Looking at Women’s Contribution to Computing to Learn How to Fix the Internet

As you may be aware, something was brewing at CanLII in recent weeks (and months) so I skipped my last turn as columnist. This means my last post here was the one I wrote before the holidays.

When I write something and (finally) ship it, the mere fact of reading it “in production” makes me see new flaws that I didn’t even come close to seeing while I was in the thick of drafting. I’m sure many of us are like that. The flaw I saw with my last post when live on Slaw was that while the multiplication of pop culture references it contains seemed fun at first, it looked like a male geek Lollapalooza to me when seeing it live. So I made a note to go back to my other posts on Slaw to see if they sounded the same, and ended up counting all instances where I mentioned the name of a person or character to proceed to a “reference audit”.

The result is quite shameful: My Slaw posts to this day contain the name of 36 people or characters, including only 2 women (one of whom is my colleague Sarah Sutherland). Excluding Sarah, there are three times as many non-human male Star Wars characters named in my posts than female persons or characters. I hope you trust me that I didn’t do this purposefully. Nonetheless, this is awful, and I realized I needed to read more content from women authors, thinkers, and members of the legal community.

Luckily, last December I was looking for good recent books on technology and stumbled upon a recommendation for Ellen Ullman’s book Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology in one of these “best books of the year in tech” lists. What was of particular interest to me was that this was a collection of essays (the earliest written in 1994, but some discussing earlier events) on different events in computing history including a topic that’s particularly dear to me, that is the Web, its birth, its current fate, and its future.

Several of the book’s essays are impressively prescient. In one from 1998, Ullman extrapolates from the mere early commercialization of the Web happening at the time (I say “mere” because it’s so obvious and trivial today) several of the most damning characteristics of our current “socio-technological” context. The essay starts with Ullman’s discussion of a billboard placed in the streets of San Francisco by a semiconductor equipment manufacturer. The billboard displayed a narcissistic slogan hinting at the customization of our online experiences that would become commonplace (if not ubiquitous) with Web 2.0: “the world really does revolve around me”. Ullman had lots to say about it:

[T]he appearance of that billboard in 1998, was the growing commercialization of the web, a slow, creeping invasion, probably unstoppable. And that commercialization is proceeding in a very particular and single-minded way: by attempting to isolate the individual within a sea of economic activity. Through a process known as “disintermediation,” producers are removing the expert intermediaries, the agents, brokers, middlemen, who until now have influenced our interactions with the commercial world. What bothered me about the billboard, then, was that its message was not merely hype but the reflection of a process that was already under way: an attempt to convince the individual that a change currently being visited upon him or her is a good thing, the purest form of self, the equivalent of freedom. The world really does revolve around you.

And a few pages later:

I fear for the world the internet is creating. Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality— the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life— put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties. But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes “truth.” Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags.

And again:

[T]he ideal of the internet represents the very opposite of democracy, which is a method for resolving difference in a relatively orderly manner through the mediation of unavoidable civil associations. Yet there can be no notion of resolving differences in a world where each person is entitled to get exactly what he or she wants. Here all needs and desires are equally valid and equally powerful. I’ll get mine and you’ll get yours; there is no need for compromise and discussion. I don’t have to tolerate you, and you don’t have to tolerate me.

Presented with such prescient text from a time before Web 2.0 (an expression coined in 2004), before “big data” and before today’s AI craze, I of course had an irresistible urge to seek for current insight about our technological future from the same author. That’s not what Ullman’s book is about, but it’s clear from the book and interviews she gave around its launch that Ullman is not a techno-optimist (something you would expect from someone who “predicted” some of the less happy sides of today’s Internet back in 1998). For instance, Ullman delivers an explicit jab to notorious technophile[1] Kevin Kelly (with whose quotes I started and ended my last post) in a section of the book where she delights on the Y2K bug and what it revealed about the sort of organic messiness of our tech infrastructure.

That said, I can at least report that Ullman is generally positive about MOOCs as they gave her a little bit of hope of achieving a more even distribution of technological knowledge, despite their flaws and prejudices (for instance, she was annoyed by an overabundance of Big Bang Theory jokes in a course she audited as she felt it may leave some feel like cultural outcasts while they try to learn something that is already foreign to them).

She also suggests that people from all ranges of life take on the challenge of getting familiar with code. On that front, in an interview coinciding with the launch of the book she explains:

I’m not telling everyone to learn to code. As I said, people need to be exposed to it. The point is to demystify code. We are surrounded by algorithms that control us, and this is no news to anybody who just got hacked by Equifax, for instance. One-third of the adult population of the United States. So, the point is to know enough that it’s written by people and it can be changed by people.

