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Rebooting Computer Lib/Dream Machines
By Dave Winer on Sunday, October 03, 2010 at 8:53 AM.

I've had the honor of emailing with Ted Nelson for the last week or so.  permalink

With my thinking mostly organized now it's time to write a blog post with the jist of what I've been wanting to say. permalink

I've owned at least five copies of Computer Lib/Dream Machines. But I don't keep them very long. Inevitably, someone visits who I think needs to read the book, so I give it to them. A few years go by, and I come across another copy -- buy it -- and repeat. permalink

A picture named ace.jpgI recently did this, giving the book to a young colleague, Nicco Mele. I say young, but that's relative. Nicco is in his early 30s, is an adjunct professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, and should be teaching the stuff in Nelson's book. But get this. He had never read it, had never even heard of it. That's not the tragic part even. He didn't know what was in the book. This frustrates and scares me. Nicco is a guy who goes very far out of his way to be informed. That he doesn't know the roots of the creative side of computers, of the liberation side of computers, says everything. And someday he's going to write a book, and everyone is going to read it, and they're going to teach it in schools, but it won't be informed by what's in CL/DM.  permalink

Nicco is also the founder of a tech consulting company, EchoDitto. He brought his copy of the book over to his engineers, and they took it from him. Bravo! But now he doesn't have a copy. (BTW, that's Nicco's wonderful son Asa in the margin of this piece. Think about him as you read on.) permalink

So here's the thing.  permalink

1. The book is long out of print. The last revision, which no one likes, came from Microsoft Press in the mid-80s. The one before that went out of print in the 70s. I'm sure there weren't more than a few thousand printed. permalink

2. If we could get our hands on a copy of the 70s book, and scan it, we couldn't upload it as a PDF (which is what I would like to see happen) because Ted doesn't want it to.  permalink

3. I've talked to a couple of book agents I know, asking if there's any hope of interesting a publisher in doing another edition of the book. I don't know how much thought they've given it, or who they've talked to, or if they even understood what I was talking about. But they said no. permalink

4. I've thought of asking Ted to name a realistic number of dollars he'd like to earn from CL/DM in the next 20 years. And then ask, if we could get the money, would he let us scan the book and publish a PDF of it? The success people have had with Kickstarter these days makes me optimistic that we could get $50K or even as much as $75K this way. permalink

5. Ted wrote a great book with some great thinking in it. But he doesn't love the web the way I do. I can't say he's wrong. But I have to stick to my beliefs. I think if a new publishing medium were to boot up now, it would have to emerge from the web, the way the web emerged from the Internet, and the Internet emerged from Unix, etc etc. There's a thread of development that's inexorable. That's why I feel intuitively that CL/DM belongs on the web. If for no other purpose than to illustrate how the web could be better. And because the printed medium does an inadequate job of representing the thoughts, and you can clearly see that from the way Nelson has set the book on paper, putting images of that paper on the Internet will make obvious the opportunity to collapse the paper into an electronic form. Also, there are now millions of programmers who know how to program networks. When Nelson wrote his book there were no more than hundreds. How much greater is the potential for achieving his vision of hypertext today than it was in the 70s? No comparison.  permalink

6. If we were to upload a PDF of the book, I would first get in touch with some of the best IP lawyers in the world, my former colleagues at Harvard Law School, and ask them to be sure that in publishing the book electronically, we were very clearly preserving the copyright, so that we could offer a print version of the book for a whatever price we thought appropriate. This PDF experiment could prove to a publisher that there's a market for the book. Or it could build a market for the print book.  permalink

I'm only interested in one thing here -- to preserve the ideas in Computer Lib/Dream Machines for another few generations. The work isn't done. They need to know where we came from. Anything that gets that done is great with me. The only unacceptable outcome is that the ideas continue to disappear from discourse among people working in this area. permalink

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