12:01 AM

Ted Nelson, Fish, And Media

I was looking for a quote by Ted Nelson, the iconic (not graphic) computer engineer and maverick thinker, and enjoyed the trip hunting for the quote. Mr Nelson is known by many for his work on the Xanadu project, which was a form of highly advanced hypertext linking technology predating the web.

Sometimes Mr Nelson is described in these terms:

While the World Wide Web may owe much of its inspiration to Project Xanadu, Nelson himself is an opponent of the Web, the Internet, XML, and all embedded markup.

Here is a small taste of Mr Nelson and his sharp thinking:

No one's life has yet been simplified by a computer.

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In 1974, computers were oppressive devices in far-off air conditioned places. Now you can be oppressed by computers in your own living room.

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Why are video games so much better designed than office software? Because people who design video games love to play video games. People who design office software look forward to doing something else on the weekend.

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I see almost no difference between the Macintosh and the PC. The Macintosh interaction is much better tuned, but it's the same conceptual structure, the PARC User Interface (PUI) with ordinary hierarchical directories now called "folders".

Calling a hierarchical director a "folder" doesn't change its nature any more than calling a prison guard a "counselor".  (Zimbardo's prison experiments showed that prison-guard behavior is structural, and so are the effects of hierarchical directories.)

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Strange-- nobody believes that God created computers. Therefore we are under no divine obligation to use them according to tradition. We are, in principle, free to start over. But most people do not dare think about it. I say it's high time.

I agree with a lot of Mr Nelson's thinking.

The mission statement of Project Xanadu describes a technology that we definitely need:


Since 1960, we have fought for a world of deep electronic documents-- with side-by-side intercomparison and frictionless re-use of copyrighted material.

We have an exact and simple structure. The Xanadu model handles automatic version management and rights management through deep connection.

Today's popular software simulates paper. The World Wide Web (another imitation of paper) trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents.

Here are some key concepts:


"How can computer documents– shown interactively on screens, stored on disk, transmitted electronically– improve on paper?" Our answer was: "Keep every quotation connected to its original source."


An author may legally use this system to quote from other Web pages on a new Web page, without contact the owner, without paying, and without violating copyright.

It works like this: The materials appear on the Web page, but the transquoter does not deliver the materials at all, even though they look that way on the resulting page. There are several good reasons for this. One is that it avoids the copyright problem-- because the republisher has not made or sent a copy.



The on-line copyright problem may be resolvable by a simple, sweeping permission method. This proposed system, which anyone may use, allows broad re-use of materials in exchange for automatic tracking of ownership. Payment goes to the original publisher and credit to the original author. Nothing is misquoted, nothing is out of context (since the original context is immediately available), and users are not spied upon.

Here is more...

. . .technology, here as elsewhere, masks an ocean of possibilities frozen into a few systems of convention.

Inside the software, it's all completely arbitrary. Such "technologies" as Email, Microsoft Windows and the World Wide Web were designed by people who thought those things were exactly what we needed. So-called "ICTs"-- "Information and Communication Technologies," like these-- did not drop from the skies or the brow of Zeus. Pay attention to the man behind the curtain! Today's electronic documents were explicitly designed according to technical traditions and tekkie mindset. People, not computers, are forcing hierarchy on us, and perhaps other properties you may not want.

Things could be very different.

I wish they were. Mr Nelson reminds us that we don't need to accept the conventions of computer systems design, web service design, or any design at all.

Computer technology provides us with ways of thinking that are limitless. There's not much of that around at the moment but maybe people just need to be reminded that they can.

BTW, the quote I was looking for was: "We live in media as fish live in water."

Here are is a video from his visit to Google in January 2007 and some links to start you off in a further exploration of Mr Nelson's work:

Video - Transclusion: Fixing Electronic Literature

Transliterature, A Humanist Design

Ted Nelson home page

Doug Engelbart's Colloquium at Stanford | Session 9: Ted Nelson

An evening with Ted Nelson: visionary prerequisites for a vision - O'Reilly ONLamp Blog

Here is a Wired feature: The Curse of Xanadu