The Future Looms Weaving Women and Cybernetics Sadie Plant

The Future Looms
Weaving Women and Cybernetics

Sadie Plant

Beginning with a passage from a novel:

"The woman brushed aside her veil, with a swift gesture of habit,
and Mallory caught his first proper glimpse of her face. She was Ada
Byron, the daughter of the Prime Minister. Lady Byron, the Queen of
Engines." (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, /The Difference
Engine/, p 89)

Ada was not really Ada Byron, but Ada Lovelace, and her father was never
Prime Minister: these are the fictions of William Gibson and Bruce
Sterling, whose book /The Difference Engine/ sets its tale in a
Victorian England in which the software she designed was already
running; a country in which the Luddites were defeated, the Prime
Minister was a poet, and Ada Lovelace still bore her maiden name. And
one still grander: Queen of Engines. Set in the mid-1850s, the novel
takes Ada into a middle-age she never saw: the real Ada died in 1852
while she was still in her thirties. Ill for much of her life with
unspecified disorders, she was eventually diagnosed as suffering from
cancer of the womb, and she died after months of extraordinary pain.

Ada Lovelace, with whom the histories of computing and women's
liberation are first directly woven together, is central to this paper.
Not until a century after her death, however, did women and software
make their respective and irrevocable entries onto the scene. After the
military imperatives of the 1940s, neither would ever return to the
simple service of man, beginning instead to organise, design, and arouse
themselves, and so acquiring unprecedented levels of autonomy. In later
decades, both women and computers begin to escape the isolation they
share in the home and office establishing their own networks. These, in
turn, begin to get in touch with each other in the 1990s. This
convergence of woman and machine is one of the preoccupations of the
cybernetic feminism endorsed in this paper, a perspective which owes a
good deal to the work of Luce Irigaray who is also important to this

The computer emerges out of the history of weaving, the process so often
said to be the quintessence of women's work. The loom is the vanguard
site of software development. Indeed, it is from the loom, or rather the
process of weaving, that this paper takes another cue. Perhaps this
paper is an instance of this process of weaving as well, for tales and
texts are woven as surely as threads and fabrics. It is a yarn in both
senses. It is about weaving women and cybernetics, and is also weaving
women and cybernetics together. It concerns the looms of the past, and
also the future which looms over the patriarchal present and threatens
the end of human history.

Ada Lovelace may have been the first encounter between woman and
computer, but the association between women and software throws back
into the mythical origins of history. For Freud, weaving imitates the
concealment of the womb: the Greek /hystera:/ the Latin /matrix. /
Weaving is woman's compensation for the absence of the penis, the void,
the woman of whom, as he famously insists, there is "nothing to be
seen". Woman is veiled, as Ada was in the passage above; she weaves, as
Irigaray comments, "to sustain the disavowal of her sex." Yet the
development of the computer, and the cybernetic machine which it
operates as, might even be described in terms of the introduction of
increasing speed, miniaturisation, and complexity to the process of
weaving. These are the tendencies which converge in the global webs of
data and the nets of communication by which cyberspace, or the matrix
are understood.

Today, it is not only woman, but the computer which screens the matrix,
which also makes its appearance as the veils and screens on which its
operations are displayed. This is the virtual reality which is also the
absence of the penis and its power, but already more than the void. The
matrix emerges as the processes of an abstract weaving which produces or
fabricates, what man knows as "nature": his materials, the fabrics, the
screens on which he projects his own identity.

As well as his screens, the computer also becomes the medium of man's
communication. Ada Lovelace was herself a great communicator: often she
wrote two letters a day, and was delighted at the prospect of the
telegraph. In 1844, she wrote: "Think what a delight. Wheatstone says
that sometimes friends hold conversations from one terminus to
another."(23 November, 1844) She is, moreover, often remembered as
Charles Babbage's voice, expressing his ideas with levels of clarity,
efficiency, and accuracy he could never have mustered himself.

When Babbage displayed his Difference Engine to the public in 1833, Ada
was a debutante, invited to see the machine with her mother, Lady Byron,
who herself had been known as the Princess of Parallelograms for her
mathematical prowess. Lady Byron was full of admiration for the machine,
and it is clear that she had a remarkable appreciation of the subtle
enormities of Babbage's invention. "We both went to see the thinking
machine (for such it seems) last Monday," she wrote. "It raised several
numbers to the 2nd & 3rd powers, and extracted the root of a quadratic
equation."(Ada Lovelace, letter of 21 June, 1833)

Ada's own response was recorded by another woman, who wrote: "While
other visitors gazed at the working of the beautiful instrument with a
sort of expression, and I dare say the same sort of feeling, that some
savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking glass or
hearing a gun... Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working
and saw the great beauty of the invention."(Sophia Frend, in Moore, p
44) Ada had a passion for mathematics at an early age. She was admired
and was greatly encouraged by Mary Somerville, herself a prominent
figure in the scientific community and author of several scientific
texts including the widely praised /Connection of the Physical Sciences.
/ Ada and Mary Somerville corresponded, talked together, and attended a
series of lectures by Dr Dionysus Lardner, on Babbage's work at the
Mechanics' Institute in 1835. Ada was fascinated by the engine, and
wrote many letters to Babbage imploring him to take advantage of her
brilliant mind. Eventually, and quite unsolicited, she translated a
paper by Menabrea on Babbage's Analytic Engine, later adding her own
notes at Babbage's suggestion. Babbage was enormously impressed with the
translation, and Ada began to work with him on the development of the
Analytical Engine.

Babbage had a tendency to flit between obsessions; a remarkably prolific
explorer of the most fascinating questions of science and technology, he
nevertheless rarely managed to complete his studies; neither the
Difference Engine nor the Analytical Engine were developed to his
satisfaction. Ada, on the other hand, was determined to see things
through; perhaps her own commitment to Babbage's machine was greater
than his own. Knowing that the Difference Engine had suffered for lack
of funding, publicity, and organisation, she was convinced that the
Analytical Engine would be better served by her own attentions. She was
often annoyed by what she perceived as Babbage's sloppiness, and after
an argument in 1843, she laid down several conditions for the
continuation of their collaboration: "can you", she asked, with
undisguised impatience "undertake to give your mind /wholly and
undividedly/, as a primary object that no engagement is to interfere
with, to the consideration of all those matters in which I shall at
times require your intellectual assistance & supervision; & can you
promise not to /slur & hurry /things over; or to mislay & allow
confusion & mistakes to enter into documents &c?" (Ada Lovelace, 14
August, 1843). Babbage signed this agreement, but in spite of Ada's
conditions, ill health and financial crises conspired to prevent the
completion of the machine.

