Book Review - The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 12, No.2

Geeks Bearing Gifts

Geeks Bearing Gifts v1.1: How the computer world got this way, by Ted Nelson, ISBN: 978-0-578-00438-9, Published by Mindful Press, 2009, distributed through Lulu.Com,

In a short but interesting book, computer pioneer Ted Nelson takes a very broad look at the origins and evolution of many of the basic ideas that underpin today's computer industry. The emphasis is on concepts and technologies rather than the success of individuals, the companies they founded, and the shape of the computer industry. This approach differentiates the book from other accounts, such as Robert X. Cringley's Accidental Empires and Martin Campbell-Kelly’s From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog.

Although the book is suitable for a fairly broad readership, an appreciation of the current makeup of the industry is helpful in understanding the significance of some of Nelson's ideas.


Geeks Bearing Gifts is divided into 60 short chapters, arranged in chronological order from the time the ideas originated, rather than when they appeared in fully developed form (indeed many are still developing). In the initial chapters Nelson covers topics such as language, alphabets, and encryption before moving on to examine the origins of computing. He then examines the contribution of pioneers from both inside and outside the United States, giving more credibility to contributors from outside of the United States than is normal.

As would be expected, Nelson deals in some detail with the topic of information presentation, in particular the origins of hypertext and associated developments such as Xanadu and the World Wide Web. He discusses the differences between these technologies, spending some time reflecting on his attempts to develop Xanadu at Brown University; he suggests that many of the deficiencies of the Web come from misdirection of that phase of the project.

Nelson next examines a wide selection of topics ranging from networks (both local and the Internet), object-orientated programming, and early desktop machines, before reaching the pivot point of his book: the UNIX operating system. He chose UNIX as the fulcrum of his analysis because he believes "so much led into it and so much has resulted from it."

Nelson next considers PUI (the PARC user interface), PCs, the role of the Microsoft and Apple operating systems and their evolution, the influence of the spreadsheet, the Internet, browsers, the Internet crash, and the current major companies in computing. He explores the promise, hype, and reality of the Web 2.0 model and its likely influence. (PARC stands for the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.)

The last two chapters are summaries and thought guides. The first of these suggests that it is people and ideas rather than technology that advance the computer industry and that the myth of technological necessity has stifled imagination. The final chapter illustrates what the book is about—the disagreements and decisions that have made the technical world what it is today.


Nelson captures most of the important developments in the computer industry, although he acknowledges that in 199 pages it is possible to tell the reader only a little of where the software ideas come from and what they are. He sets out to show how varied and conflicting the initiatives that have propelled the evolution of computer technology have been, exposing the "ideas, disagreements, manoeuvres, forgotten possibilities, and politics" The book reads like a collection of themed essays, rather than a coherent sequence of stories. Nonetheless it is both informative and thought-provoking.

The Author

Ted Nelson is considered to be a radical thinker; he is one of the pioneers of the computer industry initiating the Xanadu project, which was started in the early 1960s with the objective of developing a computer network with a simple user interface. He is credited with inventing the term "hypertext."

He holds a first degree in philosophy, a Masters in sociology, and a Doctorate in Media and Governance. Among his honors are a visiting fellowship at the Oxford Internet Institute and a Fellowship of Wadham College, Oxford; in addition, France has knighted him as "Officier des Arts et Lettres." Visit:
…for more information.

—Edward Smith, BT, UK

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