Focus
Claire L. Evans, writer and musician
“This is not to say that men make and women use—far from it—only that the technological history we’re usually told is one about men and machines, ignoring women and the signals they compose,” Claire L. Evans writes in the introduction to her new book, Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. The book offers another version of that history, one that doesn’t ignore the women in the room, and instead finds the rooms were packed with them: alongside known names like Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Jaime Levy, there were the ENIAC Six, the women who programmed and operated one of the first computers; the women of Resource One, who developed one of the earliest efforts to apply computing to social good; Jake Feinler, who kept the earliest version of the Internet online; and Stacy Horn, who ran one of the first ever social networks out of her apartment in the ’80s. As Claire tells it, Broad Band also tells the human side to our history of machines. It gives equal importance to the lived experience of its characters as it does the technology they helped invent, operate, program, and proliferate—and connects them all through sharp writing and a truly compelling narrative (the story of the development of ARPANET as told through the discovery of the world’s longest cave—the “Mt. Everest of speleology”—cartographic data, and heartbreak, is a personal favorite).
Claire has been writing on the Internet since her teenage LiveJournal, and more recently as a contributor to VICEThe GuardianMotherboardWIREDNational Geographic, and Aeon. She’s also the lead singer of the pop group YACHT. I spoke with her recently over the phone about how “female mental labor was the original information technology,” why women are often early adopters, and hypertext as narrative form (though not necessarily the best research methodology for this book).

I wanted to start off by asking about your writing and research process for the book, as I’m always interested in that. Then I remembered that in the book you write that interviewing hypertext researchers means always having to answer their questions about your process and how you organize your thoughts. In that section you mention something about index cards and serial killer-yarn threads…
I had never done that before; that was something that I started to do in the process of writing the book. I started to think, “OK, how is a book normally written? Because I feel like this is not right, so I’m going to try to adopt the tropes of book writing that I’ve seen in films and television.” I was grasping at straws. The book writing process is the weirdest, most existential thing. So I thought I would try the index card method.
I ended up building a narrative with the index cards and then running the yarn as a narrative thread, literally, between them. I put it on my wall and I would sit at my desk every day and look at it. The more I looked at it, the more that structure became concrete in my mind, and I felt like it was locking me into an approach that wasn’t necessarily the right one, it was just the one I arbitrarily decided on when I arranged the cards for the first time. I ultimately felt like it was doing more damage than good.
That was at the same time as I was doing a lot of the hypertext research, and it sort of broke my brain, talking to the hypertext people. Once you start thinking about the various non-linear ways you can tell a story you can get really lost in it. I was primarily using Scrivener, which is a piece of fairly artisanal software for writing. With Scrivener, you can do these kind of hypertext strategies: you can separate the book out into blocks and choose an arrangement based on different narrative threads. You can collapse different blocks together and rearrange them and see how they feel. I was reading a lot of Ted Nelson at the time so I was like, “This is how writing is done.” But ultimately it made for a first draft that was so disjointed and crazy, because I wasn’t approaching the material in a systematic way. I was approaching it in a thematic way, with all of these invisible threads that only I could see. In my second draft I upended everything, put it into a linear document, and placed each section of the book in chronological order. In doing so realized I had missed an entire decade that needed to be included. I still believe in hypertext as a form and I will be fascinated by it, always. But I do think it’s easy to get lost when you’re working in that way.
Which decade did you miss?
Most of the 1970s. I’m not kidding.
Well if nothing else, your index card method was thematic.
When I was interviewing Cathy Marshall, who was a hypertext researcher at Xerox PARC, we were talking about why hypertext as a narrative form never took off. There was a period where computer people and literary people were fascinated by the possibilities of hypertext as a narrative form, but it never really went anywhere besides some CD-ROM games and a few outlier literary works that were interesting and broke through to the mainstream. Cathy said, “Well, no one really wrote a potboiler, no one really wrote a romance novel.” No one tried to do something with mass appeal, and that might be why it never took off in a real way. Except with the Web itself, of course.
Something else that Cathy said that did make it into the book was that line about it not being lost—even if you’re writing in a certain mode, and you scrap the entire thing and start over, the first version still informs the final version in some way.
Yeah, I’m glad I did it the way I did. It probably wasn’t the most efficient method, but it works for me in my mind. It helped me make associations that I wouldn’t have made otherwise.