In 1974, computer scientist, philosopher, and Original Visionary of the World Wide Web Ted Nelson published Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a Whole Earth Catalog-by-way-of-Stanislaw Lem manifesto for the future of personal computing. “New freedoms through computer science – a Minority Report”, reads the strap-line of one Computer Lib’s two front covers, illustrated with an image of a Clark Kent-ish, civilian superhero reaching for a square of light in the darkness.
Between era-appropriate drawings from “the great Robert Crumb”, a Mickey Mouse Vitruvian Man and hand-drawn section headings – “HOLOGRAPHY puts you in the picture, and you, and you …” – Nelson advanced a then-unfamiliar theory of user-oriented computer design. Computers could be more than just machines for calculation, he exhorted, in freewheeling, emphatic style. They could be used to read and write, to facilitate learning, to democratise knowledge. The screen could become a “magical space” where information could be placed not only in relation but also in context, through parallel texts and multidirectional, visible connections. This was the basis for Xanadu, “my dream”, named for a Coleridge poem printed in Computer Lib in full. In its first conceptualisation, Xanadu was a learning system with both graphics and text capabilities and the capacity to send and receive messages, “at a price anyone can afford”. “A screen in your home from which you can see into the world’s hypertext libraries”, Nelson wrote, adding in parentheses, “The fact that the world doesn’t have any hypertext libraries – yet – is a minor point.” Several years prior, Nelson coined the term “hypertext”, describing a system of interconnection of documents entirely unrecognisable from modern hypertext. His original paper from the late 60s, imagined for hypertext “the capacity for intricate and idiosyncratic arrangements, total modifiability, undecided alternatives, and thorough internal documentation”.
Depending on what you read, Nelson is an oddity or a genius, maligned, a figure celebrated, or controversial. Nelson explains this by his being “beyond the paradigm”. He means, at least in part, that computer orthodoxy, already ossifying when he wrote Computer Lib, has settled seemingly for good on a page-based interface. One page, like a book, from which we can move forwards or back but not through, in the sense that Nelson envisaged. The depth that Nelson’s model would constitute, which would include the ability to trace not just texts but individual lines of text back to their source because of the functions of parallel pages and visible connections, is, yes, entirely outside the current paradigm. So much so that it’s at once germane and inconceivable, presumably as much then as now.
I first learned of Nelson via the Werner Herzog documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016), in which Herzog portrays The Internet – big T, big I – through anti-EMF (electromagnetic field) campaigners, a cyberbullying victim’s bereaved family, and Elon Musk. Nelson’s segments are brief, his presence at once luminous and viscerally angry: an apparent visionary who just missed the mainstream, standing dockside in a windbreaker, describing a quasi-spiritual childhood experience of water through his fingers that informed a theory of personal computing as a tool for expressing and representing the non-linear interconnection of information. Inside his office, which is attached to the dock and bobs slightly, Nelson demonstrates a recent prototype of Xanadu, modelled on the King James Bible, wherein sources and references for specific lines are indicated via two-way links. Nelson cycles through the wheel of pages, which zoom to the front of the screen from the depths, stretching the colourful tether graphics of their various interconnections. “To us, you appear to be the only one around who is clinically sane,” says Herzog, genuine, if condescending. “No one has ever said that before,” Nelson replies, delighted. He pulls a small digital camera from his pocket in a way that suggests this is a thing he does and snaps a portrait of Werner and the crew.
Nelson has described his life’s work as unfinished, which seems both accurate, in that Xanadu has yet to be released as a fully formed product decades after conception, and a regrettably narrow concept of finitude. A couple of years ago, at a Ted Nelson tribute conference titled “Intertwingled”, his word for the vast interconnection, as knowledge, of all aspects of the universe, Jaron Lanier told an audience of peers that the tenability of technology, if not humanity, necessitates that we, or perhaps they, “gradually, in a sense, find our way back to Ted”. Lanier then went on to elaborate what this means, with Nelson, seated in the front row, making frequent interruptions, corrections, addendums – always, inevitably, yet at the same time hopefully not the last word on what it means to get back to Ted.
So firstly, thank you very much for your time.
I won’t do anything like this again, because there are so many things happening. Okay.
In the interview you gave to Werner Herzog, you described running your hand through water, and experiencing understanding of connectivity that was very sensory.
