OK, I confess– I too was a technophobe. Many years ago, I was asked what kind of computer I owned. The answer was, ‘Hmm, a small, beige, rounded one, I think.’I meant, of course, a Commodore 64, then at the bleeding edge of home computing technology. My geeky boyfriend who bore witness to my blasphemy went pale and almost died of embarrassment. Then he ruthlessly forced me to learn Basic, so I can get my computer to say eloquent things like ‘Hello, Eva, how are you? The sudden pleasure of getting my small, beige, rounded thing to talk to me was as intense as it was unexpected. I got hooked and since I’ve never stopped playing with machines. They don’t gossip, they don’t pay you compliments and they don’t want you to know if you have PMT. Instead, they insist on steady, logical and dispassionate treatment.
Despite these obvious social failings, computers have been at the heart of women’s interest in more ways than one. I was sold on the computing concept from the conversational point of view, although it took me six more years before I could experience the Internet and chat with real people instead of my ‘imagined’ Basic programmed characters. Then the interest became a passion and, soon after, an addiction.
But along with other women, I soon discovered one of the downsides of linking our computers to the Net- the overwhelmingly male presence in the online community. Women were sought after, but as objects of digital desire rather than as partners and co-builders of cyberspace. The only areas allocates to us were marketing –led artificial gender ghettos such as Women’s Wire. The commercial failures of these projects were predictable- women who go to the trouble to get connected, learn the skills and get the necessary gear don’t do it just to talk lipstick.
I ‘ve found that the only denominator for all of us f-email users is an interest in technology and what it can do for our careers, professional development and, of course, earning abilities. Typical topics from women’s magazines such as ‘how to get a man( and his money)’ or ’59 ways to have sex with your boss don’t seem very interesting compared with configuring your laptop to pick up your e-mail via a mobile phone, learning new trick with Micromedia Director 6 or exploring a world full of goodies at shareware.com.
Fortunately, a lot has changed in the gender make-up of online users. In fact, now women are the architects and engineers of the wired world. For example, every time you use an intelligent agent, think about firefly.com, one of the pioneers of personalisation technology for the delivery of music products. The brain behind it is Patti Maes, a professor from MIT. Like me, Patti got into computer via linguistics and made it her mission to help us find the right product s and make good use of personalisation tools for smart information management. She has managed to combine good ideas with a sharp business sense. Firefly has just launched a new version and is working with the major online services as well as with the top search engines, providing tools for the much-loved My Yahoo.
Women are also behind the products that we will use tomorrow, the most exciting of which is Marimba’s ‘push technology’, which will broadcast information to our PCs. The brain behind Marimba, Kim Polese, is helping to define the future shape of the Web .She was also the marketing brain behind Java, and even if she were to retire tomorrow, cyberspace would have a lot to thank her for.
One of the key strategic decisions made in 1996 was Apple’s acquisition of NeXT, which shifted the paradigm of the Macintosh operating system. The person behind the dramatic development was Ellen Hancock. As Apple’s chief technology officer, she defined Apple’s strategy for the next few years. Closer to home, Jo Boatman, Channel Cyberia, was responsible for redefining scheduled online entertainment. Her concept of channels and schedulers introducing time to the Web experience is now being implemented by Microsoft Network and AOL.
Yahoo and Excite have set up shop in the UK with women at the helm. Gail Robinson, editor of internet magazine, is reshaping the Net press in the brave, new post-Wired world, and the girls from thepassion.co.uk have added a bit of spice to the Web content, combining great sensitivity with cool technical competence.
Completing the shortlist of the key women in technology in 1996 is a mentor of mine, Stacy Horn. Stacy founded the first women ‘non techie’ oriented BBS in New York in 1993.It was called echo.com and lived for many months as a rack of modems above Stacy’s bed in her tiny Soho apartment. She singlehandedly built the first settlement on the electronic frontier and struggled to make it friendly, easy and useful for non-Unix heads. These are the female pioneers of cyberspace. They should be an inspiration to us all.