#Openlearning17 — Ted Nelson

Photo of Computer Lib, Dream Machine

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…..
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Making Poetry (?)

Ahh yes — a Ted Nelson image — that was Ritz Bitz‘ suggested “make” for the week.

I’ve posted before about the iconic clenched fist of “Computer Lib.  So instead of an image, I went with a poem (inspired by the eulogy noted in an earlier post) — a computer assisted poem, compiled from my tweets. This is one of my favorite “daily connects” from CCourses last fall.  All you do is go to Poetweet here, enter your Twitter Handle, choose a type of poem (sonnet, rondel or indriso), hit enter and let the algorithms cull harmony from an assemblage of your Tweets.  The results might not be prize worthy, but they are intriguing.  It might not be the “wonderful place” Nelson thinks we deserve, but it’s a pleasant place to reflect and unwind.  Here’s what my “sonnet” looked like.  If you go to the actual Poetweet and hover over the lines, the Tweets from whence they came appear in the margins.  Pretty cool.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 5.44.22 PM

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.

Double Creative Disruption Nugget

The internet’s disruptiveness is a consequence of its technical DNA. In programmers’ parlance, it’s a feature, not a bug – i.e. an intentional facility, not a mistake. And it’s difficult to see how we could disable the network’s facility for generating unpleasant surprises without also disabling the other forms of creativity it engenders.     — John Naughton (2010)

My connected courses this semester have been full of unpleasant surprises of the technical kind. Many people of good will have tried to help coax overloaded servers back to the front lines. But without a warp drive we are all left peddling along.

Faster Captian Picard, faster!


Taking control would make things easier: We should lock down that platform, kick out those unruly widgets, limit the size, shape, and format of the content — for the sake of stability, for the sake of control, for the sake of the greater good.  Right?  Resistance is futile, right?

Not so slow!!!! Let’s not take away the flexibility that enables the creativity as well as the unpleasant surprises. Instead, let’s fix the warp drive so the Enterprise-internet can do what we made it to do, and what we do with it every time we engage it.

This nugget from John Naughton’s piece “Everything you need to know about the internet” highlights the yin and yang of creative disruption. In the seventies Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn sought to design a future-proof system that would link networks simply and seamlessly.  They did that by setting up a decentralized net where no one person or entity has ownership or control and by embedding “neutrality” in the core architecture of the system. The network is simple in that it moves data packets from point to point. But it is neutral as to the content of those packets. So the same features that facilitate so many unpleasant surprises (malware, cyber stalking, incompatibilities) support the amazing, invigorating good stuff that brings us together and makes us smarter (communication, creation, augmentation, innovation).

Fencing off a little corner of the net as a kind of sandbox for students is a natural impulse.  Locking things down will keep us safe, make things more efficient, and short circuit the frustration. But natural as it is, the impulse to exercise this kind of control thwarts the simple, empowering, free-range qualities that make the net the net and make the web a wonderfully flexible communication medium. The safe, impulse-drive installation would limit the unpleasant surprises, but it would also hamstring the creative potential that brings us here in the first place.

The disruption can be negative or positive, but it is embedded in the net’s DNA. Fiddling with that disruptive capability undercuts the whole enterprise. Disruption is a feature, not a bug.

I need to understand that feature better in order to deal with the unpleasant surprises and cultivate more pleasant surprises. I need to take Ted Nelson’s injunction to heart:

Computer Lib cover by Ted Nelson 1974.png
Computer Lib cover by Ted Nelson 1974” by Ted Nelson – The New Media Reader (2003), page 302. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Because creativity requires facility, disruption enables innovation, and bugs in a web can be beautiful.

Oh, Had I A Golden Thread
Oh Had I A Golden Thread – Loco Steve (2010)

Oh, had I a golden thread
And a needle so fine
I’d weave a magic strand
Of rainbow design…..