Ada Lovelace herself worked with a mixture of coyness and confidence;
attributes which often extended to terrible losses of self esteem and
megalomaniac delight in her own brilliance. Sometimes she was convinced
of her own immortal genius as a mathematician; "I hope to bequeath to
future generations a /Calculus of the Nervous System/" (Ada Lovelace, 15
November, 1844). "I am proceeding in a track quite peculiar & my own, I
believe." At other times, she lost all confidence, and often wondered
whether she should not have pursued her musical abilities. Ada was
always trapped by the duty to be dutiful; caught in a cleft stick of
moral obligations she did not understand.

Ada's letters - and indeed her scientific papers - are full of
suspicions of her own strange relation to humanity. Babbage called her
his fairy, because of her dexterous mind and light presence, and this
appealed to Ada's inherited romanticism. "I deny the /Faireism /to be
entirely /imaginary/," she wrote: "That /Brain / of mine is something
more than merely /mortal/; as time will show; (if only my /breathing /&
some other etceteras do not make too rapid a progress /towards /instead
of from /mortality/.") When one of her thwarted admirers wrote to her:
"That you are a peculiar - /very peculiar /- specimen of the feminine
race, you are yourself aware,"(William Carpenter in Moore p 202) he
could only have been confirming an opinion she already - and rather
admiringly - had of herself. Even of her own writing, she wrote: "I am
quite thunderstruck by the power of the writing. It is especially unlike
a woman's style surely but neither can I compare it with any man's
exactly." (Ada Lovelace, 2 July, 1843) The words of neither a man nor a
woman: who was Ada Lovelace? "Before ten years are over," she wrote,
"the Devil's in it if I haven't sucked out some of the life blood from
the mysteries of this universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or
brains could do."(Ada Lovelace, 4 July, 1843) Ada may have been
Babbage's fairy, but she was not allowed to forget that she was also a
wife, mother, and victim of countless 'female disorders'. She had three
children by the age of twenty-four, of whom she later wrote: "They are
to me irksome /duties /& nothing more" (Moore, p 229). Not until the
1840s did her own ill health lead her husband and mother to engage a
tutor for the children, to whom she confided "not only her distaste for
the company of her children but also her growing indifference to her
husband, indeed to men in general"(p 198). One admirer called her
"wayward, wandering ... deluded" , and as a teenager she was considered
hysterical, hypochondriac, and rather lacking in moral fibre. She
certainly suffered extraordinary symptoms, walking with crutches until
the age of seventeen, and often unable to move. Her illness gave her
some room for manoeuvre in the oppressive atmosphere of her maternal
home. Perhaps Ada even cherished the solitude and peculiarity of her
diseases; she certainly found them of philosophical interest, once
writing: "Do you know it is to me quite delightful to have a frame so
susceptible that it is an experimental laboratory always about me, &
inseparable from me. I walk about, not in a Snail-Shell, but in a
Molecular Laboratory."(in Moore, 218)

Not until the 1850s was cancer diagnosed: Lady Byron had refused to
accept such news, still preferring to believe in her daughter's
hysteria. Even Ada tended to the fashionable belief that over exertion
of the intellect had led to her bodily disorders; in 1844, while she was
nevertheless continuing chemical and electrical experiments, she
wrote:"/Many causes /have contributed to produce the past derangements;
& I shall in future avoid them. One ingredient, (but only one among
many) has been /too much Mathematics./"(Ada Lovelace, December, 1844)
She died in November 1852 after a year of agonized decline.

Ada Lovelace often described her strange intimacy with death; it was
rather the constraints of life with which she had to struggle. "I mean
to do /what I mean to do/," she once wrote, but there is no doubt that
Ada was horribly confined by the familiar - her marriage, her children,
and her indomitable mother conspired against her independence, and it
was no wonder that she was so attracted to the unfamiliar expanses of
mathematical worlds. Ada's marriage prompted the following words from
her mother: "Bid adieu to you old companion Ada Byron with all her
peculiarities, caprices, and self-seeking; determined that as A.K. you
will live for others." (Ada Lovelace, June, 1835) But she never did.
Scorning public opinion, she nevertheless gambled, took drugs, and
flirted to excess. But what she did best was computer programming.

Ada Lovelace immediately saw the profound significance of the Analytical
Engine, and she went to great lengths to convey the remarkable extent of
its capacities, in her writing. Although the Analytical Engine had its
own limits, it was nevertheless a machine vastly different from the
Difference Engine. As Ada Lovelace observed: "The Difference Engine can
in reality ... do nothing but /add/; and any other processes, not
excepting those of simple subtraction, multiplication and division, can
be performed by it only just to that extent in which it is possible, by
judicious mathematical arrangement and artifices, to reduce them to a
/series of additions./"(Morrison and Morrison, p 250) With the
Analytical Engine, Babbage set out to develop a machine capable not
merely of adding, but performing the "whole of arithmetic". Such an
undertaking required the mechanisation not merely of each mathematical
operation, but the systematic bases of their functioning, and it was
this imperative to transcribe the rules of the game itself which made
the Analytical Engine a universal machine. Babbage was a little more
modest, describing the Engine as "a machine of the most general
nature"(Charles Babbage in Morrison and Morrison p 56), but the
underlying point remains: The Analytical Engine would not merely
synthesize the data provided by its operator as the Difference Engine
had done, but would incarnate what Ada Lovelace described as the very
"/science of operations/".

