Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, a day to honor women in technology. When I first heard about the event, I knew instantly who I wanted to honor. Though we never met, this woman helped inspire me to participate in the community that is the Internet. I’d lost track of what she was doing over the years, so I had to do some research, which of course led to more research … so, I’m late.
So let me introduce you to an underappreciated Internet visionary, one of the original Netizens: Ronda Hauben. In her youth, Hauben worked in Detroit at the world’s largest car factory, Ford Rouge. As the story goes, Ford was sponsoring continuing education classes in computer programming. Hauben and others were outraged when the company canceled the program in 1987. After an unsuccessful attempt to revive the company-sponsored program, Hauben launched The Amateur Computerist newsletter to foster technology education among the workers. The first issue (PDF link) came out on February 11, 1988, the 51st anniversary of the Flint Sit-Down Strike. It declared:
We want to keep interest alive because computers are the future. We want to disperse information to users about computers. Since the computer is still in the early stage of development, the ideas and experiences of the users need to be shared and built on if this technology is to advance. To this end, this newsletter is dedicated to all people interested in learning about computers.
Sometime later, Hauben found Usenet newsgroups, and figured out early that collaboration and participation among users were the key to the future. In September 1992, the alt.amateur-comp newsgroup was founded to circulate the electronic version of the newsletter, which was:
dedicated to support for grassroots efforts and movements like the “computers for the people movement” that gave birth to the personal computer in the 1970s and 1980s. Hard efforts of many people over hundreds of years led to the production of a working computer in the 1940s and then a personal computer that people could afford in the 1970s. This history has been serialized in several issues of the newsletter.
A year later, Hauben delivered a speech on the history and promise of Usenet, which may have been my first acquaintance with her work.
Among the early stories The Amateur Computerist published included one of the first histories of Usenet in its Fall 1992 Supplement, “The Linux Movement” and the Free Software Foundation in Spring 1994, and more than a few basic (and BASIC) programs for its readers to try out, much like Dr. Dobb’s Journal.
In 1994, Ronda and her son Michael released Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet for free on the web. It was later published by IEEE Computer Society Press. It offers a terrific glimpse at the early history of the Internet, and an important discussion of its promise that remains largely relevant today; especially with the increasing corporatization of the Net.
Today, Ronda is a citizen journalist living in New York City. She is an award-winning United Nations correspondent for OhMyNewsInternational, and still contributes articles on the democratic promise of the Internet.
So go out and take a look at the complete Amateur Computerist archives, and think about how you can contribute to your online communities—including this one. Comments always appreciated.