Well, it wasn’t just sensory. It was the imagining of a vast three-or-more-dimensional system of interconnections concentrating. I would call it imaginative.
I was thinking about the link between the tactile and the visual.
No, I’m much more intellectual. Everything I see, immediately, is intellect.
How did this idea of visual parallelism and horizontality occur to you?
It’s just obvious. You could say it started when I was trying to write papers in high school. I could never bear to leave anything out. My papers got longer and longer. The problem with conventional writing is that you must grade the connections and put them in sequence for the reader to reassemble them in the mind. That’s wrong. That’s intrinsically evil. Writing is a false sequentialisation of what is not sequential.
In the YouTube comments on your videos, half the people are saying, “Oh my God, someone’s finally thought of a program that represents the way that I think”. And half are saying, “Oh, but this is just how I think. This is really obvious”.
That’s interesting. You’re reading the comments differently from the way I’m reading them.
How do you read them?
I see them more as rambling and negative, but there are a lot of people who connect with it.
What stuck with me was this dichotomy: something that could be both extremely provocative and lead people to marginalise you and your ideas, but also occur to some people as natural, intuitive, too obvious.
Right. Well, there you are. It’s an issue of paradigms. Once you’re in a paradigm, it’s very hard to break it. People who are in the conventional paradigm of text are naturally offended. To contradict the paradigm is to offend them spiritually.
This is a fairly abstract question: if your system had become predominant, how do you think it may have affected the way that people think?
It is impossible to say. The consequences of anything you put out in the world are unknowable. So many things have had consequences we didn’t expect, and so many things did not have the wonderful consequences we expected. It’s all kind of random.
Do you see anything now that reflects something of the capabilities that you would’ve hoped that Xanadu would implement?
No, because that’s my paradigm. I have prepared a brief video on things I’ve learned about that, which do have parallelism. For example, I didn’t know that – I think it’s PageMaker and some Adobe program – both allow marginal stuff on paper. So, you can have parallel text on paper, but not visibly connected, but you can put things in the margin all over, and that can be translated into a PDF, which is then a portable format. It’s not the kind of parallelism I’m talking about. But it’s something.
Jaron Lanier said that your work had the broader potential to encourage social responsibility.
Well, that’s taking it a little far. I’m talking about a literary genre that I endorsed, but the word responsibility … has too many syllables.
With something like Xanadu…
There’s nothing like Xanadu. Either it’s Xanadu, o … I still have hopes of getting something up next year, so it’s not dead yet. I’ll take that back. I’ve learned never to give a prediction of time. So even to say next year is too specific.
Tell me about the product.
I give it a new name for every product definition. This one’s called Xanabase, and it will allow you to assemble content from anywhere on the internet, rather than restricted locales, and it will allow you to publish. And it will have multiple windows. That’s it.
I’m trying to get at something of the experience that you’ve had of being, in a sense, the parallel path. I’m very interested in this concept of trying to execute an idea for the length of time that you’ve been working on Xanadu.
Until 1990, I didn’t think it was the parallel path. I thought it was the path, and I was blindsided by the Web. I was shocked.
What I’m trying to ask about is your drive.
Well, go into history and look at any theologian. They’ll keep up with the same thing for forty years, fifty years. So, in a sense, I’m a theologian.
Do you feel that your work has an ideological component?
Can you speak a little about that?
No. It is what it is. It’s a very specific structure and mechanism, and people can be inspired by that in all directions because wherever you have an idea, you have variants.
Right. But it involves a certain kind of belief on your part, wouldn’t you say?
Well, it’s the hope that truth will bubble to the top, that people will be motivated and capable of finding what’s right, but, I’m now beginning to doubt that, looking at the state of the world.
To have the sense that you’re ultimately serving a function of truth.
Yeah, well, ask the Pope.
Yeah, but I’m asking you.
Well, I’ll give the same answer, because it’s the truth. It’s been revealed to me by means over which I have no control.I’m sorry to say, that’s how the thing is. There are so many other things I wanted to do. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker. But then I saw what computer screens could do, and said, “Okay, the interactive screen will be the new home of the human race.” And was I wrong? So, I said, “Okay, I can design the documents for that.” And that got me onto this treadmill. Some of it is hereditary. My parents had a very strong drive. They worked together, but independently, and both had very successful careers in ﬁlm.
