Monday, May 11, 2009

Ted Nelson

Theodor Holm Nelson is an iconoclastic visionary who wrote the amazing book "Computer Lib / Dream Machines", which is how I first heard of him. He's credited with coining the term "hypertext" although the system he envisioned, called Xanadu, included abilities and structure beyond what the current WWW provides.
"The purpose of computers is human freedom."
~"Ted Nelson's Computer Paradigm, Expressed as One-Liners"

He has spent 30~40 years watching the computer industry not measure up to his innovative visions and by now he seems a little pissed off. This is from a 1999 rant "Way Out of the Box":
...the computer world is entirely built out of artificial, arbitrary constructs. Word processing, spreadsheet, database aren't fundamental, they're just different ideas that different guys have whomped up, ideas that could be totally different in their structure. But these ideas have a plausible air that has set like concrete into a seeming reality. Macintosh and Windows look alike, therefore that must be reality, right?

Wrong. Apple and Windows are like Ford and Chevrolet (or perhaps Tweedledum and Tweedledee), who in their co-imitation create a stereo illusion that seems like reality. The computer guys don't understand computers in all their manifold possibilities; they think today's conventions are how things really are, and so that's what they tell all the new victims. So-called "computer literacy" is an illusion: they train you in today's strange conventions and constructs-- (Desktop? This to you looks like a desktop? A vertical desktop? ) --and tell you that's what computers really are. Wrong.

Today's computer constructs were made up in situations that ranged from emergency to academia, which have been piled up into a seemingly meaningful whole. Yet the world of the screen could be anything at all, not just the imitation of paper. But everybody seems to think the basic designs are finished.
Amen brother!

He's written a new book on the history of computers, and remember that he was there while a lot of this was happening, occasionally directly involved. He has book blurbs by Woz and Stewart Brand.

Check out Chapter Summaries of "GEEKS BEARING GIFTS" for a wild ride.

He has continued his Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of our paucity of access to true power of computing machinery with at least two systems other than Xanadu. First, a bizarre information representation system that seems a billion times better than anything I've heard of to date (to the point where I want to drop everything and develop it) called ZigZag:
And also something called transclusion, which allows a deeper kind of hypertext which he calls Transliterature.

All of Nelson's work is worth reviewing if you're at all involved in creating software that people use. Here's a link to his homepage:

He's sort of like the Oracle at Delphi, and it would suck if he were to be treated like Cassandra.

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