Nelson’s Dream Machine (2)

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Nonetheless, one might defend Nelson as a visionary theorist in the same vein that theorists played important roles in the development of modern physics. Further examination, however, reveals that even Nelson’s visions were problematic. First of all, although Nelson criticized IBM’s basic business principle: “once an IBM customer, always an IBM customer,” which he interpreted as designed to control its customer, he did not seem to have escaped from such control. His list of information sources in Computer Lib did not include hobby electronics magazines. Instead, it mostly consisted of references to IBM systems or related technical and mathematical journals.[53]

Secondly, how visionary Nelson was, indeed, debatable. In a lesser known book, The Home Computer Revolution, that Nelson published in 1977, he credited himself for having point out repeatedly since the mid 1960s that the future market for computers was in the home.[54] However, Nelson spent only one page to introduce minicomputers in Computer Lib, and his endorsement was limited to suggest: “For several families with children to pool together and buy one for the kids makes a lot of sense.”[55] Ironically, the earliest personal computers were not aimed at children’s educational needs, but were marketed more like hobbyists’ toys. Lastly, the innovation of personal computers might have been completely outside the scope of Nelson’s expectations. He constantly used “accidental” to describe the birth of Roberts’ Altair computer. In his descriptions, the amateur computer club was a “strange phenomenon,” and the hobbyists who tried to figure out how to build their own computers were “a peculiar breed.”[56]

An analysis on Nelson’s emphasis on computer graphics (CG) in Computer Lib will summarize the remote possibility that his vision could have directly lead to the innovation of personal computers in the 1970s. In his Dream Machine, Nelson devoted one-fifth of the contents to discuss CG, then the most advanced and fancy technology that only a special designed mainframe computer could perform. Apparently, CG was Nelson’s favor. However, the development of CG for personal computers turned out to disagree with some of Nelson’s advocacies. Nelson downplayed the importance of hardware. Yet CG did not become a standard feature of personal computers until the mid-1990, not because its theory or software was not developed, but because the necessary CG hardware was too expensive for the general public. Therefore, CG had long been a technology that only rich users could enjoy. Nelson’s advocacies were almost never related to the financial affordability. Instead, it was “the computer people” whom Nelson blamed for manipulating technology that had worked diligently for decades to finally bring CG to the common personal computer users.

The sadness of Nelson’s story was not that he failed to propose a workable paradigm for his contemporary computer hobbyists. Instead, it was in the fact that there was no one more visionary than Nelson. The editor of Byte commented in 1975 that Nelson’s ideas were overly simplistic, but none in the following decades came foreword with a better vision than Nelson. Nelson once said: “I thought there would be a real computer revolution; I see complete betrayal.”[57] If Computer Lib represented the vision of the computer revolution in the mid 1970s, then it was too vague and arbitrary to be put into reality. In this vein, Nelson was a lonely revolutionist, who was not betrayed but lacked followers.

53. Nelson, Computer Lib, 6-7.
54. Nelson, The Home Computer Revolution, 44
55. Nelson, Computer Lib, 36.
56. Nelson, The Home Computer Revolution, 49-51.
57. Freiberger and Swaine, Fire in the Valley, 2d ed., 441.