The Quagmire of Print-Think

In the late seventies, personal computers were starting to emerge and generate interest among some people. I was mildly interested, but I had no idea what I would do with one. Suggested uses were things like: storing recipes, an electronic address book, or maybe play computer games like Star Trek. Mostly it seemed to be about writing programs in BASIC to, say, store recipes. Anyway, none of this really got me excited enough about computers to actually buy one.

All that changed when I came across a copy of a book by Ted Nelson called Computer Lib / Dream Machines. He wrote the first edition in 1974. The copy I bought was the 1980 edition. In it, Nelson presented a vision of computers as tools to enhance and expand human intelligence and creativity. One of the big ideas he talks about in the book is hypertext, a term he coined. Hypertext is, of course, one of the foundations of the Web, as in HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language. When you click on a link, that’s a kind of hypertext.

But, to Nelson, hypertext was much more than simple links to other documents. He envisioned a new kind of non-linear, dynamic form of literature, with variable levels of detail and hierarchy, tailored to the variable needs of authors and readers, all made possible by computers, which could do things that would be impossible on the printed page. After reading Computer Lib, I had to have a computer. I wanted to be part of this future.

Of course, it didn’t happen right away, this vision of Ted Nelson. When the Mac came out, everyone (including me) was astounded by its point-and-click graphical user interface. However, as I recall reading in one of the computer magazines of the day, Nelson was unimpressed. While he agreed that it was a good start, he criticized the Mac’s WYSIWYG presentation of text and graphics as being too limited, too static and bound to the ink and paper media of the past. The desktop publishing revolution, as amazing as it was for the print publishing world, fell far short of what was possible with this new digital medium.

In a few years, we got the World Wide Web. But, as Gerry Lieonidas tells in his talk (below), we are still in many ways stuck in print-oriented concepts, just as Ted Nelson was complaining back in 1984. When I saw Gerry’s talk earlier this evening, it immediately made me think of Ted Nelson and these ideas that got me excited about computers in the first place.

Gerry, I think you’re onto something.

Above: Gerry Leonidas on The Newest New Typography from Clearleft on Vimeo.