by local or federal government as leftover mechanisms from a failed system which prevent the markets from working properly.

Given these attitudes, it's easy to conclude that Silicon Valley is a haven for Libertarians. Doing so would be simplistic.

President Obama won his second presidential election by 49 percentage points in the Bay Area, as compared to his 22-point lead in California as a whole. Employees at Google gave 97 per cent of their campaign contributions to Obama, and Apple employees gave 91 per cent. But these denizens of the tech campuses aren't, as we've seen, leftists or progressives of the Berkeley-Oakland ilk either. Rather, this new 'virtual class' of digital overlords combine the social and sexual attitudes of San Francisco bohemianism with a neo-liberal passion for idealized free markets and unchecked profit-making, thus producing a caste orthodoxy for people who might be best described as 'hippie capitalists.'

The media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have usefully described this new faith as 'the Californian Ideology,' which 'promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.' This high-tech determinism dictates that through the new worldwide amalgamation of hardware and software, a frictionless 'electronic agora' will come into being, allowing the profitable exchange of both goods and ideas. Individuals will be empowered, they will speak to each other across all sorts of borders and come to mutual understanding. The governments of the world-useless as they are-will fade into irrelevance because governance will be provided by the crowd-sourced wisdom of the masses, led of course by the fearless and very cool visionaries who make software and hardware, who found companies, who make billions. If you've 'solved'-for instance-some problems in online social networking, surely you'll be able to disrupt world hunger. Pioneering individuals will focus their skills, their genius, on one domain after another and so transform the world for the better.

Programmers and entrepreneurs tend to believe implicitly in 'the liberal ideal of the self-sufficient individual. In American folklore, the nation was built out of a wilderness by free- booting individuals-the trappers, cowboys, preachers, and settlers of the frontier. The American Revolution itself was fought to protect the freedoms and property of individuals against oppressive laws and unjust taxes imposed by a foreign monarch. For both the New Left and the New Right, the early years of the American republic provide a potent model for their rival versions of individual freedom.'

David Barrett's knife-wielding, Lord-of-the-Flies programmer belongs to this mythology. Despite eating lunch in company-provided kitchens 'full of copper-bottomed pots and fresh-picked herbs,' he is a rugged man of action. He may complain mightily about an 80,000-dollar salary two years out of college, but he is a hunter and killer. A man who leads a magnificent posse of such hardened, hardcore individuals might justly say, 'My coders will beat up your coders, any day of the week.'

This figuring of computing as agon, a geeky arena of competition in which code-warriors prove their mettle against all comers, demands a certain manly style from those who would win and be recognized as victors. Steve Jobs was famed not only for his success but also his aggressive rudeness; his erstwhile partner Woz describes him as a 'real rugged bastard' who found it necessary to 'put people down and make them feel demeaned.' The social ineptitude of the sandal-wearing, long- haired pioneers of the early days has been elevated to a virtue. Shouting at co-workers and employees, abrasive behaviour, indifference to the feelings of others, all these constitute both a privilege earned by skill and a signifier of the programmer's elite status. This is most true, paradoxically, in the open-source movement, within which volunteer programmers collaborate to produce programs (like Firefox and Linux) under licensing schemes that guarantee universal, free access. These volunteers must cooperate to produce viable programs; yet it is within open source that programmers most fiercely pledge allegiance to the legacy of the early neckbeards. And so Linus Torvalds, the 'benevolent dictator' of Linux, dismissed the makers of a rival operating system as 'a bunch of masturbating monkeys'; and so, Eric S. Raymond, author of The New Hacker's Dictionary and The Cathedral and the Bazaar, once told an interviewer proudly, 'I'm an arrogant son of a bitch,' and refused a hapless Microsoft headhunter's form-letter inquiry with an email that ended, 'On that hopefully not too far distant day that I piss on Microsoft's grave, I sincerely hope none of it will splash on you.'

