Computer Lib / Dream Machines is the title of a
revolutionary book written by Ted Nelson in 1973. It's subtitle was
"You can and must understand computers NOW". In order to
appreciate the book, however, you have to set yourself back into the
ancient history of 1973.
Picture a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth: computational
dinosaurs, that is. Computers the size of a room. A time of punched
cards and magnetic tape on huge spinning wheels. The internet was
still a baby with a handful of hosts. The very idea of a personal
computer was just being born. The average person on the street knew
nothing of how computers worked, what they might or might not be good
for or how to use them. A primitive time when wrist watches were
still analog and your light bill had holes punched in it.
Ted Nelson got his start with computers in the early sixties and
saw that they contained the seeds of a revolution. A people's
revolution. The sixties counter-culture days were still fresh in
Nelson's mind and he took those sensibilities and applied them to the
education of the public on the subject of computers. The result was a
classic that clearly predicted the personal computer revolution,
hypertext and world-wide networks.
The book is curiously printed. Computer Lib is the first
side, meant to be educational and arouse the curiosity of the public.
Flip the book upside down and you have Dream Machines, a look
into the future of computing. Both end in the middle of the book and
are, therefore, printed upside down relative to each other. Why he
wanted the two to meet in the middle is a mystery to me, but there's a
reason that you don't see this more often: it makes switching back and
forth between the two a pain. It's also interesting that the book is
as close as possible to being hypertext while still being on the
printed page. There are side-bars and pull quotes and extra columns
and paste-ons and doo-dads all over the place. At least a hundred
different fonts are used and there are no end to the dingbats.
Computer Lib is charming to read in the 21st century.
Slogans like "Yesterday's freedom can be today's drag" and "Computers
are where it's at" give the book a flower power atmosphere that is
just plain fun. Underneath the fun, though, Nelson pounds a simple
message through: computers are important; computers can be understood
by the average person; don't let corporations tell you what computers
can and can't do; get involved with computers yourself and take charge
of your future.
These days, of course, these are all either axiomatic or simply
taken for granted, but in 1973 it was a message of revolution: we the
people have to keep an eye on those nasty Big Computers and the
priesthood who service them:
The new breed has got to be watched.
This is the
urgency of this book. Remember that the man who writes the payroll
program can write himself some pretty amazing checks - perhaps to be
mailed out to Switzerland, next year.
From here on it's computer
politics, computer dirty tricks, computer wonderlands, computer
For anyone concerned to be where it's at, then, this
book will provide a few suggestions. Now is the time you either know
or you don't.Enough power talk. Knowledge is power. Here you
go. Dig in.
He goes on to talk about computer programming, computers available
for home users (very few and very difficult to set up and use and no
power at all by today's standards), computer games, virtual computer
reality and so on. He winds up the book with a little Club of Rome
screed against pollution, nuclear power, over-population, hunger and
all of the other predicted horrors that never came to pass. Some of
it gets a bit thick:
By the year 2000 it is not inconceivable that bootleg
atomic weapons will be as widespread as handguns in Detroit - and as
So here it is folks, merry times ahead. Humanity may
end with a bang (thermonuclear exchanges, or just desultory firings
until we're all poisoned or sterile), or with a whimper (universal
starvation), or, I would anticipate, some spastic combination of the
two, and all within the (possible) lifetime of the average reader.
That is, at any rate, what I think most likely.
He goes on to urge people to use computers
to look for solutions. In
a way, this is
what happened, just not the way he planned. It
was technology (including, as a central ingredient, computers) that
led to the green revolution that lets us feed ever more people ever
better. It was technology that found ways to reduce air and water
pollution. It is technology that lets the eyes of the world focus on
tyrants and dictators. So, really, Ted was right and it all worked
better than he ever dared to hope.
Dream Machines has a more academic air (but the same wild
format). Ted walks us straight through the coming computer revolution
without missing a beat. We get lectured on hypertext, networking,
electronic mail, BBS's, computer-generated images and video, image
processing, assorted programming languages, computer-aided education,
body electronics, robotics, distributed computing and, at the end,
Nelsons Bill of Information Rights (editorial paraphrase in italics):
These are rules, derrived from common sense and uncommon
concern, about what people can and should have in general screen
systems, systems to read from:
- Easy and arbitrary front ends
(systems easy to learn and use)
- Smooth and rapid data access
(real hypertext, bidirectional links, no file boundaries,
- Rich data facilities (arbitrary links, bookmarks,
- Rich data services based on these structures (automatic
summarization and contextualization)
- Freedom from spying and
sabotage (no monitoring, digitally signed material)
(including automatic payment systems)
He ends up with a simple path for the future.
It is time to start using computers to hold information
for the mind as much as books have held this information in the
Ted's a lucky guy. Few people get to envision a future
, then live
to enjoy it. Xanadu
may never work, and it's well-known that he
hates the way the World Wide Web
turned out, but still, his vision
has certainly come true.
You can still find the book on Amazon or eBay (for $90 bucks!), but it seems to be out of print (Ted originally published it himself and sold it out of the trunk of his car - later, the Microsoft Press got ahold of it).