Blog Post

Ada Lovelace Day

Today, in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, I'll write about three women who were important in getting me into this HASTAC life of mine, each in a different way: Melinda French Gates, Kimberly Jenkins, and Nannerl Keohane.


Ada Lovelace Day is an international project commemorating the role of women in technology. Here's the url for this pledge drive to have bloggers write about women in technology today. And here's a bio of Ada Lovelace: "Lovelace was one of the world's first computer programmers, and oneof the first people to see computers as more than just a machine fordoing sums. She wrote programmes for Charles Babbage's AnalyticalEngine, a general-purpose computing machine, despite the fact that itwas never built. She also wrote the very first description of acomputer and of software."


Now, I am going to wax nostalgic, about how my lifelong scholarly interest in the impact of technology on individuals and society was transformed forever by three powerful, inspiring women: Nan Keohane, Melinda French Gates, and Kimberly Jenkins.


It was through Nan that my intellectual interest took an institutional turn, leading first to ISIS (in 1999) and then HASTAC (2002). I've spent the last post-administrative years writing two books that came out of that work, first (with David Theo Goldberg) one on the future of learning institutions (coming out form MIT Press as first a research paper this spring and then a book next fall) and a second on the rewired brain, on cognition and digitality (from Viking Press in 2010). A lot of my life, in other words, has headed down this particular path and three very powerful, intelligent women were guides on that path, each in a different way.


There was a day in 1999, when I was sitting in my office in the Allen Building, back when I was a new Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, when Duke President Nannerl Keohane popped her head in, "Free for lunch?" she asked. Being a university president doesn't leave you a lot of pop-your-head-in-and-invite-someone-to-lunch days, so I knew this must be important.


She wanted to talk about technology at Duke. It would be kind, I think, to say at the time we were in the digital dark ages. I still remember a key public document that, in draft form, actually said that we would never aspire to be the "bleeding edge of technology." That line made me so mad I was sure I was going to get fired for my outburst. Innovative thinking about technology for learning and research and conceptualizing the kinds of learning situations that would best prepare this generation of students for a digital future were part of my charge as Vice Provost and a motivating reason for taking the job. It is true Duke can't compete with the huge state universities or the major, more wealthily endowed private universities in hardcore technology research but I was convinced we could be more creative and that "technology" (in 1999 as in 1799 or 1499) meant leaping ahead, not going down the normal tracks, and it also required rethinking deep social and educational structures that supported or were supported by technology. I knew that was "bleeding edge" thinking . . . and it didn't have to cost a lot. But anyone who knows me knows that I can be vocal (too vocal, yes!) about things I believe in deeply. So my outburst against decrying the "bleeding edge" was noted.


But Nan was an amazing president and is an amazing human being and, in that outburst, she heard something important, even though she herself would probably admit she is not a die-hard technophile. She is a die-hard educator and innovator, though. So we talked about technology that lunch, about learning and thinking in what we now call the digital age but didn't really even have a name for before Google, before Wikipedia, before Web 2.0. Nan has the ability to listen more actively than anyone I've ever met. I've experienced and I've watched her listening to others. It's remarkable. She takes it in, she asks questions, she pushes, she takes it in, she pushes again, and the whole process makes the person speaking smarter than they knew they were--generous listening. An art form. We talked about the future of technology in learning institutions that day, not just as IT but as pedagogy and as epistemology for a new era. Soon, "bleeding edge" was removed from our planning document. Instead we wrote something like "would explore the role of technology for this generation of learners and researchers in creative and experimental ways" (I doubt that wording is anything close to the actual wording but, unlike "bleeding edge"--which still hurts--I've forgotten the positive rewrite). Soon I was working with the Dean of Trinity College Bob Thompson to get together faculty from all over the university, one from eight or ten different departments, many of them who felt pretty isolated in their individual departments, and we were meeting with some amazing students, and talking, and then there was ISIS--Information Science + Information Studies, a quite wonderful interdisciplinary program (it's where I teach "This Is Your Brain on the Internet") where in any class half the students might be computer scientists and engineers and half might be English or Art History majors. We knew we couldn't be the Media Lab but also realized the world needed something bigger, interdisciplinary, in thinking technology's permeation in all aspects of learning, even when the "technology" wasn't vsible. This isn't simply "IT" (instructional technology, which uses technology to enable classroom pedagogy). This is rethinking how we think in this digital age, the way new tools change the kinds of research, learning, thinking, and collaboration we can perform. ISIS is about creativity, collaboration, and cross-disciplinary fertilization. It is magic. And was the basis for HASTAC a few years later. The rest is history. Ever the visionary, Nan took a chance not just on me but on a barely formed idea in society at that time. Because of her diligent questioning, the idea came to make sense. She then worked to bring that idea into fullblown fruition. . .


