Ted Nelson, Hypertext and the Web


The Ted Nelson GoogleTech Talk presentation was delivered on January 29, 2007.  Nelson began his career in the computer world in the early 1960s; an era where the term hypertext or the concept of the World Wide Web was only a figment of ones imagination.  Known as the man who “coined” the term hypertext, Nelson attempted to create a set of constructs for a new world of personal computing and a world of electronic documentation.  Hypertext is defined as “machine-readable text that is not sequential but is organized so that related items of information are connected” (wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn). However, Nelson thinks the world of such personal computing constructs has gone all wrong.  In his introduction, Nelson states “The clearer your vision, the harder it is for you to explain.” He believes he is part of an elite group of “old-timers” or the original men who believe that they have a problem– that nobody sees their original vision.

However, certain misunderstanding have occurred in the present world that have skewed these old-timer’s visions regarding their original ideas for just how personal computing would take shape (back in 1960) and the trajectory it would follow in order to be the most efficient and productive system possible.  In his presentation, Nelson addresses the issue of how we can best fix electronic literature, what the original vision for hypertext was and how he personally is envisioning a way to best redesign the “current copyright fights” through selective quotation ownership that “liberates and benefits everyone.”

The first question Nelson asked is how can we improve on paper?  The rectangular constrictions of paper and lack of space were the elements that lead Nelson and the Xerox Park workers to think beyond the sheet and look for new ideas.  According to Nelson, these new ideas “would change the world.”  Although the computer screen was a scarce commodity at the time (many people had never even seen a screen, or even a picture of one for that matter) Nelson and his colleagues knew that “The computer screen would be the home of human work for the indefinite future.”

Nelson had a universal vision of the world of “self publishing hypertext” for all users. With this vision, he was the mastermind behind Project Xanadu.
On the project’s website, the mission statement claims:


Since 1960, we have fought for a world of deep electronic documents– with side-by-side intercomparison and frictionless re-use of copyrighted material.

We have an exact and simple structure. The Xanadu model handles automatic version management and rights management through deep connection.

Today’s popular software simulates paper.  The World Wide Web (another imitation of paper) trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents.

Nelson’s answers to the hypertext issue was that “each quotation could be connected to its original source/context” without feeding the paper production process.  He knew from the start that it was possible to “free the human race from the prison of paper.”  He shows as a demonstration of the early Xanadu translator; a collage of quotations in different colors that when the user ran his/her cursor over a particular set of text or a quote and clicked on it, the user would automatically be taken to the original set of text in another window.  Nelson answers his own “how do we do this” question by stating that through a representation of documents, the EDL (a “Hollywood” term for edit, decision, list) that generated it and the tradition of “righteous oversimplification.” The EDL is a listing of the portions that are to be put together.  In the presentation, the document from which Nelson quotes from on the Xanadu translator is presented on the screen as a long series of characters that generally look like a long hyperlink.  Within the link, the extracted string of text from the quote that ensures that the “address of the content never change” (Nelson says this is KEY).  Such spans of content are non-breaking links and do not break with the EDL.

Nelson then presents a new version of the Xanadu Translator called Xanadu Space that his group has been working on.  He demonstrates a cluster (or Flight) of four documents in the space on the screen.  He uses the “Declaration of Independence” by Thomas Jefferson and recites the first several lines of the famous “we hold these truths to be self evident….” quote and links this section to an excerpt from the “Virginia Declaration of Rights” written by George Mason, the “English Bill of Rights” and John Locke’s “ Two Treatises of Government.”

Nelson sates “what you see is what you get” and what you see on the screen (with the four previously mentioned documents in mind) is “what you will get when you print it out.”  This “sneaky phrase,” according to Nelson, “propagandizes turning the computer into a paper simulator.”  However, as the presentation continues, Nelson moves more into his own body of work.  The notion of intercomparison side by side has been one of Nelson’s fascinating and puzzling ideas for the past 40 years.  He exclaims that there is one thing the Web does not have; the ability to place two documents side by side, be able to compare them and annotate them simultaneously.  He hopes to fix this problem.
From explaining the Xanadu Space Structures and demonstrating how the system works by way of the aforementioned paper documents/quotes famous in American history, Nelson discusses the Copyright system he envisioned over 20 years ago.  He imagined a system similar to what is now AOL (or as Nelson says, Google, with a snigger of a laugh afterward) in which a user would sign on and publish anything they wished or have access to or documents published by other authors.  In this seemingly ingenious system, the user would pull out a document to read or utilize for their personal work and under the instated copyrighted systems, the user would automatically be billed for using that quotation or segment of writing.  However, the user would then own them after paying the fee.  If one was to personally)write and publish certain articles, other users in the database that log on to this AOL-like system would have automatic access to/could use the published articles.  Then, the creator of the document would automatically be paid in royalties by the system. Creative commons is great for new small publishers, Nelson says that the big copyright holders will not let go, as well as any of the writings after 1922.  The effort is to engage the publishing industry in a new venue of micro payments whereas people then could easily purchase any number of or solely the quotations they needed for their work without ever needing to open a book.
While Ted Nelson’s idea seems like an ingenious new frontier for online publishing/copyright, as Gary Wolf exclaims in the forward of his article “The Curse of Xanadu”
It was the most radical computer dream of the hacker era. Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project was supposed to be the universal, democratic hypertext library that would help human life evolve into an entirely new form. Instead, it sucked Nelson and his intrepid band of true believers into what became the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing – a 30-year saga of rabid prototyping and heart-slashing despair.



3 responses to “Ted Nelson, Hypertext and the Web

  1. Throughout his lecture Ted Nelson speaks of a conspiracy to limit text on the web, to force it to remain simply as paper under glass. I would like to suggest that hypertext replicates paper, not just to promote printing and sell printers but because new media always takes on the characteristics of the old. Just as the printing press originally mimicked hand written texts, the computer mimics paper because it is what people are comfortable with. It is what they know how to use. I think that one of the problems with Xanadu is that too radical to be of any immediate use, too unlike the old medium for people to comfortably use it.

  2. I personally do not agree with the ideas of Ted Nelson. It sounds like he just wants to give Microsoft Word, The World Wide Web, Email, etc. some unnecessary competition. He claims you cannot put documents side by side yet, browsers and Word allow for multiple windows and tabs so that you can in-fact edit two things at once. We also have the ability to copy and paste as well as quote/cite so I do not see a need for this method of quoting. The way in which his windows can change interfaces and shapes seems completely unnecessary as well. Why would one need to change the shape or interface of a document when a straight forward page is the most easy way to read something? I do not think that because text on the web is paper under glass that it means it is limited. I feel as though the current system is working and there is no problem with it. I would have to agree with the comment by nsussmane. Yes, everyone is comfortable with the traditional methods and sticks to them because they work. If they needed change we would accept these changes but I feel as though the current standards give enough freedom and ultimately get the jobs we need done.
    I also feel that if his database of publishing and being billed for quoting documents became popular, it would make it too easy to steal the work of others. What would come out of it would be full page of quotes instead of original ideas. This database he speaks of reminds me of Google Books.

  3. Pingback: Four Way Gameplay « Introduction to Digital Media

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