This report will criticallyexamine the concepts and ideas of Howard Rheingold in Tools for Thought’,Chapter Two ‘The First Programmer was a Lady’ which was written in 1985, whenthe reduced cost of cheap processers made computers increasingly affordable andavailable in schools.
In 1985 Rheingold became involved in the WELL, a”computer conferencing” system which was an online community andwrote a book about it The Virtual Community(1993). Rheingold is credited with inventing the term “virtual community”.In 1996, Rheingold founded and launched a website called Electric Minds whichwas named one of the ten best web sites by Time. Rheingold is a visitinglecturer at Stanford University in the Department of Communication where heteaches Virtual Communities and Social Media. He is also a lecturer at theUniversity of Berkeley in the School of Information where he teaches VirtualCommunities and Social Media. He is the author of numerous books including Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution andNet Smart: How to Thrive Online. In the mid-2000s Rheingold founded the SocialMedia Classroom, a wiki-based site that acted as a place for communication andserved as an online element to a lecture that he was teaching.
He supports the useof blogs, and mind maps that provides students with a non-linear way ofstudying. “Rheingold U” is an online learning community, offering courses, withlive lectures and ongoing discussions through forums, blogs, wikis, mind maps,and social bookmarks. Wikipedia describes Rheingold as “… a critic, writer, andteacher; his specialties are on the cultural, social and political implicationsof modern communication media such as the Internet, mobile telephony andvirtual.” Macie Hall said that Rheingold has ‘long been an advocate andadvancer of the collaborative nature of networked communities andcommunication’ (Hall, 2014:1). Rheingold explains on hispersonal website that his inspiration behind writing Tools for Thought was to pay homage to the unsung heroes who arethe innovative minds behind the computer technology and software that we relyupon today: If it wasn’t for people likeJ.C.
R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Bob Taylor, Alan Kay, it wouldn’t havehappened. But their work was rooted in older, equally eccentric, equallyvisionary, work, so I went back to piece together how Boole and Babbage andTuring and von Neumann created the foundations that the later toolbuildersstood upon to create the future we live in today. You can’t understand wheremind-amplifying technology is going unless you understand where it came from(Rheingold; 2000). Sydney Padua,author of The Thrilling Adventures ofLovelace & Babbage describes the life of Ada Loveland and GeorgeBabbage. The woman ‘Ada Lovelace’ was born Ada Gordon in 1815, child of theinfamous poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his mathematics-loving wifeAnnabella Milbanke. In 1833, Lovelace’s mentor, introduced her to CharlesBabbage, a well-known Professor of Mathematics for his visionary plans forclockwork calculating machines known as ‘The Analytical Engine.’ Lovelace wasintrigued by Babbage’s plans for the Analytical Engine, which was to combinehis earlier Difference Engine with an elaborate punchcard operating system.
Itwas never built, but the design had all the essential elements of a moderncomputer. In 1842 Lovelace translated a short article describing the AnalyticalEngine. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood the machineso well”. The final article is over three times the length of the original andcontains several early ‘computer programs,’ as well as many observations on thepotential uses of the machine, including the manipulation of symbols andcreation of music. Although Babbage had sketched out notes and programs for hisengine before, Lovelace’s are the most comprehensive, complete, and the first notesto be published; so she is often referred to as “the first computerprogrammer”. Babbage himself “spoke highly of her mathematical powers, and ofher peculiar capability — higher he said than of any one he knew, to preparethe descriptions connected with his calculating machine.
” Rheingold states thatLovelace’s published notes are still understandable today and are particularlymeaningful to programmers, who can see how truly far ahead of theircontemporaries Babbage and Lovelace were. Professor B. H. Newman in theMathematical Gazette has written that Lovelace’s observations “show her tohave fully understood the principles of a programmed computer a century beforeits time.” (Rheingold; 1985). Babbage described Ada as “that Enchantresswho has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and hasgrasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted overit,” or an another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers”.
‘The AnalyticalEngine remained a vision, until Lovelace’s notes became one of the criticaldocuments to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the1940s.’Her thwarted potential, and herpassion and vision for technology, have made her a powerful symbol for modernwomen in technology’ (Padua; www.findingada.com). Lovelace can arguably be named asthe first computer programmer. The only thing in my mind that could challengethis notion is that computers as we know them now were not invented during herlife span (she died of uterine cancer in 1852 at the age of 36).
However hernotes can still be understood by contemporary computer programmers as an earlyform of computer software. Ada Lovelace has programming language named afterher which is a bitter sweet legacy to the first lady of software development. Adais a structured, statically typed, imperative, wide-spectrum, andobject-oriented high-level computer programming language. Ada improves codesafety and maintainability by using the compiler to find errors in favour ofruntime errors. In an interview between himself and David Berry, Andy Piperdescribes software as ‘the “invisible thread” upon which we weave ourtechnology these days. ‘Software then becomes a reflection, in some ways, as anextension of the programmer – the “soul of the machine” (Piper, A; 2011).
In the same interview David Berry differentiates between software and code ‘codeis essentially source code, with development practices around it. Software isthe finished product, where people don’t see code, and is the environment thatpeople can buy and use’ (Barry, D;2011). Ada Lovelace and George Babbageprovide a human-interest story to the development of software which HowardRheingold has depicted in a thought provoking and touching manner. Mark Marinowrites that: People like to project humanityonto the computer, but is it possible that with regard to coding we do just theopposite and strip the code of its human significance, imagining that it is asign system within which the extensive analyses of semiotic systems and signification,connotation, and denotation do not apply? (Marino;2006). This may be the function ofsoftware today however Ada Lovelace George Babbage were eccentric geniuses andenchanting characters, as demonstrated by Rheingold in Tools for Thoughts.
Manovich said the main point of Rheingold’s Tools for Thoughts is ‘the key insightthat computers and software are not just “technology” but rather the new mediumin which we can think and imagine differently. Similar understanding was sharedby all the heroes of this book who, with their collaborators, invented thecomputational Tools for Thoughts”(Manovich; 2013:13). McLuhan explains that ‘the’content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing isspeech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is thecontent of the telegraph’ (McLuhan, 1964).
In the case of Lovelace, the contentof her notes became the medium or code for the first written software for acomputer which was yet to exist. Manovich claims that ‘..we are in the middleof a new media revolution – the shift of all culture to computer-mediated formsof production’ (Manovich, 2001:19). This is definitely true and poignant of thework of Rheingold does today which is essentially educating people online in avirtual community. Similar to Lovelace, Rheingold is a pioneer in technologicaldevelopments which have helped to shaped how we learn and interact with eachother, with computers, as individuals and as a cyber community today. Whilesome of Rheingold’s websites look dated or simplistic at present, one mustremember that during the 1990’s they were the best webpages in existence.
Manovichstates that ‘the developments of the 1990s have been disseminated to thehundreds of millions of people who are writing blogs, uploading photos andvideos to media sharing sites, and use free media authoring and editingsoftware tools that ten years earlier would have cost tens of thousands ofdollars’ (Manovich; 2013:1). You can’t have Word, Facebook, or YouTube withoutsoftware which is accessed via web browsers and which resides on the servers,therefore Rheingold’s touching tribute to Lovelace appears to come from a placeof respect and gratitude for her part in software development which his careerhas been built upon (and still is). In years to come Rheingold’s name mayappear alongside Lovelace’s and Babbage’s in the list of eccentric figures whohave contributed a lot to the creation of computer history.