Ada Lovelace Day

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Today is "Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology," which I support 100%. I find the event particularly interesting for two reasons:

  1. Ada was no technologist in any sense of the term we’d use today (the Victorians were steam-powered, after all). She never touched a device more complicated than a gas lamp, and built absolutely nothing. Yet I believe that we — and especially our daughters — need to better understand and appreciate her role as a technology translator and visionary
  2. The concept of this virtual celebration, constructed entirely via online networking and propagated via blogs, is a compelling vision into our own technology future

Ada was the daughter of Lord Byron, the tragically-doomed Lothario poet (who never even knew his own child). She was educated and curious — qualities that weren’t necessarily encouraged in the women of her time — and moved in society’s social circles that allowed her to strike up a friendship with Charles Babbage. Babbage had an idea for a computational device that crunched numbers, which he called a "Difference Engine."

His updated plans for an "Analytical Engine" prompted a long exegesis by an Italian mathematician named Luigi Menagbrea. Ada translated it, appending it with notes and observations of her own, and even wrote a program that might run on the device. 

The gizmo was never built (well, not until 2002), Ada died really young (as did many of her contemporaries), and Babbage — along with the male-dominated science establishment — never gave her much credit. But those facts only make her accomplishments all the more amazing: she had insights nobody else in her time possessed, when she wasn’t supposed to have any at all.

Further, her insights weren’t obsessed with technology. Perhaps because her father was a poet, but her vision was about outcomes…the things that technology might create. She didn’t envision enhancements, or migrating activities lock-stock from human beings to machines; she saw things that would be truly new, not just build-able (or monetizable).

In other words, she put most of today’s technology entrepreneurs to shame, male or female. 

Now, the other things I find so compelling about today is that I’m even participating in this event, organized by a digital entrepreneur named Suw Charman-Anderson’s. I’ve never met her, but rather got virtual wind of today’s celebration via a website called PledgeBank. This service encourages people to start quid pro quo activities: posing not simply comments or opinions, but promising actions if others will commit to the same.

I think this is a visionary use of social networking technology.

One of the key shortcomings of most social sites is that, well, they’re just social. We can celebrate the fact that people like wasting their time checking their profiles and in-boxes (or walls, bulletin boards, yadda yadda), but the continuing problem has been that nobody wants to actually pay for the privilege. Worthless conversation, however entertaining (or addictive) is still worthless.  

But services that encourage behaviors (like PledgeBank, or Meetup) are the shape of things to come. Imagine if corporations approached social media as something more than a cheaper way to waste their customers’ time? Forget mining conversations for tidbits…and instead use them as actual channels for de facto contracts: if you do this, we’ll do that.

The hard part to imagine now is that such agreements will involve far more than the marketing department, so the next chapter on social media won’t be written by the marketers who are playing with it now.

The future belongs to the people who’d you’d least expect to see or invent it. People like Ada Lovelace. Women and men who excel at what they do, irrespective of every limitation or impediment to their success. 

We celebrate that invention today, just as we see it writing our own future.

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