'Halt And Catch Fire' Explores What It Was Like For Women In '80s Tech

May 29, 2015
Originally published on May 29, 2015 3:23 pm

The TV series Halt and Catch Fire tells a story you might not expect about the personal computer revolution of the 1980s. For one thing, it's set in Texas, not Silicon Valley. And though there are plenty of bearded, bespectacled men building things in garages, the resident software genius is a woman. Cameron Howe, played by actress Mackenzie Davis, is a punk, anarchist loner who intimidates many of her co-workers.

Davis speaks with NPR's David Greene about what it takes to portray a computer geek and how representations of women in tech in the '80s differ from representations today. Season 2 of the AMC series begins May 31.


Interview Highlights

On teaching herself about coding and the tech industry

There was a period of time where I was just locked in my apartment and doing so much sort of tech-heavy research and trying to learn as much about the inner workings of a computer and just have that be second nature to me. And I emerged one day and was talking to a friend about all the work that I had been doing and they were like, "So how does a computer actually work?" And I couldn't create an analogy. I had just consumed information but I hadn't, you know, digested it and was able to process it and share it with them. And I realized that it might be all for naught at that point.

On the show's portrayals of women in the tech field

I always view Cameron and Donna as interesting feminist foils to each other. Donna is the other lead female role played by [actress] Kerry Bishé. She is maybe 10 years older than Cameron and has had to fight for everything. And Cameron is sort of receiving the benefits of her long fight. And so any instance in which she encounters a whisper of sexism or doubt from people, either she won't register it because she's so blind to anybody doubting her abilities ... because it's always been she was the smartest person in the room and it had very little to do with her gender, or she's completely bowled over because she's just been lucky to exist in this realm in which it's survival of the fittest mind.

On whether the series stays true to the 1980s tech industry

These aren't characters that are based exclusively off of true people, but I think tech was a more inclusive environment in the 1980s than it is now. It's always a little alarming to me when I hear figures and go to events and see such under-representation of women in the room.

On putting two women at the center of the story

As a viewer, I'm personally less interested in the damaged, white, middle-class male figuring out his dreams and more interested in maybe an underdog figuring out how they're going to survive in a world that doesn't necessarily invite them in.

On the message she wants people to get from watching the show

What I think a lot about the show is: people thinking that they know best. That they're creating something that is in any way intrinsically good and that they can unleash that thing on the world and that it will be in line with the ideals under which it was created. The danger is ... that the Internet and computers are not a reprieve from the real world. They will eventually replicate all the dynamics we have. I mean, there are Internet wars, there are Internet popularity contests, there are very good people creating beautiful content and expanding your mind and there are very bad people seeking to destroy others.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALT AND CATCH FIRE" THEME SONG)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That is the very '80s-sounding theme from the TV series "Halt And Catch Fire." The show, which is entering its second season on AMC, takes us back to the personal computer revolution, and there are surprises. For one thing, it is not set in Silicon Valley but in Texas. And though there are plenty of bearded guys building things in garages, the software guru is a girl genius.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HALT AND CATCH FIRE")

LEE PACE: (As Joe MacMillan) Now, tell me one thing that will be true about computers 10 years from now.

MACKENZIE DAVIS: (As Cameron Howe) Computers will be connected together across one network with a standard protocol.

PACE: (As Joe MacMillan) Like phone lines.

DAVIS: (As Cameron Howe) Obviously phone lines.

PACE: (As Joe MacMillan) What's your name?

DAVIS: (As Cameron Howe) Cameron.

GREENE: Cameron Howe is a very young, punk loner who intimidates her colleagues. As the second season begins, she has just founded an early Internet gaming startup. Mackenzie Davis, the actress who plays Cameron, says she was excited to explore the roots of the tech era.

Are you a math whiz or a tech whiz or...

DAVIS: No (laughter). No, I just play one on TV.

GREENE: So what drew you to it then? I mean, why that subject matter? What did you find appealing?

DAVIS: Well, because - I mean, tech stuff is no longer for an elite group of people. It's for everybody. It consumes my life whether I want it to or not. It's always the third person in the room. So I think uncovering where that began is of interest to even the most challenged person with technology.

GREENE: Mackenzie Davis tells us she prepared for her character, well, how else? With that third person in the room online.

DAVIS: Auditing the, like, open courseware online at, like, MIT Python programming classes and really trying to get into the mindset of a college student in these, I mean, only intro programming classes that were completely...

GREENE: Wow, but you were actually taking some online classes from MIT to get ready for this?

DAVIS: I was watching them...

GREENE: Watching them, OK.

