Air Date: April 10, 2018
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When considering the advent of the internet, and the social or anti-social media complex, we think of names like Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Page, Brin. Our guest today, Claire Evans confounds the single gendered understanding of the net’s founding in chronicles of the unsung women who blazed the trail, who made the internet. The book is Broad Band. Just published by Penguin Random House. A writer, musician, and founding editor of Terraform, Vice’s science fiction vertical, Evans has published widely in The Guardian, Wired, and National Geographic. The intellectually rigorous, colorfully profiled women include Ada Lovelace, who envisioned a groundbreaking computing technology, Grace Hopper, the mathematician who invented a post-World War Two programming language. Elizabeth Feinler, an internet administrator of the nascent web. Stacy Horn, the developer of a precursor to the Twitter/Reddit message board. And Jamie Levy, who created the pre USB floppy disc, and published electronics magazines. Claire will explore the rich history of Broad Band, and consider the stakes for both the citizen and women in the technological age. Welcome Claire.
EVANS: Thank you. Nice to be here.
HEFFNER: Congratulations on this book, I know it’s been a feat of two years in the making, right?
EVANS: Thank you very much. It feels funny, but I’m happy.
HEFFNER: What was the most compelling anecdote among the women. Now you had the opportunity to go into the archives of these pioneers. What did you find that most struck you? Was there one particular person, ultimately?
EVANS: That’s a big question. I mean I think what I found to be really remarkable about this history, and really a lot of technology history is this way, where it’s really not about individual accomplishments. It’s not about the one person who invented the one thing. The internet is an interconnected, you know, experience that we all share, and its development is much the same way. It’s the consequence of concerted collaboration it’s driven by the desires and anxieties and fears and very human foibles of every single person that was involved. So I think sort of the discovery of the somewhat haphazard, intensely human, intensely interconnected nature of the internet’s genesis, I think is the thing that fascinated me the most about all of this. It made me feel as though there was nothing really inevitable about the internet as we have it today.
HEFFNER: What most resonated with you thematically in terms of these women’s’ pursuit of technological advances? What can we relate to?
EVANS: Well, something that I find to be quite remarkable, is if you’re looking for women in the history of technology, the history of computing or networked computing, or the web, a lot of the time, where you end up finding them, or when I ended up finding them, was concentrated at the very beginnings of major technological waves. So, for example, the invention of computer programming is something that is, I think, squarely in the hands of women, who were hired to essentially patch cables on the earliest computers. And they were hired in the sense that, you know they were, they were like secretaries, or operators. They were like telephone operators. They were manipulating the menial hardware. It wasn’t considered to be a job of any significance really. It was considered to be sort of an afterthought, sort of a clerical job. And yet the moment they put their hands to it and their minds to it, they realized how much possibility there was. How actually the way that you would put information into a machine, and the way that you process it, and the way that you design efficient systems for doing so, can actually, you know, change the world. It’s an art form of its own, it’s a language of its own. And so its only when programming became seen as something of value, something important after the dedicated work of a large number of female computer programmers, that it was sort of, it was given its own status that was commensurate with the status of engineering or hardware. And then of course, perhaps, that’s the moment at which women lost grasp of the field. And that happens, that’s happened again and again. And you see that at the beginning of every major wave. At the beginning of sort of thinking about organizing information and networked computing, that was a space where women thrived and worked. The beginning of online communities, the very earliest waves of interactive media and publishing on the web, all of these spaces were spaces where women thrived. Partially I think that’s just because there were places that perhaps were taken less seriously by the computer science community, because things like hyper-text and online community and you know information management. Those things were seen as being on par with the social, social sciences. They were sort of softer than classical programming, and those user-oriented spaces are places where people could get a toehold if they didn’t necessarily have a rigorous education in computer science. And hadn’t managed to make it, you know all the way up the channels of academia. A woman could still find a way to contribute and participate in those, in those early periods. So, it’s a lot of innovation in the sort of dusty corners, underappreciated areas at the beginning of every technology. And I think a lot of that is also just, when there’s no, when there’s no precedent, when there’s no canon, when there’s no establishment quite there yet, new technology actually affords a lot of freedom for people to define what it’s going to be. And it’s only then after it’s been defined that it begins to take on an outsize role in society.
