14 NMS_05 Icarus, a second chance
ref: Ted Nelson, Computer Lib / Dream Machines
OK, I apologize. Icarus is back. He’s dried himself off, put the feathers back in place, and is looking for the launch pad.
It’s impressive, no doubt, that Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines be introduced by the editors of the New Media Reader as “the most important book in the history of new media.” It is framed as a venerable call to arms, an argument that media matters more than we can imagine, because, as Nelson argues, “we live in media, as fish live in water.” And at its core what’s at stake, for Nelson, is no less than the “Wholiness of the human spirit.”
Ok, ok, perhaps. I follow the text, and get caught up in the surge of spirit and enthusiasm most of the way, until the rally cry becomes pockmarked with © and ™. But, I guess it’s only fair, he knew there was money to be made.
It’s hard not to dwell on and contemplate the structure of the book vis a vis media constructs. For someone as aware of the media question, the form is surely deliberate. What was to be gained in the duality? Two books, stitched together–a book of dreams and dream machines (meant to liberate), one side a “come-on” for the other, visions and technicalities of visions. It’s a vision of Icarus, again–his second flight as fraught as the first, a woven concatenation of necessity and contingency.
Nelson demurs, “The great American dream often becomes the great American novelty. After which it’s a choice of style, size and financing plan.” Is it possible that the “Wholiness of spirit” requires both the dream that has become novelty and the dream that is manifest as a cultural advance?
Perhaps the false dichotomies set up by Nelson are media tropes, the hypertext escape route enabling Xanadu to be offered. But it is precisely the persistence of novelty, its unrefined quality which doesn’t “measure up,” that enables Xanadu to stick around long enough to be realized, albeit rebranded.
A few days ago, a colleague, quoting someone I did not quite catch, said, “the imagination is the mediator of the physical world of material and senses, and the immaterial world of reason.” To paraphrase Nelson (and go from negative to positive, p.308-9), creativity is not recombination, the parsing of old relations, but synthesis. So, the fish is in a funny place, trying to become aware of the water, while immersed (and joined by Icarus). Perhaps we are new media as much as we are in new media, and that new ways of thinking are inevitable, as immersed as we are in the swim of passing novelty and retrospective traces of the tradition of culture.