Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ada and Michelle — Let's Focus on Girls’ Education

Ada Lovelace
(Photo: Science & Society
Picture Gallery)
Today — the second Tuesday in October — is observed as Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration day of the achievement of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The goal — according to the event's organizers and described at their Ada Lovelace Day (ADA) site 
— is to "increase the profile of women in STEM and in doing so create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already working in STEM." Their day is named for and honors Augusta Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace. I begin my homage to Countess Lovelace with this 1840 portrait of her by Alfred Edward Chalon.

For 2016, there is a remarkable coincidence in celebrating Ada Lovelace Day. As a result of youth advocacy around the world, the U.N. has since 2011 declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child, with its mission stated as “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.” The United States "branch" of this global movement — as described by the U.N. — encourages activist groups to come together under the same goal to highlight, discuss, and take action to advance rights and opportunities for girls everywhere. So for the United Nations, October 11 celebrates not just a day but, as the U.N. describes it, a movement. 

Mrs. Obama with her
Let Girls Learn students
(Photo: go4womens.org)
And of particular note in the United States, October 11 is the Day of the Girl, coming out of First Lady Michelle Obama's office in recognition of the work she and the President are doing with Let Girls Learn, an initiative launched in March 2015. The purpose of Let Girls Learn is to leverage public-private partnerships and challenge others to commit resources to improve the lives of adolescent girls worldwide. The program, in concert with a variety of other organizations, seeks to address the range of challenges preventing adolescent girls from attaining a quality education for empowering them to reach their full potential. And those challenges are described by Let Girls Learn: "Unfortunately today more than 62 million girls around the world are not in school — half of whom are adolescents. We know that countries with more girls in secondary school tend to have lower maternal mortality rates, lower infant mortality rates, lower rates of HIV/AIDS, and better child nutrition. But too often, a girl who could change her world for the better is locked out of that future by the circumstances of her birth or the customs of her community and country."

It's a tall order, and I'm brave enough to try to bring together — in this post — a look at how it might all be connected. And for this grandfather of six sensational young women (plus a sensational young grandson as well), I like thinking about what their lives are going to be like as they move into this world we've created with digitized information, knowledge services, and — more important than anything else — strategic learning. We're all going to be required to give more and more attention to knowledge sharing (which we all accept is the fundamental attribute of learning, whether it's learning for the workplace and our career interests or simply learning so we can strengthen and enhance our own personal capabilities). So while I don't give less consideration to what's happening with boys and young men, I particularly like thinking about Ada Lovelace in this connection. In one way, she brought together for us all that we're experiencing with knowledge sharing today.

[And certainly our First Lady is doing her part. Of course Let Girls Learn is amazingly serious — and we all admire her and the President greatly for what they are doing. But she also has very novel ways — or perhaps not so novel — for getting the message out. If you don't believe me go to her appearance on Carpool Karaoke and have some fun!]

But I digress. What I'm trying to do here is give some attention to how far we've come, and the only place I can seriously begin is with — to use her more formal title — Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852). The only legitimate child of Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Anabella"), Lady Wentworth, she never really knew her father, as he left England when she was just a few months old. He died, without her ever seeing him again, when she was eight years old.

Ada Lovelace
(Photo: English Wikipedia)
I can’t say for sure when I was first taken with Ada (seen here in a portrait by Margaret Sarah Carpenter from 1836, when Ada was 21 years old and obviously attired for some major social function!). Probably sometime back when I was studying library and information science, about the time when computers and digitization were being discussed often. I was probably told some of her story by someone I knew. And being the incurable romantic I am and with an on-going fascination since childhood for English literature and poetry (and of course Lord Byron — both his work and his life! — what young person isn’t caught up in all that?), I think Ada and her efforts to be “more” than was expected of an aristocratic young lady of her time had great appeal. And certainly as an adult I became pretty caught up in her character when Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” opened in 1993; that was when this delightful young woman (apparently — according to some — based on Ada Lovelace) took her place in my heart. The character Thomasina Coverly in “Arcadia” was working on different scientific theories but her personality came through to me.

For the “real” Ada, it wasn’t particularly easy going. There were problems with her mother, whose bitterness — probably warranted — about her husband’s departure seemed to make her fear that Ada would turn out to be too sensitive (today we would probably say “high-strung”). So Ada was pushed into mathematics and technology to perhaps distract her from more ethereal and what we would call "cultural" interests; you can certainly see the connection with young women thinking about careers in STEM today, can’t you? She seems to have not been able to pull herself completely away from thinking about her father’s literary and poetical direction (she even referred to how she considered mathematics and her interests as “poetical science”), so she became an early example, a living example of an intellectual woman who could combine the arts and the sciences. Obviously in her case the sciences won out.

Ada Lovelace House
12 St. James Square, London
(Photo: Andrew Berner)
And get into the sciences she did, and that interest led her — as a young society lady meeting many people both at court and otherwise — to come to know scientists, writers, and others influential in society. And I was lucky enough — as seen here — to find her house when I was recently in London.

At the Ada Lovelace Day site we get a good summary of some of what she did in a neat little two-paragraph introduction for people meeting up with Ada for the first time:
Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace collaborated with inventor Charles Babbage on his general purpose computing machine, the Analytical Engine. In 1843, Lovelace published what we would now call a computer program to generate Bernoulli Numbers. Whilst Babbage had written fragments of programs before, Lovelace's was the most complete, most elaborate and the first published. 
More importantly, Lovelace was the first person to foresee the creative potential of the Engine. She explained how it could do so much more than merely calculate numbers, and could potentially create music and art, given the right programming and inputs. Her vision of computing's possibilities was unmatched by any of her peers and went unrecognized for a century.
And while there has been, from time to time, some controversy about her writings, with evidence offered that Babbage probably wrote more of her material than was recognized at the time, the controversy does not weaken the case for her importance to those of us who deal with knowledge services. And she was, indeed, good at music and art even though her true intellectual success came with her scientific studies. This was of course long before C.P. Snow and his writings about the two cultures (The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution). In 1959 — and long beyond — he had us all thinking about how combining the sciences and the humanities is required if we are not to “impede progress” in solving the world’s problems. Nevertheless Snow’s work and much that came after it (and still being discussed) demonstrates to us that with the right encouragement, the two cultures can work together to bring about important, nay critical and essential societal change.

This assertion becomes clear when we look back on Ada’s story, by now having been told in many places, including a rather well-told tale in an updated chapter (Ada Lovelace: Victorian Computer Visionary) from the 2nd edition of the STEM anthology A Passion for Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention, available at the Ada Lovelace Day site. I have two particular favorites, both fairly recent. James Gleick — a master story-teller himself — has a great time with Ada’s story in The Information — A History, a Theory, a Flood (New York: Pantheon, 2011). Even more fun is Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators — How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014). Isaacson not only opens his book with Ada, he closes it with valuable conclusions about her and her contribution. This is my take-away from Isaacson at the end of his book:

This interplay between technology and the arts will eventually result in completely new forms of expression and formats of media. “This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors, coming from creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.”

Guy St. Clair is the author of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization (Munich and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016). His Amazon author page is amazon.com/author/guystclair.