Claire Evans

Claire L. Evans is the author of "Broad Band," an illuminating history of the women who helped create the internet. She lives in Los Angeles with Jona Bechtolt, her longtime partner with whom she performs as the dance-pop duo YACHT (they also created a nifty app called 5 Every Day which gives users five daily reccomendations of cool things to do in LA). Smart, funny and strikingly articulate, Evans sat down with The Caret to talk about the subjects closest to her heart including her vintage computer collection, 1990s cyberfeminism and how the internet would look different if women had built it.

Hi Claire, some light internet stalking on our part revealed that your father was a longtime Intel engineer. Did you get your technophilia come from him?

Honestly, we just had computers in the house and being an only child, it doesn’t take long for one’s identity to get poured into that kind receptacle. As a kid, I played CD-ROM games. Then when I was a teen, the world wide web appeared and I came of age with it. I feel like I grew up with the computer in the sense that it was also going through a lot of changes—adolescent stirrings of its new consciousness. Of course, my dad always encouraged me but he wasn’t trying to get me to become a programmer. I think he knew from an early age that wasn’t going to be my point of interest. But that’s the great thing about computers, there’s not really a wrong way to engage with them.

When did you start your vintage collection?

That’s more recent. When I was writing the book, I kept getting accounts from people I was interviewing about their early contact with machines. So I felt like I needed to get my hands on the older computers to understand. I bought a Mac Classic and eventually a friend gave us a NeXTcube. I’m not like a hardcore collector. But I found my experiences to be really rewarding. If you look at the NeXTcube, there are elements of the user experience that survive today in Macs—like the sound effects. It’s a real mindfuck to use a 25 year-old computer. It gives you a sense of what computing felt like in a more elemental state. And, you know, they’re nice home décor objects as well.

Speaking of the book, you spoke with so many amazing women. Do you have a favorite interview?

That's like a “choose between your children” scenario. The great thing about writing a book, or any sort of project that involves other people (laughs), is that you meet an entirely new demographic of human beings. Like, I now have a Rolodex full of older women who are awesome and mean so much to me. I felt closest perhaps to the people who I’ve been able to spend time with in real life. Stacy Horn, a social networking pioneer who started a very important online community in the late 1980s, I’ve done several events with her in New York and we’ve corresponded a lot. Jaime Levy, who was an interactive designer in the early web days, lives really close to me in Pasadena so I’ve spent time with her IRL.

Did the book lead to latent recognition for any of is subjects?

Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler, an information scientist who was really fundamental to the way the ARPANET was structured. She’s in her 80s now and was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame as a consequence of being in my book. It’s criminal because she should have been inducted years ago. She was one of the few people who were really, truly there at the beginning. I got to induct her at the ceremony. It was so special to be a part of her story and actually see what happens when you shine a light on somebody, how many more people see their contributions. So yeah, it was a full waterworks experience.

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Claire L. Evans at home in Los Angeles. Photographed by Austin Hargrave.

“I grew up with the computer in the sense that it was also going through a lot of changes—adolescent stirrings of its new consciousness.”
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Was that your primary reason for writing this book? To draw attention to these unsung female tech pioneers?

Yeah, of course. Knowing there were all these women who made significant contributions to the world that hadn’t really been recognized at the same level as their male peers. Also, the first internet generation won’t be around forever and the paint had been drying for too long on these stories. I felt like there was a need for a timely interjection at this specific moment in history, while we can still get these women’s stories down.

And then a wonderful consequence was that by taking an alternative path into the subject, it opened up all these new ways of thinking about the technologies that are fundamental to our lives. Just by virtue of having a different perspective on how those technologies were originally ideated. It allowed me two years of waddling around super interesting technological and cultural arcana that had always been there but took a sideways path for me to see again.

You’ve traveled around the world giving presentations on the book. Are there certain questions you encounter frequently or no matter where you are?

I’ve been fortunate, because there’s obviously a hunger for these stories. People really want to talk about women in tech right now. There’s this deep love and need from women who want to see themselves reflected. There’s also tech companies trying to look like they care about these things...and I hope they do. I think the thing that’s been consistent is that no woman has been surprised when I present this material. Men are always surprised. No woman is like, “WOW I had no idea that women might have been so important!” If it is news to them they’re still like, “Well, yeah, obviously.” Because there’s an analogy for this kind of lack of representation in every industry.

Often when I speak people are like, “Oh, has anyone ever told you that the history of medicine is also like this?” or, like, that there’s a parallel in art history, or video art, or filmmaking? Basically what it comes down to is that every discipline, creative or otherwise, has plenty of hidden histories in it—about women, people of color, all the people who have not been included in the canonical narrative. So no one who’s ever been an underdog has been surprised that it’s any different with computing. I spoke at a conference in Vegas recently and it was a lot of male CTOs. They all got copies of the book and they all asked me to dedicate it to their daughters and I really wanted to just say, “You read it.” You know? Because they're the ones who don’t know. Their daughter probably knows and if she doesn’t, she certainly won’t be surprised.

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“Women have excelled in those spaces because that’s where they’ve been allowed to be.”
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While we’re on the subject of gender, many of the women you interviewed in "Broad Band" worked on the user side of things. Are women and men inherently drawn to different facets of computer science?