These postures and attitudes are common enough that some programmers have found it necessary to protest against them, as in a recent blog post by Derick Bailey titled 'Dear Open Source Project Leader: Quit Being a Jerk.' Bailey writes about 'open source elite' programmers making fun of inexperienced would-be contributors to their very own projects. 'I've seen people delete their accounts, disappear from the internet, and leave the open source community behind because of jerks that torment and belittle and tear apart the work that they are putting in,' Bailey writes. 'The worst part of this is knowing that some of these "OSS Elite" were the geeks and freaks and nerds in high school, that got picked on by the jocks and other popular kids . . . The victims are becoming the perpetrators.'

The financial systems which support the software industry bring their own models of masculinity into interactions with programmers. Alec Scott, a Canadian journalist who writes about the Valley, was told by a rising young entrepreneur that he was surprised how 'brusque' the venture capitalists were in meetings. 'At first, I was taken aback by how tough they can be, but I learned to roll with it. There's not much time wasted when they shoot you down quickly at least.' Another start-up founder told Scott, 'This is a guy's guy world, and you've gotta be prepared to go mano a mano with them. You might go down in flames, and they honour that. You can't apologize. You must be ready for the fight.'

Those who do not participate in this manly roughhousing are regarded as suffering from a fatal incapability which precludes them making good software. The rudeness of elite programmers-the explanation goes-is actually the necessarily blunt, no-bullshit style of problem-solving engineers who value results over feelings. And finally what matters is the quality of the code-which is an objectively definable value-and the nationality or ethnicity of the programmers is irrelevant. Culture is irrelevant. Or, perhaps, in code, culture is absent, non-existent. So if there are no women in programming, it is because they don't or can't code, because they are not interested in the craft. The world of programming is as it should be, as it has to be.

One of the hallmarks of a cultural system that is predominant is that it succeeds, to some degree, in making itself invisible, or at least in presenting itself as the inevitable outcome of environmental processes that exist outside of the realm of culture, within nature. The absence of women within the industry is thus often seen as a hard 'scientific' reality rooted in biology, never mind that the very first algorithm designed for execution by a machine was created by Lady Ada Byron, never mind Grace Hopper's creation of the first compiler, and never mind that the culture of the industry may be foreign or actively hostile to women.

The tech industry prides itself on being populated by rational thinkers, by devotees of the highest ideals of freedom and equality. Human resources departments are rightfully leery of litigation, and try to protect the companies through training and education. Yet, over the last few years, the industry has been beset by controversies sparked by acts of casual sexism-images of bikini-clad women used as backdrops for presentations about software; a Boston start-up which announced a hack-a-thon and as 'Great Perks' offered gym access, food trucks, and women: 'Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) staff get it for you.' In the heated discussions that have followed, one of the main rhetorical modes used by defenders of the status quo has been that sexism doesn't really exist in the tech industry because in this perfect meritocracy programmers who write excellent code will rise to the top. Programming is male because men are excellent programmers. As male doctors and lawyers and chefs were once thought to naturally possess certain essential qualities that fitted them for these once universally male professions, male programmers have logic and problem solving written into their DNA, they are naturals. A woman who codes is out of her realm; one might say that 'to be masculine is her worst reproach.'

Of course, as Ensmenger shows us, the personalities and behaviour that one encounters within the world of programming are embedded in a contingent culture constructed by a particular history. Ensmenger's narrative denaturalizes the maleness and machismo of American programming, and as it tells a story that takes place mostly in America, at MIT and in the hallways of American corporations, it allows us to think of other ways it might have happened or will happen in the future.

* * *

The annual Global Gender Gap Report 2012, released by the World Economic Forum, ranks women's status in countries around the world in four key areas: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. The report ranks the United States at 22 out of the 135 countries surveyed. India comes in at a dismal 105. Yet, according to some accounts, the proportion of programmers in India who are women may be higher-at least 30 per cent-than America's 21.1 per cent. This might be dismissed as an anomaly were it not for other trends: the proportion of undergraduate computer-science degrees awarded to women in the US has declined from 37 per cent in 1984 to 18 per cent in 2010. The number of female freshmen who thought they might major in computer science has fallen steadily, from 4.1 per cent in 1982 to 1.5 per cent in 1999, and to 0.3 per cent in 2009.

