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Her new book follows the stories of women in tech from Ada Lovelace in the 1800s to cyber feminists of the ‘90s.
Claire Evans grew up as the daughter of a coder for Intel, and she never thought computers were strictly for boys. But as an adult, she became disappointed to find the story of Silicon Valley thoroughly dominated by male characters.
That’s why Evans set out to highlight the women who helped make the internet in her new book, “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet,” a series of biographical essays about important women in tech history the Wall Street Journal called “engaging,” while also “too-often fannish,” in its review.
Evans followed the stories of women in computing that span from Ada Lovelace, who published the first computer program in 1843, to cyberfeminism matriarch Sadie Plant, who inspired a generation of politically engaged women online in the early ‘90s.
Evans, who writes about technology for Vice’s Motherboard, spent two years digging up archives and tracking down subjects to add to the canon of internet pioneers.
Her writing was a welcome retreat from Evans’s other life as lead singer in an arty rock band with her partner, Jona Bechtolt. The couple made headlines in 2016 when they faked a sex tape leak for a video that never really existed. Evans called it a “failed experiment” at commenting on celebrity online culture. There was a backlash and the band later apologized.
Recode spoke with Evans about her book and the overlooked figures in tech’s past. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you write this book?
I saw a need for it. A more personal reason is, I grew up on the computer — my dad worked for Intel and I had computers in my home from a very young age.
I never had a feeling when I was a kid that computers were for boys or girls or for anyone in particular. I thought they were just magical portals to the world. I always defined myself as an internet person and a net native. I learned how to write online. I was a blogger in the early blogging days. I wrote so much stuff that’s floating online forever, probably.
But I got to a point, I don’t know, maybe three or four years ago, where I started to feel like, as a person and more importantly as a woman, I didn’t really know what my place was anymore. I didn’t feel as free to express myself on the internet as I had when I was younger.
Who’s the internet even for, what is the internet, what does it become? That was kind of where my head was, and so because I’m into history and I’m into old-school computing, my immediate impulse was to go to the past and to try to trace it.
Whether or not I figured it out is up to the reader to determine, but it made me feel a little bit better about my place online.
Your book focuses on women who were foundational to computing and the early internet. Did you know about these women growing up?
No, I didn’t know them. And part of the catalyst of writing the book was I was writing a series of articles about feminism in the ‘90s online, cyber feminism, which was something I discovered just because that was literally a footnote on a Wikipedia page about something else.
It blew my mind, the fact that there had been this fully formed, really interesting, colorful feminist movement on the internet the exact same time that I was coming of age online, and I just couldn’t believe that I’d missed it. Then I started to think, “What else could I have missed?”
You found plenty of subjects.
It’s insane how many more stories there are. And it makes me excited on one level because we get to start to uncover these now, but it also makes me really frustrated that there have been so many books about history of tech that just parrot the same ten stories about Steve Jobs going to hire the guy from Pepsi — stories that we all know.
I enjoy those stories too, but it’s just so frustrating that there are other ones that are just as interesting and just as dynamic with just as funny and interesting characters as any of the things that we see in movies and TV now, so I wanted to make sure that we really start going there.
I want to have something that a young girl today can read and see herself in. I really believe that it’s much easier to see yourself in the future of something when you can see yourself in the past and you’re rooted in it.
Was it hard to write a book about women in tech that focuses on the past when there’s so much happening in the present?
There were so many points in the process of making the manuscript when some story would come out, like the Google internal memo or some of many stories of harassment, like the entire #MeToo movement happened while I was writing this book.
And every time that happened I would think, “Oh no, I’ve got to make make sure to include that, I’ve got to put #MeToo in the book, I’ve got to put Gamergate in the book. I’ve got to put all these contemporary things in the book, but ultimately, I wanted the book to be a sacred space where you don’t have any of that shit in it.
It’s just true stories of people doing amazing stuff against extenuating circumstances and succeeding. As much as that’s kind of a “rah rah” thing, I just wanted there to be that document, and I didn’t want to have to be in a position of retreat or reaction or defensiveness.
What are some of the stories you wanted to include but didn’t have space for in this book?
