Nelson: starting with the cover(s)

[Note: I’d love to include an image of the covers of Computer Lib/Dream Machines here, since they’re fascinating, and yes, images can aid understanding, especially when they represent the phenomenon under analysis.  But Nelson asserted copyright in his work, and that copyright still applies. I could probably use Wikipedia’s rationale for reproducing a low-resolution image.  But instead I’ll link to DigiBarn, which has some nice images of both the covers and some inside pages, scanned and posted with permission from Nelson. A google image search will turn up some additional (apparently unauthorized) images, including ones which show how the two covers connect, especially the intrusion of the superhero figure’s foot from the cover of Dream Machines onto the cover of Computer Lib]

In an attempt to feel a bit more caught up with the ongoing conversations in Open Learning 17, I decided to look ahead to the reading for week four (I like to think about things for a while before I write about them).  It looks like we’ll be reading excerpts (tba) of Theodor H. Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, so I skimmed through the full(er?) version currently linked from the syllabus, trying to get a sense of the book(s) as a whole.  I found myself thinking about the information on the covers, including titles, subtitles, and illustrations.

The result, below, is some combination of a rhetorical analysis (courtesy of my current professional identity as a writing teacher), a gender analysis with particular attention to historical/cultural context and the book as an object (concerns common to my original fields of research/study), and the musings of someone who was just beginning to be culturally aware in 1974 (I was ten when the first edition of Computer Lib/Dream Machines came out).  There is also something of a trail, as I attempted to answer a research question using the affordances of the internet, a tool which, as we’ve noted, in many ways resembles the systems of knowledge-recording and building imagined by Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson himself.  So here’s the question, which came to me almost immediately on seeing the title, and the date of publication:

Why did Nelson choose Computer Lib as one of his titles? More specifically, what were the resonances of “lib” for him and his (possible/projected/ideal) reader(s)? 

My own immediate association, based on my somewhat-hazy memories of a 1974 spent living in the Northern Virginia suburbs, is with “women’s lib.”  Based on those associations, and on the androcentric perspective some of us have noted in our historical readings so far (Bush and Engelbart),  I was surprised.  Have we arrived at a reading which will display some awareness of, perhaps even sympathy for, contemporary gender struggles?  Or perhaps, thanks to age and/or location, I’m missing some other contemporary uses of “lib.”  How to answer this question?

I decided to look for other book titles from the early 1970s with “lib” in the title. This, as any librarian could have predicted, turned out to be a difficult search, since “lib” plays multiple roles, especially in databases of books: a part of many common words, an abbreviation for “book” or perhaps “volume,” and a part of the phrase “ad lib.” (which shows up in the titles of a good many music scores, among other things).  My attempts to search google books didn’t come out very well; I either came up with far too many results or far too few, with the “too few” identified as such in part by the fact that they didn’t include Nelson’s book.

WorldCat seemed to work better. Though I’m still not entirely confident of my results, it seems that most other books with the word “lib” in the title published in 1974 and indexed in WorldCat (eleven in all, that I could find) referred (positively or negatively) to the women’s liberation movement.  The two exceptions were closely related; there was one reference to “kids’ lib” and one to “gay lib” (a bit more skimming of results suggests that “gay” was the second-most-common word combined with “lib” in book titles in the early 1970s; looking back through 1970, I also found “city lib,” men’s lib,” and, most intriguingly, “mule lib,” which I didn’t explore further, lest the research trail become a rabbit trail; I do have student work to respond to today, which might explain some of my enthusiasm for this research digression).

So it seems that my memory/impression is correct: in 1974, “lib” was most often combined, in popular parlance, with “women’s.”  So why did Nelson choose to include it in one of his titles?  At least from my initial inspection, his work doesn’t seem to have an explicit gender focus, and one might even imagine that his primary imagined readers were men.    Were the cultural resonances of “lib” for him and/or his projected readers positive or attractive?  In my memory, “women’s lib” was more often than not a term of derision or dismissal, but, once again, cultural positions vary, and my memories stem from a particular time, place, and status.  Some authors who chose to include “women’s lib” in their titles clearly felt positively about the movement themselves, though some seem to have anticipated some resistance from some of their readers. Was Nelson simply looking for a shorthand term for “liberation,” and seized on one that was current in the culture, without considering its other associations?

I’m not sure of the answer, but I’ll be mulling this bit of cultural context, and its possible relevance (or not) as I take a closer look at what’s inside the book.

Similarly, I’ll be wondering about the fist: black power symbol?  anarchist symbol? general symbol of protest?

And the subtitle of Dream Machines.  The most likely referent for “minority report” seems to be a 1956 Philip K. Dick story (later made into a 2002 movie of the same name), but a quick google search on “minority report” plus each of the years between 1970 and 1974 revealed another reminder of the women’s liberation struggle: in 1972, a minority report played a role in the fight to seat more female delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

I should probably be wondering more about the superhero (Superman?) figure. For some reason, that’s the element that least engaged my attention, but it, too, certainly plays a role in constructing the immediate message of the book-as-artifact.  It seems possibly a bit at odds with the fist on the other cover (wasn’t Superman pretty establishment?), but maybe not?

Finally, I find myself wondering about the subtitle of Computer Lib, and what messages it sends to a possible/projected audience.  “You can and must understand computers NOW” is both encouraging/empowering (“can”) and prescriptivist (“must,” combined with the typographically shouted “NOW”). Some might find it inspiring, others offputting. Personally, I’m leery of gurus who not only assert that I must free myself, but also are eager to tell me exactly how to do it.  It’s a stance that seems both self-absorbed and lacking in self-awareness, and that does not inspire me with confidence that a self-appointed potential mentor has my best interests at heart, or is even much interested in me at all except as an object on which to project his own interpretations and ambitions.  In short, I don’t usually buy or read books with statements like that on the cover (except, perhaps, if I’m interested in them as historical artifacts).

