Ada Lovelace Day: Finding Ada at South by Southwest

Ada Lovelace never made it to Texas, let alone to South By Southwest interactive, an annual festival of film, music, and interactive web technology, which has been taking place since 1992 in Austin, in the early spring. It's safe to say she never even heard of it.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace lived from 1815-1852. She was the only daughter of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron, although she never met her father. Wikipedia describes her as, "an English writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the analytical engine. Her notes on the engine include what is recognized as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine; as such she is often regarded as the world's first computer programmer." Babbage once referred to her as "the enchantress of numbers," and the U.S. Department of Defense named a computer language after her in 1980.

Last year, Suw Charman, a writer, blogger, and social software consultant from the UK, decided to memorialize Ada Lovelace's March 24 birthday by encouraging bloggers across the internets to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology.

In 1990, William Gibson (@greatdismal) and Bruce Sterling (@bruces) co-wrote The Difference Engine, a steampunk novel set in Victorian England that creates an alternate history for Babbage and Lovelace, in which Babbage's computer actually goes into production, changing the course of the industrial revolution. Various fictitious Texans cross paths with eminent Victorians.

This twenty-year old work of fiction shrinks the degrees of separation between Ada Lovelace, Bruce Sterling, Austin, and South By Southwest. You see, Bruce Sterling is a Texas native, a sometime resident, and an icon at South by Southwest, where his closing keynote/rant is legendary, illuminating, and absolutely worth catching. Here's the twitter-stream sound-bites version (parsed by the attending crowd), and here's a rough-notes transcript which gives you a better idea of Sterling's breadth and eclecticism. (Thank you Brian Fitzgerald!)

Still, I hadn't really expected to find the spirit of Ada alive and well in mysterious ways at South by Southwest, I hadn't even thought of it that way. Yet now, in retrospect, I find artifacts and traces of her legacy permeating my first experience of South by -- as I process memories, absorb what I learned, and reflect on the people I met or listened to. I find Ada not just in the women of science and technology, the hackers and the coders, but also in women of arts and letters, makers, trouble-makers, digital natives, and digital immigrants. These women are adept at the technologies of the Internet and are generous contributors to the exocortex we're building for humanity.

Last night I found a deck by artist Honoria Starbuck, posted on Slideshare, celebrating Bruce Sterling's SXSW 2010 Rant. Honoria's art takes tweet-length lines from Bruce's keynote and reflects on some of his big ideas. Ada would appreciate Honoria, I'm sure of it:

And here's a quick, arbitrary, and somewhat random shout-out to other women I met or re-met at SXSW, who could easily be nodes on a network graph charting the influence of Ada on women in the 21st century--women who influence my point of view, inspire me, and change my mind: