Atlas holding up a computer

It's the Big questions in computing that count.

by Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson, director of Project Xanadu, is developing software for an ever expanding library of linking literature. He is best known for his book Computer Lib.

Dream no small dreams, make no small plans. They told me that when I was young; I still believe it. Choose your dream's direction first, without worrying about the possible limitations. It is later that possibilities and facts and limits can be negotiated, traded off.
    And I would say, dream no small dreams when you start your computer life. The world of the computer invites great leaps of inspiration, aspiration, invention. Yet most people come into the field with the brave but meek notion that it is they who have to "adapt to the computer," not the computer that will bend to them; they think they must go by what is now done-and worse, what is now allowed.
    Now, you might say the practical thing is to build on what exists, what is available. Yet so much of what is done in the computer field is nonsense and accident. Why put up with this misdirection? Why build on it? Why not do things right? Especially when it comes to the most important things, the things that are the most important to get done.
    To be involved with personal computers is to make arbitrary commitments, not just to products but to the forms of organization and structure they impose. Choose your maypole: which equipment and software? Once you choose, there is no turning back. Whatever your choice, you must interface with it, interlace with it, and run your computer life by it.
    There are a lot of different computer standards today, but most are standards by accident, maypoles around which (for no good reason) millions dance and to which they tie their lives and products. These maypoles are arbitrary-the Apple II, the IBM PC, CP/M, to name a few-but choose we must. Just to get a foothold, a starting point for what we really want to do.

The Big Questions
What we ought to be asking, I submit, has to do with more eternal (or at least long-range) issues.
    1) How can we improve the world of persona life-for ourselves, for others?
    2) What are the grandest, most wonderful facilities we could possibly want for the things that arc important to us? (And how do we get them?)
    3) How would we like the society to be better?
    4) Finally, and perhaps most important, what sort of world do we want?
    These are good, big and serious questions. I submit that to attack and deal with them-truly to dive into their center and do our best both for ourselves and the world-is a worthy goal for anybody. What we choose to do about the personal computer is a very personal matter. What we choose to do about these greater questions is likewise a very personal matter no less so if we seek answers that involve computers Below are my own answers.
    1) Our lives, our concerns and our things should be better organized more easily. With computers one should be able to alleviate the nonsensical details of getting along in the world. A lot of people start in computers with this hope, but it is easy to forget There is so much junk and complication around, and we expend so much time dealing with it, that we forget things don't have to be that way.
    2) The present work stations and available networks allow us to grab, store and work on things piecemeal but not jointly in various crucial ways. As a writer and designer, I want a system that will let me examine and intercompare complex structures automatically. Beginning with notes and sketches, I want to be able to try out and arrange them this way and that, different ways simultaneously and to have a system that shows these differences. I call these creativity systems and thinkertoys.
    3) I want very much to make education better. A lot of people say this, but most of them seem to mean making education better by returning to old methods and clamping the old curriculum down tight again. I consider this absolutely wrong. Drastic changes are needed in the way we throw money, manpower and facilities at the young. Instead of saying, "Next year we need to pay X dollars to teach science, Y for humanities," we should ask, "What should educated people be like?" From this follows the question, "How do we build them?"
    4) The world of tomorrow must be a world of ideas-but ideas in their incredible richness and fullness, with the thousand possibilities that hover over every fact and artifact, every natural phenomenon and theory, every choice (abstract or pressing). Yet most people are not used to looking at things in different ways by turns. In every subject, it seems that only one point of view is considered legitimate at a given time.
    And perhaps the most annoying thing about most people's views is that they seem to think there's only one side to every subject: "what the experts know." This needs opening up. To open up multisided consideration is to open up the general vocabulary of ideas. It takes access to other points of view to awaken the imagination. I love books and magazines, and, as the joke goes, I have trunks full of them. But thousands of books and magazines don't scratch the surface. I want every book, and I want it leaping to my hand at the instant of need. I believe this is something we can all have with the help of computers.

