When talking to Ted Nelson, strap in tight. It’s quite a ride. Trained as a philosopher and film director, he is equal parts visionary and crank. Many consider him to be one of the fathers of the World Wide Web. He coined the word “hypertext” in 1965, but he has become a scathing critic of the Web and the form it has assumed. “HTML is the dumbing down of hypertext,” he complained last week during a chat. “It’s a one-way tunnel, an amusement park slide.”
In 1989, Nelson told the U.S. Congress that the hypertext revolution was coming. A few years earlier, he described a computing world made up of hundreds of thousands of file servers and hundreds of millions of simultaneous users.
And yet today, Nelson is toiling away as a professor of media at Keio University’s Fujisawa campus; one recent article called it “an exile,” a description he disputes — but doesn’t exactly refute. Rather, he claims to have “generally kept apart from the mainstream discussion.”
The source of Nelson’s falling out with the powers-that-be is his dogged insistence on a vision of computing that defies convention. He wants nothing less than “a new topology of information,” and he refuses to compromise.
When we talked, the focus of his ire was the Web. “The Web is a chowder and whatever sticks to the screen is the Web. The browser is the Web.”
No matter how you dress it up — Java, ShockWave, slick 3-D graphics — the Web remains a static, two-dimensional, hierarchical construct. Each document is an island, frozen in time and stuck at an arbitrary location. It is shorn from the ideas that produced it, and its relations with the rest of the Web, and the world, are fixed. “It is a world of ever-breaking, one-way links, with no recognition of change or copyright, and no support for multiple versions or principled reuse. Fonts and glitz, rather than content-connective structure, prevail.”
The problem, argues Nelson, is the square. He quotes Marshall McLuhan, who said “civilization is built on the rectangle.” He scoffs at the “well-intentioned geeky guys who have boxed us in.”
“Using a PC as a paper simulator is like taking the wings off a 747 and driving it down the highway,” he says dismissively.
Nelson argues that “writing is a representation of words, not thoughts. We need something that represents our thoughts and intentions. The key question is how we present an idea.”
For Nelson, the answer is simple: Xanadu, a 40-year-old project that offers “an alternative paradigm for a computer universe.” Explaining Xanadu is far beyond my meager capability. Check out Nelson’s home page (www.sfc.keio.ac.jp/~ted) for words and pictures that just about make sense. Its essence is two features: “survivable deep links” that permit users to see ideas and how they fit together, and transclusion, which is, in extreme short hand, a hypertext answer to copyright.
To put it as briefly as possible, Xanadu assigns every document a unique identifying number. Changes to a document get their own ID. References to other documents also get IDs. Displaying a given document includes all the references and links to other documents as well.
Bluntly, a document becomes a list of its contents. Anyone can list content in their own document, but only the actual content owner can deliver the content to those references. If the owner is willing to forego payment, then it is free to all who want it. If payment is desired, then a payment system handles the request.
That logic — creating lists whose contents are infinitely expandable — also works outside of a “word-processing format.” (Nelson will no doubt cringe when he reads that.) Think of software as a template that merely uses data in a particular way. If all data has unique addresses, then using those bits of information becomes a matter of locating it and slotting it into the application. There is no reason why a given item cannot be used in each and every bit of software.
On paper, Xanadu makes little sense to mere mortals. When Nelson explains it, with nifty little demos, it makes a lot of sense. The problem is that Xanadu hasn’t much progressed beyond demos. The project has repeatedly bogged down in development.
In the software world that is problematic. For many computing types, vision only goes so far: You’ve got to deliver the product. Nelson’s evangelism grates on the engineers that are dealing with the day-to-day demands of users.
There are signs that the drought is coming to an end. Versions of Xanadu are circulating, and Nelson is working with collaborators on ZigZag, which will incorporate many of his ideas. Nelson says ZigZag “is not an application, but an environment; an environment in which you can do all sorts of things powerfully.” A version is available on Nelson’s Web page, but he cautions that the current appearance “is intended to show the simple basic structure.”
ZigZag is “a multidimensional generalization of rows and columns, without any shape or structure imposed.” The user organizes the data — creates the dimensions — in whatever way is useful or relevant. Nelson calls the results “item clouds.”
In the current version, the software splits the screen in two. (Nelson says bifurcation is for convenience; there could just as easily be three, five or more screens.) Data used or changed on one screen is simultaneously altered in the other. What is key is this: The relationships survive even as the user moves through the various dimensions.
It’s easy to see how Nelson got his bad rap. He is blunt and articulate, and he’s got a real flair for showmanship. Those attributes worked for Steve Jobs, but he brought Apple into the world. A track record does wonderful things for a reputation.
Still, how can you dislike a man who can say with a perfectly straight face that “the clipboard is one of the great cultural evils of the 20th century”? The logic is persuasive: Amid all that cutting and pasting, ideas vanish. Even if it’s just one a day by every million or so users, that is an extraordinary loss.
“It’s like holding a baby and a bag of garbage over the incinerator every day. No matter how good you are, one time you are going to make a mistake.”
Nelson’s mission these days is cleaning up a generation of computing mistakes, some he no doubt wishes had vanished.
On July 12, Keio University will host the kickoff meeting of the SFC Research Consortium on transpublishing. For more information call, (0466) 49-1027, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Brad Glosserman (email@example.com)