The Difference Engine, Ada Lovelace wrote, "is the embodying of /one
particular and very limited set of operations/, which ... may be
expressed thus (+,+,+,+,+,+), or thus 6(+). Six repetitions of the one
operation, +, is, in fact, the whole sum and object of that engine"(Ada
Lovelace, "Sketch of the Analytical Engine" op cit in Morrison and
Morrison p 249). What impressed Ada Lovelace about the Analytical Engine
was that, unlike the Difference Engine or any other machine, it was not
merely able to perform certain functions, but was "an /embodying of the
science of operations/, constructed with peculiar reference to abstract
number as the subject of those operations". The Difference Engine could
simply add up, whereas the Analytical Engine not only performed
synthetic operations, but also embodied the analytic capacity on which
these syntheses are based. "If we compare together the powers and the
principles of construction of the Difference and of the Analytic
Engines", wrote Ada, "we shall perceive that the capabilities of the
latter are immeasurably more extensive than those of the former, and
that they in fact hold to each other the same relationship as that of
analysis to arithmetic"(p 249). In her notes on Menabrea's paper, this
is the point she stresses most: the Engine, she argues, is the very
machinery of analysis, so that "there is no finite line of demarcation
which limits the powers of the Analytical Engine. These powers are
co-extensive with our knowledge of the laws of analysis itself, and need
be bounded only by our acquaintance with the latter. Indeed we may
consider the engine as the /material and mechanical representative /of
analysis"(p 251).

The Difference Engine was "/founded on the principles of successive
orders of differences/"(p 252), while the "distinctive characteristic of
the Analytical Engine, and that which has rendered it possible to endow
mechanism with such extensive faculties as bid fair to make this engine
the executive right-hand of abstract algebra, is the introduction of the
principle which Jacquard devised for regulating, by means for punched
cards, the most complicated patterns in the fabrication of brocaded
stuffs." Indeed, Ada considered Jacquard's cards to be the crucial
difference between the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. "We
may say most aptly," she continued, "that the Analytical Engine /weaves
Algebraical patterns/, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and
leaves. Here it seems to us, resides much more of originality than the
Difference Engine can be fairly entitled to claim."(p 252) Ada's
reference to the Jacquard loom is more than a metaphor: the Analytical
Engine did indeed weave "just as" the loom, in a sense, operating as the
abstracted process of weaving.

Weaving has always been a vanguard of machinic development, perhaps
because even in its most basic form, the process is one of complexity,
always involving the weaving together of several threads into an
integrated cloth. Even the drawloom, which is often dated back to the
China of 1000 BC, involves sophisticated orderings of warp and weft if
it is to produce the complex designs common in the silks of this period.
This means that "information is needed in large amounts for the weaving
of a complex ornamental pattern. Even the most ancient Chinese examples
required that about 1,500 different warp threads be lifted in various
combinations as the weaving proceeded." (Morrison and Morrison p xxxiv)
With pedals and shuttles, the loom becomes what one historian refers to
as the "most complex human engine of them all", a machine which "reduced
everything to simple actions: the alternate movement of the feet worked
the pedals, raising half the threads of the warp and then the other,
while the hands threw the shuttle carrying the thread of the
woof."(Fernand Bruadel, /Capitalism and material life 1400-1800 /247)
The weaver was integrated into the machinery, bound up with its
operations, linked limb by limb to the processes. In the Middle Ages,
and before the artificial memories of the printed page, squared paper
charts were used to store the information necessary to the accurate
development of the design. In early eighteenth century Lyons, Basyle
Bouchon developed a mechanism for the automatic selection of threads
using an early example of the punched paper rolls which were much later
to allow pianos to play and type to be cast. This design was developed
by Falcon a couple of years later, who introduced greater complexity
with the use of punched cards rather than the roll. It was this
principle on which Jacquard based his designs for the automated loom
which revolutionised the weaving industry when it was introduced in the
1800s, a principle which continues to guide the industry's contemporary
development. Jacquard's machine strung the punch cards together, finally
automating the operations of the machine requiring only a single human
hand. Jacquard's system of punch card programs brought the information
age to the beginning of the nineteenth century. His automated loom was
the first to store its own information, functioning with its own
software, an early migration of control from weaver to machinery.

Babbage owned what Ada described as "a beautiful woven portrait of
Jacquard, in the fabrication of which 24,000 cards were
required."('Sketch of the Analytical Engine', op cit, p 281) Woven in
silk at about 1,000 threads to the inch, Babbage well understood that
its incredible detail was due to the loom's ability to store and process
information at unprecedented speed and volume, and when he began to work
on the Analytical Engine, it was Jacquard's strings of punched cards on
which he based his designs. "It is known as a fact," Babbage wrote,
"that the Jacquard loom is capable of weaving any design which the
imagination of man may conceive."(Charles Babbage, 'Of the Analytical
Engine' p 55) Babbage's own contribution to the relentless drive to
perfect the punch card system was to introduce the possibility of
repeating the cards, or what, as Ada wrote, "was technically designated
/backing /the cards in certain groups according to certain laws. The
object of this extension is to secure the possibility of bringing any
particular card or set of cards onto use /any number of times
successively in the solution of one problem./"(Ada Lovelace, 'Sketch of
the Analytical Engine' op cit, p 264) This was an unprecedented
simulation of memory. The cards were selected by the machine as it
needed them and effectively functioned as a filing system, allowing the
machine to store and draw on its own information.

The punch cards also gave the Analytical Engine what Babbage considered
foresight, allowing it to operate as a machine that remembers, learns,
and is guided by its own abstract functioning. As he began to work on
the Analytical Engine, Babbage became convinced that "nothing but
teaching the Engine to foresee and then to act upon that foresight could
ever lead me to the object I desired."('Of the Analytical Engine' op
cit, p 53) The Jacquard cards made memory a possibility, so that "the
Analytical Engine will possess a library of its own,"(ibid p 56) but
this had to be a library to which the machine could refer both to its
past and to its future operations. Babbage intended to give the machine
not merely a memory but also the ability to process information from the
future of its own functioning. Babbage could eventually write that "in
the Analytical Engine I had devised mechanical means equivalent to
memory, also that I had provided other means equivalent to foresight,
and that the Engine itself could act on this foresight." (ibid. p 153)

There is more than one sense in which foresight can be ascribed to the
Analytical Engine: more than a hundred years passed before it was put to
use, and it is this remarkable time lag which inspires Gibson and
Sterling to explore what might have happened if it had been taken up in
the 1840s rather than the 1940s. Babbage thought it might take fifty
years for the Analytical Engine to be developed; many people,
particularly those with money and influence, were sceptical about his
inventions, and his own eclectic interests gave an unfavourable
impression of eccentricity. His own assistant confessed to thinking
Babbage's "intellect was beginning to become deranged" (ibid. p 54) when
he had started talking about the Engine's ability to anticipate the
outcomes of calculations it had not yet made.

