<ohtheshame/>: A Tech-Wimp Celebrates Ada Lovelace and the Joy of Knowledge

Oh, the shame.  Not failure, no.  My blog is up, and my second post centers on Ada Lovelace on her day, March 24, as I had planned.  And yet.  I had meant to do this tough, to buy a domain name and download the “real” version of WordPress and manage my blog myself.  In short, to geek out.  I hope Ada’s not ashamed of me for having wimped out instead and taken the low-tech-needed road on WordPress.com.  The shame.

Which raises another, possibly more serious question:  How historically respectable is my knowledge of Ada Lovelace, the patron saint of women in technology?  I did first learn of her, after all, watching a movie about time travel.

In “Conceiving Ada” (1997), Francesca Faridany plays Emily Coer, a diva geek whose computational skills put her in touch with data in which Lovelace, played by Tilda Swinton (swoon), continues to exist.  Coer also engages in such diva practices as eating only food of the same color in any one sitting.  But the film’s dramatic tension lies in the (contradictory) ephemerality of Ada’s (persistent) data; Coer must “save” her.  So the film is a bit over the top.  And yet.  It introduced this woman historian to a woman technologist.  Without it, I would have waited much longer to learn about Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace.  Pop culture has it uses.

Trawling around on the internet, I have learned a bit more about rediscoveries of Ada Lovelace.  I am particularly taken by the academic site that came up on Google, an article in a digital version of a pamphlet on women in science that was produced by the San Diego Supercomputer Center in 1997, to commemorate a new wing in which workstations were named for women scientists.  In the introduction to the volume, the editors quoted Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science:  “The question is not why there haven’t been more women in science; the question is rather why we have not heard more about them.”  And so, that volume offers brief biographical articles about the sixteen women for whom the workstations were named, women in the fields of mathematics, physics, and astronomy.

Mention of astronomy led me to wonder why Maria Mitchell, who is often cited as the first woman astronomer in the United States, was not included in the pamphlet.  To remember her name, I googled “first woman astronomer,” and other names came up.  Caroline Herschel, the first woman to discover a comet was one; Hypatia of Alexandria another.  In a different world, one in which there were no papers waiting to be read before spring break ends, I would continue reading, following links, spending my time the way I did as a child reading the dictionary or encyclopedia.  Simply pursuing the joy of knowledge.

But since those papers are calling me, I will merely complete this thought.  The joy of knowledge is not limited to the academic.  Whilst I understand the value of well researched scholarship and the importance of verifying facts, I also find compelling the kind of argument that Henry Jenkins makes in Convergence Culture, an argument for the significance of the ways in which digital technologies and their uses by fan cultures point towards a democratization of knowledge with potential for real political change.  As an educator, I cannot help but think that the accompanying changes in confidence about knowing how to learn, how to find things out, must change my students’ needs within the classroom.  As a historian, I must consider how to leverage my students’ knowledge about how to discover information and challenge them to consider the relationship between their own participation in knowledge communities and the kind of careful scholarship that will train them to succeed no matter what their field.

None of us are likely to find ourselves communing with our subjects in precisely the ways portrayed in “Conceiving Ada.”  Neither should we be satisfied with the interpretation of Ada Lovelace offered in the film.   But seeing the film is not a bad place to start.

References:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118882/, accessed 3/20/10 8:35 AM.

Henry Jenkins. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

http://www.lynnhershman.com/ada/, accessed 3/20/10 8:59 AM.

http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/lovelace.html, accessed 3/20/10 8:54 AM.

Betty A. Toole. “Lady Lovelace, an Analyst and Metaphysician.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (1996) 18: 4-12.

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