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 everything.
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 much used.
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:
  1. Easy and arbitrary front ends (systems easy to learn and use)
  2. Smooth and rapid data access (real hypertext, bidirectional links, no file boundaries, etc)
  3. Rich data facilities (arbitrary links, bookmarks, etc)
  4. Rich data services based on these structures (automatic summarization and contextualization)
  5. Freedom from spying and sabotage (no monitoring, digitally signed material)
  6. Copyright (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 past.
    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).

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