Alex Wright

Ted Nelson, in rare form

July 27, 2003

Doing some research over at the SF Public Library yesterday, I came across a rare first edition of Ted Nelson's Computer Lib. Long out of print since its 1974 publication, the book is now so hard to come by that the SFPL classifies it as a non-circulating reference book, stored behind closed doors.

Nelson released Computer Lib as a reverse-bound, upside-down companion volume to his better-known Dream Machines, forerunner to the even better-known Literary Machines, where Nelson first laid out his vision of Xanadu - acknowledged by Tim Berners-Lee as his direct inspiration for the World Wide Web.

In Computer Lib, we find Nelson at his ranting, idiosyncratic best. Bound as an oversized manifesto (11x17 pages), with three columns of typewritten text interspersed with hundreds of Nelson's hyper-kinetic pencil sketches, the whole volume has a handmade, mimeograph, almost Arts-and-Crafts sensibility that seems perfectly suited to Nelson's strident anti-Industrialism.

Like a latter-day Ruskin, with perhaps a touch of Locke, Nelson rails against the overarching "Central System" mindset that pervaded the early computer industry, Nelson rants vehemently about the evils of the "computer priesthood" and the "punch card mentality" that then dominated the field (and in many ways, still does):

Guardianship of the computer can no longer be left to a priesthood. Is see this as just one example of the creeping evil of Professionalism, the control of aspects of society by cliques of insiders."

In the rest of the book, Nelson systematically debunks and demystifies the entire Computer Industry, laying out his vision for a new, humanist vision of computing that will ultimately take on a more concrete form in Xanadu.

The text itself makes every effort to resist linear reading, broken out in a series of chunks, nuggets and nested diagrams - all delivered in Nelson's signature frenetic voice - evoking the non-linear quality of "hypertext" that Nelson, at this point, was still only dreaming about.

File under: User Experience

« Karma Sengay Rinpoche | Clement Mok on the sorry state of things »


Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

Mastering Information Through the Ages

New Paperback Edition

“A penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on the information age and its historical roots.”
—Los Angeles Times     

Buy from