Omni Chat:
Eileen Gunn
and Sadie Plant

Eileen Gunn: Welcome. Sadie Plant is our guest tonight. Sadie, I wanted to hear more about some of the topics you developed in your book Zeros + Ones. You argue a close relationship between women and computing, especially with reference to the relationship between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage.    
Sadie Plant: Yes, I think this is a connection which works on many levels — Ada's an amazing figure to place in relation to them all.    
Eileen Gunn: Do you think Ada did everything she took credit for? I suppose none us have....    
Sadie Plant: She actually was credited with very little in her own lifetime, and although she gets a mention in most histories of computing, I think she was far more important — or turned out to be — than is generally realized.    
Eileen Gunn: Why was she important?    
Sadie Plant: I'd been thinking around all the issues to do with technology, sex, sexuality, cultural change and how it happens, for several years — maybe two to really write the book. Ada was the first programmer, not that this word was used at the time. She basically wrote the programs, did the math, which was >the software for Babbage's machine — at the tinme this was thought to be irrelevant, or peripheral, but now that software is increasingly ubiquitous it's a rather different story.    
Eileen Gunn: Dorothy Stein, I think, argued that she was rather the first technical writer. But I couldn't get a handle on where Stein was coming from on that.    
Sadie Plant: Yes, Stein was her first biographer, and did mean this description as a compliment — but her book also tends to emaphasise the admittedly fascinating family connections — Byron, et al.    
Eileen Gunn: Ada and her mother, Lady Noel Byron were both mathematicians, I believe.    
Sadie Plant: Ada's mother was called the princess of parallelograms by Lord Byron, her husband.    
Eileen Gunn: It's difficult for me to cut though 150 years of dismissal of Ada's role, and figure out what actually went on. Sadie, your book is almost a poetic meditation on the theme of women in computing.... Can you talk a bit about why you approached it that way?    
Sadie Plant: Poetic meditation... I hope so, in a way. Because although this may or may not be a successful attempt, I do think its crucial to explore modes of writing which are appropriate to, continuous with, an information rich, non-linear culture.    
Eileen Gunn: Yes, it's very much episodic, yet it adds up to a powerful series of statements.    
Sadie Plant: I was hoping to communicate something about complex systems and the connectivity of many small elements working together — it's interesting to do this in the context of a very linear format, a book. It's important to not just write about these things, represent them, but attempt to extend and continue them...    
Eileen Gunn: Your book doesn't deliver its conclusions in a neatly wrapped package.    
Sadie Plant: I wish there were neat conclusions to make (well, not really).    
Vonda McIntyre: Did everyone involved in Babbage's machine get dismissed at the time? (Too weird, not useful, &c.) Or was it only Ada, being treated as women typically were in science?    
Sadie Plant: I was hoping to be both very definite about specifics, whilst leaving the book full of leads and potential for its readers. Babbage too was dismissed as a crank, although treated more seriously by historians — Ada did fall victim to the classic treatment of the day — she was denied access to the Royal Society's library, for example.    
Eileen Gunn: She was also encouraged to blunt her frustrations with laudanum, which couldn't have helped her focus her energies.    
Vonda McIntyre: Doing research on women in science (150 yrs before Ada's time, in my case) made me want to bang my head against the wall. It made my experience in grad school (thesis adviser was only interested in interacting with the guy in his lab) look practically utopian.

Yikes! Laudanum in 19th century, valium in 20th. Ridicule in 17th. (Not to mention the 1950s.)

Sadie Plant: She gambled to excess as well — guess the real question is what comes in the 21st. Also it is amazing that a woman considered an addict, a mess, unfocussed, etc. should underwrite what is still hawked as the ultimate logic machine, the computer.    
Vonda McIntyre: That's rather a delicious irony, though it couldn't have been easy for her.    
Eileen Gunn: Sadie, relevant to that, do you think that women have a special relationship with technology? In Zeros + Ones, you seem to make that case for women of the 19th century, anyway.    
Sadie Plant: Even as late as the 1950s — even now at times — women and the female in general tends to get cast in a means to ends role... but the means are becoming more important — as is the case with the net, for example, a meshwork whose lines and connections become as lively as the points they connect.    
Eileen Gunn: At lot of the connected points are women, too. There are certainly a lot of women in html programming, but that may be related to the fact that it's often poorly paid work.    
Sadie Plant: Yes, and in this sense I think there is an affinity... the net can facilitate the kinds of informal communication women have long practised.    
Vonda McIntyre: Eileen, is it? — I had no idea. I wonder if html is like writing in that it looks easy once you have a passing familiarity with it, only doing it well isn't easy at all!    
Eileen Gunn: Coding html is more a design than a writing skill, but it's diguised as an editing skill.    
Eileen Gunn: Sadie, how do you mean, informal?    
Sadie Plant: Informal — as in not having to be processed through a central authority, finding its own routes, making all the mistakes for which informality allows — happy accidents, mistaken identities.    
Eileen Gunn: Ah. That's certainly the form I prefer — and it's much more possible on the Web than in formal publishing.    
Vonda McIntyre: I'm fumbling for a question about what a friend calls "instant intimacy" — on email, newsgroups.    
Eileen Gunn: Sadie, we're coming to the close of our time here. Do you have anything you'd like say that we haven't touched on?    
Anita: To history do you think it would have made a difference if she were known as Adam Lovelace?    
Eileen Gunn: That's an interesting question, Anita. Sadie, are you still here?    
Sadie Plant: Yes, I'm here — a male name might have helped, but a real Adam Lovelace might not have written the software.    
Eileen Gunn: It seemed to me that she was offered a secondary role, and that she accepted it where a man might not have. Sadie, did you have any summary statement?    
Sadie Plant: It's not just how we look at it, and yes, it doesn't necessarily make a difference to be male or female, but it just so happens that it often does. She didn't think of herself having a secondary role at all — in fact she was often absolutely convinced she was a stunning genius.    
Eileen Gunn: Right, but she also wanted to be anonymous, interms of getting credit for her work.    
Sadie Plant: Yes, anonymous in one sense, but convinced that she had some almost cosmic role so she wasn't so concerned about the there and then.    
Eileen Gunn: That's actually what I find hard to take about her. Is that her or the laudanum speaking?    
Sadie Plant: True, and that's a whole new story — actually, I can't resist this — it's the subject of my next book, the whole question of the influence and control of drugs on western culture.    
Eileen Gunn: Gee, we should have gotten to this earlier — I didn't want to be pushing drugs in the topic . It's s too bad that the conversation is just heating up, as we're really out of time. Thanks very much for coming to E-Media, Sadie.    
Sadie Plant: Thank you too, Eileen. I've really enjoyed it — anytime.    
Vonda McIntyre: Thanks from this corner!    
Eileen Gunn: I look forward to your book on drugs and culture.    
Sadie Plant: Yeah — Thanks to everyone — it was good to talk to you all.
More about Sadie Plant:

Information War in the Age of Dangerous Substances

An Interview with Sadie Plant and Linda Dement

This interview was conducted on Omni Online, February 16, 1998
Copyright 1998, General Media Corporation and Eileen Gunn