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Ted Nelson: Computer Lib / Dream Machines

Ted Nelson: Computer Lib / Dream Machines

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Published by: 3je5ewmi on Dec 13, 2012
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09/26/2014

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First Editio° *
 
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Any nitwit can understand computers, and many do.Unfortunately, due to ridiculous historical circumstances,computers have been made a mystery to most of the world.And this situation does not seem to be Improving. Youhear more and more about computers, but to most peopleit's just one big blur. The people who know sbout computersoften seem unwilling to explain things or answer your ques-tions . Stereotyped notions develop about computers operatingIn fixed ways and so confusion increases. The chasmbetween lsymen and computer people widens fast and danger-ously .This book Is a measure of desperation, so seriousand abysms! Is the public sense of confusion and ignorance.Anything with buttons or lights can be palmed off on thelayman as a computer. There are so many different things,and their differences are so important; yet to the lay publicthey are lumped together as "computer stuff." indistinctand beyond understanding or criticism. It’s as If peoplecouldn't tell apart camera from exposure meter or tripod,or car from truck or tollbooth. This book is therefore devotedto the premise thatEVERYBODY SHOULD UNDERSTAND COMPUTERS .It is intended to fill a crying need. Lots of everyday peoplehave aeked me where they can learn about computers, and1have had to say nowhere. Most of what is written aboutcomputers for the layman is either unreadable or silly.(Some exceptions are listed nearby: you can go to themInstead of this if you want.)
But
virtually nowhere is thebig picture simply enough explained. Nowhere can oneget a simple, souptonut6 overview of what computersare really about, without technical or mathematical mumbo jumbo, complicated examples, or talking down. This book is an attempt.(And nowhere have I seen a simple book explainingto the layman the fabulous wonderlsnd of computer graphicswhich awaits us all. a matter which means a great dealto me personally . as well as a lot to all of us in general.That's discussed on the flip side.)Computers are simply a necessary and enjoyablepart of life, like food and books. Computers are not everything,they are just an aspect of everything, and not to know thisis computer Illiteracy, a silly and dangerous ignorance.Computers are as easy to understand as cameras.I have tried to make this book like a photography magazinebreery, forceful and as vivid ss possible. This book willexplain how to tell apples from oranges and which wayla up. If you want to make cider, or help get things rightaide up, you will have to go on from here.I am not a skillful programmer, handson personor eminent professional; I am just a computer fan. computerfanatic if you will. But if Dr. David Reuben can write aboutsex I can certainly write about computers. I have writtenthis like a letter to a nephew , chatty and personal. Thisis perhaps less boring for the resder. and certainly lessboring for the writer. who is doing this in a hurry. Likea photography magazine, it throws at you some rudimentsIn a merry setting. Other things are thrown in so you'llget the sound of them, even if the details are elusive.(We learn most everyday things by beginning with vagueimpressions, but somehow encouraging these is not usuallyfelt to be respectable.) What I have chosen for inclusionhere has been arbitrary. based on what might amuse andgive quick Insight. Any bright highschool kid, or anyoneelse who can stumble through the details of s photographymagazine, should be able to understand this book, or getthe main ideas. This will not make you a programmer ora computer person, though it may help you talk that talk.and perhaps make you feel more comfortable (or at leastable to cope) when new machines encroach on your life.If you can get a chance to learn programming see thesuggestions on p.  it's an awfully good experience foranybody above fourth grade. But the main idea of thisbook is to help you tell apples from oranges. and whichwsy is up. I hope you do go on from here, and have madea few suggestions.1am "publiahing" this book myself. In this firstdraft form, to test its viability, to see how mad the computerpeople get. and to see If there is as much hunger to understandcomputers, among all you Polks Out There, as I think.I will be interested to receive corrections and suggestionsfor subsequent editions. if any. (The computer field isIts own exploding universe, so I'll worry about uptodatenessat that time.)