HEFFNER: Well the one established hierarchy was the social construct. Then and maybe now too, of male dominated professional development if you will. But one thing that struck me is you identify the first ever advertisement at the beginning of the book for a computer. But it wasn’t necessarily a computer to an individual to compute.
EVANS: Yes, yes. Before a computer was a machine, it was a job. And it was a job that was practiced primarily by women, the job of computing. Performing computations. Because you know in the early days of organized science, if you wanted to get, you know, large numbers of, large amounts of computation done for, for example, you know determining the arc of a, of a planet, or maritime calculations or ballistics calculations, things that involve a lot of math, you couldn’t just run that through a machine, you had to have, you had to do the math. You know, you had to actually do the math. And the people that actually did the math were groups of women working in computing offices in the 18th and 19th century and they did much of the, you know, of the rigorous grunt work of science for, you know, for much of the, of the beginning of the scientific age and essentially, eventually replaced themselves with the machines that do that job today. But, yeah.
HEFFNER: Has Google done doodles for any of these women?
EVANS: I’m pretty sure Google’s been pretty good about doing doodles.
HEFFNER: I think they have right?
EVANS: I mean they have 365 days a year to cover, so there’s plenty of people. I know there’s been, there’s definitely been a Grace Hopper google doodle, certainly an Ada Lovelace Google Doodle.
HEFFNER: I did a little research and found that a few of them were covered. But Lovelace is the starting point, right, in terms of translating the computing into some knowledge that could be developed mechanically.
HEFFNER: But for those who don’t know anything about her, can you share with our viewers?
EVANS: What a fantastic character. I mean she is one of those people that is often trotted out as well here’s the original foremother of all computing. And it’s I think an uncontestable truth. She, she wrote the first computer program before computers in the mechanical sense existed. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron a member of you know Brit—the Victorian Aristocracy, she was married to the Count of Lovelace, she was an Aristocrat in the days of you know high society in London. And she absolutely hated it, you know she never wanted to be that. She wanted to be a mathematician, because she was obsessed with mathematics. Her mother had instilled in her from a very young age a love of mathematics, mostly because her mother wanted to keep her father’s romantic tendencies sort of out of the mix, because Lord Byron was famously kind of a louche character and you know he divorced Ada’s mother after only a few years in order to pursue an affair with his half-sister. Anyway that’s, that’s historical gossip but Ada grew up in a household where mathematics and science were valued because they were seen as being kind of the opposite of poetry. And unfortunately she, for her mother anyway, Ada had a romantic mind, and she saw mathematics in its highest form as a form of poetry. As something that had profound metaphysical value that could really change the world and articulate beautiful unseen mysteries of the universe. And so she threw herself into mathematics her whole life. And when she was 19 I believe, met Charles Babbage, who was the creator of a machine called the difference engine, which was a very very early computing machine. And really a machine in—in that sense of the word. It was made of, you know bits of steel and brass. It was very sort of steam-punky by today’s standards aesthetically. Designed to calculate, you know mathematical tables for the British government. Nobody understood how it worked and ultimately it was never finished, because it was far too ahead of its time, but she was really entranced by it, and became Babbage’s sort of diplomat in a way. He was a difficult character and not very good about articulating his ideas to the masses and she believed in what he was doing, and so she wrote the notes that would eventually explain how his machines worked to the rest of the world. She was an advocate for him, she created mathematical proofs that could be run on his machines that formed the basis of computer programming as we know it today. So, really a remarkable character. Ultimately she had kind of a tragic life, she died young. The same year as her father had in her mid-30s of cancer. Which, in those days everyone thought was just hysteria. Classic sort of feminine ailment of the Victorian age. But she articulated the aspirations of software. A century before anyone really understood what that would mean.