Meanwhile, in India, the trend has gone in the opposite direction. Until the mid-eighties, according to researcher Roli Varma, the number of women engineers was 'negligible.' But in 2003, 32 per cent of the Bachelor of Engineering degrees in computer science and 55 per cent of the Bachelor of Science degrees in computer science were awarded to women. I've been told, anecdotally, that these percentages have risen since. Varma notes that Indian women took to computer science in spite of lack of early exposure; many Indian families cannot afford computers, and before opting for formal instruction, many of her respondents had only ever used computers in Internet cafes.

The young Indian women, though, came to computing with a confidence in their logical abilities which has been nurtured in their schools and homes. A study 'showed that almost all female students [of computer science] interviewed asserted that mathematics was their strongest subject in high school, followed by physics. A little over half of the students also believed that their high school and intermediate college did not prepare them "well" for the study of CS at the university level, and another one-third felt "partially" prepared. These female students qualified their responses by stating that their schools either did not expose them to computers or did not teach details, applications, and basic languages of CS. However, they were extremely confident about their mathematical skills and, thus, their logical thinking and analytical abilities. Therefore, even though they found CS a hard, demanding, technical field, female students felt their mathematical training enabled them to do well in CS at the university level . . . no one ever considered changing their field from CS to something else due to difficulties.'

The Indian women programmers' notions about the characteristics displayed by a typical programmer were very different from those reported in the US, where 'geeks/hackers/ nerds [were thought to be] predominantly White males, fascinated with technology, [who] sit in front of the computer all day and sleep near it.' In India, however, the study 'showed that most female students interviewed believed that the computing field is changing from being dominated by men to increasingly being penetrated by women. Female students believed that the typical computing culture consists of dedicated, hard-working, intelligent, meticulous, and smart students . . . They help those needing assistance and it is pleasant to be around them. They are active in social and cultural events held at their universities, as well as participate in sports. Most importantly, female students believed CS to be a field in which women could excel. According to them, economic rewards for a woman with a CS degree are much higher than with a degree in other [Science and Engineering] fields. Women who study CS are well respected by faculty and peers in the educational arena and by family members, friends, and neighbors in the social arena.'

Parents want their daughters to work in computing in particular and scientific disciplines in general, and support and cajole and push towards this end.

In India, the logical nature of work in computing, its abstraction and headiness, is precisely what makes the field a kind of haven from all the indignities and horrific cruelties that subcontinental culture inflicts on women elsewhere:

'For Indian women, being indoors in an office in front of a computer means they are protected from the outside environment, which is seen as unfriendly to women. Construction sites and factories are the work sites where a degree in other engineering fields, such as mechanical or civil, are seen as more suited for men.'

Sexism of the most ugly and violent kind exists in the environments that these women must negotiate away from the computer, but knowledge itself is not gendered as male:

'[Indian] women do not feel that teachers neglect them in mathematics and computing classes. This is one of the reasons that these fields do not emerge as a male domain. From early on, female students are taught to invest in hard work, which is seen to solve scientific and technical problems and, thus, a requirement to succeed in life.'

The outlook for these Indian women is not altogether rosy, however. Alok Aggarwal is co-founder and chairman of Evalueserve India, a research and analytics company that employs approximately 2000 people, out of which 30 per cent are women. He told me:

'We believe that currently in most IT companies (IBM India, Accenture India, Infosys, Wipro, TCS, HCL, Cognizant, iGate, etc.), the percentage of women is also 30% [in the category of] "computer programmers." However, unfortunately, at the managerial level, both within our company, Evalueserve, and the other IT companies mentioned above, the percentage of women managers drops to approximately 10%.'

In terms of the retention of employees, Aggarwal adds, 'Among new joinees, 35% are women but within five years, this number comes down to 25% (because some of the women who get married leave Evalueserve India or the work-force altogether-at least on a temporary basis).' Cultural narratives about domesticity, children, and the exercise of power outside the home are still very much in place.

