Due to health problems, Ada Lovelace started using opium “systematically,” as her biographer notes, from 1841 onward. Her mentor and collaborator Charles Babbage is an interesting figure, too, the author of both “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures” as well as the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a work on natural theology. The fourth chapter of the latter work is titled “On the Account of the Creation in the First Chapter of Genesis.” Scanning the chapter’s opening pages, one discovers references to geology. Most mysterious of all, though: Ada’s letters to Babbage contain references to a “lady-fairy” and “Fairy-Guidance.” Babbage’s nickname for Ada was “Enchantress of Number.” Her hope, apparently, was to “bequeath to the generations a Calculus of the Nervous System.” As her health declined in the 1850s to the point where opium no longer controlled her pain, she began to experiment with cannabis. Ada was largely forgotten after her death until her rediscovery by figures like Alan Turing nearly 100 years later in the 1940s and 1950s. The key to all of this magic, I think, is what Ada called “cycles” and “cycles of cycles,” or loops and nested loops.
Algorithms: what are they? When do they enter the history of ideas? What are their presumptions? Ada Lovelace had something to do with it, did she not? Cyberfeminist Sadie Plant explored parts of this history in her book Zeroes & Ones. Lovelace also appears with her partner-in-crime Charles Babbage in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. The latter novel founded an entire subgenre of science fiction known as “steampunk”: works set in an alternate-Victorian past. In the case of The Difference Engine, the world is one where Lovelace, the daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, succeeds not just in theorizing but in building the world’s first computer. Calculating machines: what are they? What are the consequences of these devices? Where do they lead? Part of me would love to write an occult conspiracy thriller amid such a milieu — though I wouldn’t want it to skew toward horror, as in Alan Moore’s From Hell. More in the direction, rather, of utopian fantasy, with Acid Communism and Red Nation arriving more than a century earlier than planned. That would be a fun book. Where would one posit the “point of divergence”? Where would history happen other than as one was taught? Therein lies the nature of Myth. Yet that’s the point. Rebellion occurs there or not at all. Maybe this is a bit like my once-imagined novel on Project Cybersyn, but “woven” now, in the style of Foucault’s Pendulum, with secret societies and esoteric traditions. Then again, maybe my novel should just zero in on one of the details from The Difference Engine: the scenario, in other words, where Marx and Engels move to America and ally communism with the Iroquois Confederacy. Either way, the time has come for me to reread Plant’s Zeroes & Ones.
New objects arrive into the lifeworld, gifts from friends and family, well-wishing from near and afar. Some are even hand-crafted — a granny squares knit blanket, an alphabet book, a stuffed creature — made with care specifically for our daughter. These objects return me to the place in my memory palace featuring Sadie Plant’s book Zeros + Ones, a book from the future somehow released in the past, ahead of its time. It’s a steampunk biography about Lord Byron and his wife Annabella’s only child, the nineteenth century mathematician Ada Lovelace. The book focuses especially on the cause for Lovelace’s fame, her encounters with the engineer Charles Babbage’s early computer, the Difference Engine. Lovelace was the first person to recognize the full potential of computing machines, designing and publishing the first algorithm intended to be used by such a machine, thus in a sense making her the first computer programmer. Her biography follows Babbage in calling her the “Enchantress of Numbers.” I read Plant’s book decades ago. What would I find in it if I read it again today? Would I find it frustrating? Perhaps even a bit frightening? Or would I find something worth retrieving — a major or minor arcana? Perhaps the Queen of Wands? Where did Babbage and Lovelace stand, and to what extent did their work contribute, with regard to empire? Byron certainly wasn’t the most admirable character. I prefer different stories, different rabbit holes, bunnies chewing on carrots.