When the imperatives of the Second World War brought Lovelace's and
Babbage's work to the attentions of the Allied military machine, their
impact was immense. Her software runs on his hardware to this day. In
1944, Howard Aiken developed Mark 1, what he thought was the first
programmable computer, although he had really been beaten by a German
civil engineer, Konrad Zuse, who had in fact built such a machine, the
Z-3, in 1941. Quite remarkably in retrospect, the Germans saw little
importance in his work, and although the most advanced of his designs,
the Z-11, is still in use to this day, it was the American computer
which was the first programmable system really to be noticed. Mark 1, or
the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, was based on Babbage's
designs and was itself programmed by another woman: Captain Grace Murray
Hopper. She was often described as the "Ada Lovelace" of Mark 1 and its
successors. Having lost her husband in the war, Grace Hopper was free to
devote her energies to programming. She wrote the first high-computer
language COBOL, and even introduced the term "bug" to describe soft or
hardware glitches after she found a dead moth interrupting the smooth
circuits of Mark 1. Woman as the programmer again.

Crucial to the development of the 1940s computer was cybernetics, the
term coined by Norbert Wiener for the study of control and communication
in animal and machine. Perhaps the first cybernetic machine was the
governor, a basic self-regulating system, which like a thermostat, takes
the information feeding out of a machine and loops or feeds it back on
itself. Rather than a linear operation, in which information comes in,
is processed, and goes out without any return, the cybernetic system is
a closed circuit, hooked up and responsive to its own environment.
Cybernetics is the science of this abstract procedure, an approach to
systems of every scale and variety of hard and software.

It is the computer which makes cybernetics possible, for the computer is
always heading towards the abstract machinery of its own operations. It
begins with attempts to produce or reproduce the performance of specific
functions, such as addition, but what it leads to is machinery which can
simulate the operations of any machine including itself. Babbage wanted
machines that could add, but he ended up with the Analytical Engine: a
machine that could not only add but perform any arithmetical task. As
such, it was already an abstract machine, which could turn its abstract
hand to anything. Nevertheless, the Analytical Engine was not yet a
developed cybernetic machine, although it made such machinery possible.
As Ada Lovelace recognised: "The Analytical Engine has no pretensions
whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we /know how to order
it /to perform." ('Ada Lovelace, 'Sketch of the Analytical Engine', op
cit, p 285) It was an abstract machine, but its autonomous abilities
were confined to its processing capabilities: what Babbage, with
terminology from the textile industry, calls 'the mill', as opposed to
'the store'. Control is dispersed and enters the machinery, but it does
not extend to the operations of the entire machine.

Not until the Turing Machine is there a further shift onto the software
plane. Turing realised that, in effect, the mill and the store could
work together, so that "programs that change themselves could be
written": programs which are able to "surrender control to a subprogram,
rewriting themselves to know where control had to be returned after the
execution of a given subtask." (Manuel de Landa, /War in the Age of
Intelligent Machines/, p 162) The Turing Machine is an unprecedented
dispersal of control, but it continues to return control to the master
program. Only after the introduction of silicon in the 1960s did the
decentralized flow of control become an issue, eventually allowing for
systems in which "control is always captured by whatever production
happens to have its conditions satisfied by the current workspace
contents." (Allan Newell, in ibid. pp 63-4) The abstract machine begins
at this point to function as a network of "independent software
objects", often known as "demons", and often operating in "Pandemonium",
a term first coined by Alan Kay.

Pandemonium is the realm of the self-organising system, the
self-arousing machine: systems of control and synthetic intelligence. In
human hands, and as an historical tool, control has been exercised
merely as domination, manifest only in its centralised and vertical
forms. Domination is a version of control, but also its confinement, its
obstacle: even self-control is conceived by man as the achievement of
domination. Only with the cybernetic system does self-control no longer
entail being placed beneath or under something: there is no "self" to
control man, machine or any other system: instead, both man and machine
become elements of a cybernetic system which is itself a system of
control and communication. This is the strange world to which Ada's
programming has led: the possibility of activity without centralised
control, an agency, of sorts, which has no need of a subject position.

Ada Lovelace considered the greatest achievement of theAnalytical Engine
to be that "not only the mental and material, but the theoretical and
the practical in the mathematical world, are brought into more intimate
and effective connection with each other." ('Sketch of the Analytical
Engine', op cit, p 252) Her software already encouraged the convergence
of nature and intelligence, which guides the subsequent development of
information technology.

The Analytical Engine was the actualization of the abstract workings of
the loom; as such it became the abstract workings of any machine. When
Babbage wrote of the Analytical Engine, it was often with reference to
the loom: "The analogy of the Analytical Engine with this well known
process is nearly perfect." ('Of the Analytical Engine, op cit, p 55)
The Analytical Engine was such a superb development of the loom that its
discoveries were to feed back into the processes of weaving itself. As
Ada wrote: "It has been proposed to use it for the reciprocal benefit of
that art, which, while it has itself no apparent connection with the
domains of abstract science, has yet proved so valuable to the latter,
in suggesting the principles which, in their new and singular field of
application, seem likely to have /algebraical /combinations not less
completely within the province of mechanism, than are all those varied
intricacies of which /intersecting threads /are susceptible." ('Sketch
of the Analytical Engine', op cit 265) The algebraic combinations
looping back into the loom, converging with the intersecting threads of
which it is already the consequence.