There is a councilman in the Bronx who is proposing a bill there that the borough looks at all the algorithms that they are using, and they go from police assignments to garbage pick-up schedules to what school the kids go to, and look for bias in them. This is the process that I’m hoping for, that people in the general public begin to see that these things can be changed. They have bias and that bias can be addressed.

I often discussed this, including at the end of this post. I think the legal profession needs to have a greater proportion of its members become comfortable with code considering that today’s biggest issues are almost all inexorably linked to technology. So for what it’s worth, I agree with Ullman on this.

I’m not sure this is discussed this way in Ullman’s book (at least my notes don’t have anything on this), but Ullman further discusses the diversity problem in tech in the above interview when prompted by a line of questions on the spirit of the pre-Web online communities. Ullman explains that the introduction of the software engineering degree in the 80’s removed diversity and altered the gender balance in the sphere:

Somewhere around ’83 to ’86, it changed. Computer Science became a common degree, Software Engineering. And we were joined by a heavily male, self-selected group who had studied Computer Science as an undergraduate degree. And the atmosphere completely changed. People were harder to talk to. In my experience, [they] were not as well rounded.

This (unfortunate, at least in its effect on diversity) transition, as well as more generally the influence of women on the history of computing and on early connected communities, is discussed in greater details in another recent book I read: “Broad Band, The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet” by Claire L. Evans.

While Evans’s book starts by telling the story of legendary coding pioneers Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, the central theme I took from it is women’s contributions to computer communities (from the very early ones to those closer to us), including:

  • Hopper’s work on developing the COBOL language and her “emphasis on collaborative development, and the network of volunteer programmers programmers she mobilized” that, according to Evans, “predated the open-source software movement by four decades.”
  • Jake Feinler’s work in developing the ARPANET Directory that “prefigured by decades our age of searchable, reachable online social connections” as well as the WHOIS database that still exists today, and her contribution to the organization of the domain name system with the creation of the first top level domains (.com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .org, and .net); or
  • Stacey Horn’s work in creating, the Echo community in 1990 which was “a star of the early internet, profiled in the New Yorker, Wired, Fortune, and The New York Times”.

As I’m writing this, Mark Zuckerberg just posted a message to address the Cambridge Analytica blunder and what he calls Facebook’s “breach of trust”. It’s not the first time Facebook has disappointed its users and the community it hosts: There was that time when they got every single company to create a page so that they could reach all of their “fans” for free, only to start charging later after it implemented its EdgeRank algorithm. There was the time, more recently, when they announced they would present more news from friends and families (as opposed to pages) in the newsfeed, crippling organic traffic to publisher pages.[2]

In terms of Facebook and privacy, it’s fair to say that we should have seen it coming. As one comedian puts it:

Privacy experts and Internet law profs have been sounding the alarm bell for years, generating mostly eyerolls from the few who even cared to pay attention. In any event, even forgetting privacy problems for a minute, Facebook seems like it’s broken. If you’re not sure while you should care, one blogger states that “Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp are arguably non-Web closed cyberspaces of comparable scale to the Web” considering that “users of [Facebook] products are roughly 2/3 of all Internet users”. Facebook’s power to influence just about everything else has already been countlessly demonstrated so it’s a community we should all care about getting fixed, or (if those calling for us to delete our accounts are to be followed) to find a better way to create online communities.

Ullman discussed with great delight that COBOL programmers came out of retirement to help with the Y2K bug. Maybe it’s time to give a voice (and listen) to women, including those who lead these early online communities, to figure out where to go next. In our legal tech world, efforts such as Sarah Glassmeyer’s initiatives to increase diversity on legal tech panels may be a good place to start.


[1]That said, there’s a long section of Kelly’s latest book explaining, in more elegant prose than mine of course, that it may well be that only 51% of the changes technology bring are positive, but that with the effect of compounding, the improvements are massive in the long run. Also, Kelly often writes and talks frequently of his admiration for Amish communities (and spends time with them, or with Mongolian nomads) and how they only adopt technologies once proven to do more good than harm. (I notice Sarah Sutherland wrote about this in relation to legal technology here.)

[2] Well known social media expert Michelle Blanc saw lots of this coming. I remember a conference she gave years ago when she denounced a well known advertising firm’s fanfare around their decision to close their blog in favour of having only a Facebook page, arguing that the blog will always be king, and will resist the inevitable changes in the terms or reputation of whatever is the platform of the moment.

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