April 26, 2018

Broad Band

I just finished reading Claire L. Evans’ Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. It was fantastic. I’m fascinated by early computing and internet history, and the focus on little-known women pioneers was a fantastic approach to documenting that history. It’s absolutely worth anyone’s time, and I had a few quotes that stuck around with me:

But being a woman online today comes with the same anxieties that have always followed women and minorities, and fears of being silenced, excluded, and bullied remain as palpably real in the digital realm as they are IRL. Our dense net of connective technologies, and the increasing facility by which we are surveilled within them, has led to new forms of violence: doxxing, cyberstalking, trolling, revenge porn. And anonymity, which the cyberfeminists, along with many early cyberculture thinkers championed as a method for transcending gender and difference, enables violently misogynistic language all over the Web: in YouTube comments, on forums, on Reddit and 4chan, and in the in-boxes and @replies of women with public opinions. The incorporeal newness that so intoxicated the earliest women online has morphed; it has become what the games critic Katherine Cross aptly calls a “Möbius strip of reality and unreality,” in which Internet culture “becomes real when it is convenient and unreal when it is not; real enough to hurt people in, unreal enough to justify doing so.”

A little bit on why understanding early internet history is important:

We should care about early online communities and publications, as we should care for their archives, because they were the places where the medium revealed itself. The financial bets being made on the sidelines are remembered because of their dark reverberation on the economy. But another bell tolled, and it still rings out, growing fainter by the day: the contributions of those who saw the Web’s potential right away. After all, the Internet’s only job is to shuttle packets of information from one place to the next without privileging one over the other. Our only job is to make the best packets we can. To make them worthy of the technology.

Finally:

The more diversity there is at the table, the more interesting the result onscreen, the more human, as Stacy Horn would say, bite me, the better. There’s no right kind of engineer, no special plane of thought that must be reached to make a worthwhile contribution. There’s no right education, no right career path. Sometimes there isn’t even a plan. The Internet is made of people, as it was made for people, and it does what we tell it to do. We can remake the world.

Broad Band exposed me to a lot of amazing people and their work. The most memorable was probably Stacy Horn, who founded EchoNYC, an early online community primarily for New Yorkers. She wrote a book about it, Cyberville, which I managed to track down on Amazon. It’s a used copy—that’s right out of the nineties—but it looks brilliant. I love learning about building communities as much as I love learning about computer and internet history.

The only downside of reading Broad Band is that it will make you long for the early days of the web—the days where people and the websites they built were unique, communities could thrive, and the culture was being built by passionate and compassionate people instead of owned by massive, unfeeling corporations and populated by rancid, uncaring trolls. I fear that we’ll never be able to regain that magic. Even though the technology has advanced spectacularly, something vital has been lost in the transition from the old web to the new.