HEFFNER: We do think of the technological advances not through the lens of a, of a gender neutral order. We think of kind of the names that have been lionized or,
EVANS: I think it’s a couple of things. I mean, the things that our culture tends to value in technological innovation, and you know I think this is the consequence of a lot of marketing and also just perhaps our capitalist society, but, you know, the heroes that we look at that you mentioned at the top of the show, the Jobs the Zuckerbergs, these are people that either built physical machines, like Steve Jobs, like created hardware that has a sort of lasting presence in the world because of its literal physical presence. Because it’s—because things are easy to point to and say, this is an object that has meaning. This is an object you can put in a museum. This is an object you can, that fills landfills with its, with its mass. And this, because, because computer hardware is sort of defined by its continuous obsolescence and the fact that we constantly have to replace it with more material hardware. You know it’s a lot easier to look at that stuff and the people that create that stuff as being significant because they’re actually making like a physical impact on this world. They’re mining rare metals and putting them into boxes that we put in our homes. Software, which is what a lot of the women in my book at least are—were responsible for articulating, is much more sort of mutable and strange, and it doesn’t have a physical presence in the same way, and it you know, software isn’t preserved, really with the same kind of fastidiousness as hardware is preserved. We don’t think about software in the same ways. It’s much more difficult to point to and say, you know this is important, because it’s so ephemeral. That’s one thing. I think the other thing is the sort of fantasy, the Silicon Valley fantasy of serial entrepreneurship. The fact that we value people that start companies that develop massive user bases, and then sell their companies to other companies to start more companies, or who IPO and make a lot of money and leave the industry. This, the sort of much more entrepreneurial focus, which is also very masculine I think those are the things that we seem to value as a society: things and money. And things that make money. But I don’t know, what I admire most about some of the women in this book is that they have a much more sort of concerted interest in supporting the existence of the platforms and the software and the things that they create. That it’s about developing a platform and then taking care of it, and then maintaining it, and sometimes that’s not glamorous, and that doesn’t make you a lot of money, but maybe you actually have much more of a significant impact on individual people’s lives because you’re building something with value that has an application to a real community.
HEFFNER: Absolutely. And I think it’s the absence of that underpinning, of nurturing the knowledge-based system that plagues web 2.0, 3.0, whatever it is now.
HEFFNER: And someone like Elizabeth Feinler who you know thought, conceived of an administrative way that we should think of the internet and the digital analogy as a storage house of knowledge, right?
EVANS: Feinler’s an interesting character for sure. I mean she was… I mean the earliest version of the internet as we know it, was called the ARPANET, it was developed by the Department of Defense. It was designed for people in the academic computer science community to use resources at a distance. So there were obviously not a ton of women in that world, because we’re talking about the highest echelons of engineering and computer science and the military. Not very, you know,
EVANS: Predominately male dominated environments for all the reasons that we know. But, there were women involved in the ARPANET in this sort of, again, sort of secretarial afterthought kind of capacity, which ended up becoming a really important capacity. Jake Feinler was one of these women. She ran what was called the network information center, or the NIC, which was the primary central office for the internet. For the ARPANET. Which sounds like nothing, but really, if you’re thinking about the earliest version of networked computing, there was no interface by which computer scientists could discover what resources were available to them on the network. They had to know, you know if they wanted to use a computer, if a computer scientist at MIT wanted to use a machine in Berkeley, they had to know what was on that machine in Berkeley.
EVANS: And who was running it, and when it would be online, and when it would be accessible, and the only way they could do that was by calling this office, the NIC, and saying, you know, hey Elizabeth, what’s, what’s up with that machine in Berkeley, can I use it and when? And she would have all the resources. So she knew what everyone was doing, everywhere on the network. And anytime somebody wanted to add a machine to the network, they had to call her office and make sure that all the protocols were right, make sure that they had all of their paperwork straight. And she would assign them a space on the network. So she was the administrator of space. Of host, of the host table it was called, like the host table was a sort of index of all the host computers. She knew everybody, you know, and she kept the, the yellow pages and the white pages of the early internet together. Which were originally print documents, but eventually became part of the network itself. So for 25 years there was a phone at the NIC that was the phone number for The Internet. And if you had a question about the internet, you called that phone, and she answered that phone, and her staff answered that phone for two decades. And she knew before anybody that you know the real significance of this network wasn’t going to be about sharing computing muscle for you know engineering projects. It was going to be that it was an information network. And it was something that was gonna connect people with one another.
