Beyond Numbers: Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day at the Brighton Digital Festival 2018

By Ioann Maria and Sharon Webb.

Held annually on the second Tuesday in October, Ada Lovelace Day recognises the accomplishments of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), while also celebrating Ada Lovelace herself as a pioneer of computing science. The overarching aims of the annual event are to increase the profile of women in STEM, and to create and to highlight role-models, so that we can encourage diversity and representation in computer science, in software engineering, and in the sciences more broadly. In 2018 the Sussex Humanities Lab celebrated Ada Lovelace Day with an event called Beyond Numbers.

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Ioann Maria and Sharon Webb

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815. She was encouraged by her mother, Annabella Byron, to study arithmetic, music, and French. It’s been suggested that Ada’s strict study regime was a deliberate attempt to suppress Ada’s imagination, since Ada’s mother was fearful of her ‘dangerous and potentially destructive,’ imagination given the eccentrics of Ada’s estranged father, Lord Byron (Essinger, 2014).

By the time she was thirteen, Ada Lovelace had already designed a mechanical bird. At the age of eighteen Lovelace formally met Charles Babbage, who would later be heralded as the father of computing science. She became intrigued with Babbage’s proposed “Difference Engine.” Over the years Ada Lovelace studied and translated the maths associated with both Babbage’s Difference Engine and its sequel, the Analytical Engine, as well as the Jacquard Loom. In 1843, translating and annotating Luigi Menabrea’s paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, she developed a formula for computing Bernoulli numbers. On the basis of this work — a program to be executed upon machine that did not yet exist — Lovelace has been hailed as the world’s first computer programmer.

But unlike Babbage and Menabrea, who only saw the number-crunching potential of this machine, Ada Lovelace also proposed that if a machine could manipulate numbers then it could do so for any type of “data.” Indeed, the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ (as Babbage is credited with describing her) stated that the Analytical Engine ‘might act upon other things besides numbers,’ and that for instance, it might ‘compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.’

The Beyond Numbers event, organised by Ioann Maria and Dr Sharon Webb, coincided with Ada Lovelace Day. It was specifically interested in exploring the potential identified by Ada Lovelace for machines to ‘act upon other things besides numbers.’ The aim of the event was to celebrate women, non-binary, and transgender scientists, artists, musicians, researchers and thinkers whose works are based on scientific, technological and/or mathematical methods. 

The event opened with Sharon Webb’s historical overview of the role of women in technology, entitled “When Computers Were People,” which also called out the current gender gap in computer science. She was followed by a session from Kate Howland (University of Sussex, Lecturer in Interactive Design) entitled “Talking Programming,” in which Kate gave an outline of her research on designing voice user interfaces for end-user programming in home automation. Cécile Chevalier, Lecturer in Media Practice at the University of Sussex, spoke on “Automata, Automatism and Instrument-Making Toward Computational Corporeal Expressions.” In thinking of the body, technology and expression in computational art, Cecile offered a retrospective of her own artwork. Brighton-based audio-visual artist Akiko Haruna gave a talk on A/V and electronic music scene touching on “Self-Value in the Face of Ego,” where her focus was on encouraging all women to explore the world of electronic music and audio-visual art. She spoke of her personal experiences and the many ways in which digital sound as a medium has liberated her work. Estela Oliva, London-based artist and curator, spoke of “Hybrid Worlds, New Realities,” presenting her new project CLON in which she interrogates the possibilities of new spaces enabled with virtual and immersive technologies such as gaming, 3D video, and virtual reality. Irene Fubara-Manuel in her talk “An Auto-Ethnographic Account of Virtual Borders” presented her piece “Dreams of Disguise” (2018), a traversal of the virtual border through racialized biometric technologies: a project that blurs documentary truth with science fiction to reveal the ubiquitous surveillance of migrants and the rising desire for opacity. The event closed with Ioann Maria’s “Contra-Control Structures” talk on hacktivism, cyberactivism, and women, with an outline of her first-hand experience in creating physical DIY creative spaces.

The day was a fusion of science and creative arts. It reached beyond the “numerical” and provided a friendly space for the local community to find out about one another — a space to share, to engage, and to collaborate.

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As a direct result of Beyond Numbers and the positive feedback this event received, FACT///  (Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology Network) was established by Cécile Chevalier, Sharon Webb, and Ioann Maria Stacewicz. In keeping with the aspirations and goals of Ada Lovelace Day, FACT/// Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology Network seeks to promote dialogue, collaboration, and support diverse voices in transdisciplinary computational thinking and environments. The first FACT/// forum was held on Thursday, 7th March at the Sussex Humanities Lab. For more details see fact.networkFACT/// is a CHASE Feminist Network Award and also supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab.

