Stop reading. Go pull this post up on your mobile device. We'll wait.
Is the experience more enjoyable than you remember? These new mobile styles (*gestures encompassingly*) are courtesy Jason Huff. His April 27th pull request—a GitHub-centric way of submitting potential improvements to an open development project—was the first outside contribution to the site's code since we open-sourced earlier that same month. (If you still have display problems on your browser/device, create a new issue for us on Github).
Chuck Colby with Homebrew Computer Club wares (Credit: Amy Desiree Photography)
The buffet occupies two tables; the rest are covered with computer paraphernalia. In many ways, it feels like another tech meetup. Well-rehearsed elevator pitches are offered: "It's like Minecraft and The Sims smashed together and put on the web." One young programmer was attracted to the meeting because, "It's in the Bay Area, it's on Kickstarter, so why the fuck not?"
But this is the 38th Anniversary Reunion of the Homebrew Computer Club, the group that "launched the personal computing revolution," or so the story goes. Temporal and ideological anomalies abound. The hardware is all vintage, and while some participants are there in search of networking opportunities, others are still out to change the world, to put technological tools into the hands of the people. A veteran whips out his $90 paper tape reader, insisting no one can understand Homebrew unless they’ve hacked one. An Altair 8800 that famously produced music at an original meeting is here for an encore—no drastic restoration necessary, the thing just works. At serial inventor Chuck Colby's table, there's a stack of printouts which read:
WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH YOUR NEW RHIZOME ACCOUNT?
The first 81 answers:
Work for Rhizome
my best to support the community!
Create an art portfolio
new blog site creation
Create a portfolio
connect with other artists
will make use of rhizomes basic features
publish my art and writing and let people know about it
connect with artists
explore Rhizome's basic futures, such online art works
So much money
i am student of art school finding some inspiration
use for education purposes
Read reviews, find out what's going on near me, and discover new art.
New Media Art Research
explore the art world, become more involved
hood rat things with my friends
look at art
comment on typos
promote my art
make the best of it
i love this site
Write a content
Inform people about my ideas
Die Abnehm Lösung
Post job openings
Some sound design project or something
health centres in the UK
Create job postings for software engineers.
post news about new orleans art
I want to build my reputation here.
im going to use
Stock Trading Software
I want became a Member
use for business
post my blogs
Post two faculty positions
"The simplest hypothesis about the future is that it will not be like the past". At 76, Ted Nelson has seen several futures give way to the present and watched others detonate on the launchpad. "I have listened to the guff of Artificial Intelligence bullshit artists for 50 years", he said. Nelson is best known for coining the term "hypertext" in 1965 and hatching an ambitious global computer network (pre-web) called Xanadu. But it was Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web which became the dominant paradigm instead, and many of Nelson's ideas were left out (for example a system of automatic micropayments to compensate content owners for file copying). For his presentation on the future, Nelson focused on population and petroleum:
"So, what we are going to see sometime this century is a vast, horrible, precipitous fall in the population, accompanied by who-knows-what, genocide, war, and paroxysms of horror."
Take the computer models of The Limits of Growth, a 1972 book commissioned by The Club of Rome. No matter how the parameters are tweaked, the simulation ends with catastrophe sometime in the mid-21st century. Nelson believes that core aspects of the species drive human affairs above and beyond the influence of technology: "all the genes fit together in this strange thing we call humanness, which has essentially not changed in perhaps 250,000 years", an unfriendly reminder to those who believe smartphones are changing us into posthumans--an idea that manifests in some of the surrounding PS1 gallery spaces. This humanism exuded by Nelson and other techno-dissenters is becoming increasingly mainstream as well.
"Our huge collective task in finding the best future for digital networking will probably turn out to be like finding our way back to approximately where Ted was at the start."
- Jaron Lanier
In the discussion section preceding his lecture, Nelson was asked about the "Internet Skepticism movement". Nelson is a friend of Jaron Lanier (whose new book includes a chapter on Nelson), but was not aware of Evgeny Morozov, who will also lecture in the same series at PS1. Nelson expressed that he has little interest in what the media terms a movement, but he is glad others are catching on.
"I don't know anybody from my generation of computer people that has adapted because we all had original visions and were not hampered by having seen 'the web', or 'Google' or 'cascading menus' or 'Microsoft Word' so we were free to imagine things an entirely different way."
How does it feel to look around and see a watered-down version of your own vision? "Hypertext was invented by Douglas C. Englebart, my dearest friend who died two days ago", Nelson reminds us. A quick Google search for 'inventor of hypertext' displays 'Ted Nelson' inside a big box with a headshot. This discrepancy can perhaps be explained by something Nelson said about information annealing:
"On most subjects in the universe, there's generally a minority point of view and that doesn't anneal very well, unless you rule it out."
Like Englebart, Nelson's early involvement in the technology allowed him to create something unprecedented. "Everything you see on a computer screen is an imaginary concept someone carried through", Nelson said. In the current climate, programming is seen as the means to understand and manipulate the systems which exude control over our lives, but the ability to make the imaginary real is what gets many creative people glued to their screens. And Xanaduspace, Nelson's 3D demo of linked documents built on a 50-year-old data model, does much to stimulate one's imagination. It's like catching a glimpse of an alternate present, one in which "parallel flying pages or Xanaweave" are in everyday parlance. Referring to today's young technologists for which San Francisco serves as "a bedroom," Nelson said:
"[they possess] tunnel vision optimism with which they see the future. They think that apps and search will give us everything... will make the world a happier and cleaner place... it's all fad-driven.. the latest slogan has huge ripples throughout the community."
In the early days of the net, cyberculture fizzed with a similar ethos. When asked about it, Nelson remarked that Wired, a magazine started by "two people I thought were my friends" and to a lesser extent Mondo 2000, perpetrated a narrow view:
"The excitement of the latest crap is brought to you with some good reporting on various topics and a lot of futuristic gibberish and a lot of ads". "Tsunami of Junk" is another term Nelson used to describe technology today. "Everyone regards technology as this juggernaut, this bulldozer which must be obeyed". Do we view technology as a huge machine, a force of nature, unchangeable and somehow responsible for our salvation? When asked if he believes in technological solutions to problems, Nelson said:
"I do not believe there is a technological fix for everything... many things come out of the woodwork as surprises, as surprise solutions to problems".
To illustrate, Nelson explained that with heart transplants, the supply chain for replacement hearts often ends at Chinese prisoners. "That is a technological fix accompanied by, shall we say, accommodative social mechanisms that are not always available."
It's difficult to see optimism in a barrage of negativity. But the opposite, those who "plump, hype, [and] enthuse about the current paradigm" do so often at the expense of our understanding. "All kinds of things are possible but we restrict ourselves very much", Nelson said. To broaden our horizons, we must learn to think outside the current paradigm whether one agrees it's a "juggernaut of crap" or not.
Lanier, Jaron. Who Owns the Future. Simon & Shuster:New York, 2013. Print.
Griffin, Scott. "Ted Nelson". Internet Pioneers. Web. <http://www.ibiblio.org/pioneers/nelson.html>