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How women helped build the internet, and why it matters

How women helped build the internet, and why it matters

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Graphic by James Bareham / The Verge

There are a couple of omnipresent narratives for the history of women in tech. One is simplistic and linear: men built computers and the internet, and now women are struggling to break in. A more nuanced version includes pioneers like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, who helped invent programming as we know it, or NASA’s “human computers,” highlighted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. But that narrative consigns women’s influence to the very beginning of computing history, dramatically contrasting them with today’s male-dominated Silicon Valley.

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, a new book from journalist and musician Claire L. Evans, offers a rougher and more complicated version of the past. Broad Band profiles some familiar figures, including Lovelace and Hopper, but it quickly jumps into fascinating lesser-known projects. One section covers 1970s Bay Area digital bulletin board project Resource One, led by Berkeley computer science dropout Pam Hardt-English. Another focuses on Dame Wendy Hall’s role in developing hypertext, just before the dawn of the World Wide Web. At the turn of the millennium, there was Jaime Levy, a groundbreaking digital media creator and the self-styled “biggest bitch in Silicon Alley.”

Some of these women’s projects look like dead-end paths in retrospect; Hall’s hypermedia system Microcosm, for instance, was steamrolled by the web. But Broad Band illustrates how they prefigured our modern internet — and, just as importantly, which ideas were lost along the way. I spoke to Evans about the process of writing Broad Band, the value of data preservation, and her book’s original, unpublishable title.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Which chapter of Broad Band did you write first?

I think actually some of the chapters I wrote earliest ended up getting cut. But the chapters I wrote first that are in the book, probably the Ada Lovelace chapter came first, which is uncharacteristically chronological for me.

Also, it seems like you had closer connections to a lot of the other chapters.

I had the great fortune of actually getting to talk to and hang out with and visit with a lot of people in the later chapters, as opposed to the people like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, who are unfortunately long past. So yeah, I think that material felt more dynamic to me because I think of these people a living, breathing, active human beings who I can ask all kinds of personal questions.

You mentioned a three-page pitch you’d held onto for a long time. I’m wondering if it was for this concept or another idea that evolved.

No, it was very different. It had a completely unsaleable title, it was called We Are the Future Cunt. So as you can imagine, the book kind of generalized and broadened and became a bit more accessible and more wide-ranging. But it always kind of felt like an inevitability that I would write this book or a book like it. I grew up online and my father worked for Intel, and we had computers in the home for as long as I can remember, and I never felt when I was a kid that computers were for boys or for girls. I just saw my computer as a portal to the world.

“Those were the years that I was sort of coming of age online, and I had totally missed it.”

Broad Band itself came out of a series of articles that I wrote for Motherboard a few years ago about cyberfeminism — hence the We Are the Future Cunt, because that’s 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 by the idea that there had been this wave of exciting dynamic, colorful, and funny feminism in the ‘90s because those were the years that I was sort of coming of age online, and I had totally missed it.

What other stories were there that had been there all along that could sort of relate to my experience as a woman online, and as a writer online, and as a “net native” type of person?

How did you decide when to stop, chronologically?

There was something satisfying to me about ending with the popping of the dot-com bubble. The more contemporary internet history — the stuff that we’re living in now — I feel like I’m just too close to it to really historicize it. But the period of time up until my earliest years online, I guess, is something that’s separate enough from my own experience that I can sort of look at it in a semi-impartial way.

But also, I think when the dot-com bubble collapsed, so collapsed with it a lot of the more idealistic illusions that people had about what the internet and what the web would be. It sort of feels like the beginning of the next chapter, and we’re 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 great regrets about the timing of me writing this book is that Halt and Catch Fire is over now, and I can’t con my way into a consulting job on that show. It was so fun being deep in the process of researching arcana and internet history and then seeing these little nuggets appear in a more glamorous form on my favorite TV show. It kind of felt surreal. But definitely made me feel like I was headed in the right direction.

Even beyond being about old technology, it had that feeling of being kind of futile but not hopeless. You understand that a lot of these people didn’t make it into the history books, but it’s still not discouraging.

Futile but not hopeless — that’s a nice way of putting it. I think one of the things that really knocked me out learning about this history, is just the way it’s rewritten my conception of how the internet is and how it could be different.

“There’s 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 messiness of the real lived experience of all these people, the more you realize that if things had unfolded even slightly differently, we could be living in a totally different world. There’s nothing inevitable about the way the internet is.

One of the major examples of that is hypertext. There was this going wisdom in hypertext design before the web — which had a preponderance of women in it — that 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 links went both ways, who knows where we’d be? It’s so mind-blowing to think of the many parallel universes that these stories open up.

Preservation is also a huge unspoken part of this book.

Yeah, totally. Especially for the web chapters. Some of that stuff, just by the nature of the medium, is constantly erasing itself. I’m the world’s biggest admirer of the Internet Archive because that material would have been impossible to access without it. It’s so important to me to kind of get a little bit of this stuff down on paper before we lose it on pixel, so to speak.

There are cases where important female co-founders get written out of stories by journalists, like Jessica Curry from 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 isn’t so much about parading specific women around as splendid exceptions — in the way that Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper have already kind of been talked about for a long time.

“I don’t think that the alternative to great man history is necessarily great woman history.”

I don’t think that the alternative to great man history is necessarily great woman history. There are characters in this book that brought us “firsts,” although I think firsts are contestable in computing history. But there are also a lot of characters who just happen to be doing interesting stuff in tech and with computers at particularly relevant times and places, and getting to understand those experiences gives us a richer understanding of those times.

It’s not as useful to me to think about Ada Lovelace as being the first programmer. I want to know about how she overcame her pain and her illness and her insane family, and I want to know that she failed — in that, you know, she lost the family jewels by betting on horse races, and that she kind of didn’t love being a parent. I don’t want blank heroes or necessarily straight-up attribution. I just want people, and I want to get at the complexity of real history.

How do you balance the idea that these women shaped the internet in a specific way, without saying that women are a certain way, or like, “if only women had designed the internet, there would be no internet war.”

That’s something I really tried to be mindful of. It’s part of what pulled me away from talking more extensively about cyberfeminism because there was a lot of rhetoric that was oriented around this sort of embodied idea that women are naturals at the internet because women are naturally good at connection.

“There was a lot of rhetoric ... around this sort of embodied idea that women are naturals at the internet.”

The book leans toward people who contributed to use-oriented applications of computing technology. And I don’t ever want to imply that that is necessarily something that women are naturally good at, but I do think that’s a space where there was more possibility of entry for women throughout computing history. That those contributions end up being the ones that have a big impact on our actual lived experience of what it is to use the internet is just a consequence of that.

Where do you feel like those spaces are now?

God, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think that it’s funny I started writing this book a little after as a way of trying to understand a path forward and trying to understand where a human women I might fit in in all of this in technology in a sort of general sense, and I don’t know that I really answered that question.

But I think I’m excited and thrilled at the way in which the balance of power, at least in the realm of visibility and conversations, is changing a lot. I think the fight is just beginning, and it’s so interesting to be there and see it. And I hope this book can be some form of ammo for those conversations. I think if we can reposition computing as something that women participated in actively and even developed and informed, then we sort of destabilize that sense of entitlement in male-dominated spheres of tech.

I truly, really, really hope that people don’t look at this book and think, “Okay, we’re done.” There are so many stories that I couldn’t include. There are so many more amazing women in this history. Maybe I’ll do a sequel, I don’t know. But I really want this to feel like the beginning and not the end.