Computer Lib by Ted Nelson

I am A Man of Letters. I’ve been reading lately, and I have found some words I would like to share. Today, selections from Computer Lib by Ted Nelson. Nelson was born in 1937. He is a computer pioneer, and the creator of the concept of hypertext. Computer Lib was first published in 1974.

Any nitwit can understand computers, and many do. Unfortunately, due to ridiculous historical circumstances, computers have been made a mystery to most of the world. And this situation does not seem to be improving. You hear more and more about computers, but to most people it’s just one big blur. The people who know about computers often seem unwilling to explain things or answer your questions. Stereotyped notions develop about computers operating in fixed ways – and so confusion increases. The chasm between laymen and computer people widens fast and dangerously.

Knowledge is power and so it tends to be hoarded. Experts in any field rarely want people to understand what they do, and generally enjoy putting people down.

Thus if we say that the use of computers is dominated by a priesthood, people who spatter you with unintelligible answers and seem unwilling to give you straight ones, it is not that they are different in this respect from any other profession. Doctors, lawyers and construction engineers are the same way.

But computers are very special, and we have to deal with them everywhere, and this effectively gives the computer priesthood a stranglehold on the operation of all large organizations, of government bureaux, and everything else that they run. Members of Congress are now complaining about control of information by the computer people, that they cannot get the information even though it’s on computers. Next to this it seems a small matter that in ordinary companies “untrained” personnel can’t get straight questions answered by computer people; but it’s the same phenomenon.

It is imperative for many reasons that the appalling gap between public and computer insider be closed. As the saying goes, war is too important to be left to the generals. Guardianship of the computer can no longer be left to a priesthood. I see this as just one example of the creeping evil of Professionalism, the control of aspects of society by cliques of insiders. There may be some chance, though, that Professionalism can be turned around. Doctors, for example, are being told that they no longer own people’s bodies. And this book may suggest to some computer professionals that their position should not be as sacrosanct as they have thought, either.

This is not to say that computer people are trying to louse everybody up on purpose. Like anyone trying to do a complex job as he sees fit, they don’t want to be bothered with idle questions and complaints. Indeed, probably any group of insiders would have hoarded computers just as much. If the computer had evolved from the telegraph (which it just might have), perhaps the librarians would have hoarded it conceptually as much as the math and engineering people have. But things have gone too far. People have legitimate complaints about the way computers are used, and legitimate ideas for ways they should be used, which should no longer be shunted aside.

In no way do I mean to condemn computer people in general. (Only the ones who don’t want you to know what’s going on.) The field is full of fine, imaginative people. Indeed, the number of creative and brilliant people known within the field for their clever and creative contributions is considerable. They deserve to be known as widely as, say, good photographers or writers.

Which brings us to our next topic.

There is no question of whether the computer will remake society; it has. You deal with computers perhaps many times a day – or worse, computers deal with you, though you may not know it. Computers are going into everything, are intertwined with everything, and it’s going to get more and more so. The reader should have a sense of the dance of options, the remarkably different ways that computers may be used: by extension, he should come to see the extraordinary range of options which confront us as a society in our future use of them. Indeed, computers have with a swoop expanded the options of everything.

But a variety of inconvenient systems already touch on our lives, nuisances we must deal with all the time; and I fear that worse is to come. I would like to alert the reader, in no uncertain terms, that the time has come to be openly attentive and critical in observing and dealing with computer systems; and to transform criticism into action. If systems are bad, annoying and demeaning, these matters should be brought to the attention of the perpetrators. Politely at first. But just as the atmospheric pollution fostered by [General Motors] has become a matter for citizen concern and attack through legitimate channels of protest, so too should the procedural pollution of inconsiderate computer systems become a matter for the same kinds of concern. The reader should realize he can criticize and demand;


There is already a backlash against computers, and the spirit of this anti-computer backlash is correct, but should be directed against very specific kinds of things. The public should stop being mad at “computers” in the abstract, and start being mad at the people who make in­convenient systems. It is not “the computer,” which has no intrinsic style or character, which is at fault; it is people who use “the computer” as an excuse to inconvenience you, who are at fault. The mechanisms of legitimate public protest – sit-ins and so on – should perhaps soon be turned to complaint over bad and inhuman computer systems.

The question is, will the crummier trends continue? Or can the public learn, in time, what good and beautiful things are possible, and translate this realization into an effective demand? I do not believe this is an obscure or specialized issue. Its shadow falls across the future of mankind, if any, like a giant sequoia. Either computer systems are going to go on inconveniencing our lives, or they are going to be turned around to make life better. This is one of the directions that consumerism should turn.

I have an axe to grind: I want to see computers useful to individuals, and the sooner the better, without necessary complication or human servility being required. Anyone who agrees with these principles is on my side, and anyone who does not, is not.


That’s really all it’s about. Many people, for reasons of their own, enjoy and believe in restricting and coercing people; the reader may decide whether he is for or against this principle.

Thank you for listening. For more information about the words I have read and the music to follow, please visit A Man of Letters.

Until I return, I am… A Man of Letters.

Fletcher Henderson – Radio Rhythm (1931)
Fats Waller – Zonky (1935)

Episode 1542