DAVIS: ...And taking notes and trying to keep up. There was a period of time where I was just locked in my apartment and doing so much sort of tech-heavy research and trying to learn as much about the inner workings of a computer and just have that be second nature to me. And I emerged one day and was talking to a friend about all the works that I've been doing and they were like, so how does a computer actually work? And I couldn't create an analogy. I had just consumed information, but I hadn't, you know, digested it and was able to process it and share it with them. And I realized that it might be all for not at that point.

GREENE: Cameron names some of what she develops after people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HALT AND CATCH FIRE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character #1) You guys thought of a name yet?

DAVIS: (As Cameron Howe) Excuse me. I wrote the bios. I name it - Lovelace.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character #2) Lovelace.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: (As Cameron Howe) Not Linda Lovelace, you pervs. Ada Lovelace, as in the first computer programmer ever.

DAVIS: Ada Lovelace was actually Lord Byron's daughter - the poet. And she is the mother of modern coding. I mean, she alongside several other people in her day were interested in sort of automatons and just early punch card coding computers. And she was this genius that became this figurehead for both the entire industry and for female coders.

GREENE: There are different portrayals of women, I feel like, operating in what can traditionally be seen as sort of a male world. How would you describe Cameron in that role?

DAVIS: I always view Cameron and Donna as interesting feminist foils to each other.

GREENE: Donna's the other lead female role.

DAVIS: Donna's the other lead female role played by Kerry Bishe. She was working at TI in the first season and she now works for my company in the second season.

GREENE: Texas Instruments...

DAVIS: Texas Instruments, right, yeah, yeah.

GREENE: ...Which was a huge powerhouse at the time.

DAVIS: Yeah, yeah, and she's an absolute genius in her own right, but she is maybe 10 years older than Cameron and has had to fight very hard for everything. And Cameron is sort of receiving the benefits of her long fight. And so any instance in which she encounters a whisper of sexism or doubt from people, either she won't register it 'cause she's so blind to anybody doubting her abilities 'cause it's always been that she was the smartest person in the room and it had very little to do with her gender, or she's completely bowled over 'cause she's just been lucky to exist in this realm in which it's survival of the fittest mind.

GREENE: And do you feel like that stays true to what was happening in the 1980s? Is that part of sort of this story that we don't hear as much about?

DAVIS: I would think so. I mean, these aren't characters that are based off of true people, but I think tech was a more inclusive environment in the 1980s than it is now. It's always a little alarming to me when I hear figures and go to events and see such underrepresentation of women in the room.

GREENE: Well - but, I mean, Cameron and Donna, they're such prominent characters. I mean, was this the writers who wanted to put these characters really at the center of the story?

DAVIS: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think that that's the interesting story to tell. I mean, I think all of the characters have really interesting stories. But, I mean, as a viewer I'm personally less interested in the damaged, white, middle-class male figuring out his dreams and more interested in maybe an underdog figuring out how they're going to survive in a world that doesn't necessarily invite them in.

GREENE: Well, you say you do events with people in the industry. What do women who work in this field tell you if they've seen the show and they meet you?

DAVIS: There are not a lot of women that I've met. It's primarily men that have talked about their experiences in tech, either at this time or now. But as far as women sharing their personal experiences with me, I haven't had a lot of experience with it.

GREENE: And does that just tell us something about the number of women out there in this field?

DAVIS: I think so, or people don't just reach out to people to talk about their lives that often. But there hasn't been a lot of opportunity in my experience.

GREENE: You know, I still am thinking back to when you mentioned that technology is, like, the third person in the room.

DAVIS: Yeah.

GREENE: I mean, when we're on a device or on a computer or doing anything related to technology, which, as you said, is almost all the time, is there a message you want us to get from watching the show?

DAVIS: What I think about a lot with the show is people thinking that they know best; that they're creating something that is in any way intrinsically good and that they can unleash this thing on the world and that it will be in line with the ideals under which it was created.

GREENE: Now, what is the danger and risk if they're not thinking about the impact of what they're creating?

DAVIS: I think it's - the danger is more that the Internet and computers are not a reprieve from the real world. They will eventually replicate all of the dynamics we have. I mean, there are Internet wars. There are Internet popularity contests. There are very good people creating beautiful content and expanding your mind, and there are very bad people seeking to destroy others.

GREENE: It sounds like you're describing sort of in 2015 we are seeing both the good and the bad of what was created in a very raw and organic way back in the '80s.

DAVIS: Yeah, I think that's the whole interest in going back to this time is like, wow, OK, so we're in the middle of this. We've seen a lot of the fallout, but where did this all come from?

GREENE: Mackenzie, this has been really a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking to us and best of luck with the second season.

DAVIS: Thank you so much. Have a good day.

GREENE: That's MacKenzie Davis from AMC's show "Halt And Catch Fire." Now, about that title - Davis explained it is an old coding instruction for a computer to shut down and destroy its documents. The new season of the show begins Sunday. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.