HEFFNER: What can we learn about these women, Feinler and others, in the way that they had hoped to direct digital technology and it hasn’t gone their way. It hasn’t gone in that direction.
EVANS: I mean there’s lots of forces at play that are beyond just individual contributions, but, you know… First of all we should make a distinction between the internet and the web because that’s a very common thing. The internet is the infrastructure that underlies the web. The web is a visual platform built on top of the internet. And they’re quite different. The internet was developed by computer scientists. The web was developed by physicists and computer scientists, and they both, the, I mean the great similarity between the two is that they both immediately exponentially grew. Because people, whenever people are connected, they want to continue connecting. Whenever two machines are connected, people are using it to send emails to each other, or send messages to each other, or connect with each other, because we are tribal, we are social beings. We love to connect with each other over distance. But there are many things about the experience of the early internet and the early web that sort of, it’s limitations are what made it interesting I think. I mean, if you were using dial-in online services in the late 80s and early 1990s, there was a sort of geographical fencing that would happen. Because it would be more expensive to call, for example, a bulletin board system on the west coast if you were on the east coast, than it would be to dial into a system locally. So people tended to, even though they were using the network to connect with each other, there were a lot of smaller communities that were isolated from one another and were localized, and were rooted in local environments. You would be interacting with people that you stood a chance of meeting in real life, that you might, you know personally in fact. And that I think is a very interesting lost part of the internet. The fact that people used to be able to connect with one another without anonymity. Like that they knew each other. And they stood the chance to know each other. And perhaps when we start dealing with a network where everyone is on equal footing globally, it’s very difficult to be responsible for what people are going to do, and what people, how people are going to behave with one another. There’s much less accountability and ultimately I think that’s what drives some of the darkest corners. Although to be honest, there’s been, there’s been bad actors online since the very beginning. You look at one of the people I chronicle in the book, Stacy Horn who started a online community in New York City in the late 80s, she had Nazis, she had trolls, she had stalkers, she had all kinds of, all, everything that we have today, she had. A smaller scale of course, but it’s all, it’s, all the good and the bad come together, and always have, so I think it’s…
HEFFNER: But they were not empowered
EVANS: They were not empowered in the same way, of course. And, and the administrators of a platform like Echo had the ability to just say, hey get out of here. Like you’re, you’re fired you can’t be on this network anymore. ‘Cause things were more localized.
HEFFNER: So what kind of solutions did they foresee, or do you, channeling their creative energies, foresee. We were talking a bit off-camera, I said I don’t even wanna use the word ecosystem anymore as it pertains to digital. Because it’s been cannibalized by parasites and we really question whether or not there is something living that can be nurtured anymore on the web.
EVANS: I mean, I think a lot of it comes down to money. I mean a lot of the people that build these early versions, I mean the early internet was built for academics. And it wasn’t about profit, it wasn’t about creating commercial platforms. The earliest online communities were made for the love of it, really, I mean, you people, people dialed in and paid for the privilege of doing so, but it wasn’t something that anyone was getting rich doing and earliest contributions to the web were done for the fun of it by people who were excited by the medium. I think you know efforts to try to understand how to monetize these platforms have ultimately led us down a very dark path. If you look at the earliest web publishing experiments for example. When people first started publishing magazines on the web, they thought they were gonna get rich right away, because people paid money to subscribe to magazines, and if you had a magazine online, you wouldn’t have to actually warehouse print issues of magazines, that you could just sell subscriptions infinitely to something ineffable, and that would be like, you’d be making money hand over fist because you wouldn’t have to actually print magazines, you would just put them on the internet and you could sell subscriptions forever and never run out of magazines. And so that was, that was the original sort of delusion about what, you know how people would make money online. Then it became very clear that the amount of free content on the internet was gonna make that impossible as a proposition. So then it became about advertising, selling ads online. You know, people sold ads online, made a lot of money, ultimately that didn’t quite get there. So now we’re in a place where we’ve sort of hybridized community and publishing by selling you know, user demographic data to advertisers about the users on a community. It’s a weird way of existing. That you’re sort of monetizing by exploitation of the community that you’re trying to serve. I mean it’s like… they always say if you’re not, you know, if you’re not paying for the service you’re the product. And that’s the tricky thing about life online now, is you’re always being sold to or sold. It’s, how can you build a healthy ecosystem that way?
