Zeros + Ones

“A strong-minded woman! Much like her mother, eh? Wears green spectacles and writes learned books … She wants to upset the universe, and play dice with the hemispheres. Women never know when to stop … “ William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.

A large part of the history of the struggle for women’s rights has been the fight for participation in the public sphere; for the vote, for a say in politics, economic rights, for a voice, and worth in the public arena. We hear again and again that technology is a powerful tool, that blogs and social networking phenomena such as Twitter are becoming more and more involved in politics, and that people gather, communicate, and agitate from online. There is no doubt that as a forum for discussion and a place to co-ordinate action, technology is an invaluable platform. New online tools are creating a new public sphere – in such a fast moving medium, we simply cannot afford to be left behind. Women need to be on the front line, both participating in and originating new technology, and whilst women represent roughly 55% of the people online, and a 2008 study by Tesco’s Computers for Schools initiative found that from as early as seven years old, girls are outstripping boys when it comes to computer literacy (Taherreport, 2008), this isn’t being born out in the tech industry itself:

While women influence 80% of consumer spending decisions, 90% of technology products and services are designed by men […] Women make up approximately 20% (and sometimes less) of panelists at major tech conferences. Even fewer are asked to be keynote speakers. Furthermore, women in tech are rarely quoted and sought out as experts by the mainstream media covering technology. (Kapin, 2009)

Women are hideously underrepresented in the tech world, this is due to more universal problems encountered by women in and en route to the work place, but it is also down to the pervading myth (and it is a myth, but one that unfortunately one that is woven into our education right from the kinds of toys that children are given to learn from) that women just can’t do tech as well as men. What is largely accepted as true is that role models are one of the best ways to break down that misconception. Enter Ada Lovelace Day – A day named after the world’s first computer programmer – countess of Lovelace, Ada. Ada Lovelace Day brings bloggers together to share stories and role models of women that are important to the/their history of digital technology/computing.

There are plenty of excellent programmers and engineers which other people are going to do much better justice than I. The person I have decided to talk about is a bit different, but the kind of person who I think also makes a big difference. I’d have to, really, because she’s an academic.

Theorists are often seen as derivative of the do-ers, but Ada Lovelace, devoid of the hardware that could run her code, was in essence a theorist, some of the biggest imaginative leaps can cause the biggest scientific and technological pushes. This short blog post today is dedicated to Sadie Plant.

I discovered Sadie Plant first as a writer on the complex and revolutionary artistic ideas of the Situationist International – looking at how advance capitalism can be tackled by the revelation of the spectacle, before discovering that she founded the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick, and then getting my hands on a (signed, no less, thanks go out to @toodamnninja for that find) copy of Zeros + Ones.

Zeroes + Ones is a magnificent piece of writing, a glorious, hubristic, and enthusiastic look at women in digital technoculture. It moves from science fiction, to the history of zero, to Freud, Frankenstein, and Ada Lovelace in her own words; tracing the history of women as portrayed in technoculture, and women as the body of digital tech. Plant looks at weaving and the Jacquard Loom‘s punched cards as a precursor to the analytical engine,  the notion of binary sex/gender, and how the way women have had to exist in the workplace places them ideally for the way workplaces are reconfiguring in a digital age. Through a complex and incredibly varied text Plant allows Ada herself to emerge as a kind of guide, the book progressing as an almost ode to Ada’s mind:

“‘nothing but very close & intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop up the void which seems to be left in my mind from a want of excitement'”

Plant looks at how women, given the task of interfacing throughout history – the secretary, the PA, the typist, the telephone operator – find themselves ideally suited to the future of tech, as well as woven throughout its history:

“When computers were vast systems of transistors and valves which needed to be coaxed into action, it was women who turned them on. They have not made some trifling contribution to an otherwise man-made tale: when computers became the miniaturised circuits of silicon chips, it was women who assembled them. Theirs is not a subsidiary role which needs to be rescued for posterity, a small supplement whose inclusion would set the existing records straight: 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.”

The first computer programming language was named Ada, after the founder of modern computer programming; Ada Lovelace. Women played a key role in code-breaking at Bletchley Park during WWII, in 1942 the ENIAC (the first general-purpose electronic  computer) was programmed by six women and Grace Hopper, the second programmer, inspired the development of the COBOL programming language. Women are the majority of online users (55%) and tech consumers (80%).  When I speak to my programming friends they have no clue about any of this. The battle (as ever) for women in tech is reclaiming our past as well as our present.

Plant then looks to the future, touching on Donna Haraway’s Cyberfeminist manifesto and at ideas of consciousness and cyborgs in fiction, theory, and reality:

“Only the most highly coded and perfectly integrated machines are unable to see the extent of their own programming. The bladerunner’s blind conviction in his own humanity proves only how efficient the programming can be.”

Zeroes + Ones was written in 1997 and is an invaluable book for all people interested and working in the world of technology. Looking back, as well as far forward the ideas, facts, figures and concepts shifting under its covers slowly reveal a full picture, pregnant with the full potential of a powerful, feminine, digital age.

Buy it, read it. Laugh, smile, disagree, but above all, feature this fuller history in your mind and in your deeds, because, as an excellent blog post I read today puts it:

“the problem is […] thoughtlessness, a kind of – oh, God, I’m going to say it – institutional sexism, where nobody thinks to notice and object because nobody realises what’s happening. […] it’s not what we believe and value that counts. It’s not what we think in our head and hearts that counts. It’s what we do, often by mistake and often without knowing that we’re doing it. It’s what we do when that effectively runs counter to what we believe that needs attending to.” Colin Smith

My Ada Lovelace Day is dedicated to Sadie Plant, because nothing has shown me that as a woman I belong in tech – and that it belongs to me – better and brighter than this book.

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2 Responses to “Belonging”

  1. Colin Smith March 24, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    Thank you for your kind words, Hannah.

  2. Hannah Nicklin March 24, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    Colin you’re so very welcome, thank you for your excellent ones.

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