Book Review: Geeks Bearing Gifts

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 contents

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 industry.

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.

Title Geeks Bearing Gifts
Author Ted Nelson
Publisher Mindful Press, Lulu (self-published)
ISBN 9780578004389
Year 2009
Pages 199
CD included No
FS Oriented 8
Overall score 8

In short


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