Ted Nelson

The good news about computers is that they do what you tell them to do. The bad news is that they do what you tell them to do.
Ted Nelson

Theodor Holm "Ted" Nelson
Theodor Holm “Ted” Nelson

The USA philosopher, sociologist, and pioneer of information technology Theodor Holm “Ted” Nelson (born on 17 June 1937 to Ralph Nelson, a film and television director, producer, and actor, and his wife—Academy Award-winning actress Celeste Holm) is a rather controversial figure not only in the computing world. He used to repeat his four maxims by which he leads his life: “most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong.”

Ted Nelson stated: “In 1960 I had a vision of a worldwide system of electronic publishing, anarchic and populist, where anyone could publish anything and anyone could read it. (So far, sounds like the web.) But my approach is about literary depth—including side-by-side intercomparison, annotation, and a unique copyright proposal. I now call this “deep electronic literature” instead of “hypertext,” since people now think hypertext means the web.

After graduating the Swarthmore college with a BA in philosophy, in 1960, Ted enrolled in graduate school at Harvard. During his first year, he took a course in computer programming using an IBM 7090 computer and began to think about writing a document management system to index and organize his collection of notes. He started a term project for creating a writing system similar to a word processor (essentially it was a word processor capable of storing multiple versions and displaying the differences between these versions), but that would allow different versions and documents to be linked together by association and nonlinearly. He did not complete his first project but continued to work on a system, which was very similar to that, envisioned by Vannevar Bush (see the memex of Bush), but based not on microfilms, as “memex”, but on computer. This idea became the overriding concern of his entire life.

Let’s see what exactly inspiration led Nelson to develop hypertext (excerpt from an interview for Wired magazine):
Well I was always, as a kid, into writing and reading and literature and movies basically, like a lot of people, and I had done a great deal of writing as a youth, and re-writing, and the intricacy of taking ideas and sentences and trying to arrange them into coherent, sensible, structures of thought struck me as a particularly intricate and complex task, and I particularly minded having to take thoughts which were not intrinsically sequential and somehow put them in a row because print as it appears on the paper, or in handwriting, is sequential. There was always something wrong with that because you were trying to take these thoughts which had a structure, shall we say, a spatial structure all their own, and put them into linear form. Then the reader had to take this linear structure and recompose his or her picture of the overall content, once again placed in this nonsequential structure. You had two it seemed—and now I’m reconstructing because I don’t know how explicitly I thought this out as a youth—you had to take these two additional steps of deconstructing some thoughts into linear sequence, and then reconstructing them. Why couldn’t that all be bypassed by having a nonsequential structure of thought which you presented directly? That was the hypothesis—well the hyperthesis really—of hypertext, that you could save both the writer’s time and the reader’s time and effort in putting together and understanding what was being presented.

On top of his basic idea, Nelson wanted to facilitate nonsequential writing, in which the reader could choose his or her own path through an electronic document. At the beginning of 1965, Nelson used for the first time the term “hyper-text”. Later in 1965, he presented a paper on “zippered lists” (key algorithm in his Xanadu system) at a national conference of the Association for Computing Machinery, in which he published the term. These “zippered lists” would allow compound documents to be formed from pieces of other documents, a concept named transclusion.

Nelson continued to expound his ideas, but he did not possess the technical knowledge to tell others how his ideas could be implemented, and so many people simply ignored him, but he still persisted. In 1967, he named his system XANADU, and with the help of interested, mainly younger, computer hacks continued to develop it. In his 1974 book Computer Lib/Dream Machines and in the 1981 Literary Machines Nelson described his ideas.
Xanadu is a high-performance hypertext system that assures the identity of references to objects and solves the problems of configuration management and copyright control. Anyone is allowed to reference anything, provided that references are delivered from the original, and possibly involving micro payments to the copyright holders. Let see which are at the moment the basic objectives of Xanadu, as they were defined on xanadu.com:

  • High-power hypertext (much richer structures than “pages”)
  • Any number of overlapping, publishable two-way links made by any number of people
  • EVERYTHING ANNOTATABLE (a special case of the above)
  • VERSION MANAGEMENT, with surviving portions viewable side by side
  • Generalized permission for on-line re-use (now called transcopyright)
  • Payment by each user for any downloaded quotation
  • All quotations back-followable to their original contexts

In 1972, Cal Daniels completed the first demonstration version of the Xanadu software on a computer Nelson had rented for the purpose, though Nelson soon ran out of money. In 1974, with the advent of computer networking, Nelson refined his thoughts about Xanadu into a centralized source of information, calling it a “docuverse”.

In 1979, Nelson formed a strong group of his followers, to hash out their ideas for Xanadu, but with no success. The group continued their work, almost to the point of bankruptcy. In 1983 however, Nelson obtain the support of John Walker, founder of Autodesk, and the group started working on Xanadu with Autodesk’s financial backing.

Xanadu has never been totally completed and is far from being implemented even now. Since 1999 it is an open-source project. In many ways, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web is a similar, though much simplified, system. Let’s see what is the opinion of Nelson for WWW (excerpt from the same interview for Wired magazine):
…I think the WWW was a brilliant simplification. As I understand it, and maybe I have this wrong, but Tim Berners-Lee came and we had lunch, in, oh I guess it was 1989, 90, something like that, in Sausalito, and I really liked the guy, and he’d done this very simple thing, and it sounded too trivial to me {laughs} but he certainly was a nice fellow and I expected to keep in touch with him, although I am a very bad correspondent, and the next thing I knew suddenly the thing had caught on. And what it turns out to be is simply an extension of file transfer protocol, in other words it’s saying you can anonymously go in and dip in and take out this file and here is a proposed way to look at it. This is called HTML. You have to understand the HTML/SGML kind of format where you’ve got all these warty little knobs and boogers in it that are formatting codes—this is absolutely contrary to the Xanadu idea that you have clean data undefiled. However, it works, it’s very simple, and you can always take those things out, so that’s OK. But all it is is FTP with lipstick so that you can look at these things and the jump addresses are hidden and the formats and you have paragraph levels and stuff and it’s basically what people needed and frankly I think it’s much better than word processing. I’m really happy now that I’m planning to switch from Microsoft Word to HTML just because there’s no need not to. It’s a perfectly good format, and it makes everything simpler to browse in.