#Openlearning17 — Ted Nelson

Repost of For the Wholiness of the Human Spirit (2015)

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 resonates 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:


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.

Image: POW! It’s Super Language, Alan Levine 2011

6 Replies to “#Openlearning17 — Ted Nelson”

  1. Wow! That’s quite a eulogy. Thanks for sharing.

    Reading through your reflections on how Nelson’s objections to CAI and the Computer Priesthood have proven all too prescient (with computers often becoming tools for perpetuating, rather than challenging, the overly-constricted educational structures he deplored — I wonder whether one of Nelson’s mistakes was to imagine computers and all they make possible as a means of presenting information *to* students (however appealingly, and with whatever degree of choice in the path/sequence) rather than imagining them as tools students could use to create themselves.

    It seems to me, at least from my disciplinary perspective (the teaching of writing) that one of the best ways to challenge the ongoing (and it certainly feels like increasing) forces of standardization and homogenization is to insist that really good activities and assignments — the ones from which students learn transferrable skills like critical thinking — are ones that evoke unpredictable responses from students (and so must receive feedback, and, if necessary, a grade, from an actual human being — preferably the same one who wrote, and will periodically revise, the assignment). Even in such situations, there’s a certain amount of balancing order (explicit requirements, timelines, directions, etc.) and chaos/unpredictability (what topics will students pick? what potential sources will they find? what will they make of them?), but it’s definitely very different from a curriculum so structured that an algorithm, or at least a human being with only brief training, can provide responses that keep the student “on track.”

  2. I like the idea of setting students loose through an enjoyable learning experience/journey… I’m just skeptical that many of them want such an experience. I speak partly from anecdotal evidence of student annoyance when they are allowed to choose their own topic, as a minor example of this. The goal of the teacher is to improve student motivation by allowing them to choose a topic that interests them. But then the students are overwhelmed the options or not really interested in doing the assignment in the first place, so having to choose a topic is just more work. I think Nelson would blame this on the way K-12 education is structured. Students are conditioned a certain way so why should we be surprised if they resist a new type of education. I suppose his argument would be that if the educational experience were highly self-motivated from the very start, they would be conditioned appropriately and handle the options better. I find myself very skeptical … 😉

    1. I understand the skepticism! And students coming from our K-12 system have not typically been encouraged or allowed to do much in the way of free range learning.
      But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much motivation increases when students have more responsibility for their learning and more flexibility about which topics and interests they pursue. I do give them some guidance — the rough parameters of the topic, or some suggested readings, and I point them at high value material they might not find on their own. But I try to leave the rest of it pretty open.
      I use blogging in most of my courses these days, and have found that a bit of encouragement and genuine interest on my part, combined with feedback from peers makes for posts and F2F interactions that are richer and more interesting than what I used to experience with more traditional formats.

      1. That’s good to hear 🙂 I should have said that I’m a librarian, so I probably just end up with the students that are annoyed by the more open assignments. I never hear the good side! Typically the students that are asking for help from the library are the ones who are already at a point of frustration because they couldn’t figure things out on their own. It sounds like, in your experience as a professor, more often than not they are happy with the experience!

        1. I hope that’s right ;-). The trick for me is to give them the space and support they need to find something they are genuinely interested in to write about. Once they are motivated by curiosity rather than the instruction to “find a topic” it usually goes well.

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