HEFFNER: Right. Right. Right. Well it’s not a mystery to me, Claire, that the three women executive directors of Wikipedia who have appeared in, where you’re sitting, have stewarded a more knowledge-based internet, and it’s not a mystery to me that the woman executive director and chairperson of the Mozilla corporation, these people who really are at the helm of what I like to call the Good Samaritan Internet, they’re women.
EVANS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean Wikipedia is a great example. Whenever people ask me about you know what part of the internet I like today, or I see sort of commonalities between contemporary usage and the sort of earliest aspirations of cyber culture, Wikipedia is one of them. Because that’s really about the sort of collective pursuit of knowledge, which was the, which was the point of it all to begin with, wasn’t it?
HEFFNER: Right. And is there some inspiration you hope your readers, take away in their pursuit, or application of technology? Of course the women who have led Wikipedia are stars and Firefox is the one example of a non-profit browser that won’t monetize your privacy or personal data.
HEFFNER: What is your hope from the reader’s perspective, that this may lead them to some kind of further pro-social,
EVANS: I mean for me, the hopes, I have several hopes. [LAUGHS] I want to believe that a better internet is possible. I think it is. I think part of allowing people to sort of let that possibility into their spirits is understanding, you know, that a better internet could have been possible if we had just taken, made a few different decisions in history. That’s the thing that blows me away about this history is that, there are so many kind of parallel futures that you can see in these stories, like if for example, the early hyper-text systems that were developed by women, that were eventually displaced by the web, if those had taken the place of the web, what kind of world would we be living in? A different one. And those are just, you know—HEFFNER: What would it be, look like?
EVANS: Who knows but…
HEFFNER: Just for our viewers who are not as familiar with the lingo, what would be the qualitative difference, in the, in the minutes we have left. Seconds.
EVANS: The way that, yeah, so the, okay I’ll try to jam it in. So the way that the web works is, it’s built around the concept of links, right? Which that’s what hyper-text is, it’s the convention of linking ideas together. But before the web became the hyper-text system that we all know and love, there was, there was a decade of research of being done about how best to approach this question of turning data and information into practical knowledge, useful knowledge, how to create connections within it all that would be practical and applicable to human life. It was pretty much agreed within those communities that links should always go two ways, that if you connected something, you should be able to connect back to where you came from. And that links should be not contextual, not embedded in the documents, but this larger kind of meta-information. Because the connection between two ideas is as valuable a piece of information as the individual ideas themselves, right? Knowing what brings, knowing what connects two things is a very useful piece of information. It’s meta information, essentially. And following a thread like one would on a Wikipedia deep-dive where you go from one link to the next, following a thread through a series of historical periods, ideas, movements, concepts, is an incredibly valuable thing. And sharing that thread with other people is valuable, so,
HEFFNER: The alternative though,
EVANS: The alternative,
HEFFNER: Would have been something, perhaps, more contextual?
EVANS: No well, if we had gone with the way that people understood hyper-text to work in those days, instead of the way we built the web, we would not ever have a broken link. We would never have a 404 Error. If a website today disappears or it’s moved, or it’s hidden behind a pay-wall, that, whatever links to it, that link becomes broken. So that piece of information is gone. And that is, I think a huge loss to our culture and to our, to our, you know, the knowledge of humanity. So these earlier systems were designed in such a way that that would never happen. So perhaps we would have a sort of more holistic, more information-driven, more humane kind of conventional,
HEFFNER: More humane.
EVANS: More humane. That’s the goal.
HEFFNER: Thank you Claire.
HEFFNER: I appreciate you being here with me today.
EVANS: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience, I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an Open Mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind, to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.