small medium large xlarge


Ted Nelson

by Michael Swaine

Generic image illustrating the article
  Thoughts on the Tom Paine of the personal computer revolution.  

Paul Freiberger and I are currently writing the third edition of Fire in the Valley, our history of the personal computer—to be published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf, naturally. Going through the material, I keep finding topics that feel like article material. Last issue I reflected on the contributions of Lee Felsenstein and Adam Osborne. This issue I’m sharing some thoughts on the legacy (so far!) of Ted Nelson.

Project Xanadu

In 1982, Playgirl magazine named Ted Nelson one of America’s most eligible bachelors.

This is just one of the facts that makes it hard to pin down Ted’s unique place in the history of the personal computer.

What Ted might do with a fact like this, I think, is to put it down on a notecard and save it to link it with other facts later.

That’s how he approached writing as a grad student at Harvard back in 1960, and it led him through frustration to invention. Only with computer technology could he manage the exponential connections between all the ideas in his fertile mind and on those mountains of cards he was accumulating. Only with computer technology could he realize the kind of nonsequential writing that he wanted to do. But the computer technology of that time wasn’t up to the task. So he set out to rethink the way computers worked.

He came up with an idea he called hypertext, by which he meant linked text and other media, but he kept thinking about how linking should work and took it far beyond the one-way, unlabeled, unversioned links of the (then unimagined) World Wide Web. Today developers aspire to the DRY goal in software—don’t repeat yourself. Ted applied the principle to data with an idea he called transclusion—the inclusion of a document or part of a document into another document by reference, and with the insight that document storage should mostly be about storing the difs—an idea useful both for the modular design of documents and for versioning. He looked farther ahead yet and saw that transclusion would stir the copyright waters—think of the arguments about deep linking on the Web—and came up with a plan of micropayments that could be built into the infrastructure of hypertext. Seeing that all these ideas needed to be implemented simultaneously in order to work, he designed Project Xanadu, a universal information repository to function as the future intellectual home of mankind, with streetcorner access points serving up information as a kind of McDonald’s for the mind.

He came up with that in 1960.

Computer Lib

Theodor Holme Nelson is the son of actress Celeste Holme (Academy Award, “Gentlemen’s Agreement”) and director Ralph Nelson (Emmy, “Requiem for a Heavyweight”). He was born in 1937 and has degrees in philosophy, sociology, and media and governance from Swarthmore, Harvard, and Keio University. He grew up in Chicago and Greenwich Village.

He is justly called the Thomas Paine of the personal computer revolution, and this is why:

In 1974, Ted pulled together all (well, probably not all) of his thoughts on computer technology, the computer industry, and the interplay of computers and society in an extraordinary book called Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Computer Lib was inspired by The Whole Earth Catalog and shares some of its eccentric layout, but goes farther in the direction of anarchy and ADD. The book is a passionate call to arms: “You can and must understand computers NOW” is the text above an upraised fist on the cover.

Computer Lib was an extraordinary book, and extraordinarily, it was recognized as such at the time. When Ed Roberts was creating the Altair computer that would kick off the revolution for computer hobbyists in 1975, he had a copy of Computer Lib on his desk. Steve Wozniak was reading it when he created the Apple 1. Computer Lib was the Common Sense of the personal computer revolution. The enemy in that revolution, as Stewart Brad put it, was “Central Processing, in all its commercial, philosophical, political, and socio-economic manifestations.” The revolution happened, Central Processing was overthrown, and, as Ted wrote in 1987, “computers are just as oppressive as before, but smaller and cheaper and more widespread. Now you can be oppressed by computers in your living room.” I’ll leave it to you to decide where the revolution has gone since 1987.

But I wanted to pull together a lot of different facts about Ted, and I’ve mostly focused on Xanadu and Computer Lib. I have all these other topics and facts left over:

Ted has ranted against the tyranny of hierarchical file structure and against the application-centric view of computing. “‘Word processing’ is not a category of human activity,” he said.

He has ridiculed WYSIWYG, saying it was really What You See Is What You Get When You Print It Out, and that we should not aspire to have our electronic documents mimic typewriter output.

He has criticized the whole process of software development, arguing for an approach more like movie directing, and emphasizing auteurs. He compares software development today to the movie industry before 1904, when the cameraman made the movie.

I could go on. Ted does. There is need for him to do so. As Ted might say, the revolution is not over. There are still ramparts to be stormed.