This interview with Roger Whitson, Associate Professor of English at Washington State University, is the second of three posts celebrating Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852). Daughter of Lord and Lady Byron and regarded by many as the first computer programmer, these posts explore the current and future role of Ada Lovelace in literary studies and the classroom. The series is curated by Aaron Ottinger for the Keats-Shelley Association of America.
AO: Beyond the fact that her father was Lord Byron, is there a strong link between Lovelace and literature or literary studies?
RW: Despite her mother’s famous refusal to allow her to write poetry as a child because she was afraid Lovelace would grow into her father, there is a lot of evidence that Ada Lovelace indeed felt she would become a famous poet or a musician. Imogen Forbes-MacPhail has a great article on how these ambitions translated into what Lovelace called “poetical science,” that is, a sense of mathematics that “emphasize[s] its capacity for the kinds of beauty and power that are often associated with poetry.”[i] And it is doubtful she could have theorized the simulation of music by the analytical engine without first having some experience in both composing music and writing literature. Of course, Ada Lovelace died at 36, the same age as her father. So, there’s a lot she wasn’t able to accomplish before she started suffering from the uterine cancer that would end her life.
Yet I think there’s a more profound way that she influenced literature, and that’s precisely in her work on digital simulation and numerical processing when collaborating with Babbage on the analytical engine. Friedrich Kittler theorized that the typewriter profoundly transformed writing in the nineteenth century, mostly by taking an analog medium (handwriting) and transforming it into a digital one (type). Once you have standardized character-size so that characters are interchangeable, it becomes a simple step to use ASCII code to take a numerical value processed by a computer and exchange it with a bunch of text. Of course, there was no word processing function defined in Babbage’s notes for the analytical engine, but it would have been pretty easy for someone to write a program on that engine to produce type. Both the Difference and Analytical Engines had Plaster of Paris molds that would allow them to print solutions. So, had the Analytical Engine been actually completed — and to be honest Babbage never got close to creating a functioning prototype of that machine or The Difference Engine — it could be easy to imagine a near-future scenario where giant mechanical engines crunched numbers and enabled automatic type for a number of programs.
AO: That reminds me of autocorrect on my phone, or the complete sentences suggested to me when replying to emails!
RW: Precisely! Digital simulation has a huge impact on how we currently write — and as you point out, programs like autocorrect or Google Smart Compose align these programs with artificial intelligence. The vast majority of writing occurs in word processing programs as well as in email and on social media. One of Kittler’s more infamous pieces, “There is No Software” talks about how writing – as such – died once Intel developed the first microprocessor in 1975.[ii] The rise of so-called user-friendly interfaces divide us today from the material production of text. This is why so few of us understand how our devices work. Indeed, it is the very nature of digital forms of writing to sever our bodies from the mechanisms of textual production. But software carries it a step further, since we are obliged to follow the rules automated in the program. We’re basically coding, in a way, but coding with a very narrow set of possibilities for what we can do. Anyone who has struggled with how Word messes with formatting can recognize just how annoying that lack of control can be.
So, if you look at literature in terms of its material and technological production, I feel that the way Ada Lovelace theorizes digital simulation had a much more profound impact on literary history than Byron ever will.
AO: Thinking about recent trends among Romanticism/Victorian scholars, such as “strategic presentism” and #Bigger6, how do you envision future approaches to Ada Lovelace?
RW: Both the Victorian Studies 21 (V21) movement and #Bigger6 are crucial interventions, particularly when English Departments across the country are reacting to more first-generation students who are looking for histories and readings that engage with their passion for social justice. So, for me, strategic presentism means responding to challenges like this by expanding the writers we have at our disposal — teaching a history that is truly dialectical. I actually created a syllabus for a nineteenth-century transatlantic literature course that I taught the semester after Trump was elected, and I blogged about it for the V21 site, so I see that syllabus as a pedagogical version of the crucial research these people are doing.[iii]
Understanding Ada Lovelace’s role in this discussion is complex. Beyond her citation by Turing in “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” and her appearance as a character in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, she appeared in very few places outside of computing articles about Babbage’s inventions — most of which were dismissive of her own achievements.[iv] Largely Ada Lovelace was known because of her relationship to two men: Lord Byron and Charles Babbage. What does it mean that we use Ada Lovelace as a figure to celebrate the accomplishments of women in STEM fields? Of course, as I argued above, women and people of color have been systematically excluded from recognition for their labor for some time.
But recognizing the role of women in computing history isn’t really new. Jennifer Light did that in 1999 when she wrote “When Computers Were Women.”[v] What is new is the notion that these stories aren’t some expansion or addition to a narrative or canon that is centrally about white men. There are women throughout history whose silence and invisibility have enabled men to take center stage. Melissa Terras and Julianne Nyhan have attempted to rectify that scenario by interviewing the female punch card operators who worked on Father Roberto Busa’s Index Thomisticus in the 1950s — widely regarded as one of the first digital humanities projects. I also feel that recent efforts to recognize the labor of Dorothy Wordsworth and Catherine Blake in British Romanticism points to the kind of work that is truly changing our discipline.
I’ve been astounded, by the way, to see some of my English Department colleagues — not all of them of course, but some — who were veterans of the culture wars and of new historicism nonetheless argue bitterly against changing old period requirements for newer requirements that center questions of race, gender, sexuality, and disability. This has happened in my own department in recent years, and I feel it is happening across the country. So, when thinking about the future of not only scholarship on Ada Lovelace, but of women and people of color in the humanities in general — my hope is that the interventions of V21 and #Bigger6 symbolize a larger transformation in our discipline that actually centers marginalized voices rather than consigning them to the ghetto of specialist fields or courses.
[i] Imogen Forbes-Macphail. “‘I shall in due time be a poet’: Ada Lovelace’s Poetical Science in Its Literary Context.” Ada’s Legacy: Cultures of Computing from the Victorian to the Digital Age. Ed. Robin Hammerman and Andrew Russell. ACM Books, 2015, 167.
[ii] Friedrich Kittler, “There is No Software.” Literature, Media, Information Systems. Ed. John Johnston. Amsterdam, G+B Arts International, 1997.
[iii] See Roger Whitson. “Teaching Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Literature During a Trump Presidency.” V21: Victorian Studies for the 21st Century. 13 December 2016. http://v21collective.org/vtn-whitson/.
[iv] Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind. 49.236 (1950): 433-60. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Ballentine, 2016.
[v] Jennifer Light. “When Computers Were Women.” Technology and Culture. 40.3 (1999): 455-483.