Reading and Reflecting: Fantics

Reference: The following article from The New Media Reader (Wardrup-Fruin & Montfort, 2003):

Nelson, T. H. (1974) Computer Lib/Dream Machines, pps 303-338.

“Fantics” is a unique term developed by Nelson which involves considerations in using new media effectively. He discusses the term at length in his work, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, however, I still find it to be complex enough to require more resources to fully grasp his meaning.

Nelson initially describes fantics as the “art and science of getting ideas across, both emotionally and cognitively” and that it is “concerned with both the arts of effect – writing, theater, and so on – and the structures and mechanisms of thought, including the various traditions of the scholarly event (article, book, lecture, debate and class)” (319). He goes on to provide more detail about what fantics involve, including:

  • “Presentation” and related techniques, such as how something is written, how it is depicted in video, or how it is laid out in a publication
  • The actual media themselves used to present something
  • Systems design – concepts and technical aspects
  • The psychological and sociological impact of the presentation or communication
  • How we standardize certain aspects of communication in media (320)

Nelson provides an example of radio: The technical aspect of it is the transmission of sound, but the long- and short-term programming, commercials, narration, emcee, music, etc. are considerations of the presentation. Nelson also uses the topic of highways as an example: Route 66 is a slab of concrete designed for a purpose, but it has a character associated with it; lives have been organized around it and impacted by it. He discusses the concept of “mental unification” or the tendency people have to link things (321), and that this is an underlying reason that fantics are so important, to help people get a better sense of the whole. Nelson also talks about “fantic space” or “space and relationships sensed by a view of any medium, or a user in any presenting or responding environment” and  the “fantic structure” which includes noticeable parts, interconnections, contents, and effects” (328).

Nelson derived the term “fantics” from the Greek words “phainein” (show) and its derivative “phantastein” (present to the eye or mind) – related words include fantasy and phantom. He states, “The term is also intended to cover the tactics of conveying ideas and impressions, especially with showmanship and presentational techniques, organizing constructs, and fundamental structures underlying presentation systems” (329).

Nelson broaches the topic of computer-based teaching, which is of personal interest, so I began relating how fantics might apply to online learning today, beyond helping us diversify, personalize, and add self-direction to the sequence of learning (Nelson rails against pedagogy that claims a “right” or “valid” sequence of instruction.) I think the concept of fantics prompts us to not only consider the technical aspects needed for online teaching, such as the technical capabilities of the users and their computers, or the subject matter of the course, but also how ideas can be conveyed holistically when at a distance, and in multiple directions: Teacher to student, student to teacher, and student to student. This is most critical in designing asynchronous courses. If there are no synchronous elements, or if the course itself is pre-designed, a well-designed course web site may help support fantics. A web site can help unify information (multiple learning objectives, assignments, projects, reading, other resources, etc.) and add visual cues; without it, a huge opportunity may be missed to help the student make connections and engage in the entire course experience.  In addition to a web site, the inclusion of presentation modes that tap into more of the senses, learning styles, and various intelligences can help make concepts more understandable to individuals and help them see topics more holistically.  Incorporating multi-media tools can help, as well as providing various forms of interaction in the course design facilitated by technology.

Following are some additional resources to help you – and me – gain a deeper understanding of the complex nature of fantics, and other Ted Nelson concepts:

Another blogger who provides a nice summary of Nelson’s book (“intro to digital media studies”, Kathleen Fitzpatrick ofPomonaCollege, posted on2 March 2008)

A Slide Share presentation focusing on fantics  by Lorene Shyba onDec 08, 2010 – which accompanied a lecture in New Media at Montana Tech

Slide Share presentation on Ted Nelson

And lastly, a YouTube video of Ted Nelson discussing Xanadu (also referenced in the New Media Reader article), uploaded by photonhunter on September 6, 2008


This week I commented on these blogs:

Kate Webster’s blog on McLuhan

Kris Purzycki’s blog on Nelson




By Susan Patterson_ENG539

One comment on “Reading and Reflecting: Fantics

  1. “Fantics” reminded me of how rhetoric (also from the ancient Greeks) is often defined – as the ability to use established media to persuade. I agree that, especially in regards to distance learning, Nelson’s concepts are applicable. Maybe he can help out the Blackboard engineers some. More than anything, however, I was excited to see him arguing for a digital aesthetic to make it easier for the public to use. This concern for the user/viewer is often lost in web designing and is more problematic when you have to consider the various browser and technology people use.
    Thanks for digging up the great resources.

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