0* THU ***;
Man has created the myth of "the computer" in his own image,or one of them: cold, immaculate, sterile, "scientific." oppressive.Some people flee this image. Others, drawn toward it, have joined the coldsterileoppressive cult, and propagate it like a faith.Many are still sbout this mischief, making people do things rigidlyand saying it is the computer's fault.Still others see computer* for what they really are: versatilegizmos which may be turned to any purpose, in any style. And soa wealth of new stylea and human purposes are being proposed andtried, each proponent propounding his own dream in his own verypersonal way.This book presents s panoply of things and dreams. Perhapssome will appeal to the reader...THE COMPUTER PRIESTHOODKnowledge is power and so it tends to be hoarded.Experts in any field rarely want people to understand whatthey do .and generally enjoy putting people down.Thus if we say that the use of computers Is dominatedby a priesthood. people who spatter you with unlntelligableanswers and seem unwilling to give you straight ones.it is not that they are different in this respect from anyother profession. Doctors, lawyers and construction engineersare the same way.But computers are very special. and we have to dealwith them everywhere, and this effectively gives the computerpriesthood a stranglehold on the operation of all large organiza-tions. of government bureaux, and anything else that theyrun. Members of Congress are now complaining aboutcontrol of information by the computer people. that theycannot get the information even though it's on computers.Next to this it seems a small matter that in ordinary companies"untrained" personnel can't gel straight questions answeredby computer people; but it's the same phenomenon.It is imperative for many reasons that the appallinggap between public and computer insider be closed. Asthe saying goes. war is too important to be left to the generals.Guardianship of the computer can no longer be left to apriesthood. 1see this as just one example of the creepingevil of Professionalism .* the control of aspects of societyby cliques of insiders. There may be some chance, though,that Professionalism can be turned around. Doctors, forexample, are being told that they no longer own people'sbodies. "* And this book may suggest to some computerprofessionals that their position should not be as sacrosanctas they have thought, cither.This in not to say that computer people are tryingto louse everybody up on purpose. Like anyone tryingto do a complex job as he sees fit. they don't want to bebothered with idle questions and complaints. Indeed, probab-ly any group of insiders would have hoarded computers just as much. If the computer had evolved from the telegraph(which it just might have). perhaps the librarians wouldhave hoarded it conceptually as much as the math and en-gineering people have. But things have gone too far.People have legitimate complaints about the way computersare used. and legitimate ideas for ways they should beused, which should no longer be shunted aside.In no way do I mean to condemn computer peoplein general. (Only the ones who don't want you to knowwhat's going on.) The field is full of fine, imaginativepeople. Indeed, the number of creative and brilliant peopleknown within the field for their clever and creative contri-butions is considerable. They deserve to be known as widelyas. say, good photographers or writers."Computers are catching h^ll from growing multitudeswho see them uniformly as the tools of theregulation and suffocation of all things warm.moist, and human. The charges, of course, 'are not totally unfounded, but in their mostsweeping form they are ineffective and thereforeactually an acquiescence to the dehumanizationwhich they decry. We clearly need a much morediscerning evaluation in order to clarify theethics of various roles of machines in humanaffairs."Ken Knowltonin "Collaborations with Artistsa Programmer's Reflections"in Nake
a
Rosenfeld, eds.,Graphic Languages(NorthHolland Pub. Co.),p. 399.* This is a side point. I see Professionalism aa a spreadingdisease of the presentday world, a sort of polyoligarchyby which various groups (subway conductors, social workers,bricklayers) can bring things to a halt if their particularnew increased demands are not met. (Meanwhile, the Irrele-vance of each profession increases, in proportion to itsincreasing rigidity.) Such lucky groups demand moreIn each goround but meantime, the number who arepermanently unemployed grows and grows.
Hamburg
** Ellen Frankfort, Vaginal Politics, Quadrangle Books.Boston Women'a Health Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves.'Simon a Schuster.
 