Once they are in motion, cybernetic circuits proliferate, spilling out
of the specific machinery in which they first emerged, and infecting all
dynamic systems. That Babbage's punch card system did indeed feed into
the mills of the mid-nineteenth century is indicative of the extent to
which cybernetic machines immediately became entangled with cybernetic
processes on much bigger scales. Perhaps it is no coincidence that
Neith, the Egyptian divinity of weaving, is also the spirit of
intelligence, where the latter too consists in the crossing of warp and
weft. "This image," writes one commentator, "clearly evokes the fact
that all data recorded in the brain results from the intercrossing of
sensations perceived by means of our sense organs, just as threads are
crossed in weaving." (Lucie Lamy, /Egyptian Mysteries /p 18)

The Jacquard loom was a crucial moment in what de Landa defines as a
"migration of control" from human hands to software systems. Babbage had
a long standing interest in the effects of automated machines on
traditional forms of manufacture, publishing his research on the fate of
cottage industries in the Midlands and North of England, /The Economy of
Manufactures and Machinery/, in 1832, and the Jacquard loom was one of
the most significant technological innovations of the early nineteenth
century. There was a good deal of resistance to the new loom, which "was
bitterly opposed by workers who saw in this migration of control a piece
of their bodies literally being transferred to the machine." (de Landa
op cit, p 168) In his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1812, Lord
Byron contributed to a debate on the Frame-Work Bill. "By the adoption
of one species of frame in particular", he observed, "one man performed
the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of
employment." They should, he thought, have been rejoicing at these
"improvements in arts so beneficial to mankind", but instead "conceived
themselves to be sacrificed to improvements in mechanism." (Lord Byron,
maiden speech in the House of Lords, 1812 in Jennings, p 132)) His
daughter was merely to accelerate the processes which relocated and
redefined control.

The connection between women and weaving runs deep: even Athena and Isis
wove their own veils. "The traditional picture of the wife was one in
which she spun by the village fire at night, listening to the children's
riddles, and to the myth-telling of the men, eventually making cloth
which her husband could sell to make wealth for the family; cloth-making
was a service from a wife to a husband." This is from Margaret Mead's
research from the Tiv of Nigeria, but it is a pattern repeated in many
societies before manufactured cloth and automated weaving made their
marks. Continuing their story, Mead's researchers observe that
mechanisation was a radical disruption of this domestic scene. After
this, it was no longer inevitable that women would provide the
materials: "When manufactured cloth was introduced, the women demanded
it of the men." Now "the man had to leave home to make money to buy
cloth for his wife" who, moreover "had ceased to fit the traditional
picture of a wife." (Margaret Mead, /Cultural Patterns and Technical
Change/, p 247)

Mead's study suggests that weaving was integral to the identity of Tiv
women; washing, pounding, and carrying water may fulfil this role in
other cultures where they, like weaving, are always more than
utilitarian tasks. The disruption of family relations caused by the
introduction of mechanics to any of these tasks shatters the scenery of
female identity: mechanisation saves time and labour, but these were not
the issue: if women were not the weavers and water-carriers, who would
they be? These labours themselves had been woven into the appearance of
woman; weaving was more than an occupation and, like other patriarchal
assignments, functioned as "one of the components of womanhood."

Certainly Freud finds a close association. "It seems", he writes, "that
women have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in
the history of civilization; there is, however, one technique which they
may have invented - that of plaiting and weaving." Not content with this
observation, Freud is of course characteristically "tempted to guess the
unconscious motive for the achievement. Nature herself", he suggests,
"would seem to have given the model which this achievement imitates by
causing the growth at maturity of the pubic hair which conceals the
genitals. The step that remained to be taken lay in making the threads
adhere to one another, while on the body they stick into the skin and
are only matted together."

This passage comes out of the blue in Freud's lecture on femininity. He
even seems surprised at the thought himself: "If you reject this idea as
fantastic", he adds, "and regard my belief in the influence of a lack of
a penis on the configuration of femininity as an /idee fixe/, I am of
course defenceless." (Sigmund Freud, "On Femininity", /New Introductory
Lectures on Psychoanalysis/, pp 166-7) Freud is indeed quite defenceless
about the absence of the penis as its driving force, but is it foolish
to suggest that weaving is women's only contribution to "the discoveries
and inventions of the history of civilisation"? If this were to be the
case, what a contribution it would be! For weaving has been the art and
science of software, which is perhaps less a contribution to
civilisation than its terminal decline. Perhaps weaving is even the
fabric of every other discovery and invention, perhaps the beginning and
the end of their history. The loom is a fatal innovation which weaves
its way from squared paper to the data net.

It seems that weaving is always entangled with the question of female
identity, and its mechanisation an inevitable disruption of the scene in
which woman appears as the weaver. Manufactured cloth disrupted the
marital and familiar relationships of every traditional society on which
it impacted. In China, it is said that if "the old loom must be
discarded, then 100 other things must be discarded with it, for there
are somehow no adequate substitutes."(Mead op cit, p 241)

"The woman at her hand-loom", writes Margaret Mead, "controls the
tension of the weft by the feeling in her muscles and the rhythm of her
body motion; in the factory she watches the loom, and acts at externally
stated intervals, as the operations of the machine dictate them. When
she worked at home, she followed her own rhythm, and ended an operation
when she felt - by the resistance against the pounding mallet or the
feel between her fingers - that the process was complete. In the factory
she is asked to adjust her rhythm to that of the rhythm prescribed by
the factory; to do things according to externally set time limits".
(Mead p 241) Mead again provides an insight into the intimacy of the
connection between body and process established by weaving, and its
disruption by the discipline of the factory. "She is asked to adjust her
rhythm to that of the rhythm proscribed by the factory", but what is her
own rhythm, what is the beat by which she wove at home? What is this
body to which weaving is so sympathetic? If woman is identified as
weaver, its rhythm can only be known through its veils. Where are the
women, weaving, spinning, tangling threads at the fireside? Who are the
women? Those who weave. It is weaving by which woman is known; the
activity of weaving which defines her. "What happens to the woman", asks
Mead, "and to the man's relationship with her, when she ceases to fulfil
her role, to fit the picture of womanhood and wifehood?" (Mead, p 238)
What happens to the woman? What is woman without the weaving? A computer
programmer, perhaps? Ada's computer was a complex loom: Ada Lovelace,
whose lace work took her name into the heart of the military complex,
dying in agony, hooked into gambling, swept into the mazes of number and
addiction. The point at which weaving, women, and cybernetics converge
in a movement fatal to history.

