I'm glad Walter Isaacson is getting such an outpouring of love from reviewers and talk-show hosts for including Ada Lovelace in The Innovators, his new history of the digital revolution.1 Thanks to Isaacson, Lovelace is finally receiving at least a few bytes of the attention she deserves for having written the first computer algorithm—a century before the first electronic computer was up and running. He also devotes a chapter to Grace Hopper, a Navy rear admiral who, a hundred years later, invented the first compiler so programs could be written in words rather than in numbers, and the six female mathematicians who designed the software for the first generally programmable computer.
All the hype inspired me to download The Innovators on my Kindle and eagerly sit down to read what I hoped would be a female-friendly version of the history of computing. But the further I read, the more error messages popped up in my brain. For instance, why did Isaacson feel the need to keep disparaging Lovelace, pricking her pretensions to value her own intelligence?
"Whether due to her opiates or her breeding or both, she developed a somewhat outsize opinion of her own talents and began to describe herself as a genius," Isaacson writes, leaving us to wonder in what way Lovelace's suspicion that she was a genius was "outsize" or inaccurate. Given her assurance to her collaborator Charles Babbage that she did not mean to be thought "conceited," was she really to be faulted for acknowledging her passion and talent for math? Considering the long list of obnoxious male braggarts Isaacson profiles with approval, why does he single out Lovelace for such a scolding?
"Ada was never the great mathematician that her canonizers claim," he writes, "but she was an eager pupil, able to grasp most of the basic concepts of calculus, and with her artistic sensibility she liked to visualize the changing curves and trajectories that the equations were describing." Well, fine. Her father was Lord Byron, and I suppose Lovelace did inherit some of his artistic sensibility. But she isn't canonized for her abilities as either an artist or a theoretical mathematician. For that matter, neither is Steven Jobs. What Lovelace is remembered for is her remarkable vision in imagining—in the mid 1800s—the ways in which a computing machine might be programmed to carry out far more than calculations.
Even when Isaacson seems to be praising Lovelace, his accolades give off a whiff of derision. "... Ada believed she possessed special, even supernatural abilities, what she called 'an intuitive perception of hidden things.' Her exalted view of her talents led her to pursue aspirations that were unusual for an aristocratic woman and mother in the early Victorian age." Really? She only believed she possessed special talents? In Isaacson's view, Lovelace seems a loopy aristocratic dame who dabbled in the occult and used her intuition—rather than, say, her genius—to perceive nebulous "things" that weren't there. Not only does this description do an injustice to Lovelace's considerable rationality, but certifiable male geniuses such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman often described their creative processes in much the same terms.
Even though Isaacson seems properly exasperated that the female mathematicians who worked so hard—and so creatively—to program the first fully electronic computer weren't invited to the dinner that followed its unveiling, he makes no further reference to the appalling scarcity of female programmers and engineers that impoverished computer science in the decades that followed.
Rather, he celebrates the frat-boy culture that allowed male programmers and engineers to work day and night in the sorts of teams that led to the innovations he documents, never taking into account that this very culture alienated women. Of "Lick" Licklider, Isaacson writes approvingly that he had "a mischievous but friendly sense of humor. He loved the Three Stooges and was childishly fond of sight gags. Sometimes, when a colleague was about to give a slide presentation, Licklider would slip a photo of a beautiful woman into the projector's carousel." Why do I get the idea that the beautiful women in those slides were nude, and that if any female engineers had been present, they wouldn't have seen those pranks as "friendly"?
Isaacson's main thesis is that major breakthroughs proceed not from the blindingly original insights of lone geniuses but from the collaboration of brilliant thinkers, inspired leaders, and disciplined doers. If this is true, then the scarcity of women (and men of color) is not a side issue, easily confined to a chapter on Ada Lovelace and a few pages on Grace Hopper (if not for his daughter's input, Isaacson admits in the acknowledgments, he might not have included Lovelace at all). If the generative power of a team of scientists arises from the variety of creative insights of the individuals who make it up, then the scarcity of women (and men of color) on those teams is a significant obstacle to innovation.
What troubles me is that Isaacson doesn't seem to get that the very culture of rowdy, adolescent, and sometimes misogynist male behavior that he celebrates discourages women from contributing to computer science. Most fathers in the 1950s and '60s didn't take their daughters down to the basement to mess around with radios and transistors, as was true of the fathers of the male innovators Isaacson profiles in his book. Unlike Bill Gates and Paul Allen, most girls were not encouraged to play around with the primitive computers that showed up in the AV rooms of many high schools in the '60s and '70s (I know, I was one of those girls), and most parents didn't buy early PCs and video games for their daughters. Isaacson doesn't even mention, let alone deplore, the racism and educational inequality that kept (and still keeps) most black and Hispanic children from growing up to become computer scientists.
Not only did the absence of female, black, and Hispanic collaborators on all those teams of innovators limit their creativity, the continued absence of female, black, and Hispanic computer scientists is shaping the future that all of us, female and male, eventually will inhabit. As Isaacson joked on The Colbert Report, the geeks are going to inherit the earth. And if all those geeks are male and white, the rest of us are going to inherit an earth that wasn't designed for us.
1 An article in the October 1, 2014, edition of The New York Times is headlined “The Women Tech Forgot,” with a subhead implying that The Innovators is a history of “How Women Shaped Technology,” while a segment of “All Tech Considered” that ran on NPR on October 6, 2014, makes it seems as if “The Forgotten Female Programmers Who Created Modern Tech” are the central focus of Isaacson’s book.
Eileen Pollack's most recent novel, Breaking and Entering, was awarded the Grub Street National Book Prize and named a New York Times Editor's Choice selection. An excerpt from her nonfiction book The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still A Boys' Club (due out next year from Beacon Press) ran in the October 3, 2013, edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. She is a professor on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan.
Image by Jim Cooke, photos via Wikipedia and Shutterstock