One of the comments Ted Nelson made in POSSIPLEX was “Computers are electric trains.” To most people this would seem yet another of his rambling and disjointed comments. But it “clicked” with me on a number of levels, because I think it was one of the truest things he said in the book.
Why did this odd comment make an impression on me? One reason, which he more or less states in his book, is the similarity of the world of computers to the world of toy trains – flashing lights, sounds, etc. But looking at it more as a metaphor, it brought to mind a recent comment by Dr. Leidman who said “I can just spend time on the computer all evening – – it’s like Disneyworld.”
This resonated with me on a few different levels. “it’s like Disney-world.” To me that meant “like an imaginary world that is a fun place.” Which brings to mind imaginary worlds that I identify with strongly. Many of them were created by British authors in the last century – The Hundred Acre Wood of Winnie-the-Pooh, Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” from The Lord of the Rings. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, not to mention Neverland, of Peter Pan, and Wonderland, of Alice and the White Rabbit.
I have heard fiction writing instructors talk about the world of the story. By this they mean the development of the plot, the characters, the role of the narrator, the ambiance of the setting and time. But in some of the British stories that I mention above, it is the imaginary world of the story that might be considered the focal point of the fictional work. The characters are in some sense “upstaged” by the imaginative creation of the world itself. In the case of Harry Potter, he enters the world of magic by catching a train at “Platform 9 ¾” at the King’s Cross Station which takes him to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Alice falls down a rabbit hole, Peter Pan flies out through an open window, following Tinkerbell the fairy.
All far-fetched – silly places, really. But silly originally meant blessed in Middle English – it only came to mean daft over the passage of time. Likewise these places, over time, lose their enchanted quality as we become adults. Yet, at times, the world of the story still evokes its magic – its numinous quality. C.S. Lewis talked about this “numinous” quality of his imaginary toy world of “Boxton” which he shared with his brother Warren in his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy – the Shape of my Early Life. He described how at times when he was a young boy “playing” with this imaginary world of moss and ferns and toy animals there would come over him a feeling of intense joy and wonder. Lewis and professor Tolkien met weekly with a small circle of writers called “The Inklings” at a pub near Oxford. For years they discussed their writing projects including the Narnia stories and The Lord of The Rings. Both of them tried to incorporate this sense of a fully formed imaginary world into their fiction, and if book sales alone are the measure, they succeeded.
I mention this in relation to the comment of Ted Nelson about “electric trains” because that is an interest of mine. In my basement I have a fairly elaborate setup of “toy trains” – which is made like an imaginary world. A friend came to see this at the holidays last year, and said “these mountains are something – all you need is some Orcs to make it seem more realistic – like a scene from the Tolkien movie.” His observation, made partly in jest, has made me reflect on this several times since. What are we doing when we make “imaginary worlds?” Linking this to computers and the more modern version of this, i.e., “virtual worlds” – what is going on when we create these places? Do young people playing video games get that same sense of being “Surprised by Joy” that Lewis spoke about when contemplating his first imaginary world called “Boxton”?
Ted Nelson said “Computers are Electric Trains. ” I agree.