I remember an interview where you spoke about reading [American engineer and inventor] Vannevar Bush around the dining room table.
Well, I think so. I was eight, but I believe we did. My grandparents, who raised me, were extremely supportive of my intellect. I was intrinsically intellectual, and that was always important. My grandmother told me later that she thought I would be a historian. Well, kind of.
You’ve said that one of your strong beliefs is elegance in design.
I’ll give you some examples. The lava lamp is a lovely example of elegance, to me. Because all it is, is a base that contains a light bulb, and a funny-shaped bottle, and if you take off the top, it’s got a regular bottle cap. And inside the bottle is a ball of wax. The light bulb heats the wax. It expands and rises to the top, then it cools, it breaks into sections, and more goes to the top and falls back. It’s so simple and elegant: water, a bottle, wax, and a bottle cap. That, to me, is elegance. Another example is the Hammond organ. There was a guy named Hammond. I met him, and he told me this story, which doesn’t match the conventional story that you read on Wikipedia. He made clocks, and I had a Hammond clock. The problem with electric clocks in the 20s was that if the electricity stopped and restarted, the clock would resume turning, and you wouldn’t know it was wrong. Hammond made a clock which you had to restart if it stopped, making you conscious of the fact that it was not correct.
I was driving a taxi cab in New York at the time, and he was a passenger, and he said, “I had a successful clock business, but then some body else made the same clock. I found them and it turned out that that clock was patented the year I was born. There I was, I had these parts, I had all these little wheels with flat sides, which you need to synchronise the clock with the wall current”. Instead, he put an induction coil next to the wheel, turned it and made a very nice sound. And he started making electric organs that consisted of a rod with wheels. One wheel might have nine sides, another wheel would have sixteen sides, and as they turned inside of the coil, each would make a different sound, and the organist, pushing on a key, would move that induction coil closer to that particular wheel, thus creating a very pleasing sound. That was the birth of the Hammond organ. It is very elegant because it’s so simple.
It has an aesthetic quality, but it’s not just a good-looking thing.
It’s like elegance in mathematics. I’m not a mathematician. I hate numbers. But I understand what the mathematicians mean by elegance. It means simplicity and clarity. Good software design should be elegant, especially interactive software, which is getting more and more horrible. I hate cellphone apps because if you have the so-called desktop on your computer, at least it’s a rational, organised structure. But these stinky little apps each have their own tricks to memorise. I hate that.
You’ve said that your life’s work is unfinished, that Xanadu is unfinished. I’m curious how you think about the quality of something being finished or resolved.
I have finished thousands of pieces of writing. I have a huge archive, but most of it’s not published. In the case of writing, finishing means allocating the time and sitting on it and redoing it and redoing it and redoing it, until it’s done. I generally print out one version and correct it by hand, and then will sometimes cut and paste it into new arrangements, physically cutting and pasting, except I use staples. I call each rewrite a grind. For example, I just did a nine- grind piece, and it takes a long time and a lot of effort. The word used by architects is charette. That means I’m now concentrating on one thing, and I’m not going to sleep, or what- ever, until it’s done. I have to decide what is most important to write this spring. I think one of them is my overview of history for YouTube, and the other is my indignant overview of mathematics for YouTube. What I wish they had told me when they were teaching mathematics. Because I hated mathematics so much, and the insights I managed to find since have changed my attitude. I still hate numbers. I still can’t calculate, but at the same time, for people like me, who are theoretically minded, such insights could be very useful.
My first week of the programming course was like being hit by lightning. This was 1960. And they’d been lying about computers: people thought they were mathematical, people thought they were numerical – no! They were all-purpose. They could be made to do anything. And this completely incorrect stereotype spread throughout the world … That’s why I wrote Computer Lib. My collaborator Roger Gregory is still working on Xanadu Classic. And it’s a very wonderful program, and would’ve been finished in 1990, if I hadn’t made a huge mistake. We didn’t finish until 1998. And then there’s the ver- sion I’m working on now, which is internet-based. It’s still the same model. You can create collages of content and parallel pages.
And you understand that work as something that will ultimately be finished…
I don’t know. I have no idea. I’m very pessimistic about the future of the world. The world could end before this happens. I think there’s a very good chance that humanity will not survive another decade.
What’s your relationship to that?
I keep doing my work as if there’s a future.