Counter Currents: on Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines
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Counter Currents: on Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines

Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Hippie Modernism, the ongoing series Counter Currents invites a range of individuals and collectives—from artist Dread Scott and artist-archivist Josh MacPhee to Adam Michaels and Experimental Jetset—to share how countercultural artists and designers of the 1960s and ’70s have influenced their work and thinking today. Here, Charles Broskoski of discusses the reverberating influence of Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines—an icon of counterculture which anticipated the interconnectedness of the World Wide Web—on the making and evolution of

“‘Knowledge’ then—and indeed most of our civilization and what remains of those previous—is a vast cross-tangle of ideas and evidential materials, not a pyramid of truth. So that preserving its structure, and improving its accessibility, is important to us all.” —Ted Nelson, Dream Machines

Ted Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, 1974

In an alternate reality, I would have composed this piece of text using Xanadu, a dual hypertext library/document editor that could have taken the place of the World Wide Web. Any references I made would have been pulled from the Docuverse, my sources linked explicitly to their original documents, and vice versa, with the original documents linking back to my post. It’s easy (or maybe just funny) to imagine Xanadu as some kind of nightmarish version of Borges’ Library of Babel, a Windows 95–esque software iteration with every conceivable variation of every text ever, all linked to each other in a dense criss-crossed web of sources and citations.

In our reality, Ted Nelson served as a muse rather than the Internet’s architect. Legend has it that he conceived of Xanadu as an antidote (or amplifier) for his attention deficit disorder. He dreamed of a word processor that allowed users to surf through and freely explore associations, related material, and alternate contexts of any given piece of information. In 1975 he self-published Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a sprawling tabloid-sized double book with two front covers, on one side Computer Lib, and on the other Dream Machines. On the cover of Computer Lib, Nelson proclaims “You can and must understand computers NOW,” a call to arms for the then-coming personal computer revolution.

Damon Zucconi, Parallel Textface

In Dream Machines, Nelson made his most lasting of contributions. With bravado not seen in the world of computing since Ada Lovelace, he outlined the most beautiful and utopic possibilities for the personal computer, namely a system to explore both the depths and potentialities of all human knowledge. Nelson dreamed of freeing the mind from existing (static) mediums, and of providing a substrate and vehicle that would allow humans to soar to new heights, birth new thought, and collaborate on elaborate constructions of ideas.

Excerpt from Computer Lib/Dream Machines, 1974

The Web—as we know it—ended up in a slightly different place than what Ted Nelson imagined in Dream Machines, the key point of contention being the nature of links (“link” is short for hyperlink, a term Nelson coined). Nelson conceived of links as interconnections, two-way associations that link a piece of text directly to the document it references and vice-versa—imagine a citation that is also a portal to the original document. The version of hyperlinks that we know and understand are one way, meaning Document A links outward to a Document B and Document B is under no obligation to link back to Document A. This alternate definition of what a hyperlink should be dramatically altered the course of the Internet, sacrificing structure for flexibility and enabling the web to grow at a greater speed than it could have otherwise.

Nonetheless, Dream Machines and Computer Lib mark a turning point in the dialogue around information systems. Nelson was able to articulate the potential of personal computers and the power they give each user to not only access, store, and disseminate all of the world’s collective knowledge, but to be active participants in the creation of new ideas.

Arena_1 screenshot

I used—a collaboration tool and knowledge system that I helped to build—to aid in the construction of this blog post. Structurally, consists of two units: blocks and channels. Blocks are units of information (a piece of text, an image, a URL, a file, etc.) and channels are containers for blocks. Channels can contain any number of blocks and blocks can exist in any number of channels. Thus, pieces of information can be arranged in an infinite variety of contexts—their respective meanings shifting as the proximate information shifts. The intention behind, similar to what Ted Nelson imagined for Xanadu, is that a user is not just passively consuming information, but also continually recontextualizing information into new ideas.

Excerpt from Computer Lib/Dream Machines, 1974 is a platform for building ideas, and is run by Charles Broskoski, Daniel Pianetti and Chris Sherron.

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