I’m posting this in part because I completely forgot to mention Schwartz in a recent lecture where the work digital art pioneers of the 1960 came up, and in which I name-dropped and referenced Ken Knowlton (who invited Schwartz to Bell Labs), Charles Csuri or A. Michael Noll. Forgetting about Schwartz is more regretful as I have been trying to pass my students (who are mostly women) the idea that digital art, computing and technical stuff in general are women’s activities in every single measure as men’s, and have been taking care to mention women’s achievements in computing history ever since Augusta Ada Byron singlehandedly invented computer programming without any computer to try it on (according to Howard Rheingold, motivated by a scheme to hustle hapless betters at the horse races).
There’s something weird about the general lack of women’s interest in computing nowadays (with exceptions, obviously), given their presence in key historic developments. I suspect that is related to the fact that as computing studies formalized most found their home in Electrical Engineering departments which — as higher education expanded and universities found themselves populated by badly-educated students (witness the near-institutionalization of hazing, at least in Southern European unis) — became Boys Clubs Just for Boys. (This is the moment in which I explain that my mother, years retired, was a computer programmer. Actually she started as a clerical worker with no higher education qualifications doing data entry for our National Health Service — using tech such as latter-day punch-cards, then tape, then giant 8 inch floppies —, and advanced through multiple workplace training programs to become fluent in those technologies synonymous with enterprise computing in the eighties: COBOL, TurboPascal, dBase, SQL. In fact, I asked mum for help composing some complicated SQL queries when I was coding my Master’s dissertation project.) So nowadays, besides some conspicuous exceptions, women seem to get into computing through some kind of side door that provides an easy and straightforward narrative for their interest — through Design (as my students), through multimedia Journalism, through Entrepreneurship (the worst), through some sort of Artistic Practice, or through some very practical necessity in their Science of choice (e.g. learning R because they need to run some statistical programs on health data or whatnot). Going into computers because one is curious, because it seems interesting, because one suspects that computers allow people to do cool stuff and be creative in yet-undiscovered ways, all that may seem like opting into a deeply male-oriented and misogynistic culture, hence a dangerous place to go to.
It is therefore important to witness the current work of Lillian Schwartz. She’s still programming computers at age 86 because decades ago she found they allow her to create some cool visuals. And in that, she was way ahead of the scene.