“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 VICE, The Guardian, Motherboard, WIRED, National 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.
How long did writing the book take you?
Two years and change. I wrote it in blocks. I was also touring and making music at the same time. Somewhere on my computer I have a photo series—which I should make an Are.na channel out of, actually—of all the places where I tried to write my book. Weird janky backstage rooms and coat closets and hotel rooms and seats in the back of the van and airport lounges. All the places where you end up trying to squeeze in computer time when you’re traveling.
When did the idea to write the book start to form in earnest? Were you writing parts of this already as a journalist?
Kind of. I was working on this series for Motherboard, where I used to work, about lost female computer stories. I was writing about Theresa Duncan and about cyberfeminism. I didn’t necessarily have a goal in mind, I was just carving out a space to explore women in computing because I was interested in those stories myself. I was three pieces into that series when I realized there was a huge amount of material there. I could just blog forever about this stuff, or I could save these text documents to a folder and turn it into a book. I wanted to spend way more time chewing on that material than online journalism allowed.
I always knew that if I were to write a book, I would write it about the Internet. I became a writer online, I cut my teeth as a person who writes for a public in the golden age of blogging. I have a relationship to writing that is profoundly mediated by the screen. I was just waiting for the right book about the Internet—a book that made sense for me, and that would be nutritious for me to work on for a long period of time, and also nutritious for the world, that could hopefully be a net positive. When I made the connection that I could write about the Internet but I could also write about women, it was a done deal.
It’s incredible how comprehensive Broad Band is, just focusing on women in a history that typically includes very few.I’m curious if, from a writing standpoint, there were times where because you are taking such a specific angle to a much broader history, you were worried about leaving out swaths of it in service of this idea.
I think about the book as an addendum to the existing history. There have been many scholarly books, and popular books, about the history of computing and the Internet. Those books tend to ignore the women in the room. I don’t think of my book so much as a replacement for those books as additional material, just a wider lens on the situation. I never felt like I had to go over the material that’s already been covered ad nauseam in other histories. It’s not my job to tell those stories again. It’s my job to add dimension to those existing stories.
I also wanted to tell stories that exist on their own. A lot of my emphasis in the book is about people’s lived experiences, because I think they can stand on their own as stories about people’s lives, regardless of whether or not you’re interested in the history of technology. They’re just stories about interesting people that had an impact on the development of the world that we live in. A lot of writing this book was about fleshing out the human side of this history, because the rest has already been told.
You do a nice job of articulating the idea that some of the “soft skills” that are usually attributed to women were really instrumental in the progression of computing and the Internet. Grace Hopper is a perfect example, as she not only invented the compiler and popularized the idea of “automatic programming,” she also had the social skills, as you wrote, to communicate the need for what she was doing.
Technology is a very human thing. It has to be, because it interfaces with human life at every level. Even in the 1950s when computers were mostly being used for aviation calculations and insurance calculations and business-oriented endeavors. The remarkable thing about people like Grace Hopper is this understanding that the field would mutate and develop into something that would really impact people’s lives. And that access was going to make a huge difference in how that played out: the more people who feel comfortable interfacing with these systems, the better they will be for the world. She also understood that the more kinds of languages we can speak when we’re interfacing with computers, the better. We can’t just have dyed-in-the-wool, super detail-oriented programmer types interfacing with these systems. We need to have poets, we need to have people from different academic fields who have a clearer understanding of how to translate their problems into programmatic systems that can help facilitate their work. It’s about having a dialogue with as many people as possible.
What’s interesting about those people in the early days of computing is that whether it’s a socialized thing or whether it’s an innate thing, women have an ability—or maybe they see necessity—for understanding the larger social context at play. And they understand that if those skills are valued, privileged, and taught, it will make software that’s more effective, more useful, and more reflective of the communities they were meant to serve. Grace talked a lot about language: both in terms of programming languages serving as intermediary between coder and machine, but also the languages of disciplines, because she understood different people had different computing needs and would express them differently. As a programmer, you had to meet people halfway. Then and now.
The other thing you bring up in the book is that these fields were blank slates in a way because they were new. So women are coming in at the forefront of computing and at the forefront of hypertext, before the fields solidified to the point where things like low wages, inadequate child care, and hostile work environments have had a chance to manifest themselves.
My biggest takeaway, from a research standpoint, is when I was looking for concentrations of women in the history—just zooming out and looking at a heatmap of the history to see where women were at all—they were always in these spaces that were relatively early and still undefined, like hypertext, automatic programming, or online community-building. In that fluidity, in that openness, in that lack of institutional importance, that’s where women have had purchase. I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of women having an intuition for the next big thing: it’s more like, “this is a space where women who are interested in computers can actually work and make a contribution.” That doesn’t mean those are the only places women can be, but in the history at least, within these environments that traditionally have limited points of entry for women, that’s where I saw them thriving. In that freedom and in that lack of pre-existing canon, new ideas can form and develop.
Those early days are where you start to define the parameters. Sometimes it takes a while to find exactly what a technology is. The Internet wasn’t designed as a social medium. That’s something that emerged from usage, from the people who were boots on the ground in the early stages, who realized from interfacing with the network that this was an information, communication, social, and human technology much more than simply one which facilitates academic research or the sharing of computing resources at a distance. The minute that two computers are plugged into each other, people are messaging. That’s our natural tendency, that’s what we do. Even if you look at these proto-internet type systems, like Minitel or PLATO, as soon as computers were connected people were shooting the shit. Those who were there in the earliest stages, who saw this happening first—those are the people who got what was going to happen.
Who’s your favorite kilogirl?
I mean, I love them all. If we’re talking about the early computer programmers, I really like Jean Jennings Bartik. She spoke truth to power the most. She wrote a really amazing autobiography called Pioneer Programmer, when she finally got sick of the fact that no one was mentioning the ENIAC Six in other histories. She spills the tea on early computing history, just talks shit about these military attachés and salesmen who didn’t take them seriously as programmers. It’s a remarkable thing.
I thought you were going to say [computer scientist and hypertext researcher] Wendy Hall. Your description of her in the book is so rich. She seemed amazing to talk to.
Oh yeah, well, she’s also the greatest. When I think about who I relate to most in the book, she definitely comes up. It was important for me to provide a history where a number of different people could see themselves reflected. It’s not just about programmers. It’s a book about designers, artists, hackers, community builders, and people who are engaging with the machine in a myriad of ways.
I don’t have a computing background, I can’t code, but I understand intuitively a lot of things about hypertext because that’s the kind of thinking I like to do. I also related really strongly to the Silicon Alley-era people, like Jaime Levy, who’s just this amazing punk artist who saw the computer as a way to blow people’s minds and do cool stuff. I relate to that mentality.
I think of these women who I got to hang out with and interview and spend real time with as my various computer mothers. They’re all in my phone book and I still talk to a lot of them because we’re doing a lot of events around the book, and we’re getting to do all these panel discussions and Q&As. I adore these people and they’re still teaching me. They all have different ways of thinking about what the technology means. I think it’s valuable to have as many points of entry as possible and as many perspectives on this stuff as possible.