Ted Nelson

Rohit Khare (khare@mci.net)
Fri, 29 Aug 1997 15:49:10 -0400

[Wht the hell is going on t Swrthmore, nywy?...]


Ted Nelson

By Owen Edwards

IN MIDGALLOP, THEODOR NELSON strews complex ideas so profligately that a
listener quickly can feel overwhelmed. Opinions pour out of him, he races
this way and that, blasting a host of enemies in an intellectual game of
Quake. "Word processing is a completely warped process," he says. Windows
95 is little more than "Scrabble tiles with font sugar on top." When he
visited fabled Xerox PARC in the early 1970s, he found it "a very nasty
place." He calls the Web "wonderful for people who like unfinished
writing." Even the hapless consumer comes in for a poke in the eye: "I've
always insisted that computers should be the way people want, and then I've
been disappointed when they didn't want enough." More than 30 years ago,
Nelson coined the term and shaped the crucial concept of hypertext; today,
at 60, he is hypertext.=20

Disappointment has dogged Nelson's long career as a software visionary. His
books in the 1970s, Computer Lib and The Home Computer Revolution, and
subsequent writings have sung a Whitmanesque song of an information system
resembling the thought processes of the creative mind, free of the
constraints of files and documents, as fluid as thought itself. Needless to
say, things have not gone the way he had hoped. Considered by many to be
one of the most influential contrarians in the history of the information
age, he is often compared to well-known misfits. George Gilder has called
him "an Old Testament Jeremiah from central casting." Nelson sees himself
as a literary romantic, like a Cyrano de Bergerac, or "the Orson Welles of

This last comparison is perhaps the most apt. Nelson, whose dramatic flair
sets him apart from most of his contemporaries, was to the cinematic manner
born. He is the son of Ralph Nelson, who directed Lilies of the Field,
among other films, and Celeste Holm, an actress famous for playing wry,
ironic women in such hits as All About Eve and High Society. Nelson named
his electronic publishing system Xanadu, which just happened to be Charles
Foster Kane's pleasure palace in the Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane.
And, like Kane's echoing bastion, Nelson's dream of an almost infinitely
intertwined, many-to-many network seems doomed never to be fulfilled.=20

The reason Nelson's hope for hypertext has become the cold fusion of the
information age may be as much cultural as technological. Nelson is not an
engineer; instead, he came into the world of computers from the foreign
soil of the humanities, and he bemoans the fact that engineers have taken
the fluidity and spontaneity out of digital information systems. "I want to
put you in a world of documents that's completely natural," he proclaims.
He went to Swarthmore College, a small, select liberal arts school, where,
he says, he "majored in everything" under the alluringly vague umbrella of
the philosophy of social sciences. Encouraged by a professor named Michael
Scriven, he began to study systems for making notes and organizing them.=20

His ideas have always been more literary than scientific. In the early
years of the information age, Nelson went to graduate school at Harvard and
discovered "everything everyone was saying about computers was a lie. It
was up to me to design the literature of the future."=20

For all its mysterious appeal, Nelson's new lit has remained stubbornly
hypothetical. Over the years millions of dollars (including $5 million from
Autodesk) have been poured into Xanadu, and some of the best minds of his
and succeeding generations have attempted and failed to bring it to life.
In the meantime, Nelson has cultivated the concept of HyperCoin, which
would build a system of automatic electronic micropayments for the use of
portions of documents on the Internet.=20

For many disciples, hope for the humanistic Xanadu has faded=97engineers, no=
artists, rule. Nelson's conception may have been the elegant alternative,
but reality bites. All the attention now is devoted to the question of how
to make the Internet more like a product, not more like Proust.=20

Like capital, vision goes where it's treated well. A colleague of Nelson in
Sapporo, Japan, created a research facility (funded by a Japanese
corporation) for him, fittingly called HyperLab, and he continues to work
on Xanadu at Keio University near Tokyo. Not everyone sees this as
significant. Paul Saffo, an old friend who runs the Institute for the
Future in Silicon Valley, says, "The Japanese like to collect wacky people."=

But there's also the lesson of W. Edwards Deming, a manufacturing quality
guru ignored by Detroit who went to Japan after World War II and preached
his gospel to Toyota and others, with notable results. If Hitachi or
Fujitsu suddenly introduce software so brilliant that Microsoft has to
scramble to catch up, Ted Nelson will have to be forgiven for saying, "I
told you so." =A0=A0=A0=20

Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) /// khare@mci.net
Voice+Pager: (617) 960-5131  VNet: 370-5131   Fax: (617) 960-1009