On Ada

25 August 2015

Ada Lovelace is the name every woman in tech knows. It’s a kind of talisman, a mantra to be brought out and recited whenever you can’t help but feel you’re not welcome. It’s one I’ve told myself enough times:

Ada Lovelace, Ada Lovelace, we’ve always been here, we deserve to be here, I deserve to be here

Her story’s old and worn, but bears repeating: the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, Ada’s mother encouraged her to pursue mathematics in an effort to prevent her taking after her infamous father. As a young woman, she struck up a friendship with Charles Babbage, and was fascinated by his work on mechanical computers. She was eventually commissioned to translate a memoir on Babbage’s Analytic Engine into English, to which she added a set of notes, and it was in these that she arguably wrote the first computer programme.

The Analytical Engine was never built and Ada’s programme never ran. Ada’s real genius lay in her vision; while most at the time saw computers as suited only to perform mathematics, she predicted that the Engine could theoretically perform tasks much more akin to what we expect of a computer today, such as composing music. Ada was as fascinated by the arts as she was computing; she described herself as a ‘poetical scientist’. At the time of her death, she was working on the implications of the relation between maths and music.

We have a family friend who works ‘in computers’ - some nebulous database work I’ve never got to the bottom of. When I was first getting started in web development, he asked me:

‘So, what do you prefer? The techie stuff or the artsy fartsy stuff?’

‘Can’t I like both?’

He laughed, like I was a child and I’d asked why I couldn’t go to the moon for my birthday.

‘No.’

Ada is the Edinburgh University Theatre Company’s offering for this year’s Fringe, a devised show combining stylistic acting, poetry and film in order to commemorate the life and work of Ada Lovelace. The audience is told by the cast at the beginning of the show that the play we’re about to watch lies between science and the arts.

Science and art are often viewed as entirely distinct, two fields separated by a vast, impassible chasm, but my interests and my work lie in the grey area between the two. It’s a beautiful place, and I was thrilled at the prospect of watching a piece that explored it. However, it’s clear that the cast’s interest doesn’t really lie in the technology. While Ada’s childhood pursuit of flight is portrayed in loving detail, definitions of programmes and algorithms are delivered in perfunctory addresses direct to the audience, the show grinding to a halt as the cast drops out of character to explain to us how Javascript works.

‘Can’t I like both?’

‘No.’

The heart of the show is the question of legacy - Ada’s legacy from her father and the legacy of Ada’s work and reputation. The long shadow of Ada Lovelace can easily blot out the accomplishments of the women who have come after her. It allows the industry to appear to celebrate women in the trade without addressing the issues which can prevent us from succeeding in it today.

Statistically, my field has a slightly higher proportion of women than most areas of computing. Statistically, we’re paid less and are more likely to lose our jobs. Our work is viewed as inessential, superfluous to that of ‘real’ programmers. I’m proud of what I do, but I’m deliberately vague about exactly what that is when I’m talking to people in the industry I don’t know.

The world still doesn’t know quite what to do with a poetical scientist.

Ada follows Lovelace’s life from birth to death, with certain, defining moments looping and branching in the manner of a computer programme. It’s an interesting idea in theory, but in practice it often meant watching the same scene being played out over and over with little development between repetitions. Babbage’s initial refusal of Ada’s assistance is repeated to the point of meaninglessness, and I spent much of the show wondering when it would move on.

The role of Ada is shared among the women of the cast. We were told, bluntly, that this was a choice designed to showcase the different aspects of Ada’s personality but, for me, it worked better to highlight the extent to which Ada the woman has been lost in the rush to create an icon for women in computing. Ada makes an admirable effort to avoid this, with all of Ada’s dialogue taken from her own words and much of the show devoted to exploring her often troubled relationships and struggle with depression.

Lovelace’s mental health issues, her failed attempt to run a gambling syndicate, her illnesses and affairs - these are the aspects rarely brought up when we talk about her life. Women in tech cannot be flawed. We have to be extraordinary, an inspiration to others, the best at what we do - or, at least, better than anyone who questions what we do. We like to tell stories about the men who assume we don’t know what we’re doing and the women who blow them out the water, but what about when you don’t know what you’re doing? When you fuck up, when you have to ask for help or step away, you’re letting everyone down. Women in tech cannot be flawed.

While what we, as viewers, should think of Ada and her work is left for us to decide, in almost every other aspect the show is infuriatingly eager to spoon-feed its audience. We were given a flyer as we queued to enter describing the production of the play and explaining some of the choices made. In case that wasn’t enough, the cast lined up at the beginning of the show to essentially repeat the same information and, in case that wasn’t enough, we were given a similar speech near the end to ensure we really grasped the themes of the piece. At times, I felt like I was going to be given a pop quiz on leaving. While I can understand the creators of Ada worrying their audience may not have thought about how programming works, it seems as if they’re expecting them to have never seen a play before either.

‘So, what do you prefer? The techie stuff or the artsy fartsy stuff?’

The aspects of dance and physical theatre incorporated into the show are frequently dull and cliched, something particularly disappointing given its impressive use of film in a similar fashion. The show opens with a full-stage projection of mechanical workings that was genuinely breath-taking, and both excellently shot pre-filmed clips and live camera work are used to great effect. Further praise is due to the cast, who pull their weight on both film and stage with what was surely a difficult script. For most of the show, though, I was bored.

I left Ada irritated, mourning the show that could have been. I live my life in the legacy of Lovelace, alongside hundreds of thousands of other women. A true exploration of that legacy - one genuinely situated in the world in which she worked and that which she, to whatever extent, helped to create - could mean the world to me, and to us.

Maybe I’ll see it one day.