Nelson, Theodor H. “Dream Machines.” The New Media Reader. By Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT, 2003. 305-38. Print.

Nelson, Theodor H. “Computer Lib.” The New Media Reader. By Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT, 2003. 303-05. Print.

old computer

Old computer - Image credit:

The sections I chose for this week’s reading were about the future of computers as imagined in the 1970s, and discussed early understandings of technology and the way people used them.  In “Computer Lib,” Nelson observes that computers really just aren’t that popular yet, and that most people just don’t understand them, despite “any nitwit” being able to use one.  He says that the people who do understand computers are often not too willing to explain them to others, which widens the gap between the people who DO get it and the people who DON’T get it.  Though this was written 40 years ago, it’s still pretty true.  Despite computers being so common in the US, there are still so many who either can’t or choose not to understand them past their face value.

As long as my mother can check her AOL mail and print out her photos, she’s perfectly happy.  She calls me anytime she buys a new plug-and-play device so I can “set it up.”  Though she loves her computer, she actively stops me from explaining new features to her, and refuses to stop using Internet Explorer, despite my desperate pleas for her to switch to Firefox or Chrome.  For her, all that matters is that it works, and she gives zero thought to HOW it works.  I find it interesting that she trusts it so fully without trusting it at all, since she uses it all day but maintains this wary approach.

The first thing that caught my eye about “Dream Machines” was, surprisingly enough, the first paragraph!  It states, “This is the flip side of Computer Lib.  (Feel free to begin here.  The other side is just if you want to know more about computers, which are changeable devices for twiddling symbols.  Otherwise just skip it.)  (But if you change your mind it might be fun to browse)” (305).  This was really amusing to me because it’s hypertextual in itself.  The original piece was printed on two sides of the same paper, which refers to itself on its opposite side.  By linking the reader to the other document on the same piece of paper and referencing itself, it was, in effect, imitating a hyperlink.  I thought that was pretty interesting, and probably intentional.  The other thing I liked about this piece was the random assortment of early computer tidbits!

Things like “Stretchtext,” which is just a form of writing that allows a segment of text to be expanded or compressed.  The example in the book stretches from “Stretchtext is a form of writing.  It is read from a screen.  The user controls it with throttles.  It gets longer and shorter on demand,” to “Stretchtext, a kind of hypertext, is basically a form of writing closely related to other prose.  It is read by a user or student from a computer display screen.   The user,  or student, controls it, and causes it to change, with throttles connected to the computer.  Stretchtext gets longer, by adding words and phrases, or shorter, by subtracting words and phrases, on demand” (315).  Though it uses commas rather gratuitously, this chunk of text really sums up Stretchtext in two different ways.  A modern version of this is a relatively new internet slang word, “tl;dr,” which stands for “too long; didn’t read.”  People may use this word to respond to a particularly long post on an internet forum (implying, of course, that it was too long and they didn’t read it), or they may use it in their own long posts to provide a summarizing statement.  For instance, a long story about my cats and their furry antics might end, “tl;dr: my cats are awesome.”  It gives the user the option of reading either the long version or the short version of the story, depending on the time and motivation of the reader.