Nelson’s Dream Machine (1)

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Whoever sees the cover of Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machine will immediately be reminded of Jesse Owens’ fist in the black power movement (Fig. 4).

Fig.4. The Cover of Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machine (1974). It is actually two oversized books stuck together back to back, so the flip side of Computer Lib is Dream Machine. This book was so popular that it went through at least three reprints in about a year.

When Nelson self-published Computer Lib in 1974, computers were still expensive, huge, and locked in guarded rooms where only few selected people were privileged enough to touch them. Despite the book’s oversized, unconventional format, Nelson’s visionary slogan: “New Freedoms Through Computer Screens” attracted more than 50,000 readers.[39] It reached “all the right people,” including Ed Roberts and the inventor of the APPLE computers, Steve Wozniak.[40] Indeed, even when a small newsletter, The Amateur Computerist, was published almost fifteen years later in an effort to promote the discussion of automation and industrial unionism, four paragraphs of Nelson’s words were cited as proof of the importance of understanding and using computers.[41]

Nonetheless, exactly what were the computer and new freedom that Nelson dreamt of? Nelson began Computer Lib by coining the term “cybercrud,” which meant “putting things over on people using computers” and functioned to “confuse, intimidate or pressure.”[42] To illustrate what cybercrud was, Nelson provided a letter from a bank that required customers to use computerized deposit slips as proof of how people had to change their way of doing things because of computers.[43] Ironically, while Nelson thought such change was intolerable, today almost no one would feel uncomfortable when using a computerized deposit slip. On one hand, Nelson might think that this was because cybercrud had fooled the public’s consciousness over the years. On the other, this example seemed also fit with Nelson’s statement: “Adaptations should take place on both sides.”[44] Computers were programmed to do banking, and humans made some adjustment in order to communicate with computers through deposit slips. In this example, Nelson did not explain why humans should not make adjustments by filling out new types of deposit slips. Moreover, while warning that “everyone does it,” the computer people, in Nelson’s mind, were guiltier of cybercrud.[45] He said:

Cybercrud is by no means the province of computer people alone. Business manipulators and bureaucrats have quickly learned the tricks. Companies do it to the public. The Press [sic], indeed, contributes . . . . But the computer people are best at it because they have more technicalities to shuffle around magically; they can put anybody down.[46]

Nelson was insightful in pointing out that, “No man has a right to be proud that he is preserving and manipulating the ignorance of others.”[47] Nevertheless, Nelson never clarified who “the computer people” were and precisely how they differed from “the computer fans” that Nelson promoted and identified with.[48] Throughout the book, there were many provocative yet ambivalent statements.

Indeed, Nelson’s contemporaries already knew what was missing in his grand vision. In the popular computer magazine, Byte, a review on Computer Lib in October of 1975 pointed out:

Nelson is a generalist, for the most part, and, like many generalists, his explanations for things are sometimes overtly simplistic. . . . And “practically-minded” engineering types, who are involved in the hard work of actually building interactive computer systems, may snicker at Nelson’s grandiose plans. But ideas like these are desperately needed, and people who use computers would do well to read this book and share its visions. We’re publishing this review in the hope that some of you out there will get the book, seize upon its ideas and turn them into reality (emphasis mine).[49]

Computer Lib was more successful in explaining the essential features of computers to the general public than giving engineers new technical information.[50] Particularly, the technical information contained in Computer Lib was far from enough to put together a personal computer. For those who were interested in this purpose, they need electronics magazines such as Radio Electronics and Computer World. For instance, when explaining the concept of interactive systems, Nelson did not provide more details than “it ‘converses’ with the user.” He only vaguely admitted its theoretical aspects by referring readers to his summary on Artificial Intelligence in Dream Machine—the giant book that was literally at the flip side of Computer Lib.[51] Byte, in contrast, provided readers with the instructions they needed to turn surplus keyboards into input devices for computers; this practically improved the communicative means between humans and computers.[52] It was such hands-on experiments and innovations that more directly brought personal computers into existence than Nelson’s Computer Lib.

39. Nelson, Computer Lib, cover; Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, and Robin Parmar, “Ted Nelson and Xanadu,” The Electronic Labyrinth, November 1995. 29 November 2002.
40. Freiberger and Swaine, Fire in the Valley, 2d ed., 442.
41. “Introduction,” The Amateur Computerist, 11 February 1988.
42. Theodor H. Nelson, Computer Lib: You Can and Must Understand Computer Now (South Bend, Ind.: T. Nelson, 1974), 8.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid.
45. Ibid.
46. Ibid.
47. Ibid.
48. Ibid., 3.
49. D.H.F., review of Computer Lib / Dream Machines, by Ted Nelson, Byte, October 1975, 82.
50. Introducing the aspects of Computer Lib, Nelson wrote: “The explanations—not yet fully debugged—are intended for anybody.” Nelson, Computer Lib, 5.
51. Ibid., 13.
52. Among the first twelve issues of Byte from September 1975 to August 1976, five of them had technical articles on connecting keyboards to personal computers.