The excerpt for this week from Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, first published in 1974, was in many ways a breath of fresh air. While the passages from Bush, Engelbart, Licklider, and Weiner were all interesting and enjoyable in their own right, they lacked the decidedly playful spirit and joyful ebullience of Ted Nelson’s writing. I knew immediately from a quick glance at the cover that this was a totally different time and this was a very different guy. Clearly not an engineer, scientist, or a mathematician, like our previous authors, but someone who was broadly educated and read, had a wonderful sense of humor, and was not just celebrating the potential of the machine but also critiquing it and the larger society in which it was embedded. For example, his gripes with our educational system in Computer Lib seemed spot on, perhaps even more so today, with increasing levels of assessment driving nearly every moment in the K-12 classroom, slowly strangling every ounce of curiosity of our children and treating them like empty pitchers into which knowledge can be poured (and then regurgitated back out, on command). Nelson clearly inhaled deeply in the anti-establishment haze that pervaded American society in the rambunctious, rebellious ’60s and ’70s. And given the appearance of the book’s pages, with their drawings and handwritten text, I was not too surprised to learn that he was associated with Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, one of the quintessential counter-cultural documents of this period (and incidentally, one I spent quite a bit of time perusing when I was a young teenager, as much for its frank, hippy dippy discussions of sexuality as its promotion of creative lifestyles, an environmental ethos, and alternative technologies).
That is not to say, however, that Nelson did have a mean geek streak as well. While he was not an scientist or engineer by training, Dream Machine is populated with a variety of creative new ideas for using the untethered computer workstations that were just coming on the market at the time. Nelson’s keen sense of the importance of user-friendly hardware and software (though I don’t think he used either of those terms himself) pervades the book. And some of the particular “dreams” he presents are awesome. Take, Stretchtext, for example. This is a form of imagined hypertext that would allow the user to access condensed or progressively expanded versions of a given text, using a throttle to make it longer or shorter “on demand.” So, a reader could use a condensed version of the text to get the gist of a given paragraph, page, chapter, or book, and then expand it as needed whenever he or she wanted more detail. How cool is that?