The book Geeks Bearing Gifts, by Ted Nelson is a collage of computing
history book. Not only does it directly cover computers, it also
covers the origins of ideas that we see in computers. While short, it
does go over many interesting things.
Ted Nelson is a writer well-known for promoting his ideas for Project
Xanadu, a hypertext system that was designed before the Web. Nelson, a
self-proclaimed visionary, has been treated as a fringe figure in the
computing industry even though his ideas are well-reasoned and
well-thought out. In 1974, he wrote the book Computer Lib/Dream
Machines which covered the computing industry and was aimed at users
to prepare them for the coming computer revolution.
Cover of Geeks Bearing Gifts
The book is a quick short read at 199 pages. However, it is packed
with enough information to entice the reader into exploring computing
history and to give them a more real view of the computing world.
[The book] is a sobering view of computing history, full of force and conflict
This latest (self-published) book is another attempt at educating
computer users. The computer revolution has come to pass and Nelson
explores as much of it as possible in a small amount of space. Instead
of preparing for the revolution, Nelson tries to make us remember it,
but not with a nostalgic warmth. His is a sobering view of computing
history, full of force and conflict.
The book covers a wide variety of conflicts in computing history from
the dominance of UNIX ideas to the war between copyright and copyleft
to the desktop (and now mobile phone) wars.
Who's this book for?
The book is meant for curious computer users, computer programmers,
and anyone interested in the history of this relatively young
Relevance to free software
In general, the entire book protests against vendor lock-in and the
standardization of poor ideas. It makes a good case for people to use
or create free software.
Specifically relevant to free software users and advocates are two
chapters; the chapter on so-called "intellectual property" and the
chapter on free software. In chapter -18, Nelson gives an overview of
intellectual property and the issues surrounding. The book's cover
image of Bill Gates from the Albuquerque police department is given as
an example of the complexities of the issues involved in "intellectual
property". Four things are looked at; the copyright issue, personality
rights, privacy rights, and whether or not Bill Gates would sue. The
Sony rootkit is also covered in that chapter and is explained clearly
as a "virus from a company".
Nelson...describes [Richard] Stallman as a "proud, combative idealist" and "not your everyday hacker"
Chapter 10 was a well-written summary on the Free Software and Open
Source movements and the rise of GNU/Linux. It highlights Richard
Stallman's founding of the Free Software movement and laments that the
term "Linux" is used to refer to the whole GNU/Linux operating system.
A somewhat balanced view of the difference of opinion between the Open
Source and Free Software movements is provided. The GNU GPL (General
Public License) is called viral and draconian, but soon after, Nelson
points out that "open source" has created various "shadings,
alternatives, and complexities".
It is hard to tell how much of an impact this book has on the average
computer user, but as a technical user, I was very pleased to see some
forgotten bits of history and learn of conflicts between companies,
individuals and their ideas. Those conflicts continue on in the
background of our lives and their effects are subtle. We need to be
reminded every now and then that things weren't always this way. This
is what Ted Nelson does best.
Even if a reader already knows much of computing history, the book
will serve as a nice quick refresher.
Two cons of the book are its short length and the lack of a
bibliography and end notes. More explanatory information would be
welcome, especially when Nelson names companies or products that may
no longer exist. A bibliography would give the reader a better idea of
where to find more information and could save Nelson from having write
more explanatory information. Including end notes would allow Nelson
to go off on tangents. In some chapters it is apparent that Nelson
wishes to go off on a tangent but is restraining himself.
The "average computer user" may not understand some of what's going on
and may think some of the explanations are too technical.