A similar tension can haunt our attempts to be leaders in implementing open learning in formal teaching and learning contexts, especially for those of us who teach exclusively required classes.  Do students want their classes to be open, by whatever definition of open? If not, do we feel comfortable asserting that we know better than they do what’s best for them?  Perhaps we do, but we need to be aware that that’s what we’re doing, and of the potential contradictions involved in doing so.  Teachers have very real power in the classroom, and we can’t  give it up entirely, though many of us can to some extent choose how we use it to shape the teaching and learning contexts for which we’re responsible.

Based on Computer Lib‘s somewhat contradictory subtitle, I find myself wondering, again: to what sort of readers did Nelson think this message would appeal?  Or, alternatively, wasn’t he thinking that much about appealing to a potential audience?  This volume, at least in its external trappings, looks a bit like a manifesto, and manifestos, for all their explicit desire to persuade, are often devoted as much to expression — giving the author(s) a chance to work out ideas in writing, and to place them where others can see them — as on the sort of persuasive communication that tries to meet a reader where (s)he currently is.

The book (or at least some of Nelson’s key ideas — a somewhat separate thing) has clearly had lasting impact, or we wouldn’t be reading it.  So at some level, whatever its quirks and apparent contradictions, it succeeded.  At the same time, as we consider the idea of open education, and how and whether we promote it, and to whom, it may also be worth looking at Nelson’s covers as an example of an attempt to play the role of leader/mentor/teacher, and to ask ourselves which parts of his approach we might choose to emulate (or not), and why.

And a few further thoughts added on 2/12:

Figuring out when blog posts are finished, and what to do with further thoughts, is definitely going to be an issue (because, as the tag line above indicates, writing leads to thinking which leads to writing, and so on).

Mulling over what I’ve written above, I think my overall reaction to Nelson’s covers is that, despite the briefly-promising “lib,” I’m finding myself very aware that I’m not part of the book’s imagined/intended audience.  Had I encountered it any time in the 10 years after its initial publication (so, during my adolescence or young adulthood), the cover would have signaled to me that it was intended for someone who read MAD magazine and superhero comics — or, in other words, my brother, not me (I say this realizing that plenty of girls and women read MAD and comics, but still, there are clear gender patterns there, certainly in target audiences and signaling of same, even as actual audience demographics are/were more complicated).   There’s also an appeal to what I read as adolescent rebellion that I wouldn’t have found appealing, even as an adolescent (I think that’s more temperament/personality than gender).  None of the above observations will keep me from reading what’s inside in the present day, but they definitely provid a context for my reading.

On a broader but connected scale, as a participant in this cMOOC, I find myself struggling a bit with how to respond to the readings. On the one hand, the class is “open,” and the conversation/discussion is presumably meant to be what the participants, collectively, choose to make of it. On the other hand, the readings provide something of a structure and implied logic/focus for the course, and I find myself feeling pressure (mostly internal) to figure out those patterns, and to respond in kind.  (In the last few weeks, readings seem to follow/chronicle the history and development of the internet as a means for humans to store, share, and develop ideas, and to invite us to consider that history from the perspective of the present day, in which we have versions of these once-imagined affordances available to us, and are trying to figure out how to make them work for us and our students, and — a slightly different and perhaps more “open” approach — trying to help our students figure out how to make them work for themselves.

But for whatever combination of reasons (and the larger political climate and the conditions of my own employment definitely play a role — probably a larger role than any details of the class or its readings), I find myself drawn in the readings to mentions of gender and divisions of labor, especially the division between what Bush terms “creative” and “repetitive” thought, and to thinking about how those divisions continue, and how they apply to work done by faculty and administrators in contemporary teaching/learning environments. That focus feels “off track” in relation to the implied trajectory of the class suggested by the readings.  At the same time, it’s very much “on track” when it comes to my own interest in and concerns with open learning, which center around how and whether those at the bottom of the faculty hierarchy can participate in, and possibly benefit from, the “open” movement.

So I think I need to go back and wrestle more with Bush and (probably to a lesser extent) Engelbart, as well as to write more about the English 302 project, in what ways it is “open,” and how the participants hope “open” can work for us as well as our students.


3 thoughts on “Nelson: starting with the cover(s)”

  1. Much to ponder here.

    One quick note: take a look at the “Superman” cover. On my copy, it looks like a “Superwoman” to me. Perhaps an explicit nod to women’s liberation? I note too that Wonder Woman was on the cover of Ms. magazine volume one, number one. Ted may have been responding to that moment as well. Certainly The Whole Earth Catalog was also in his mind.

    Much to ponder!

    1. Interesting possibility; thanks for pointing it out! I’ll have to take a closer look. It also reminds me a bit of the Moosewood Cookbook, though that may be later (I’ll have to check the date on my copy).

      1. Hmm. . .on closer inspection, I’m not sure I’d say the figure is female, but androgynous, in a 1970s sort of way? quite possibly.

        I also note that Nelson cites Our Bodies, Ourselves as an example of challenges to “Professionalism” (p. 304 in the New Media Reader reprint/excerpts). That’s another volume which shares some of the design sensibility, as well as some of the questioning of authority, of Computer Lib (with the possibly-significant difference that is was created by a collective – The Boston Women’s Health Collective — rather than an individual).

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