And more. She introduced me to two amazing women in technology. The first was a brilliant Duke graduate with undergrad degrees in Economics and Computer Science, plus an MBA degree that she earned while finishing her BA. Her name is Melinda French, and she was one of the first employees of Microsoft, and was the manager for several Microsoft products including Publisher, Encarta, and Expedia. She was on Duke's Board of Trustees . . . and she happened to marry Bill Gates. So she was known as the "richest woman in the world" but I knew her as one of the most visionary, thoughtful, intelligent, tough, sensitive, direct people I've ever met. We worked together on her first philanthropic project, pre-Gates Foundation, and it happened to be my first major project developing a program with a philanthropist. What an experience! It led to the creation of the University Scholars Program, a program that recruits not just brilliant students but brilliant interdisciplinary students who already have the tools to address a complex future. They aren't the profile of what, in 2000, was a typical "well rounded" Duke student but they were originals, with some special spark of individuality and intellectual independence. The undergrads would receive scholarships, and a number came from highly unusual backgrounds (I remember an applicant who had spent a year living in a car with her mom--and learning Navajo and Japanese on the internet at the local library's computer bank). The grads and professional school students work with these undergrads, they have seminars they put together on their own, showcasing their work and their ideas. This was all keenly and intrinsically an idea that Melinda developed because, she said, her own education didn't really make sense until she started taking MBA courses and then her undergraduate life came into full perspective. We replicated that experience of student-to-student mentoring and cross-generational interaction in the University Scholars Program. "Is this program really about technology," I once asked her? "In the best sense," she answered definitively.


The other woman in technology whom Nan introduced me to who had an indelible impact on my career is Kimberly Jenkins. Kimberly is also a Duke graduate, was also on our Board, and also was one of those early Microsoft entrepreneurs, head of Microsoft's Education Division, manager of NeXt, who also worked at Apple, Sun, Cisco, and Oracle. She founded the Internet Policy Institute and, when I knew her, was interested in funding one of the first cross-disciplinary distinguished professorships that, like ISIS and HASTAC, crossed from technology to society. I believe it was Nan who persuaded Kimberly to keep her name on this endowed chair: major technology centers or distinguished chairs are rarely named after women in technology, women technology visionaries and pioneers. The chair was crucially important, its naming after its donor and intellectual designer equally so.


Kimberly, Nan, and I worked together to conceptualize the ideal Kimberly J. Jenkins Chair in New Technologies and Society at Duke University and then the process was turned over to me. I put together an interdisciplinary search committee chaired by myself and Berndt Mueller, then Dean of the Natural Sciences. Fourteen faculty from fourteen departments and five schools at Duke, and a few student representatives too. The first holder of a Jenkins Chair was Brian Cantwell Smith, the philosopher of computation and himself an alum of the fabled Parc Xerox. The second is Tim Lenoir, historian of technology and visionary across many fields, and hands' on builder of games, interactive data bases, and other new media. Kimberly is eagle-eyed in her vision, wise in her judgments, and an engaging human being, now Entrepreneur in Residence at the Pratt School of Engineering. Because of Tim, Duke has been able to recruit others who fit the general category of "new technologies and society," including another extremely distinguished female leader in the field, N. Katherine (Kate) Hayles. Pioneering Kate, too, deserves honorable mention on Ada Lovelace Day.


In recent years, more and more of my activity has turned toward the visionary MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Two women are instrumental there too: Vice President Julia Stasch and Director of Education Connie Yowell. There are more of us out there than one might think!


So that's it. Thanks Ada Lovelace Day. And thank you to the three women who got me started, institutionally, in building new modes of technology for learning, thinking, and research, Nan, Melinda, and Kimberly. You continue to inspire me everyday.



Here's a url for a movie about Lovelace and a bio from the website:


To Dream Tomorrow , the newest of Flare's Women of Power
documentary films, is the story of Ada Byron Lovelace, her work with Charles Babbage,
and their contributions to computing over a hundred years before the time
usually thought to be the start of the Computer Age.

Daughter of a mathematically gifted, social activist mother and the
"mad, bad and dangerous to know" poet, Lord Byron, Ada's life was unconventional,
daring, and short. Possessed of enormous energy and talent, she faced some
daunting obstacles -- both in her personal life and the society of her
time -- as she fought to work professionally and make a contribution to
science and mathematics.

Ada was just 17 when she met Babbage and became intrigued by the
workings of a mechanical calculator he had designed. Though as a woman she was barred from