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by: Bernard Teo

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Bernard Teo
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List of Categories : Database * Technology * Commentary * Singapore * Travel *

Thu 22 Jul 2004

Waterworks for the Mind

Category : Technology/waterworks.txt

As if to underline the idea that we can learn almost anything we want off the world wide web, I saw this entry in the web server log :

GET /weblog/index.php?entry=/Commentary/GoodbyeSanFrancisco.txt

Referer :

Even without following the link, the guy who made that query would have found the answer he was looking for : 18 hours - that's about how long it takes to fly from San Francisco to Singapore - because Google displays this in the result line : "But, first, there's a long 18-hour flight to endure tomorrow". You can try it yourself.

Now, as if to prepare for this moment, I had just noticed a very old mouldy dust-stained book, as I was going through my bookshelf, just before reading these server logs.

So I went back to look it up because it is pertinent to the discussion. That book is Literary Machines by Theodor Holm Nelson, first written in 1980. And, if that name doesn't ring a bell, try Ted Nelson. Way before the Internet and way before Tim Berners Lee, Ted Nelson was already writing about hypertext, hypermedia and hyperworlds, about what has since evolved into the semantic web, though not quite exactly as he had envisioned it.

But this is my favourite passage from the book :


"As you may have suspected, I see another point of view. As far as I am concerned both the Technoids and the Fluffies are in their own little corners. In the broader view, the goals of tomorrow's text systems will be the long ones of civilization-- education, understanding, human happiness, the preservation of humane traditions - but we must use today's and tomorrow's technologies. We who believe this are systems humanists, striving to further the ideals of the humanist perspective by the best available means. This means finding the ways that human literature, art and thought-- including science, of course-- may best be facilitated, preserved, and disseminated.

"Consider the analogy of water. Civilization as we now know it is based in part on running water-- supplying it, distributing it, and turning it off and on where you need it. That overall system had to be thought out. Similarly, someone now must design waterworks for the mind.

"The literature we envision, described in this book, is meant to be a utility, a commodity, a waterworks for the mind; your computer screen will be the spigot (italics added)-- or shower nozzle-- that dispenses what you need when you turn the handle. But that system must be based on the fluidity of thought-- not just its crystallized and static form, which, like water's, is hard and cold and goes nowhere."

-- Ted Nelson, Literary Machines

Posted at 10:54AM UTC | permalink

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