Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Article #1, Introduction: Computer Lib

Nelson writes a breezy and somewhat flippant introduction to a socially conscious computer text. He argues that computers are a necessary part of modern life (modern being 1974, for a little perspective) and that everyone should be computer-literate, but that there are few opportunities for people who are not to become so, and to that end he has written this book to explain the basics.

Rather than coming from a solely technological perspective, though, Nelson is writing from a tradition of social radicalism. He talks about the "computer priesthood," the tendency of computer professionals to hoard knowledge, as unique not in its existence (doctors and engineers do the same thing) but in the impact of it. Since everyone has to deal with computers, the hoarding of knowledge is a serious problem. He castigates professionalism in general in a sidebar, preferring an informed citizenry to a decision-making professional class.

The goal of his book, then, is to create that informed citizenry. Nelson objects to popular objections to "the computer," saying instead that people should object to bad computer systems, not computers in general. He wants everyone to understand computers enough to understand the way people want to apply them in policy and in daily life, so that they can react from an informed position instead of a position of technophobia.


  1. Rant was the first thing that came to my mind when I read this article. Then 1984, he even mentions Orwell in the beginning section.


    I did find his theory that computers and information were being hoarded by professionals interesting. I wasn't around in 1974 so I'm not sure if the public had the perception that computers were being controlled by the "computer priesthood".

  2. I'm pretty interested in flipping through the rest of this book, or even just the table of contents.

  3. I thought of 1984, too. I particularly enjoyed: "...or worse, computers deal with you, though you may not know it" (5). I was also surprised by the vehemence of this author's arguments in context of it being over thirty years ago. It seemed much more relevant to the enormous divide between computer engineers and computer users/the public today. Not too many years ago, I could probably write a web page that looked comparably good with others; now, I don't bother writing web pages because there's no way I'll ever "catch up" enough with the experts in this area to make a decent site.

    However, I don't generally think this information is being "hoarded" by professionals anymore, especially not in context of the open source movement and the number of tech blogs out there (although for-profit companies are another story). Honestly, this field is getting so complex that it takes a professional to be really good at mastering it - I wonder how many of the hobbyists from Nelson's time kept up.

  4. How much are Nelson's views applicable to our present state of computer interaction? On one hand, computer literacy is not so harshly divided as it was in the early seventies. Although a computer priesthood still exists, the rest of society is perhaps closer to being monks and altar boys rather than just techno-heathens. We are much more aware of the presence (interference?) of computers in our everyday lives. Rather than an abstraction confined to Sci-Fi movies, computers are very real and tactile. So there are more people today who are comfortable with email and flash media than there were people in Nelson's time using punch cards and machine language.

    But, it doesn't mean we're any closer to the kind of yeoman computer society that Nelson was suggesting. In fact, I'd agree with Rachel and say that the time for real, soup-to-nuts computer literacy among the general population has come and gone. Nelson mentions Mechanix Illustrated as one of his influences in writing this book, which brings to mind an apt comparison for then and now. Just as the shade-tree auto mechanic's time has come and gone, perhaps so too has the computer hobbyist/guru.

  5. "The human race may only have a short time left on earth, even if there is no war. These studies must be seen and understood by as many intelligent men of good will as possible" (p6, bottom of first column). Is this statement one of the "concerns" the author is throwing into "comic relief"? In addition to the various and incredible/hilarious(?) statements sprinkled throughout this selection by Nelson, I think that it's worth noting that it was self-published (p4, column 4). I like the photo posted of Nelson on Wikipedia ("Computers, Arise!"), and I peeked at his website ( learned that he "Coined a number of words now in various degrees of general use. These include 'hypertext' and 'hypermedia' (1965)".

  6. For a deeper glimpse into the wonderfully warped mind of Ted Nelson, look no further than

    He might be a computer fan, but his layout skills are a bit suspect.

    And seriously.....Xanadu?

  7. I have been thinking a lot about the language used to describe computers. There is a sort of mysticism the veils how computers work and Nelson's talk of a priesthood reminded me of that. I have heard people and I have on occasion referred to the magic of technology, the need to perform certain rituals to ensure the computers continued use, and reference to gods of technology. I wonder if on some level I do this because I honestly don't really understand how computers work and why sometimes they don't. Computer gurus exist to fix computers and other gadgets, so perhaps Nelson's priesthood analogy wasn't as far off as it first seems.