This report will critically
examine the concepts and ideas of Howard Rheingold in Tools for Thought’,
Chapter Two ‘The First Programmer was a Lady’ which was written in 1985, when
the reduced cost of cheap processers made computers increasingly affordable and
available in schools. In 1985 Rheingold became involved in the WELL, a
“computer conferencing” system which was an online community and
wrote a book about it The Virtual Community
(1993). Rheingold is credited with inventing the term “virtual community”.
In 1996, Rheingold founded and launched a website called Electric Minds which
was named one of the ten best web sites by Time. Rheingold is a visiting
lecturer at Stanford University in the Department of Communication where he
teaches Virtual Communities and Social Media. He is also a lecturer at the
University of Berkeley in the School of Information where he teaches Virtual
Communities and Social Media. He is the author of numerous books including Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution and
Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.  In the mid-2000s Rheingold founded the Social
Media Classroom, a wiki-based site that acted as a place for communication and
served as an online element to a lecture that he was teaching. He supports the use
of blogs, and mind maps that provides students with a non-linear way of
studying. “Rheingold U” is an online learning community, offering courses, with
live lectures and ongoing discussions through forums, blogs, wikis, mind maps,
and social bookmarks. Wikipedia describes Rheingold as “… a critic, writer, and
teacher; his specialties are on the cultural, social and political implications
of modern communication media such as the Internet, mobile telephony and
virtual.” Macie Hall said that Rheingold has ‘long been an advocate and
advancer of the collaborative nature of networked communities and
communication’ (Hall, 2014:1).

 

Rheingold explains on his
personal website that his inspiration behind writing Tools for Thought was to pay homage to the unsung heroes who are
the innovative minds behind the computer technology and software that we rely
upon today:

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If it wasn’t for people like
J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Bob Taylor, Alan Kay, it wouldn’t have
happened. But their work was rooted in older, equally eccentric, equally
visionary, work, so I went back to piece together how Boole and Babbage and
Turing and von Neumann created the foundations that the later toolbuilders
stood upon to create the future we live in today. You can’t understand where
mind-amplifying technology is going unless you understand where it came from

(Rheingold; 2000).

 

Sydney Padua,
author of The Thrilling Adventures of
Lovelace & Babbage describes the life of Ada Loveland and George
Babbage. The woman ‘Ada Lovelace’ was born Ada Gordon in 1815, child of the
infamous poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his mathematics-loving wife
Annabella Milbanke. In 1833, Lovelace’s mentor, introduced her to Charles
Babbage, a well-known Professor of Mathematics for his visionary plans for
clockwork calculating machines known as ‘The Analytical Engine.’ Lovelace was
intrigued by Babbage’s plans for the Analytical Engine, which was to combine
his earlier Difference Engine with an elaborate punchcard operating system. It
was never built, but the design had all the essential elements of a modern
computer. In 1842 Lovelace translated a short article describing the Analytical
Engine. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood the machine
so well”. The final article is over three times the length of the original and
contains several early ‘computer programs,’ as well as many observations on the
potential uses of the machine, including the manipulation of symbols and
creation of music. Although Babbage had sketched out notes and programs for his
engine before, Lovelace’s are the most comprehensive, complete, and the first notes
to be published; so she is often referred to as “the first computer
programmer”. Babbage himself “spoke highly of her mathematical powers, and of
her peculiar capability — higher he said than of any one he knew, to prepare
the descriptions connected with his calculating machine.” Rheingold states that
Lovelace’s published notes are still understandable today and are particularly
meaningful to programmers, who can see how truly far ahead of their
contemporaries Babbage and Lovelace were. Professor B. H. Newman in the
Mathematical Gazette has written that Lovelace’s observations “show her to
have fully understood the principles of a programmed computer a century before
its time.” (Rheingold; 1985). Babbage described Ada as “that Enchantress
who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has
grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over
it,” or an another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers”. ‘The Analytical
Engine remained a vision, until Lovelace’s notes became one of the critical
documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the
1940s.

‘Her thwarted potential, and her
passion and vision for technology, have made her a powerful symbol for modern
women in technology’ (Padua; www.findingada.com).

 

Lovelace can arguably be named as
the first computer programmer. The only thing in my mind that could challenge
this notion is that computers as we know them now were not invented during her
life span (she died of uterine cancer in 1852 at the age of 36). However her
notes can still be understood by contemporary computer programmers as an early
form of computer software. Ada Lovelace has programming language named after
her which is a bitter sweet legacy to the first lady of software development. Ada
is a structured, statically typed, imperative, wide-spectrum, and
object-oriented high-level computer programming language. Ada improves code
safety and maintainability by using the compiler to find errors in favour of
runtime errors. In an interview between himself and David Berry, Andy Piper
describes software as ‘the “invisible thread” upon which we weave our
technology these days. ‘Software then becomes a reflection, in some ways, as an
extension of the programmer – the “soul of the machine” (Piper, A; 2011).
In the same interview David Berry differentiates between software and code ‘code
is essentially source code, with development practices around it. Software is
the finished product, where people don’t see code, and is the environment that
people can buy and use’ (Barry, D;2011). Ada Lovelace and George Babbage
provide a human-interest story to the development of software which Howard
Rheingold has depicted in a thought provoking and touching manner. Mark Marino
writes that:

 

People like to project humanity
onto the computer, but is it possible that with regard to coding we do just the
opposite and strip the code of its human significance, imagining that it is a
sign system within which the extensive analyses of semiotic systems and signification,
connotation, and denotation do not apply? (Marino;2006).

 

This may be the function of
software today however Ada Lovelace George Babbage were eccentric geniuses and
enchanting characters, as demonstrated by Rheingold in Tools for Thoughts. Manovich said the main point of Rheingold’s Tools for Thoughts is ‘the key insight
that computers and software are not just “technology” but rather the new medium
in which we can think and imagine differently. Similar understanding was shared
by all the heroes of this book who, with their collaborators, invented the
computational Tools for Thoughts”
(Manovich; 2013:13).

 

McLuhan explains that ‘the
‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is
speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the
content of the telegraph’ (McLuhan, 1964). In the case of Lovelace, the content
of her notes became the medium or code for the first written software for a
computer which was yet to exist. Manovich claims that ‘..we are in the middle
of a new media revolution – the shift of all culture to computer-mediated forms
of production’ (Manovich, 2001:19). This is definitely true and poignant of the
work of Rheingold does today which is essentially educating people online in a
virtual community. Similar to Lovelace, Rheingold is a pioneer in technological
developments which have helped to shaped how we learn and interact with each
other, with computers, as individuals and as a cyber community today. While
some of Rheingold’s websites look dated or simplistic at present, one must
remember that during the 1990’s they were the best webpages in existence. Manovich
states that ‘the developments of the 1990s have been disseminated to the
hundreds of millions of people who are writing blogs, uploading photos and
videos to media sharing sites, and use free media authoring and editing
software tools that ten years earlier would have cost tens of thousands of
dollars’ (Manovich; 2013:1). You can’t have Word, Facebook, or YouTube without
software which is accessed via web browsers and which resides on the servers,
therefore Rheingold’s touching tribute to Lovelace appears to come from a place
of respect and gratitude for her part in software development which his career
has been built upon (and still is). In years to come Rheingold’s name may
appear alongside Lovelace’s and Babbage’s in the list of eccentric figures who
have contributed a lot to the creation of computer history. 

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