Living History

1974. The Altair (named, they say, for a location in that week’s Star Trek) computer appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics, and Paul Allen told his pal Bill Gates that microcomputers were on the way. Check.

Also, same year, Ted Nelson publishes his thoughts on user interface and, more generally, on how computers should work. In 2010 what he was looking for showed up on the market with an “ten-minute system,” a “prefabricated environment carefully tuned for easy use,” and an interface in which you touched stuff on the screen to move things along (though without Nelson’s beloved lightpen). And critics didn’t like it any better than they’d liked the iPhone or the iPod when they first came out. Check.

Interesting to see Nelson as a culture-warriorer against the Geeksquad’s ethos—the intuitive versus the infinitely tinkerable, the touchscreen versus the command line, the creative non-technical versus the programmer technophile… And the closed garden for creative play versus the bloatware infinity of buttons and palettes and options.

He has a cardboard mockup, we have OSX and iOS. He has Thinkertoys (p. 332), we have Scrivener which offers all seven of his key traits for presenting “‘views’ of the complexities in many different forms” so that we can use the computer as a “decision/creativity system.” He has Parallel Textface™ and we have Wikis and Snapshot versioning comparisons. He has the Ecit Rose™ and we have the Toolbar. We both have Undo, History, He thinks “the mechanisms at the computer level must be hidden to make [user clear-mindedness] work,” iOS hides everything but the doing (of painting, movie-editing, mind-mapping, writing, and various other forms of, as he calls it, “collateration”).

We both also have the issue of dreaming something worth dreaming with our liberating computers. Which is why I’m looking forward to our getting into those who are doing the dreaming in this seminar on “awakening the digital imagination.”

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