Women And Machines, Building And Breaking The Internet With Claire L. Evans

The Member of YACHT On Character-Making And Her Book, Broad Band

  • Interview: Naomi Huffman
  • Photography: Jaclyn Campanaro

“If you’re looking for women in the history of technology, look first where it makes life better,” writes Claire L. Evans, in her new book Broad Band, released earlier this year. It's an intimate examination of the women who helped build the internet—the mathematician Ada Lovelace; Grace Hopper, one of the world’s first programmers; Stacy Horn, who co-founded Echo, an early social network; and dozens more who have been all but forgotten in the brief history of the internet up to now.

Broad Band is full of stories like that of Betty Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder, who during their 20s were programmers for the ENIAC, one of the world’s first computers. When, in 1946, Jennings and Snyder were asked by the U.S. military to set up a ballistics trajectory calculation on the ENIAC, a problem of this sophistication had not yet been successfully processed by a computer before. The calculation was demonstrated, live, in front of military brass and some of the leading mathematicians of the day. The women pulled it off, but were entirely overlooked in the ensuing media frenzy.
Other women profiled in Broad Band recognized the potential for technology to reverse the social oppression that kept them underpaid and underemployed—women such as the founders of San Francisco’s Resource One, a free underground network providing public internet access in the early 1970s, years before most people would even know what it was. Evans approaches these women and their stories with admiration and affection. It’s like she’s telling you about the cool shit her mom got away with in college. With footnotes.

A self-described generalist, Evans’ own body of work is as impressively collaborative and diverse: She co-founded The Triforium Project, a fundraising effort to preserve artist Joseph Young’s six-story Triforium, an interactive light and sound sculpture in Los Angeles. She founded Terraform, Vice’s science fiction vertical, and is a member of the cyberfeminist collective Deep Lab. Since 2008, she’s been the lead singer of the electropop band YACHT alongside her longtime partner Jona Bechtolt. The band has released six studio albums and toured with LCD Soundsystem, Dirty Projectors, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I tell her it seems like a lot. She says, “For me, making connections between disparate things is the joy of being a thinker and maker.”

Naomi Huffman

Claire L. Evans

YACHT is a very future-focused, speculative project. You’ve experimented with a range of technologies—from apps like UBER to fax machines—to distribute and promote your work. In Broad Band, however, your examination of the women behind the internet ends in the early aughts. Why not write a book about contemporary women in tech?

There was something kind of satisfying to me about ending the book at the collapse of the Dot Com Bubble because that was the moment in which the world I live in now began to form—the post-collapse internet. It’s a world I haven’t come to fully understand yet, frankly. Personally, as a writer, I feel it’s crucial to live outside history to be able to have any valuable insight into it, to be able to have any distance from it.

As the face of YACHT, you’ve manipulated images of your body and face for album artwork and promotional projects, resulting in a futuristic character, an alter-ego, much like Björk, St. Vincent, and Bowie. Are you comfortable with this character-making?

There’s some disassociation that has to happen when you do art performance of any kind, just to get through the sheer embarrassment of getting up in front of people and having the gall to say that what you’re doing is worth listening to and looking at. For me, being able to do that requires an “avatarization” of the self that does not necessarily represent you, or lacks any real parallel to who you are. Many performers will tell you they’re much braver on stage than they are in real life, they’re much more confrontational than they are in real life. I’m a huge introvert, I’m a homebody, I’m a reader. I don’t really like being out in public, and yet I have to put forth this kind of confrontational, highly relational character. It’s cathartic for me in the way that all public confrontations are cathartic, because you can sublimate your anxieties to include others that inform who you want to be.

Who are your heroes?

A lot of my heroes are literary. I read a lot of sci-fi. I love Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, J.G. Ballard. I always see myself as a writer, even in a musical context. I used to say I was the writer of the band, not the singer. I’m not a good singer, really. This is true of a lot of musicians—it’s not about virtuosity necessarily, it’s about performance. It’s about the character.
One of my favorite musicians is the singer of this punk band from the seventies called The Screamers. His name is Tomata du Plenty. He was crazed in the mind. He had this ability to convey a lot of meaning very economically. When I first started performing I would go crazy onstage, really over the top, writhing around on the floor. The more time I spend performing and the older I get, the more I realize that doesn’t actually convey that much. But doing things with subtlety does.

That gesture of writing yourself into history is powerful. It feels, to me, very punk.

What other characters do you perform? I’m thinking of the photo on your book flap—it’s an appropriation of an iconic photo of Steve Jobs.

Hopefully it’s funny. Steve Jobs is such a canonical figure and those images of him in that empty apartment with only a lamp are so burned into my retina. I want to pay homage to that, but I also want to point out that there are many different ways of embodying history. Sometimes you literally have to put yourself into it.

Octavia Butler is another one of my favorite writers. When she was asked what motivated her to become a science fiction writer, she would talk about how she read a lot of sci-fi, but she never saw anybody like her in those books. She realized she had to put herself into them. She had to write herself into that canon. That gesture of writing yourself into history is powerful. It feels, to me, very punk.

The book ends with optimism, with an appeal to women to “get to work” in changing tech culture. You’ve spoken in interviews about “the second internet.” What does it look like?

There are lots of paths forward. There is the inevitable dystopian nightmare that we are living in, and that we will probably continue to live in. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I see a return to the sort of decentralized DIY networks that were formative to me growing up. I don’t think we can live outside of the internet, and I don’t think we need to.

I’m interested in looking at earlier technologies and seeing how they can be reclaimed, played with, and re-inhabited. It’s not like any of these can go away. Like, fax machines. They made a lot of them, for a long time. They litter parents’ basements and office storage closets all over the world. Is that a dormant vector by which we can start sending each other thoughts over the telephone? Maybe. What can we discover in older technologies? There are a lot of options outside of the technological capitalist platform. It’s just about breaking down the barrier to entry and how much patience we have to engage with things that aren’t immediately giving us all the answers or being extremely convenient to us. That’s what I always liked about old school DIY culture—the feeling of discovery, when you come across a zine publishing network, or an early blog network—the ways in which investigation was rewarded with meaningful discovery.

A friend of mine has a theory about the internet that I really love—it’s a universe in a constant state of expansion and collapse. Right now, we’re at the end of an exhale, we’re about to reach a pause before a long inhale. We don’t know what that’s going to be, but maybe it’s going to be a rebuilding. These things come in cycles. If you look at the Dot Com Bubble as the earliest example of this, there was an expansion, then a hysterical accumulation of wealth, a lot of comments about what the future would look like, and then the inevitable falling apart. Then a rebuilding and the falling apart. Hopefully every time we rebuild, we learn something.

Naomi Huffman is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She works at MCD, a new division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is the director of the nonprofit Book Fort.

  • Interview: Naomi Huffman
  • Photography: Jaclyn Campanaro