Ted Nelson: pushing the boundaries of human knowledge in new ways

Reading: “Computer Lib / Dream Machines” by Theodor H. Nelson. Self-published, 1974.  2nd ed., Redmond, Washington: Tempus Books/Microsoft Press, 1987.  Excerpt from the New Media Reader (available here).

Nelson’s passionate and witty perspective of society’s adoption of technology kept hitting me in the face with bold (and sometimes biting) comments about the current directions of technology.  Add to this the doodle-like illustrations depicting his computer systems, and we had an entertaining read.  In the section titled No More Teacher’s Dirty Looks, Nelson proposes a fundamental way of technology’s role in the education system.

Instead of devising elaborate systems permitting the computer or its instructional contents to control the situation [of a student’s education], why not permit the student to control the system…[l]et the student pick what he wishes to study next, decide when he wishes to be tested, and give him a variety of interesting materials, events, and opportunities.

In this way, students can take charge of what they learn, motivated by their interests and avoiding the “boredom” brought on by current curricula.  I decided to draw my own Nelson-esque illustration of such an education system’s implications.

I was first reminded of a visual description of graduate study.   Matt Might, a Computer Science professor at the University of Utah, created The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. to explain the impact of a Ph.D. on human knowledge. You might have seen this before, but I’ve copied it here.*

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge.PhDKnowledge.001

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little.PhDKnowledge.002

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more.PhDKnowledge.003

With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty.PhDKnowledge.004

A master’s degree deepens that specialty.PhDKnowledge.005

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge.PhDKnowledge.006

Once you’re at the boundary, you focus.PhDKnowledge.007

You push at the boundary for a few years.PhDKnowledge.008

Until one day, the boundary gives way.PhDKnowledge.009

And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.PhDKnowledge.010

Of course, the world looks different to you now.PhDKnowledge.011

So, don’t forget the bigger picture.PhDKnowledge.012

Keep pushing.

In Nelson’s world, this is how the illustrated guide may look:


  • Students wouldn’t learn a fixed amount of every subject, allowing them to follow their interests throughout high school.
  • A student may major in multiple areas, driven by these early specializations.
  • Through graduate study, students will continue to learn from many disciplines, including areas where they previously did not specialize in.
  • As a result a Ph.D. may change the boundary of human knowledge at multiple places.

Under Nelson’s view of computer-aided education, even a Ph.D. may look different than what we consider today.

*This guide is licensed for sharing with special terms under the Creative Commons license.


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