Thisf side of the book. Computer Lib proper (whose title is neverthelessthe simpler! way lo refer lo both halves), is an attempt to explain simply andconcisely why computers are marvelous and wonderful, and what some mainthings are i.i the field.The second half of the book. Dream Machines, is specially about fantasyand imagination, and new techniques for it. Thar half is related lo this half,but can be read firsL; I wanted lo separate them as distinctly as possible.The remarks below all refer to this first half, the Computer Lib halof Lhe book.FANDOMWith this book I am no longer calling myself a computerprofessional. I'm a computer fan, and I'm out lo make youone. (All computer professionals were fans once, but peopleget crabbier ae they get older , and more professional )A generation of computer fane and hobbyists is well onIts way, but for the most part these are people who havehad some sort of an In. This is meant to be an In for thosewho didn't get one earlier.The computer fan is someone who appreciates theoptions, fun, excitement, and fiendish fascination of computers.Not only le the computer fun in itself, like electric trains;but It also extends to you a wide variety of possible personaluses. On case you don't know it, the price of computersand of using them is going down as fast as every otherprice 1
b
going up. So in the next few decades we may bereduced to eating soybeans and carrots, but we'll certainlyhave computers.)Somehow the Idea is abroad that computer activitiesare uncreative, as compared. say , with rotating clay againstyour fingers until It becomes a pot.This is categoricallyfalse. Computers involve imagination and creation at thehighest level. Computers are an involvement you can reallyget into, regardless of your trip or your karma. Theyare toys , they are tools, they are glorious abstractions.So It you like mental creation, toy trains, or abstractions,computers are for you. If you are interested in democracyand its future, you'd better understand computers .AndIt you are concerned about power and the way it is beingused, and aren't we all right now, the same thing goes.THE SOCIETYWhich brings us to our next topic.There Is no question of whether the computer willremake society; it has. You deal with computers perhapsmany times a day or worse, computers deal with you,though you may not know it. Computers are going intoeverything, are intertwined with everything, and it's goingto get more and more so. The reader should have a senseof the dance of options, the remarkably different waysthat computers may be used: by extension, he should cometo see the extraordinary range of options which confrontus as a society in our future use of them. Indeed, computershave with a swoop expanded the options of everything But a variety of inconvenient systems already touch onour lives, nuisances we must deal with all the time; andI fear that worse is to come, I would like lo alert the reader,in no uncertain terms , that the time has come to be openlyattentive and critical in observing and dealing with computersystems; and to transform criticism into action. If systemsare bad, annoying and demeaning, these matters shouldbe brought to the attention of the perpetrators. Politelyat first. But just as the atmospheric pollution fostered byGM has become a matter for citizen concern and attack throughlegitimate channels of protest, so too should the proceduralpollution of inconsiderate computer systems become a matterfor the same kinds of concern. The reader should realize hecan criticize and demand;THE PUBLIC DOES NOT HAVE TO TAKEWHAT'S BEING DISHED OUT .There is already a backlash against computers, andthe spirit of this anlicomputer backlash is correct, butshould be directed against very specific kinds or things.The public should stop being mad at "computers" in theabstract, and start being mad at the people who make in-convenient systems. It is not "the computer," which hasno Intrinsic style or character, which is at fault; il is peoplewho use "lhe computer" as an excuse to inconvenience you,who are at fault. The mechanisms of legitimate publicprotest.sitins and so on should perhaps soon be turnedto complaint over bad and inhuman computer systems.The question is, will the crummier trends continue?Or can the public learn, in time, what good and beautifulthings are possible, and translate this realization into dneffective demand? I do not believe this is an obscure orspecialized issue. Its shadow falls across the future of mankind, if any , like a giant sequoia. Either computersystems are going lo go on inconveniencing our lives, orthey are going to be turned around to make life better.This is one of lhe directions that consumerism should turn.1have an axe to grind: I want to see computers usefulto individuals, and lhe sooner the belter, without necessarycomplication or human servility being required. Anyonewho agrees with these principles is on my side, and anyonewho does not, is not.THIS BOOK IS FOR PERSONAL FREEDOM.AND AGAINST RESTRICTION AND COERCION ,That's really all it's about. Many people, for reasons of their own, enjoy and believe in restricting and coercingpeople; the reader may decide whether he is for or againstthis principle.A chanl you can take to the streets:COMPUTER POWER TO THE PEOPLE!DOWN WITH CYBERCRUD!THE FUTURE, IF ANYSimply as a matter of citizenship, it is essential lounderstand the impact and uses of computers in the worldof the future, if any: and to have a sense of the issues aboutcomputers lhal confront us as a people especially privacyand data banks, but also strange new additions lo oureconomic system ("the checkless society") , our politicalsystem (halfbaked voteathome proposals), and so on.I regret that there is not room to cover these here.Various companies ore seeking wide public support forthe sorts of things they are trying to bring about. Legislationwill be proposed on which the views of the public shouldhave a bearing. II is important that these be understoodsensibly by some part of the electorate before they are madetoo permanent, rather lhan made mailers of dumb assent.Finally, and moat solemnly, computers are helpingus understand lhe unprecedented danger of our future(see "The Club of Romep .^fl). The human race mayhave only a shorl time left on earth, even if there is no war.These studies must be seen and understood by as manyintelligent men of good will as possible.THEREFOREWelcome to the computer world, the damndest andcraziest thing that has ever happened.But we , the computerpeople . are not crazy. It is you others who are crazy tolet us have all thi6 fun and power to ourselves.COMPUTERS BELONG TO ALL MANKIND.B.A., philosophy. Swarthmore; graduate study U. of Chicago: M.A., sociology, Harvard. Mostly selftaught in computers,Member of editorial board, Computer Decisions magazine; listed in New York Times’Who'a Who in Computers; member of Association for Computing Machinery sincc 1964.Research assistant. Communication Research Institute, 19623. Instructor in sociology, Vassar College, 19646.Senior staff researcher, Harcourt, Brace » World Publishers, 19667. Consultant lo Bell Telephone Laboratories, Whippany, N.J., 19678.Consultant to CBS Laboratories, Stamford, Ct., 19609. Proprietor of The Nelson Organization, Inc., New York City, 196972.Lecturer in art, U. of Illinois at Chicago Circle, spring 1973.Lecturer in computer education, Office of Instructional Resources Development, U. of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 19734. Photo
by Roger Field.

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