Rebooting the Ada Lovelace Mythos: Video, transcript, slides, and summary now available

A full length oil portrait of a woman in 19th c. dress

Ada Lovelace

How has the perception of Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer, changed through history? What does that changing view say about us as a society? That's the subject of "Rebooting the Ada Lovelace Mythos," the keynote at the world's first conference celebrating the achievements of Countess Ada Lovelace, hosted at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Ada Initiative Executive Director Valerie Aurora was honored to give the keynote speech at this historic conference.

Now you can watch the video (with transcript), read the transcript alone, or read the slides of the whole talk here. A summary of the talk is at the end of this post.

As part of our mission to support women in open tech/culture, we work hard to make the video and transcript of Ada Initiative talks available to as many people as possible. Transcripts are surprisingly cheap and fast to create. We use and recommend StenoKnight CART Services, whose proprietor, Mirabai Knight, is also leader of the open source software stenography project, Plover. Make your videos accessible to those who can't or don't want to watch them and support women in open tech/culture, all at the same time!

Talk summary

Today, Countess Ada Lovelace is known primarily as the world's first computer programmer, having published in 1843 a program written for an early computer designed (but never built) by Charles Babbage. But our view of Lovelace has changed significantly over time, starting with her early fame as the poet Lord Byron's daughter and extending into deeply personal book-length attacks on her personality and accomplishments.

This talk discusses the changing perception of Ada Lovelace from her birth to 2013, with emphasis on how this reflects the importance of computing and the perceptions of women's proper roles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In Lovelace's lifetime, science and mathematics were considered an appropriate leisure time pursuit of upper class Victorian society, including the occasional woman as long as she did not intrude too far. Today, women are still excluded from STEM at greater rates than men, but we also have a greater understanding of how this is happening and much wider agreement that we need to end discrimination against women in STEM. Over the same period of time, computers went from interesting curiousities to crucial components in multi-billion dollar industries and the military-industrial complex. What was once an unimportant piece of trivia – who wrote the first computer program – became a hotly contested symbol of the struggle to define who should be included in the computer revolution and who should be "naturally" left out.

In the end, all the popular versions of the Ada Lovelace mythos – world's first computer programmer, Lord Byron's daughter, delusional mentally ill gambler – are incomplete and often perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women in STEM. The talk ends with some proposals for new, more complex stories we could tell about Ada Lovelace, as a brilliant and flawed human being with variety of interests, who happened to see farther into the future of computing than anyone else for the next hundred years.

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