Computer Lib

What? A popular book about computers was published in 1974? “How is that even possible????” you ask.

Computer Lib, by Ted Nelson, was indeed published in 1974, way before the World Wide Web, and it is undeniably and explicitly a popular book. Its subtitle (You can and must understand computers NOW) tells you that.

When I say “popular,” I don’t mean that it was a best-seller; I mean that it was written for the people.

I still have my copy from 45 years ago. It was discussed in my hearing twice last week, so that was clearly a sign that I should be writing about it here.

You probably haven’t even heard of Ted Nelson, and that’s a pity. He is best known as the inventor of the term hypertext — such as the text you’re reading right now with links in it — and less well-known as the inventor of the back button. The links in the modern World Wide Web are different in one crucial way from Nelson’s: they go in one direction only. For example, you can follow this link and find yourself immediately at a page about Nelson’s book Geeks Bearing Gifts — but when you start at that page, you have no idea how to get back here. Actually, of course, that isn’t quite true: if you want to go back right away, you can use your browser’s back button (another Ted Nelson invention), but that won’t work if you want to follow the link backwards next week. The back button is more “how did I get here?” than “how might I get here?”

Anyway, back to Computer Lib: Yesterday I dug my excessively tall copy off my top shelf (the only place where it would fit — no matter where it “belonged” — because it is 14 inches tall). In this First Edition, it was packaged back-to-back with Dream Machines (also by Nelson), in a format reminiscent of some science fiction double novels of the day. According to an Ars Technica article:

Theodor Nelson had proposed the hypertext concept as early as 1960 and tried to implemented it in his never-finished Project Xanadu. Undaunted, Nelson morphed into an eloquent evangelist for the idea. In his 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, he defined hypertext as “forms of writing which branch or perform on request; they are best presented on computer display screens.” By simplifying the process of dispersing and accessing information, hypertext and hypermedia could liberate society from what Nelson saw as an overprofessionalized digital information elite.

Some of this book seems quaint today, as you might expect from material published 45 years ago, but some of it seems right up-to-date if you change some names. Consider, for example, this small fragment of one page:

But I know — from teaching this stuff to my students — that you probably have a completely wrong idea of what Nelson means when he writes about “small computers” or “mini-computers” or “minis” for short. Unless you were working with computers 45 years ago (and very few of my readers were), you’re probably thinking of today’s desktop PCs or Macs, or maybe even laptops. But no: he means computers like DEC’s PDP-11, shown here. Of course you have no scale, no point of comparison, so let me just say that this machine was taller than a person (taller than I, at any rate) and was “mini” only by comparison with the room-sized IBMs that were common at the time. I’ll let you figure out how we possibly communicated with this beast, since you see no keyboard and no monitor. As a brief aside, let me remark that it’s not that keyboards and monitors were unknown in the day. In fact, even back in the previous decade, the ’60s, Harvard owned a PDP-1 mini-computer, which took up a good chunk of a carefully temperature-controlled room and came with keyboard and monitor. This time you can judge the scale by human comparison.


So, you’re still wondering what this book is really like. I’ll give you an example of a page on which I put a quarter for the purpose of scale and size comparison:

Notice the tiny type (hard to read for eyes that are older than 30), handwritten annotations, and general clutter. But I also need to comment on the topic of this page: APL is one of the very few programming languages discussed in Nelson’s book, and it happens to be one that I not only learned but also taught. One year at Lincoln-Sudbury, when I was teaching Algebra II Honors along with my friends Alison Birch and Phil Lewis, we decided to incorporate APL into the course. (I’m always seeking to incorporate programming into my math classes, usually with less success than I had hoped.) We chose this because APL is a programming language with a strongly algebraic bent, including the ability to work with vectors and iteration in very simple ways. Unfortunately the strange symbols made it too daunting for too many students.

BTW, one student told me at the end of the course that he had just realized the reason it was called APL was that it is A Programming Language; he had thought all along that it stood for Alison, Phil, and Larry!

As I said at the top of this post, the purpose of Computer Lib is to help you understand computers — but in a social awareness sense much more than a techie sense. It was trying to start a revolution, and in a sense it did, though the revolution went in a direction that no one anticipated. No one except for the occasional science fiction writer anticipated Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Read the excerpt below (or on the right, depending on your settings), and then check out Ted Nelson’s YouTube commentary, in which he explains how his whole life has stood for “freedom, privacy, creativity, understanding, new forms of writing, new forms of education, non-hierarchical ways of structuring, non-hierarchical ways of writing, and clarity of organization.’

And here we are today.

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning, Technology