#AdaBeyondNumbers on the web:

About Sharon:

Sharon Webb is a Digital Humanities Lecturer in the Sussex Humanities Lab and the School of History, Art History and Philosophy. Sharon is a historian of Irish associational culture and nationalism (eighteenth and nineteenth century) and a digital humanities practitioner, with a background in requirements/user analysis, digital preservation, digital archiving, text encoding and data modelling. Sharon also has programming and coding experience and has contributed to the successful development of major national digital infrastructures.

Sharon’s current research interests include community archives and identity, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ archives, social network analysis (method and theory), and research data management. She holds a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award 2018 on the topic of community archives and digital preservation, working with a number of community projects, including Queer in Brighton.

Sharon is currently running a twelve-month project funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award (2018), ‘Identity, Representation and Preservation in Community Digital Archives and Collections’. This project is an intervention in three important areas: community archives, digital preservation, and content representation. For more details see www.preservingcommunityarchives.co.uk.

About Ioann Maria:

Ioann Maria is a new media artist, filmmaker, and computer scientist. Ioann’s work is focused on hacktivism, electronic surveillance, computer security, human-machine interaction, and interactive physical systems. In her solo and collaborative projects she explores new methods in real-time audio-visual performance.

Ioann is co-founder of the Edinburgh Hacklab, Scotland’s first hackerspace. She was formerly an Artistic Director of LPM Live Performers Meeting, the world’s largest annual meeting dedicated to live video performance and new creative technologies, and a Research Technician in Digital Humanities at the Sussex Humanities Lab, University of Sussex, which is dedicated to developing and expanding research into how digital technologies are shaping our culture and society.

What are the digital humanities?

By David M. Berry

Digital humanities are at the leading edge of applying computer-based technology in the humanities. Initially called ‘humanities computing’, the field has grown tremendously over the past 40 or so years. It originally focused on developing digital tools and the creation of archives and databases for texts, artworks, and other materials. From these initial uses, and as computation developed, computers offered increasingly sophisticated ways of handling and searching digitised culture. For example, with recent advances in digital imaging, it is now possible to produce very high-quality reproductions of books and artworks that can transform our ability to study them.

Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app for ensembles
Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app Syncphonia for ensembles powered by Sussex University research funded by AHRC

The key to understanding the digital humanities is to reject the idea that digital technology is invading the academy. Computers were used for humanist ends from very early on in their history, and not only, as one might expect, as mere storage for large libraries of text. Computer networks, particularly the internet, have also enabled digital files to be used from almost anywhere on the globe. This access to information has had a tremendous effect on the ability to undertake research in the arts and humanities.

Digital humanities incorporate key insights from languages and literature, history, music, media and communications, computer science and information studies and combine these different approaches into new frameworks. More recently, the disciplinary focus has widened to include critical digital studies, as well as fields more commonly associated with engineering such as machine-learning, data science and artificial intelligence. Indeed, as early adopters of technology, digital humanists were prescient in seeing that computation would have an increasing centrality to research in the humanities.

As part of their work, digital humanists have developed new methods, such as computer-based statistical analysis, search and retrieval, topic modelling, and data visualisation. They apply these techniques to archives and collections that are vastly larger than any human researcher or research group can comfortably handle. These methods enable ambitious projects to be created with large interdisciplinary teams that are brought together to work on difficult or complex projects. Digital humanists are transforming the idea of what a humanities research project can be, giving us new ways of seeing past and present cultures.

These new collections of historical or literary artefacts are often publicly available on the web or in digital databases, and the material they contain is more openly available than previously possible with print. They increase the ability for humanists to combine data sets, social media, sound, web and image archives and also to move between them with greater ease. Equally crucial has been the creation of software for analysing, understanding and transforming these digital materials. Digital tools can also be freely accessed over the internet so they can be easily incorporated into other projects, enabling the rapid diffusion of new methods, tools and ideas across disciplinary boundaries. These digital technologies open up exciting opportunities for connecting the humanities to a wider public culture.

The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the 'New York Times'. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.
The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the ‘New York Times’. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.

However, with the greater diffusion of digital technologies into our lives, new concerns have arisen about the capacity these technologies have to spy on their users, about digital bias and discrimination, and the emergence of ‘fake news’. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google use our data in very intrusive ways, making collection of both public and private data a public matter of concern. Here too digital humanities, with its expertise across many knowledge areas, can help us understand these problems and provide critical interventions and policy insights.

The academy is now much more comfortable with the use of computation across disciplines. It has brought new powers of analysis, comparison and understanding to a range of research areas. The digital humanities have been exemplary in transferring digital techniques and methods into the humanities and by doing so have laid the ground for a golden age of humanities research in the 21st century. In a digital age, the humanities need to communicate humanistic values and their own contribution to public culture more than ever. The humanities continue to ask the important question: what is a life worth living? The digital humanities are part of this tradition, helping us to reflect on this question and expanding our understanding of human culture in a digital world.


David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex. He writes widely on the theory and philosophy of computation and algorithms. His most recent book is Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (with Anders Fagerjord). His forthcoming British Academy-supported research is concerned with the idea of a university in a digital age.


This post originally appeared on the British Academy blog.