The teenage girl was Ada Byron, later Lovelace, daughter of the poet and his sometime wife, Annabella. The "thinking machine" was Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, which established the principle of the computer and was then forgotten. The anecdote is completely true, its sources verifiable. Yet it still has the air of science fiction. How can such a piece of technology be invented and then forgotten? Surely not because the only user to understand its import was a young Victorian girl?
Sadie Plant is not the first contemporary writer to have picked up on Ada Byron's story, which she tells in Zeros and Ones: digital women + the new technoculture (Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99). William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, founders of cyberpunk, dedicated a novel, The Difference Engine, to her. However, Plant, pushes the implications of the story further than ever before.
She develops a new theory about men and women and all the other potential genders between them. The so-called "genderquake" of the 1990s, Plant suggests, forms just one tiny slice of a far bigger historical movement: the story of how technology liberates women into economic and so sexual power, leaving the men accustomed to subordinating them puzzled and without a place. It's a book, as Plant writes, for an age in which "everything normal became peculiar".
Zeros and Ones begins with a scarily millenarian preamble. "Species, sex, race, class: in those days none of this meant anything at all. No parents, no children, just ourselves, strings of inseparable sisters, warm and wet, indistinguishable one from the other..." She could be writing about cells or machines or women in a projected state of primordial chaos. The point of Plant's writing - which can move from fluid dynamics to algebra to neurology within a page - is that you can never quite tell.
Intercut among all the drum-and-bass prose there nestles a nugget of historical insight so obvious, it seems almost banal. Every time a useful new technology is invented, brute testosterone strength becomes less significant to the ways in which the world is run. Already, men have lost a lot of their traditional power to computers and reproductive technology. And they stand, if Plant is accurate, to lose an awful lot more.
Sadie Plant - yes, it's a great name, but also the one she was born with - is 33. She was born in Birmingham, where she was educated at state school, then studied philosophy at Manchester University. I first met her at a conference in Glasgow in 1990 and remember a radiantly kind and friendly woman in a male-dominated intellectual-anarchist scene. She had a battered old red van in which she would ferry all comers up and down the country to curious lectures and conferences. At that time, she was writing her PhD at Manchester on the Situationists: the French surreal-political sect whose visionary slogans enlivened the cobblestones of Paris in May 1968. It was published as The Most Radical Gesture in 1992, and has since become the standard work in its field.
Then Sadie's ideas started to change. She got her first full-time lectureship, at the University of Birmingham, where she fell in love with the Apple computer sitting on her desk. And she met Nick Land, a maverick philosophy lecturer at Warwick who introduced her to postmodernish marvels: techno music and cyberpunk, the wiggier recesses of popular-science writing and the stranger nooks and crannies of the Net. She became fascinated by the way technology speeds up historical change and by the process she calls "hysteresis": the point at which change becomes so accelerated that causes appear to come not before, but after, effects. The phrase about "a packet from the future, appearing a century before its time" is hers. This concept, in different guises, turns up all over her book.
Zeros and Ones revolves around profiles of three key figures, Ada Lovelace, Anna Freud and Alan Turing: a Victorian hysteric, an Edwardian neurotic and the closeted homosexual who reinvented the computer at the end of the Second World War. This may sound like a conventional act of feminist recuperation, but it isn't written up like that at all. The book's characters are presented not as people, but as "exploratory bundles of intelligent matter". Their life-events are passed over for a freewheeling exploration of the metaphorical structures by which they lived. The whole is interlaced with big quotations from Plant's intellectual avatars: Lovelace, Freud and Turing themselves; French feminists like Monique Wittig and Luce Irigaray; and William Gibson.
Within the academy, Plant is resented by many of her peers, who see her work as attention-seeking and poorly grounded. Yet she is not a traditional academic, but the product of an educational system which, by the time she joined it as a teacher, was beginning to collapse. The instability of her intellectual apparatus mirrors the instability of the whole process for humanities students and scholars: poorly-funded jobs; self-funded PhDs; Internet access as a substitute for run-down libraries and run-off- their-feet dons.
In 1995, I met Plant again while writing a story about "post-humanist" philosophy. "I think whether or not I'm arguing myself out of a job is irrelevant, if universities are going the way I think they're going," she coolly told me then. Shortly after, she won a six-year senior fellowship at Warwick University; I grinned wryly to myself and imagined her eating her fine words. In March, however, I had to eat my words when she abandoned this position to go freelance. She is now living in Birmingham, writing a third book. She is also writing fiction. And she provides words, slides and ideas to Kleptomania, a multimedia collective which runs a regular drum-and-bass night at a Birmingham club.
Like Gibson's cult novel Neuromancer, Sadie Plant's work is neither fiction nor non-fiction. It is prophetic work that extrapolates from the present future potentialities which may or may not come true. In an age of information technology, the relationship between thinking of something and making it happen is closer, more confused than ever. Ada Lovelace, looking back on her research, wrote that she was "thunderstruck by the power of the writing. It is especially unlike a woman's style, surely, but neither can I compare it with any man's exactly." "It was instead," Plant gnomically comments, "a code for the numbers to come."