Irigaray argues that human history is a movement from darkness to the
light of pure intellect; a flight from the earth. For man to make
history is for him to deny and transcend what he understands as nature,
reversing his subordination to its whims and forces, and progressing
towards the autonomy, omnipotence, and omnipresence of God, his image of
abstraction and authority. Man comes out of the cave and heads for the
sun; he is born from the womb and escapes the mother, the ground from
which humanity arose and the matter from which history believes itself
destined for liberation. Mother Nature may have been his material
origin, but it is God the Father to whom he must be faithful; God who
legitimates his project to "fill the earth and subdue it." The matter,
the womb, is merely an encumbrance; either too inert or dangerously
active. The body becomes a cage, and biology a constraint which ties man
to nature and refuses to let him rise above the grubby concerns of the
material; what he sees as the passive materiality of the feminine has to
be overcome by his spiritual action. Human history is the self-narrating
story of this drive for domination; a passage from carnal passions to
self-control; a journey from the strange fluidities of the material to
the self-identification of the soul.

Woman has never been the subject, the agent of this history, the
autonomous being. Yet her role in this history has hardly been
insignificant. She has provided a mirror for man, his servant and
accommodation, his tools and his means of communication, his spectacles
and commodities, the possibility of the reproduction of his species and
his world. She is always necessary to history: man's natural resource
for his own cultural development. Not that she is left behind, always at
the beginning: as mirror and servant, instrument, mediation, and
reproduction, she is always in flux, wearing "different veils according
to the historic period." (Luce Irigaray, /Marine Lover of Friedriech
Nietzsche/, p 118)

As Irigaray knows, man's domination cannot be allowed to become the
annihilation of the materials he needs: in order to build his culture,
"man was, of course, obliged to draw on reserves still in the realm of
nature; a detour through the outer world was of course indispensable;
the 'I' had to related to things before it could be conscious of
itself." (Luce Irigaray, /Speculum of the Other Woman/, p 204) Man can
do nothing on his own: carefully concealed, woman nevertheless continues
to function as the ground and possibility of his quests for identity,
agency, and self-control. "Fear and awe of an all-powerful nature forbid
man to touch his/the mother and reward his courage in resisting her
attractions by granting him the right to judge himself independent,
while at the same time encouraging him to prepare himself to continue
resisting dangers in the future by developing (his) culture." Stealth
bombers and guided missiles, telecommunications systems and orbiting
satellites epitomise this flight toward autonomy, and the concomitant
need to defend it.

Like woman, software systems are used as man's tools, his media, and his
weapons; all are developed in the interests of man, but all are poised
to betray him. The spectacles are stirring, there is something happening
behind the mirrors, the commodities are learning how to speak and think.
Women's liberation is sustained and vitalised by the proliferation and
globalisation of software technologies, all of which feed into
self-organising, self-arousing systems and enter the scene on her side.

This will indeed seem a strange twist to history to those who believe
that it runs in straight lines. But as Irigaray asks: "If machines, even
machines of theory, can be aroused all by themselves, may women not do
likewise?" (Irigaray, 1985 p 232)

The computer, like woman, is both the appearance and the possibility of
simulation. "Truth and appearance, according to his will of the moment,
his appetite of the instant." Woman cannot /be /anything, but she can
imitate anything valued by man: intelligence, autonomy, beauty...
Indeed, if woman is anything, she is the very possibility of mimesis,
the one who weaves her own disguises. The veil is her oppression, but
"she may still draw from it what she needs to mark the folds, seams, and
dress making of her garments and dissimulations." (Irigaray, 1991 p 116)
These mimetic abilities throw women into a universality unknown and
unknowable to the one who knows who he is: she fits any bill, but in so
doing, she is already more than that which she imitates. Woman, like the
computer, appears at different times as whatever man requires of her.
She learns how to imitate; she learns simulation. And, like the
computer, she becomes very good at it, so good, in fact, that she too,
in principle, can mimic any function. As Irigaray suggests: "Truth and
appearances, and reality, power... she is - through her inexhaustible
aptitude for mimicry - the living foundation for the whole staging of
the world." (p 118)

But if this is supposed to be her only role, she is no longer its only
performer: now that the digital comes on stream, the computer is cast in
precisely the same light: it too is merely the imitation of nature,
providing assistance and additional capacity for man, and more of the
things in his world, but it can only do this in so far as it is already
hooked up to the very machinery of simulation. If Freud's speculations
about the origins of weaving lead him to a language of compensation and
flaw, its technical development results in a proliferation of pixelled
screens which compensate for nothing, and, behind them, the emergence of
digital spaces and global networks which are even now weaving themselves
together with flawless precision.

Software, in other words, has its screens as well: it too has a
user-friendly face it turns to man, and for it, as for woman, this is
only its camouflage.

The screen is the face it began to present in the late 1960s, when the
TV screen was incorporated into its design. It appears as the spectacle:
the visual display of that which can be seen, and also functions as the
interface, the messenger; like Irigaray's woman, it is both displayed
for man and becomes the possibility of his communication. It too
operates as the typewriter, the calculator, the decoder, displaying
itself on the screen as an instrument of man. These, however, are merely
imitations of some existing function; and indeed, it is always as
machinery for the reproduction of the same that both women and
information technology first sells themselves. Even in 1968, when
McLuhan argued that "the dense information environment created by the
computer is at present still concealed from it by a complex screen or
mosaic quilt of antiquated activities that are now advertised as the new
field for the computer." (Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, /War and
peace in the Global Village/, 1968, p 89) While this is all that appears
before man, those who travel in the information flows are moving far
beyond the screens and into data streams beyond his conceptions of
reality. On this other side run all the fluid energies denied by the
patrilineal demand for the reproduction of the same. Even when the
computer appears in this guise and simulates this function, it is always
the site of replication, an engine for making difference. The same is
merely one of the things it can be.

