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Ele Carpenter

Ada Lovelace and Notational Knowledge.


This paper will argue that there is nothing inherently female about textile craft, but that there is a particular socio-political framework which engenders different kinds of knowledge about making in relation to public and private space, and the way in which knowledge is published.

The gender divide in making is being challenged by women’s technology network such as the Eclectic Tech Carnival and MzTek; alongside a general resurgence in DIY culture across all materials. The practice of reverse engineering with a hacker attitude is informed by the concept of Poetical Science and Digital Commons, which will be discussed in this paper.

Lady Ada Byron Lovelace (1815-1852) was a mathematician who believed in poetical science, influenced by her mother also a mathematician, and her father the poet Lord Byron (Toole 1992). Ada Lovelace understood the potential of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine to be much more than a calculator, and she famously articulated the principles of programming many years before the existence of computers.

Sadie Plant rehabilitated Lovelace’s work and the significance of weaving and the Jacquard Loom in the history of computing in her cyberfeminist book Zeros and Ones (1997). The story begins with Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine which was initially conceived as a calculating engine in 1821. Babbage then developed designs for the more complex Analytical Engine programmed by paper punch cards, similar to those used in the Jacquard loom. The Analytical Engine was described in an article by Luigi Menabrea in 1842, translated by Ada Lovelace. To accompany the translation Lovelace added her own thorough notes, which were longer than the original text. It is these notes that reveal how she understood the analytical processes of the engine and the potential for it to be programmed to manipulate symbols as well as numbers. Plant’s writing explores the nature of ‘poetical science’ a term Lovelace used to describe the use of metaphor to think through new ideas about science and mathematics. In Note A, 1843 Lovelace famously wrote:

“We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”. (Toole 1992, p. 248)

The notion of ‘poetical science’ creates an aesthetic and critical space for creative practice, and is equally relevant in our contemporary inter-disciplinary world.

As a woman in the 1830s there was no obvious mechanism for Ada Lovelace to publish her authored work directly. So she actively took on the role of translator and editor which, along with her letters, enabled her to express her mathematical and theoretical knowledge.

This form of notational knowledge has similarities with the self-publishing spaces on the web such as blogs, online social networks and open-comment forums that bridge amateur and professional discourse. This is also a field in which women can publish without going through formal (hierarchical and paternalistic) structures.

The Embroidered Digital Commons is a form of close-reading a text by the Raqs Media Collective called ‘A Concise Lexicon of / for the Digital Commons’ (2003). In Belgrade we will read and stitch the term 'Nodes' which describes a nodal structure of networked communication through which ideas travel. This language of social networks is a paradigm shift in how we value, archive and communicate knowledge. Rethinking our network topologies provides the opportunity to map women’s knowledge and writing throughout a range of formats (letters, textiles, texts) through personal and informal networks as well as professional and academic structures.

The definition of 'Nodes' describes a rhizomic structure forming a web of ideas, where cultural memes are repeated and distributed. The text also raises the nature of de-territorialisation.

"Nodes: Any structure that is composed of concentrated masses of materials which act as junction points for the branching out of extensible parts of the overall system may be described as nodal. The concentrations or junctions being the nodes. A nodal structure is a rhizomic structure, it sets down roots (that branch out laterally) as it travels. Here, nodes may also be likened to the intersection points of fractal systems, the precise locations where new fractal iterations arises out of an existing pattern. A work that is internally composed of memes is inherently nodal. Each meme is a junction point or a node for the lateral branching out of the vector of an idea. In a work that is made up of interconnected nodes, the final structure that emerges is that of a web, in which every vector eventually passes through each node, at least once on its orbit through the structure of the work. In such a structure it becomes impossible to suppress or kill an idea, once it is set in motion, because its vectors will make it travel quickly through the nodes to other locations within the system, setting off chains of echoes and resonances at each node that trace a path back to the kernel of the idea.

These echoes and resonances are rescensions, and each node is ultimately a direct rescension of at least one other node in the system and an indirect rescension of each junction within a whole cluster of other nodes. Nodes, when written, perhaps erroneously, as 'no-des' gives rise to an intriguing hybrid English/Eastern-Hindi neologism, a companion to the old words - 'des', and 'par-des'. 'Des' (in some eastern dialects of Hindi, spoken by many migrants to Delhi) is simply homeland or native place; 'par-des' suggests exile, and an alien land. 'No-des' is that site or way of being, in 'des' or in 'par-des', where territory and anxieties about belonging, don't go hand in hand. Nodes in a digital domain are No-des". (Raqs Media Collective, 2003)

This definition of ‘Nodes’ will be stitched by women from many countries, gathering in different configurations of networks to share ideas. For a few days their location will be Belgrade, which like many cities of the world has been claimed and reclaimed, destroyed and rebuilt, and is both par-des (a land of exile) and no-des, (a land of homeless) but is now a node at which people meet.

This paper will discuss the relevance of Ada Lovelace to the idea of the Digital Commons and notational knowledge. There are many feminist readings in this field, and they can’t all be addressed here. But in general - the networked web of communication is traditionally perceived to be 'female', in contrast to the more linear hierarchies of male society. And the characteristics of women's work form the backbone of the new flexible worker in the cultural industries and knowledge economy. But it important to understand that these forms are constituted in terms of power, rather than biological determinism.


  • Carpenter, Ele, "Activist Tendencies in Craft", in Concept Store. Eds. Geoff Cox, Nav Haq, Tom Trevor. Arnolfini, Bristol, 2010.
  • Toole, Betty Alexandra, Ada the Enchantress of Numbers. California, Strawberry Press, 1992.
  • Plant, Sadie, Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. London, Fourth Estate, 1997.

AsK, September 2012

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