User interface design is a really huge space. A lot of really amazing women in UX design. I really wish I had the chance to talk to Susan Kare [an artist and graphic designer who created many of the interface elements for the Apple Macintosh in the 1980s], for example.
Who else did you wish you could have included?
I wanted to do a chapter on the women of Xerox Park. That’s one of those super mythologized spaces in early tech literature — all the the coders and anthropologists and computer scientists all hobnobbing it together in bean bag chairs. Xerox park is really famous for having these bean bag chairs that everyone sat in.
But there’s this woman, Adele Goldberg, who’s a really famous computer scientist, who tells this story in a video at the Computer History Museum about how the beanbag chairs were great except for if you were pregnant, It was impossible to sit down and get up. So the people that designed this collaborative, exciting neutral egalitarian environment did not at all think about how the women would actually be dealing with using it. It was very emblematic, I wanted to write about that.
You dedicated the book to the users, can you explain why?
There’s a woman in the book, Stacy Horn, who founded BBS [an early system for messaging and chatting online] in the late ‘80s, and in its heyday was a very popular social platform on the early net. But she still runs it.
And there’s maybe like a few hundred people that still use it, but this kind of dedication towards long-term care and really owning the responsibility of the platform you create, I think it’s something that is so powerful and I value that. I really want to see it reviewed and just the network as a whole and in the culture of tech as a whole.
I mean, it’s very difficult to do that, I know, because the entire industry is built on obsolescence and constant reinvention, but with [the women in the book], there’s a certain level of mindfulness for the long-term and for care.
Many of the women in your book had rich lives outside their work in technology, and you’re the same way. You are also in a rock band, Yacht.
We have to remember that people with well-rounded lives often have a great deal to contribute because they’re thinking about the larger systems of which they are a part.
One of the people in the book, Radia Perlman, she’s put this in my head, that we have this fantasy about engineers being people that took apart radios when they were a kid, and are obsessive about details and only think about the code. That’s cool and great and those people are necessary to build things, but we also need people that can think about the impact of that and can also think about the whole thing at a higher level, how it’s all going to work, where it’s going to fit in the marketplace, where it’s going to fit in the world in which it will become a part.
In May of 2016, you and your partner made headlines for orchestrating a fake sex tape leak to promote your music video. What was your thinking around that?
It was a failed experiment. We’ve been a band for a really long time and done these experimental projects that play with online culture. We were trying to speak to the disillusionment of clickbait and celebrity culture and the conviction with which people spread stories on the internet — the way that the algorithms and systems in place inflate and exacerbate those stories, but it was a very misguided approach.
We executed it poorly and used poor language. It was a disaster from the beginning and we regretted everything about it. It was something that brought us into a two-year period of creative hibernation, and part of the reason I threw myself into this project is because I had the time, and I had the desire to go deeper into issues of online life and understand a lot more about it and the best way to elevate the voices of women.
How do you regain trust with your audience?
As much as these things often seem entangled in my work, there’s a difference between art and journalism. I have always taken my writing seriously, and I hope that shows. This book isn’t about me, or Yacht, and it’s not fiction. It’s about highlighting the contributions of women who really deserve to be seen.
Why do you think we don’t hear more stories about women in tech?
I think various industries only recently awoke to the fact that womens’ stories are interesting to more than just 50 percent of the population, but in fact they’re interesting to 100 percent of the population.
It’s not that there haven’t been great books about women in tech — there have been. I have many heroes, Ellen Ullman, for example has been writing about this stuff for a long time. Sadie Plant wrote an amazing book in the ‘90s. We could always use a lot more, and there’s space for it.
I feel like already a big part of my reader base is very earnest men who want to learn, which touches me more almost, frankly, than the women excited about the book. I want everybody to know about these stories because they’re interesting. When you’re only interested in a small part of the story, you’re not getting the whole story.
I’m not super interested in countering great man history with great woman history, and I love pointing out heroes like Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, but I am more interested in them as full people than I am as stickers that you put on your binder.
I want you to know that Ada Lovelace had a drug problem, that Ada Lovelace was a compulsive gambler and she felt really weird about motherhood. There’s a lot of things in those stories that are more relatable, and it’s more interesting to me to learn how people manage to do exceptional things within the context of their lives.
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