For the Wholiness of the Human Spirit

Re-watching Ted Nelson’s eulogy for Doug Engelbart last week reminded me of one of the many (many) reasons Nelson’s thinking about computers and society resonate so powerfully with me. Mourning the loss of one of the most pivotal stars of the new media revolution by indicting his colleagues and making them laugh (nervously), invoking the tropes of classical funeral orations and quotes from Shaw and Shakespeare, and recounting the highlights and tragedies of Engelbart’s career, Nelson’s eulogy is a tour de force in terms of form (technique) and content.  He insists, as passionately as he had in 1974, that computers should support our dreams, indeed that technology is an expression of those dreams.  And dreams, of course, are as much about the emotions as they are about reason and calculation.

 Movies and books, music and even architecture have for all of us been part of important emotional moments. The same is going to happen with the new media. To work at a highly responsive computer display screen, for instance, can be deeply exciting, like flying an airplane through a canyon, or talking to somebody brilliant. This is as it should be…..

In the design of our future media and systems, we should not shrink from this emotional aspect as a legitimate part of our fantic (see p. 317) design. The substratum of technicalities and the mind-bending, gut-slamming effects they produce, are two sides of the same coin; and to understand the one is not necessarily to be alienated from the other.

Thus it is for the Wholiness of the human spirit, that we must design. (NMR, p. 307)

The democratizing, radically-reimagining agenda laid out in Computer Lib / Dream Machines is as relevant today as it was in 1974.  In the early seventies, computing was about inscrutable calculations, fiendishly massive quantification, and the expertise of, yep, experts.  Nelson summoned every woman to “understand computers,” to engage with them, and to create with them. He insisted (rightly) that we are creatures of culture and of interaction as much (perhaps even more so) as we are creatures of reason and calculation. And he wanted us to use computers to develop a “fantic space” (inspired by Eisenstein’s and Pudovkin’s concept of filmic space) to help us communicate emotionally as well as cognitively:

 RESPONSIVE COMPUTER DISPLAY SYSTEMS CAN, SHOULD AND WILL RESTRUCTURE AND LIGHT UP THE MENTAL LIFE OF MANKIND. (NMR, p. 317)

Forty years later, the landscape has changed, but the challenge remains.  We carry computers with us all day long, communicate with people downstairs and around the world in the blink of an eye, and can summon nearly all the world’s texts and many of its numbers to our screens with a few key strokes and a good internet connection. I do feel that my mental life has been illuminated and transformed by the innovations Nelson envisioned. But do we understand computers and the networked world in the way that Nelson thought we needed to? Has the Computer Priesthood” been ousted? Or just changed clothes?  And what about “Computer Aided Instruction” (CAI, as Nelson calls it)?  I look at computerized testing,  video taped lectures, the march of MOOCs, the “Learning Management System” industry, and the relentless pressure to scale, standardize, measure and homogenize an experience that should be so much more….and I think we still need to focus instead on using this technology to provide students (and ourselves) with a real education:

Instead of devising elaborate systems permitting the computer or its instructional contents to control the situation, why not permit the student to control the system, show him how to do so intelligently, and make it easy for him to find his way? Discard the sequences, items and conversation, and allow the student to move freely through materials which he may control. Never mind optimizing reinforcement or validating teaching sequence. Motivate the user and let him loose in a wonderful place” (NMR, p. 313).

I want to keep my beacon set on that wonderful place.

Book Lib / Dream Catcher

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I found it important and ironic that Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machine came into the world as a Janus-faced book (which the introduction to our reader id’s as a “codex.”  Cleaning off the real paper piles (after the digital drifts had been safely closed away) last weekend, I stumbled on this essay by William Cronon, who recently finished his term as president of the American Historical Association, an organization much interested in books (forever) and computing (more recently).  Echoing Walter Benjamin, a self-diagnosed and self aware bibliophile, Cronon offers an insightful meditation on how scholars (ok historians anyway) have not yet fully succeeded in extending the relationships we have with the curated collections of knowledge – embodied in bound volumes and physical  libraries — to the digital world.  Cronon, an early adopter and champion of ebooks and electronic preservation, does see the potential of expanding digital depositories and the incredible power of SEARCH.  But he also notes that the Romans’ invention of the codex, whose pages replaced ancient scrolls, “remains one of the most powerful random-access devices humanity has yet devised.”  As someone who routinely spends lots of time scrolling (and clicking) to find something in cyberspace, I appreciate his veneration of the physical book and his endorsement of the ease of finding and retrieving something quickly from it.  My physical books and manuscripts I work with are known to me and accessible to me in a way that searching and scrolling can’t quite equal.  At least not yet.