How women helped build the internet, and why it matters

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There are a couple of omnipresent stories for the history of women in technology. One is simplistic and linear: men built computers and the Internet, and now women struggle to enter. A more nuanced version includes pioneers like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, who helped invent the programming as we know it, or the "human computers" of NASA. "She highlighted in the 2016 Hidden Figures film, but that narration consigns the influence of women at the very beginning of the history of computing, contrasting them dramatically with Silicon Valley, dominated by modern-day men.
Broadband: The untold story of women who made the Internet, a new book by journalist and musician Claire L. Evans, offers a harsher and more complicated version of the past. Broad Band outlines some familiar figures, such as Lovelace and Hopper, but quickly delves into fascinating lesser-known projects. One section covers the Bay Area digital bulletin board project of the 1970s, Resource One, directed by Pam Hardt-English, Berkeley's computer specialist. Another focuses on the role of Dame Wendy Hall in the development of hypertexts, just before the beginning of the World Wide Web. At the turn of the millennium, there was Jaime Levy, an innovative creator of digital media and the self-styled "the great bitch of Silicon Alley".
Some of these women's projects seem like dead ends in retrospect; The hypermedia system of Hall, Microcosm, for example, was run over by the network. But Broad Band illustrates how they prefigured our modern Internet and, just as importantly, what ideas got lost along the way. I spoke with Evans about the Broad Band writing process, the value of data preservation and the original and unpublished title of his book.
This interview has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity.
Which chapter of Broad Band did you write first?
I think that actually some of the chapters that I wrote earlier ended up being cut. But the chapters that I wrote first that are in the book, probably Ada Lovelace's chapter was first, which is unusually chronological for me.
Also, it seems that you had closer connections with many of the other chapters.
I had the great fortune to be able to converse and visit many people in later chapters, as opposed to people like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, who unfortunately have already passed a long time ago. So yes, I think that this material seemed more dynamic because I think that these people are active, active and active human beings to whom I can ask all kinds of personal questions.
You mentioned a three-page tone that you held for a long time. I wonder if it was for this concept or another idea that evolved.
No, it was very different. He had a completely unviable title, it was called We Are the Future Cunt. As you can imagine, the book became generalized and expanded, and became a little more accessible and broader. But it always seemed inevitable to me to write this book or a book like this. I grew up online and my father worked for Intel, and we had computers at home for as long as I can remember, and I never felt that when I was a kid computers were for boys or girls. I just saw my computer as a portal to the world.
"Those were the years when I was maturing online, and I totally missed them."
Broad Band itself came out of a series of articles I wrote for Motherboard a few years ago about cyberfeminism – hence the We Are the Future Cunt, because that is a line from the Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, a really amazing document created by a group of artists from the 90s. I was so enamored with the idea that there was a wave of exciting dynamic, colorful and fun feminisms in the 90s because those were the years when I was maturing online, and I had totally lost myself.
What other stories have there been that were there all the time that could relate to my experience as a woman online, and as an online writer, and as a "native of the network"?
How did you decide when to stop, chronologically?
There was something satisfying for me about ending the burst of the dotcom bubble. The more contemporary is the history of the Internet, what we are experiencing now, I feel that I am too close to really historicize it. But the period of time until my first years online, I suppose, is something sufficiently separate from my own experience to be able to see it in a semi-impartial way.
But also, I think that when the dotcom bubble collapsed, it collapsed with many of the most idealistic illusions that people had about what the internet would be like and what the web would be like. It somehow feels like the beginning of the next chapter, and we are still living in that chapter now.
It's funny how much this book reminded me of Halt and Catch Fire.
Yes! Oh my God. One of my biggest regrets by the time I wrote this book is that Halt and Catch Fire is over and I can not access a consultant position in that program. It was really fun to be in the process of investigating arcana and Internet history and then watching these little nuggets appear in a more glamorous way on my favorite television show. Somehow he felt surreal. But it definitely made me feel like I was going in the right direction.
Even beyond being on old technology, I had that feeling of being a little useless but not without hope. You understand that many of these people did not get to the history books, but it is still not discouraging.
Empty but not without hope: that's a good way to express it. I think one of the things that really left me out of my knowledge about this story is the way my conception of what the internet is and how it could be different is rewritten.
"There is nothing inevitable about the way the Internet is."
I think it's easy to feel locked into the way things are, but the more you get into the material and the clutter of the real lived experience of all these people, the more you realize that if things had developed in a way slightly different, we could be living in a totally different world. There is nothing inevitable about the way the Internet is.
One of the main examples of that is the hypertext. There was great wisdom in the design of hypertexts before the web, which had a preponderance of women in it, that the links have to go in two directions. It's just a totally different way of thinking about how we connect information. If we lived in a world where the links went both ways, who knows where we would be? It is so amazing to think about the many parallel universes that these stories open up.
Preservation is also a large unspoken part of this book.
Yes, totally. Especially for web chapters. Some of those things, simply because of the nature of the medium, are constantly erased. I am the biggest admirer of the Internet Archive because that material would have been impossible to access without it. For me it's so important to get some of this on paper before we lose it in pixels, so to speak.
There are cases in which important female co-founders are contacted by journalists, such as Jessica Curry of The Chinese Room. Did you find specific cases of that?
This is something I've been thinking about a lot because my interest in writing these stories is not so much about showing specific women as splendid exceptions, the way Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper have already been mentioned for a while. long time.
"I do not think that the alternative to the great history of man is necessarily a great story of women."
I do not believe that the alternative to the great history of man is necessarily a great history of women. There are characters in this book who brought us "scoops", although I think the first are debatable in the history of computing. But there are also many characters who simply do interesting things in technology and with computers at particularly relevant times and places, and getting to understand those experiences gives us a better understanding of those moments.
I do not find it so useful to think of Ada Lovelace as the first programmer. I want to know how she overcame her pain, her illness and her crazy family, and I want to know that she failed; in that, you know, lost the jewels of the family betting on horse races, and that she did nothing. I do not like being a father. I do not want blank heroes or necessarily direct attribution. I just want people, and I want to get to the complexity of the real story.
How do you balance the idea that these women shaped the Internet in a specific way, without saying that women are in a certain way, or as, "if only women had designed the Internet, there would be no Internet war".
That's something I really tried to be aware of. It's part of what kept me from talking more extensively about cyberfeminism because there was a lot of rhetoric oriented around this kind of built-in idea that women are natural on the Internet because women are naturally good at connecting.
"There was a lot of rhetoric … around this kind of built-in idea that women are natural on the Internet."
The book leans towards the people who contributed to the applications of computer technology oriented to the use. And I never want to imply that this is necessarily something that women are naturally good at, but I think it is a space where there were more possibilities of entry for women throughout the history of computing. That those contributions end up being those that have a great impact on our real experience of what it is to use the Internet is just a consequence of that.
Where do you feel that these spaces are now?
God, I do not know. I really do not know. I think it's fun. I started writing this book a bit later as a way to try to understand a way forward and try to understand where in technology I can fit a human woman in a kind of general sense, and I do not know that I really answered that Question.
But I think I'm excited and excited about the way the balance of power, at least in the field of visibility and conversations, is changing a lot. I think the fight is just beginning, and it's very interesting to be there and see it. And I hope this book can be a form of ammunition for those conversations. I think that if we can relocate computing as something in which women actively participated and even developed and informed, then, in some way, we destabilize that sense of law in the spheres of technology dominated by men.
Really, really, I really hope people do not look at this book and think, "It's okay, we're done." There are so many stories that I could not include. There are many more incredible women in this story. Maybe I make a sequel, I do not know. But I really want this to feel like the beginning and not the end.


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