Claire L. Evans sang that she “thought the future would be cooler” as frontwoman of the L.A.-based pop band Yacht. In her first book “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet” the musician, app developer and journalist looks through time the other way, to history — which could be cooler too.
Women have often been left out of the history of technology. “I want them to be recognized for their contributions,” she says of female pioneers Ada Lovelace (mathematician), Grace Hopper (computer scientist) Stacy Horn (founder of the early social network Echo) and the many others whose endeavors and accomplishments she traces in her book. Stretching from the early 1800s to the 1990s, “Broad Band” covers major booms and movements in technology focusing on the women in the room.
Evans perches on a red chair in her bright Garvanza home, where a record collection shares shelf space with vintage computers; on a mantle to her right a name plate reads “Claire L. Evans Cyberfeminist.”
Reading other tech histories, she says, “I always wondered where the women were.” The prevailing image of the advent of the internet, she says wryly, is “long haired men in the streets of San Francisco talking about tomorrow;” Evans describes her early research for “Broad Band” as “zeroing in on the one female name that’s in the footnotes and being like, ‘who’s this?’”
The history of science has long been relevant to Evans’ work; she was a science and tech columnist for the now-defunct Los Angeles Alternative and futures editor of Vice’s tech-website Motherboard.
Her interest in computing began at a young age. Evans’ father studied programming at Manchester in the 1970s and worked for Intel his entire career.
“I don’t know if it was him intentionally trying to get his young daughter into technology because he wanted to arm her for the future,” she says. “He also took me skiing. I hated that, but I loved the computer.”
Booting up her vintage Mac Classic, Evans runs the early digital drawing program Kid Pix, sighing, “This really takes me back.” She also owns a Next Cube, the model which on Tim Burners Lee created the web.
The impetus for “Broad Band” arose from a sense of wanting to reconnect more meaningfully with history, but also with the internet, which she credits as being her “introduction not just to the world but to being a writer and thinking about text.” Evans “cut her teeth blogging” and writes the content for 5 Every Day, which recommends 5 interesting things to do in Los Angeles daily. She’s also the lyricist for Yacht, and crafts the band’s conceptual persona.
Evans herself possesses a sense of limitlessness, of determined exploration: literature, tech, and music all capture her efforts and attention. “For a long time I thought there was no connection whatsoever and that I was just a person with many side hustles,” she says. “But at the same time, I think it’s a right-brain, left-brain thing too. I really enjoy the catharsis of being able to be in a rock band every once in a while.”
When writing about the history of the internet, she found it helpful to get “hands-on,” partly because of how much the technologies have evolved. “Trying to wrap your head around the fact that there was no such thing as a screen” in the earliest computers, for example, can be difficult to square with our understanding of the machines we use today.
Early computing was considered a woman’s job — a kind of evolution from typists and secretaries — to the extent that one term used to describe a machine’s labor potential was “kilo-girl.”As Evans writes, “women were the first computers; together, they formed the first information networks.”
“The idea that women themselves were the computers … to me that was the kernel,” she says as her calico cat Issey stalks past. In “Broad Band,” Evans illustrates that women have always been at the vanguard of embracing the connectivity of the internet, but she bristles at notion that community building is inherently feminine.
“I never want to make any kind of essentialist argument about what women are good at online or what attracts women to certain parts of computing in this history,” she says. “There are these sort of tendencies that come up in the book again and again, in terms of women being connected to the software or humanist or use-oriented side. That’s much more about the circumstances of the industry and academia than it is about any kind of natural tendency.”
The writing of a book — a true solo project — is another new experience. “I know that if I take a hit, I take a hit alone, but if I succeed I get to have the feeling of triumph and I don’t have to share with anybody.”
Evans’ relationship with the web is complicated. Her surfing habits, “they’re toxic,” she admits; she wastes time on social media. But “when I go on a research k-hole, a deep-dive, if you will, that’s when I feel like the internet is really doing its thing for me, and I feel like it’s worth my time. But you know, everything else is rough.
“I’d always taken pride in being a net native who understood the internet, who had fun on the internet, who thought the internet was ostensibly a place of connection.… I was starting to feel like I didn’t know if it was that anymore for me, so I started reinvestigating these earlier histories, trying to find where we lost the thread.”
She was also “compensating for the way it felt to be a woman online,” where antagonism, doxing and trolls come part and parcel with having a screen presence. “I think people have nostalgia for the early internet because it was still small enough that it could be conceived of as something discrete from us,” she says ruefully. “Like any utopia, once enough people join it just becomes a mirror of the world.”
“My big fantasy is Internet-2,” says Evans. “Maybe if the internet falls we can all reclaim some of these older technologies that have been sitting there waiting for us.” In “Broad Band,” Evans writes of these technologies with admiration: Resource One used its mainframe to operate a Social Services Referral Directory, Women’s Wire hosted domestic abuse resources, and computer scientist Wendy Hall’s Microcosm predated the semantic web.
For a design school in Spain, Evans prepared a lecture on subversion, approaches that, as she describes them, sound refreshingly simple — humane, even — without being ignorant of the pull of hyperrealities. “For example,” she says, “If you’re playing a first person shooter, maybe instead of shooting the bad guy you could try a different strategy, like a horticultural strategy, so you go around the map of the game and you look at all the plants and you catalog them,” she says excitedly.