Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Ted Nelson: Crackpot or Genius?

And so yesterday to a lecture at the Oxford Internet Institute by a man named Ted Nelson, the guy who either "invented" the World Wide Web years before Tim Berners-Lee could tie his own shoelaces or who is a tragic joke, destined to forever claim that the paradigm-shattering software he's been working on for four decades is just around the corner.

Nelson went to Swarthmore and Harvard, where he trained as a sociologist. The story goes that his severe attention deficit disorder raised in him a wish that he could organize all his thoughts and the countless pieces of paper on which he scribbled notes. Early on Nelson saw the potential of computers and he envisioned a system that would not only link documents but maintain their connections. When a writer moved paragraphs around in a document, there would be still be a version of the original document. When a writer quoted from another writer there would be a pathway to that other work. When another work was cited, a royalty micropayment would somehow wing its way to the copyright holder.

Nelson coined the word "hypertext" to describe these interconnections and he called the project Xanadu, after the pleasure palace in Coleridge's poem. (It's an actual place, too, the summer capital of Mongol emperors. Nelson showeds a Google Earth image.) He wrote several influential books that, among other things, outlined his vision.

But Nelson seemed better at describing things that had yet to be made rather than actually making them. He was not a computer programmer himself and he enlisted the help of a rotating cast of characters who have been working on Xanadu since the 1960s. (Nelson hates this Wired story from 1995 describing the so-far ill-fated project.) Despite the fact that he was a visiting fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, I was prepared to write him off as a crackpot. I mean, the guy showed up to his lecture dressed in a tuxedo, claimed to have written the world's first rock musical, sang three songs and recited a poem.

But perhaps he does have something to teach, after all, more as an inspiration than as a creator. He said he wanted to invent Xanadu because if he didn't, "the techies would screw it up. And that's exactly what happened." Word processing programs replicate the worst aspects of paper while ignoring some of the best. He despises "cut and paste" because it doesn't actually do that. "Hide and plug" is what he calls it, since the action makes your text disappear before showing up when you press ctrl V. The web, he said, is limiting, not liberating. He bristles when people talk about things like "Windows technology." There's precious little technology involved, he argues. Software is just a collection of conventions, most of which we've got wrong.

He showed a demo of Xanadu: Eleven long, thin documents were arranged behind two working documents. Everything floated in three dimensions, with lines and triangles of different colors showing various connections. It was a confusing hodge-podge but it hinted at a certain power. Perhaps it was a graphical representation of Nelson's mind.

"It always seemed to me that things would be so much better if they were different," Nelson said. I'm not sure he's right about everything, but he's probably right about a few things. Too often we allow ourselves to fall into ruts, doing things the way we've always been done them just because that's the way they've always been done. We don't push ourselves to not only think outside the box, but think outside the store that sold us the box. Visionaries should be allowed to be crackpots, if a few of their visions turn out to be right.


Jo said...

He may be more of a sci-fi writer than an inventor. But particularly in the early days of tech, there were no market research groups -- techies designed everything, and many of their ways of thinking have become gospel, outlining what we should want in our software. (I live with a techie. I know how they think.) So it sounds like Nelson can have a good point without being a genius, if that's an option. He's a bit desperate, sounds like.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

I agree with you that visionaries should be allowed to be crackpots. They may seed new ideas and approaches.

Jo said...

The widespread adoption of a bad system badly implemented isn't unique to tech. I've just been reading about the creation of the Fahrenheit scale. Hard to spell, bizarrely designed (0 degrees marks the temperature of an equal amount of ice and salt???), and not even accurate. D. Fahrenheit thought that body temp should be 90 degrees, but he mis-measured it so that we all have to remember 98.6. Comparatively, Word doesn't seem so bad.