Still, research in countries as varied as Iran, Hong Kong, Mauritius, Taiwan, and Malaysia has yielded results consistent with those found in studies in India, showing that there is nothing about the field of computing that makes it inherently male. Varma's conclusion is blunt: 'The gender imbalance in the United States seems to be specific to the country; it is not a universal phenomenon, as it has been presented in the scholarly literature.'

* * *

In her book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine observes that 'in prosperous countries it is not economic prosperity that tracks sex segregation in degree choices, but differences in adolescent boys' and girls' attitudes toward math and science. In richer countries, the greater the difference between boys' and girls' interest in science and math, the greater the sex segregation.'

Fine also cites studies of the participation of American girls in the prestigious International Math Olympiad (IMO), where profoundly gifted mathematical whizz-kids spend nine hours solving extremely difficult problems:

'If you're Hispanic, African American, or Native American, it matters not whether you have two X chromosomes or one-you might as well give up now on any dreams of sweating for nine hours over some proofs. Then within girls, interesting patterns emerge. Asian American girls are not underrepresented, relative to their numbers in the population. But that doesn't mean that it's even simply a white girl problem. Non-Hispanic white girls born in North America are sorely underrepresented: there are about twenty times fewer of them on IMO teams than you'd expect based on their numbers in the population, and they virtually never attend the highly selective MOSP [Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program]. But this isn't the case for non-Hispanic white girls who were born in Europe, immigrants from countries like Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine, who manage on the whole to keep their end up when it comes to participating in these prestigious competitions and programs. The success of this group of women continues into their careers. These women are a hundred times more likely to make it into the math faculty of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, or University of California-Berkeley than their native-born white counterparts. They do every bit as well as white males, relative to their numbers in the population.'

A hundred times more likely-emphasis doubly mine and in the original-would seem to indicate that within the American idiom of personhood, power, desire, and meaning, there is a figuring of mathematics as male, something that 'Non-Hispanic white girls' should keep away from. Something similar seems to be true of programming in America, which is marked by a particular machismo that idealizes un-socialized, high-school- outcast geekery; coding excellence earned through solitary, singular focus; and adult programmer-bro success signalled by aggression.

So within this American landscape, on this new frontier, how do those who are not 'cool' (or belong to the wrong gender) succeed? N. Sivakumar, the immigrant programmer who was warned about shabbiness, tried to learn coolitude: 'All right, I am going to walk straight and smart as of tomorrow!' But his colleagues now teased him for walking like 'President Bush,' and so he decided, 'I better be me!' But being himself and succeeding required that he work very, very hard, and adopt certain strategies:

'Indians learn for survival whereas most Americans tend to choose their career for passion. Indians learn everything . . .

'. . . Indian programmers have a habit of saying "yes" to everything. Again, it's all about survival. They will say "Yes" to move to North Dakota tomorrow. Say "Yes" to work for someone who used to work for him. "Yes" to long hours. "Yes" to program in a completely new language (which they will starve to learn within days) . . .

'Indian programmers are also tolerant enough to do the "shit" work. That is: going through somebody else's code. This is one of the toughest challenges for any programmer . . .

'Almost all the so-called "software maintenance" projects . . . were handled by Indian programmers . . .

'. . . This is what Indian programmers do and are patient enough to handle. Patience-a unique quality of Indians.'

N. Sivakumar is careful to qualify his assertions; he's not saying that every Indian programmer is preternaturally patient and a paragon of hard work: 'My comparisons . . . always focus on the average programmer . . . There will always be a good and a bad and an ugly in every bunch.' He adds:

'An Indian programmer will most probably stop learning once he gets a job . . . Indian programmers are least likely to learn something new on their own-in their field of interest-to enhance their knowledge if not required. In other words, they lack initiative once they are settled and once they feel safe.'

And finally:

'Average American programmers are more innovative than their counterparts. I know my Indian and Chinese friends will disagree with me on this, but this is the truth. Although an average American programmer's knowledge is limited to a certain technology or a programming language, they master the hell out of that, and have a higher probability of innovating something new in their area. Average Indian and Chinese programmers, on the other hand, tend to be all over the place and are least likely to innovate something new in their specific area.'