Humanity knows the matrix only as it is displayed, which is always a
matter of disguise. It sees the pixels, but these are merely the
surfaces of the data net which "hides on the reverse side of the
screen".(Thom Jurek from 'Straight Fiction', in Larry McCaffrey, ed.
/Storming the Reality Studio/, 1991, p 85) A web of complexity weaving
itself, the matrix disguises itself as its own simulation. On the other
side of the terminal looms the tactile density craved even by McLuhan,
the materiality of the data space. "Everyone I know who works with
computers", writes Gibson, "seems to develop a belief that there's some
kind of /actual space /behind the screen, some place you can't see but
you know is there." (in ibid. p 272)

This actual space is not technically actual, but virtual: not merely
another space, but a digital reality. Nor is it, as it often appears in
the male imaginary, a cerebral flight from the mysteries of matter.
There is no escape from the meat, the flesh, and cyberspace is nothing
transcendent. These are simply the disguises which pander to man's
projections of his own rear-view illusions; reproductions of the same
desires which have guided his dreams of technological authority and now
become the collective nightmare of a soulless integration. Entering the
matrix is no assertion of masculinity, but a loss of humanity; to jack
into cyberspace is not to penetrate, but to be invaded. /Neuromancer'/s
cowboy, Case, is well aware of this: "he knew - he remembered - as she
pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a
vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and
pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind
way, could ever read." (William Gibson, /Neuromancer/, 1985, p 285)

Cyberspace is the matrix not as absence, void, the whole of the womb,
but perhaps even the place of woman's affirmation. This would not be the
affirmation of woman as she has existed within patriarchal history, nor
as she can even be imagined without it.

There is for Irigaray another side to the screens which "already moves
beyond and stops short of appearance, and has no veil. It wafts out,
like a harmony that sub-tends, envelopes and subtly 'fills' everything
seen, before the caesura of its forms and in time to a movement other
than scansion in syncopations. Continuity from which the veil itself
will borrow the matter-foundation of its fabric." (Irigaray, 1991, p
116) This fabric, and its fabrication is the virtual materiality of the
feminine; home to no-one and no thing, the passage into the virtual is
nevertheless not a return to the void. This affirmation is "without
subject or object", but "does not, for all that, go to the abyss." The
blind immateriality of the black hole was simply projected by man, who
had to believe that there was nothingness and lack behind the veil.

Perhaps Freud's comments on weaving are more powerful than he knows. For
him, weaving is already a simulation of something else, an imitation of
natural processes. Woman weaves in imitation of the hairs on her pubis
cris-crossing the void: she mimics the operations of nature, of her own
body. If weaving is woman's only achievement, it is not even her own.
She discovers nothing, but merely copies; she does not invent, but
represents. "Woman can, it seems, (only) imitate nature. Duplicate what
nature offers and produces. In a kind of technical assistance and
substitution." The woman who weaves is already the mimic; always
appearing as masquerade, artifice, the one who is faking it, acting her
part. She cannot be herself, because she is and has no thing, and for
Freud, there is weaving because nothing, the void, cannot be allowed to
appear. "Therefore woman weaves in order to veil herself, mask the
faults of Nature, and restore her in her wholeness." (Irigaray, 1985, p
116) Weaving is a natural compensation for a flaw. Weaving is both her
compensation and her concealment; her appearance and disappearance:
"this disavowal is also a fabric(ation) and not without possible
duplicity. It is at least double." (ibid.) She sews herself up with her
own veils, but they are also her camouflage. The cloths and veils are
her's to wear: it is through weaving she is known and weaving behind
which she hides.

This is a concealment on which man insists: this is the denial of matter
which has made his culture - and his technologies - possible. For
Irigaray, this flight from the material is also an escape from the
mother. Looking back on his origins, man sees only the flaw, the
incompletion, the wound, a void. This is the site of life, of
reproduction, of materiality, but it is also horrible and empty, the
great embarrassment, the unforgivable slash across an otherwise perfect
canvas. And so it must be covered, and woman put on display as the veils
which conceal her: she becomes the cover girl, star of the screen. Like
every good commodity, she is packaged and wrapped to facilitate easy
exchange and consumption. But as her own veils she is already hyperreal:
her screens conceal only the flaw, the void, the unnatural element
already secreted within and as nature. She has to be covered, not simply
because she is too natural, but because she would otherwise reveal the
terrifying virtuality of the natural. Covered up, she is always already
the epitome of artifice.

Implicit in Irigaray's work is the suggestion that the matter denied by
human culture is a virtual system, which subtends its extension in the
form of nature. The virtual is the abstract machine from which the
actual emerges; nature is already the camouflage of matter, the veils
which conceal its operations. There is indeed nothing there, underneath,
or behind this disguise, or at least nothing actual, nothing formed.
Perhaps this is nature as the machinic phylum, the virtual synthesizer;
matter as a simulation machine, and nature as its actualization. What
man sees is nature as extension and form, but this sense of nature is
simply the camouflage, the veil again, which conceals its virtuality.

If the repression of the matrix, the veiling of the womb, is integral to
a flight from matter which, for Irigaray, has guided human history, the
cybernetic systems which bring the matrix into human history are equally
the consequences of this drive for escape and domination. Cybernetics is
the product of military technology, security and defence. Still
confident of his own indisputable mastery over them, man continues to
excite and turn these systems on. In so doing he merely encourages his
own destruction. Every software development is a migration of control,
away from man, in whom it has been exercised only as domination, and
into the matrix, the cyberspace, "the broad electronic net in which
virtual realities are spun." (Michael Heim, 'The Metaphysics of Virtual
Reality', in Helsel and Roth, eds., /Virtual Reality, Theory, Practice
and Promise, /1991, p 31) The matrix weaves itself in a future which has
no place for historical man: he was merely its tool, and its agency was
itself always a figment of its loop. At the peak of his triumph, the
culmination of his machinic erections, man confronts the system he built
for his own protection and finds it is female and dangerous. Rather than
building the machinery with which they can resist the dangers of the
future, instead, writes Irigaray, humans "watch the machines multiply
then push them little by little beyond the limits of their nature. And
they are sent back to their mountain tops, while the machines
progressively populate the earth. Soon engendering man as their
epiphenomenon." (Irigaray, 1991, p 63)