Women have excelled in those spaces because that’s where they’ve been allowed to be. Historically, computing has not offered many points of entry for women. And a lot of the time, the opportunities that did exist were closer to the user-facing side, because caring about people is socialized as being a woman’s value. So places like information science, community development and originally, programming—because it was seen as being like a telephone operator—those places were where women were more likely to be and, as a consequence, make their mark. But I do not think that women are inherently more attracted to the community aspect or connection/networking aspect of technology than men are. There are so many women in the industry who are hardcore technical.

Would the internet look different if women had built it?

Yeah, of course! I mean if you look at social media platforms alone—they are not designed by people who have ever experienced harassment, who have ever experienced being stalked, who have ever been worried about the way their voice may be used against them in the public sphere. All the safeguards and moderations put in place seem to be an afterthought.

And when it comes to the internet in general, there are elemental things, like the way web links work. Many different women computer scientists were working in hypertext before the web. We wouldn’t have 404 Errors if some of their ideas had been given equal credence and funding as the ideas that ended up taking over the world. I definitely think the web would be a more interesting and holistic system if technical women—and all the historic underdogs—had been given access to power and funding early on.

You’re part of Deep Lab, a collective whose members call themselves cyberfeminists (at least on their “About” page). What does that term mean in 2019?

In the 1990s, early cyberfeminists were excited by the possibilities of the web. Not only did it offer a tool for global consciousness-raising but people could communicate with one another unbounded by the body—without any biases about gender and sexuality. I think there was a sense that if women didn’t get online quickly it might be taken over or ruined, which is a fair enough assessment of what perhaps happened. A lot of really cool and interesting net art came out of that era. And wonderful, fiery language that nobody could write now. It’s radical and smutty and very 90's. Very cyber.

There have been many mutations of cyberfeminism since then and today’s approach is much more complex. It’s much more rooted in an understanding of the toxicity and violence of cyberspace, to say nothing of the further nuances and complexities of gender.

Who’s leading the charge?

You know, it’s interesting, I went to the Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco this year, which is a conference for people who want to build a web that looks like what the original architects wanted it to be: genuinely democratic, not characterized by corporate powers, etc. And everybody there was either much older, like someone who had been there in the 1970's and was hoping to try again, or a grad student. There was nothing in between. The hysteria of capitalism has cratered the insides of the internet and left a new generation to try and reinterpret its intentions and to pick up the pieces.

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"It's a real mindfuck to use a 25 year-old computer."

So when you’re not busy trying to help rescue the internet, what are you working on?

(laughs) We’ve been working on a new record for the band. I’m trying to do this alternating thing where one year I’m a writer and the next I’m a musician. I’ll just keep doing the leapfrog thing over my own back.

Can you tell us about the new record?

I can’t. But you know, it’s funny, every time we stick our heads out of the ground, the landscape of the music industry has changed completely. In our early days, around 2008, it was the era of the mp3 blog and the golden age of Pitchfork. In 2015 we were doing branded cooking videos for like Tastemade and going to the YouTube studios—weird stuff with new powers-that-be. To promote our last EP we went on a Facebook Live show where we rated people’s toilets. People video chatted in and showed us their bathrooms and we’d give them like “3 golden toilets!” God knows what it will be like when the new record comes out.

We love 5 Every Day. What would your online-only version be?

Ok well, there’s a constellation of Twitter accounts that take place inside the Star Trek universe that are really funny if you’re a head, like @RikerGoogling and @WorfEmail. And I really like Kanopy, which is an app and website you can use with your library card. It’s a streaming platform with a really great selection of documentaries and Criterion stuff and classic cinema. The Los Angeles library has been getting better about making things digitally accessible. It must be a strange time to be a librarian. They have this thing called Tessa that’s an archive of their visual collections, like they have hi-res scans of restaurant menus from the last 100 years. I could look at those all day.

And then, of course, there's Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine, Web Recorder and Rhizome.

Do you have any more app ideas up your sleeves?

We’re concentrating on our music right now but I will tell you another app idea I have.

Wonderful. Would love to hear it.

Ok, so it’s called My Guy and it’s an AR app where you open it up and you just have a guy. He’s like a generic CGI guy. Not even necessarily male, just like a character. Everyone has the same one. And there’s an infinite retail experience of clothing so you can dress your My Guy up in any manner and change his hair. It’s basically the character creation stage of a game, forever. And that's it. All you do is dress your My Guy and pose him around your life. But he’s always small, he’s the same size on your phone as he is in real life.

It almost sounds like a pet.

Yeah, not to make this preposterous, mostly-joke idea sound insightful but care is something that is not often invoked when talking about digital technology. The social media platforms are constantly getting in trouble because they do not care about us. We’re not protected from harassment. So I think acts of nurturing in the digital space are really nice. Like Tamagotchis and Pokémon—people love those because you get to enact your nurturing qualities but also get to tend a little turf of cyberspace that is yours. So with My Guy, you get to care for something and also express yourself. And those were the two things that compelled me the most about the computer growing up.

Keep up with Claire:

Instagram: @clairelevans
Twitter: @TheUniverse