Yesterday was offical Ada Lovelace Day, recognizing women in technology and science. According to the Huffington Post, “March 24 was dubbed ‘Ada Lovelace Day’ in honor of this ‘tech heroine.’ It was celebrated as an ‘international day of blogging’ that honored not only Lovelace’s achievements, but the achievements of all women in technology and science.” Ironically, I didn’t manage to blog yesterday, but I shall on this today.
Ada Lovelace is hip these days, not only because she has kind of been “rediscovered” as a very important contributor to the development of computing who basically came up with the idea that computers could be more than giant calculators. She proposed to her close friend Charles Babbage that his “difference engine” could accommodate algorithms to perform far more advanced calculations, and she theorized that computers could be programmed with levels of complexity that would allow them to, for example, “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” She is considered the world’s first computer programmer.
Ada Lovelace is also hip because she’s an ideal steampunk icon. Steampunk is most definitely sexy: clunky, quasi-magical machines rendered in brass and besought with decay run by dark and foreboding engineer- and science-types wearing Victorian-inspired clothing with a kick-ass, sexy twist. Women are kick-ass, not wilting violets, and men are raw and rough. Both have a touch of androgyny and most importantly, they make really cool stuff like giant dirigibles and mechanical people.
Two parts Mary Shelley, one part Lovecraft, and three parts Jules Verne, the steampunk aesthetic has come and gone over recent years, but it’s increasingly hitting the mainstream these days. Take a look at the SyFy channel’s Warehouse 13 or even their Sanctuary. I confess I’ve become rather enamored of it myself, even to the point of scouring the internets for the perfect strappy/buckley boots and adopting an affinity for button-down blouses with fitted vests.
Ada Lovelace (to return to the point) is from steampunks’ inspirational era (circa 1850s), and as a techie woman who thrived in an oppressive culture, she has become rather a feminist icon.
Another oft-overlooked woman in computing, Grace Hopper, created the first compiler for a computer language and came up with the idea of machine-independent programming languages. Think about that for a moment. Until then, each individual machine (the size of a ballroom) needed its own special language to turn on- and off-switches into letters and numbers and sums and differences. Machine independent languages joined all those little difference engines together, creating the possibility for computer-communication, and through them, computer-mediated human communication.
These two women thought of computers as something not simply to perform calculations, but as having the potential for profound complexity. They saw computing as offering conceptual insights, building patterns, and, ultimately, as allowing for a far more organic and fluid environment where surprising things might emerge – like, say, virtual worlds?
Computers are so much more than giant calculators. They are embedded into our daily lives as extensions of our thoughts, our creativity, our sexuality, our curiosity. We don’t simply turn to them to solve a difficult puzzle, but instead engage with them and with others through them to explore formerly non-existent worlds. Reeves and Nash pointed out that we often treat computers as other human-like beings, responding politely, for example, when their code spits questions onto the screen. It’s not that we’re fooled, but that we somehow recognize a complexity that triggers a human-to-human type of interaction. Folks have claimed to be helped by automated “therapist” software (like advanced versions of Eliza) and I, for one, know how easy it is to get attached to those little Lantana-shaped pixels running about on the screen.
Computers are extensions of us. We are cyborgs, even without all those mechanical appendages. We are in the machines, and they are in us.
Thanks Ada. Thanks Grace.