Why have women been written out of internet history?
Claire L. Evans’s Broad Band, published this month by Penguin Random House, is a pop history of women whose contributions to the genesis of computing and the internet are often overlooked. While today’s initiatives to recruit women into the male-dominated tech industry suggest that affirmative action is still needed, Broad Band attests that women have, in fact, been there all along. Yet, despite being the critical authors and co-authors of nearly every major innovation in the development of the digital world, women have been mostly written out of these stories.
Broad Band begins with Ada Lovelace, whose mid-19th-century contributions to Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines formed the basis of contemporary computing. Evans progresses to the World War II efforts of Grace Hopper, who coined the term ‘bug’; the 1970s female scientists working on ARPANET in California; the founders of women.com and iVillage in the first dot-com bubble; and the cyberfeminists of the early 1990s. (In 1991, Australian collective VNS Matrix displayed a digitized manifesto on a Sydney billboard proclaiming: ‘saboteurs of big daddy mainframe / the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix’.) Though the women described span programmers, entrepreneurs and cultural workers, Evans identifies a common trait among them: commitment to users. ‘They are never so seduced by the box that they forget why it’s there: to enrich human life,’ she writes, adding: ‘If you’re looking for women in the history of technology, look always where it makes life better, easier and more connected.’
Evans is the lead singer of the indie band YACHT and the founding editor of VICE’s science-fiction vertical ‘Terraform’; in her author photo, she is dressed like Steve Jobs, sitting with an early Apple Mac in a black mockneck jumper. Broad Band is optimistic and inspirational, as mapped step-by-step in the book’s closing salvo. First, we must see through the prevailing patriarchal myths of ‘garages and riches […] alpha nerds and brogrammers’ to recognize the presence and contributions of women. Second, we channel the iconoclasm and clarity of purpose evident in these ‘broads’. ‘The final step is the hardest,’ Evans writes: ‘We get to work.’
Broad Band joins the Hollywood blockbuster Hidden Figures (2016), about female mathematicians at NASA, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) – which tells of Lamarr’s co-discovery of rapidly changing frequencies (the basis for modern encryption) – and Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (2017) in recalibrating mainstream histories of science and technology through female protagonists. The book’s vibe bespeaks the millennial-pink optimism common to girls’ STEM education programmes, #girlboss and all-female co-working spaces. It’s sound advice for women to band together, get inspired and work hard. But unaccounted for in Evans’s go-getter teleology of liberation (one which the reader – another user – can access right away) is why women are phantoms in these narratives in the first place
To get there, we could do well to look back to Sadie Plant’s Zeros and Ones (1997), which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Plant’s cult book proceeds from a similar premise as Broad Band (which invokes it), yet arrives somewhere darker and more complex. ‘Women have not merely had a minor part to play in the emergence of digital machines,’ writes Plant. ‘When computers were virtually real machines, women wrote the software on which they ran. And when “computer” was a term applied to flesh-and-blood workers, the bodies which composed them were female. Hardware, software, wetware – before their beginnings and beyond their ends, women have been the simulators, assemblers and programmers of the digital machines.’ Yet, for Plant, this intimacy with the machine need not presage liberation. The machines waking up humanity seem to be agents of its undoing.
Plant’s book is a literary marvel: a loose biography of Lovelace that uses her life and letters as a warp for a networked tapestry of microtextual connections. Theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig join with cyberpunk authors Pat Cadigan, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. 19th-century novels such as Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève future (The Future Eve, 1886) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) align with film dialogue from Eve of Destruction (1991) and Blade Runner (1982) as well as transcripts from early Alan Turing tests. (‘Do you know how the underworld operates?’ asks one ‘neurotic male machine’ named Parry.) Across 75 mini chapters (‘Virtual Aliens’, ‘Speed Queens’, ‘Scattered Brains’), Plant explores workplace automation, quantum computing, non-binary gender identity, the growth of the internet, the history of algebra, wool spinning, witchcraft, botany and the discovery of DNA. Though remarkably readable, the book’s non-linear approach is perhaps one reason why Plant’s extraordinary text has been relatively slept on by the critical establishment: it feels like having a hundred tabs open on your browser at once.
Yet, unlike Evans, Plant makes a significant effort to account for the lack of female representation in the story of technology. One central point, following Irigaray, traces it to the structure of binary code itself: ‘1, the definite upright line; and 0, the diagram of nothing at all’. These numbers are the ‘orders of Western reality, the ancient logical codes which make the difference between on and off, right and left, light and dark’. Yet, this match is always breaking down: ‘1 and 0 make another 1. Male and female add up to man.’ As in algebra, the female zero disappears. Plant’s is both a literary and materialist reading of technology.
When Zeros and Ones was published in 1997, Plant, a British cultural theorist, had recently departed from her post at Warwick University, where she was part of the legendary Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. The anti-humanist idea that chaotic darkness is fundamental to networked technologies appears often in the group’s writings (ultimately finding extreme and frightening form in the neoreactionary writings of Plant’s former partner, Nick Land). In Zeros and Ones it exists, too, though with far less apocalyptic glee. For Plant, networked technologies present historically new possibilities for women’s liberation, not only due to the potential for connection but to the fact that women themselves have been unremittingly treated as a ‘general technology’: decentralized, synthetic, virtual. Networks gain power and so will women – but only up to a point. Plant convincingly argues that these same technologies may be fatal to human civilization at large. Self-arousing, decentralized, automated systems are poised to undermine mankind’s control over history, bound to boot human influence from the driver’s seat. The point is not that humanity will literally die off, but that it is no longer in charge of the runaway tendencies of technology and capital.
Twenty years after these forecasts, even with movements such as #metoo and the internet-abetted visibility of multiple gender identities, we know that a posthuman feminist liberation has not exactly happened. The singularity – or the point at which AI surpasses human intelligence – hasn’t quite been reached. Hysterical fragmentation and chaos seem to reign. Still, it is helpful to be reminded that our everyday technological systems may have always been destined for lives of their own. Their chaotic effects extend not only to AI, but to media discourse and human affect, both of which are heavily influenced by the networks that carry them.
Zeros and Ones jolts us back to the non-human angle often lost in character-driven accounts like Broad Band, which root for human liberation borne of human work. Yes, humans are agents in the development of technology, but its impact is greater than any one individual. An internet built by a parade of inspired women, such as those whose lives are mapped in Evans’s book, would notnecessarily be a kinder or gentler place– because humans are no longer in charge of how it all works. And, even if they were, Plant reminds us, there’s a chaotic force at the heart of the digital, embedded in the zeros and ones that made the difference engine run in the first place.
Charles Babbage, Difference Engine No.1, c.1833, woodcut by B.H. Babbage. Courtesy: The Science Museum Group Collection, London
First published in Issue 193