Dreams of transcendence are chased through the scientific, the technical
and the feminine. But every route leads only to crisis, an age, for
Irigaray, "in which the 'subject' no longer knows where to turn, whom or
what to turn to, amid all these foci of 'liberation', none rigorously
homogeneous with another and all heterogeneous to his conception. And
since he had long sought in that conception the instrument, the lever,
and, in more cases than one, the term of his pleasure, these objects of
mastery have perhaps brought the subject to his doom. /So now/",
continues Irigaray, "/man struggles to be science machine, woman,... to
prevent any of these from escaping its service and ceasing to be
interchangeable./" This, however, is an impossible effort: man cannot
become what is already more than him: rather it is "science, machine,
woman" which will swallow up man; taking him by force for the first
time. He has no resolution, no hope of the self-identical at the end of
these flights from matter, for "in none of these things - science,
machine, woman - will form ever achieve the same completeness as it does
in him, in the inner sanctuary of his mind. In them form has always
already exploded." (Irigaray, 1985, op cit p 232)

Misogyny and technophobia equally are displays of man's fear of the
matrix, the virtual machinery which subtends his world and lies on the
other side of every patriarchal culture's veils. At the end of the
twentieth century, women are no longer the only reminder of this other
side. Nor are they containable as child-bearers, fit for only one thing,
adding machines. And even if man continues to see cybernetic systems
similarly confined to the reproduction of the same, this is only because
the screens still allow him to ignore the extent to which he is hooked
to their operations, as dependant on the matrix as he has always been.
All his defences merely encourage this dependency: for the last fifty
years, as his war machine has begun to gain intelligence, women and
computers have flooded into history: a proliferation of screens, lines
of communication, media, interfaces, and simulations, all of which
exceed his intentions and feed back into his paranoia. Cybernetic
systems are fatal to his culture; they invade as a return of the
repressed, but what returns is no longer the same: cybernetics
transforms woman and nature, but they do not return from man's past, as
his origins. Instead they come around to face him, wheeling round from
his future, the virtual system to which he has always been heading.

The machines and the women mimic their humanity, but they never simply
become it. They may aspire to be the same as man, but in every effort
they become more complex than he has ever been. Cybernetic feminism does
not, like many of its predecessors, including that proposed in
Irigaray's recent work, seek out for woman a subjectivity, an identity,
nor even a sexuality of her own: there is no subject position and no
identity on the other side of the screens. And female sexuality is
always in excess of anything that could be called "her own". Woman
cannot exist "like man"; neither can the machine. As soon as her mimicry
earns her equality, she is already something, and somewhere, other than
him. A computer which passes the Turing test is always more than a human
intelligence; simulation always takes the mimic over the brink.

"There is nothing like unto women", writes Irigaray: "They go beyond all
simulation." (Irigaray, 1991, p 39) Perhaps it was always the crack, the
slit, which marked her out, but what she has missed is not the identity
of the masculine. Her missing piece, what was never allowed to appear,
was her own connection to the virtual, the repressed dynamic of matter.
Nor is there anything like unto computers: they are the simulators, the
screens, the clothing of the matrix, already blatantly linked to the
virtual machinery of which nature and culture are the subprograms. The
computer was always a simulation of weaving; threads of ones and zeros
riding the carpets and simulating silk screens in the perpetual motions
of cyberspace. It joins women on and as the interface between man and
matter, identity and difference, one and zero, the actual and the
virtual. An interface which is taking off on its own: no longer the
void, the gap, or the absence, the veils are already cybernetic.

Ada refused to publish her commentaries on Menabrea's papers for what
appears to have been spurious confusions around publishing contracts.
She did for Menabrea - and Babbage - what another woman had done for
Darwin: in translating Menabrea's work from French, she provided
footnotes more detailed and substantial - three times as long, in fact -
than the text itself.

Footnotes have often been the marginal zones occupied by women writers.
Women could write while nevertheless continuing to perform a service for
man in the communication of his thoughts. Translation, transcription,
and elaboration: never within the body of the text, women have
nevertheless woven their influence between the lines. While Ada's
writing was presented in this form and signed simply "A.A.L.", hers was
the name which survived in this unprecedented case. More than Babbage,
still less Menabrea, it was Ada which persisted: in recognition of her
work, the United States Defence Department named its primary programming
language ADA, and today her name shouts from the spines of a thousand
manuals. Indeed, as is rarely the case, it really was her own name which
survived in Ada's case, neither her initials, nor even the names of her
husband or her father. It is ADA herself who lives on, in her own name;
her footnotes secreted in the software of the military machine.

Other works - The Most Radical Gesture: the Situationist International
in a Post Modern Age was published by Routledge in 1992. She is
currently completing her forthcoming book, Beyond the Spectacle: the
Matrix of Drugs and Computers.


Charles Babbage, 'Of the Analytical Engine' in Morrison and Morrison.

Fernand Braudel, /Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800/, Weidenfeld
and Nicholson.

Sigmund Freud, "On Femininity", /New Introductory Lectures on
Psychoanalysis/, Penguin, 1977.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, /The Difference Engine/, Victor
Gollancz. William Gibson, /Neuromancer/, Grafton, 1985.

Michael Heim, 'The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality', Sandra K. Helsel and
Judith Paris Roth, eds., /Virtual Reality, Theory, Practice and
Promise/, Meckler, 1991.

Luce Irigaray, /Speculum of the Other Woman/, trans. Gillian C. Gill,
Cornell University Press, 1985.

---. /Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche/, trans. Gillian C. Gill,
Columbia University Press, 1991.

Thom Jurek, from 'Straight Fiction', in Larry McCaffrey, ed., /Storming
the Reality Studio/, Duke University Press, 1991.

Manuel de Landa, /War in the Age of Intelligent Machines/, MIT, 1992.

Lucie Lamy, /Egyptian Mysteries/, Thames and Hudson, 1981.

Ada Lovelace, 'Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles
Babbage by L.F. Menabrea. With Notes upon the Memoir by the Translator,
Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace', in Morrison and Morrison.

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, /War and Peace in the Global
Village/, Bantam Books, 1968.

Margaret Mead, /Cultural Patterns and Technical Change/, Mentor Books, 1963.

Doris Langley Moore, /Ada , Countess of Lovelace/.

Philip Morrison and Emily Morrison, eds. /Charles Babbage and his
Calculating Engines, Selected Writings by Charles Babbage and Others/,
Dover, NY, 1961.


Check this out..A new Babbgae page constructed by Steve Jones as part of
the brain project .. http://www.merlin.com.au/brain_proj/babbage.htm

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