In reference to the success of Indians in Silicon Valley, the tech entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa credits efficient and ceaseless networking:

'The first few [company founders] who cracked the glass ceiling had open discussions about the hurdles they had faced.

'They agreed that the key to uplifting their community, and fostering more entrepreneurship in general, was to teach and mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs.

'They formed networking organizations to teach others about starting businesses, and to bring people together. These organizations helped to mobilize the information, knowhow, skill, and capital needed to start technology companies . . .

'The first generation of successful entrepreneurs-people like Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla-served as visible, vocal, role models and mentors. They also provided seed funding to members of their community.'

These efforts were successful enough that the denizens of Silicon Histories and Valley sometimes refer to these networks, with decidedly mixed admiration and resentment, as the 'Indian Mafia.'

So this is another history of success in Silicon Valley that may be placed beside the more familiar narrative of solitary, pioneering heroes who seem to have sprung from an Ayn Rand novel-in this Indian-American version we have a tenacious patience, learnt in a country with sparse resources and endless competition, a perseverance trained and honed by a thousand endless queues in government offices; a willingness to work at 'shiz' scorned by people conditioned by a less straitened environment; cooperation and mutual help; and a huge, continuing financial investment by a young nation state, despite the paradoxes of unequal development and the flight of intellectual capital. This alternate narrative of technology should remind us that there are always many pasts, some hidden in plain sight.

* * *

The fictions about history that form the Frontier Myth, the stories that the Gunfighter Nation tells itself, typically present women as dauntless housewives or prostitutes (with the requisite hearts of gold). In either case, they are the backdrop, they inhabit the fragile outposts of civilization (the parlour, the schoolhouse, the saloon) on whose behalf the silent hero enacts his all-important rituals of violence out on the mesa. Men do the thinking and planning, women provide-as it were-the clerical support. Much scholarship since the seventies-the New Western History-has unearthed the complex roles women played on the frontier, their essential and irreplaceable contributions to the logistics and politics of the westward expansion. Notwithstanding revisionist historians and film- makers, the power of the Frontier Myth, its meaning-making about nation and personhood, its celebrations of regeneration through confrontations with savagery and the wilderness-all this remains intact, as one can see on television shows and hear in the speeches of politicians.

The mythology of computing similarly celebrates the victories of its male protagonists and erases women from the record, and not just programmers. The programmer Jaron Lanier tells us that in the early days of Silicon Valley "there were . . . extraordinary female figures who served as the impresarios of social networking before there was an internet. It still seems wrong to name them, because it isn't clear if I would be talking about their private lives or their public contributions: I don't know how to draw a line.'

'These irresistible creatures would sometimes date alpha nerds, but mostly brought the act of socialising into a society where it probably would not have occurred otherwise. A handful of them had an extraordinary, often unpaid degree of influence over what research was done, which companies came to be, who worked at them and what products were developed.

'That they are usually undescribed in histories of Silicon Valley is just another instance of what a fiction history can be.'

Silicon Valley may have in reality needed Lanier's salonnières and the Indian Mafia, but its heroic narrative-from which it draws its ambition, its adventurousness, and its seductiveness- requires lone American cowboys to ride the range.

Towards the end of their critique of the Californian Ideology, Barbrook and Cameron remark in passing, 'Any attempt to develop hypermedia [innovative forms of knowledge and communications] within Europe will need some of the entrepreneurial zeal and can-do attitude championed by the Californian New Right.' But it seems to me that you cannot get the can-do attitude and zeal without the ideology, without the shimmering dream of California, without the furious continent- conquering energy, the guns, the massacres, without the consequences-good and bad-of belief. Fictions about history are not just distractions; they move individuals and nations into action, and so they change history itself.

This is an edited excerpt from the book Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code, by Vikram Chandra, to be published by Penguin Books India.

Vikram Chandra is the author of three highly acclaimed works of fiction, most recently Sacred Games, which won the Hutch Crossword Award for fiction in 2006. He teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. More at