Tomorrow Today
Anyone is free to predict the future. Here is what I see coming.
    The future will not necessarily be pretty. We will have a convulsing planet teeming with an exploding demography of hungry and angry people. There will be a deepening pessimism, and blame for every institution seen as having brought these conditions about. There will be an increase of both terrorism and random violent crime.
    On the other hand, there will be one glimmer of new optimism in the sudden thrust of space colonization. Space will be the new Silicon Valley, showering riches on the planet and spawning Young Turk technological multimillionaires. Those who can afford it, or whose skills are needed in the space colonies, will emigrate upward.
    A continuing collapse of tradition, at least in the western world, will introduce a new style of society-looser, more various, extending the "do your own thing" attitude that became general during the seventies. There will be more and more night people, more and more divergent lifestyles and experimentation. Social experimentation, experimentation with new tools for life.
    And everywhere, the computer screen will be mankind's new home. Where you now see transistor radios and portable tape players, you will soon see portable personal computers: in Third World village squares, at cafe tables, on the backs of camels, perhaps even carried as a status symbol by slum dwellers.
    There will be computer network hookups from phone system, cable and satellite in an ever-growing variety, though these will be allowed only tentatively outside the United States. And new forms of publishing through these hookups will emerge. Even now, most people are beginning to suspect dimly what some of us have known for a long time: that future writing and publishing will be, not on paper, but in the memory systems supplying the computer screens. This being so, designing the memory systems for the new archiving and publishing, and the methods for using them, is a matter of the highest priority.

Confusion of the Law
In the near term, freedom laws, forever in danger, must be extended to the new digital realms. But what lawmaker has the foggiest notion of what this is about? Perhaps one senator, Bob Packwood, who has proposed a "bill of information rights." So far this is not an issue that is generally taken seriously. And legislators are also unclear as to appropriate extension of copyright.
    Courts and legislatures think of electronic storage and publication as an exotic and abstruse area that has nothing to do with normal life, of interest only to a few corporations and crazies. As yet they have no conception that the real future of the written word, of ideas and heritage and education, is on the computer screen, fed by storage computers distributed around the globe and later in space.
    Barring the extreme contingencies-nuclear or terrorist destruction of the physical manifestations of our heritage-then it is merely continuing deterioration that will occur. Paper records will become in practice more inaccessible. Documents will increasingly tend to become anonymous and to lose authentication data and marks, like the untitled and undated Xerox copies that sometimes fall into our hands. The ease of counterfeiting will increase. An electronic document has no watermark, no signatures, no fading ink, no seals and no ribbons.
    The problem of sorting out disinformation from tomorrow's hypercomplex intelligence agencies (never mind today's) will be extraordinary. And what about variant private copies of uncertain provenance? Are they the truth preserved? Or an injected fiction? Now, there's pluralism for you. There will be not only fraudulent documents, but also fraudulent storage nodes: computers you call up that claim to be such-and-such an archive, like the false lighthouses of land pirates. How can we know we see the light?
    The centuries to come will see a mixture and a succession of freedoms and tyrannies, both on earth and in humanity's expanded realm as we colonize space. A thousand dictators, hundreds of central committees, will tell us in the coming centuries that freedom of information is not possible. Freedom is dangerous, passé, abstruse; too hot to handle, unnecessary; incomprehensible to the layman, less important to the worker than a full stomach; distracting, frightening and expensive. And perhaps in so saying they will seem right.
    But some of us will also see that there is an alternative. And can each find a way to help carry on the torch of truth.

The way I see it, the "home computer" of the future will be similar to, but not quite the same as, the machines we use today. A change will occur because there has been (and will continue to be) a great change in the makeup of computer users when compared with the pre-1980 group. Many of them will not have the slightest interest in the hardware of the computer, what processor it uses, what language it "speaks," what the software is called or what goes on in the plastic enclosure.
    Simply put, these users want a "magic box" that will do the job with a minimum of fuss and bother. All they want is to remove the computer from its cardboard shipping box, plug it in, turn it on, answer a couple of simple on-screen questions about their intentions, then do it.
    But where is the software coming from? The answer is simple. Via the telephone line. Anyone who has used CompuServe, the Source or any other data base knows that all you have to do is call the data base via your home phone, give it your unique password, then select what you want to do.
    What will we have? A data base with a broad range of applications and game software that can be added to (or changed) each month, all at the beck and call of anyone with the correct (and paid-up) password. Sort of a lending library on a CRT screen.
    Due to the broad variety of computers being sold, more than likely there will be software data bases dedicated to each particular type of machine. Users will simply select the data base from those available, pay the entry fee to receive their password, and away they go.


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