Joho the Blog » [Oxford] Ted Nelson

[Oxford] Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson is giving a talk to about twenty people at the Oxford Internet Institute. (I just gave a talk on taxonomy and the mmiscellaneous.) Ted invented the word “hypertext” and for many years worked on the Xanadu project, a hyperlinked web that gains some advantages over the Web by allowing a degree of centralization. [What follows are the notes I took while Ted was talking. They are quite approximate, and probably dead wrong in spots.]

He talks about the great British engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who wanted the width of RR tracks to be set at the optimally safe distance but lost to the economic interests of the carriage makers. He likewise talks about Nikola Tesla “who invented the modern world,” including the electrical grid. Tesla wanted to give free electricity to everyone in the world by “charging up the electrical field of the planet so that anyone with a coil could just tap off what they like.” Westinghouse stopped backing him as a result of this. “What’s the business model?” Finally, he talks about Wernher von Braun vs. Chuck Yeager. Yeager gets credit for breaking the sound barrier, although (says Nelson) a British pilot preceded him. Nelson says that Yeager later said “I could have gone orbital, but they told me not to.” This was in 1947. Why did we hold Yeager back, he asks. Because, von Braun felt that if he let a little plane got orbital instead of large rockets, it would disrupt his political agenda. Von Braun shared Heinlein’s vision of colonizing space. (Ted says this story is “partially conjectural.”)

The point: There are hidden agendas in most technological decisions. He asks why programs insist on us not entering spaces or hyphens into phone numbers. “The real technical reason is the programmer is a jerk.” The engineer, says Ted, passively-aggressively requires the user to do something “rigorous.” This is the techie mentality at its worst. Software is too important to be left to the techies; they need an “overarching vision.” The reason computer games are so much better than office software is that the people who create computer games love to play games while the people who make office software “don’t give a shit.”

“Today’s computer world is based on techie misunderstandings of human thought and human life.”

He talks about Doug Engelbart who shares Ted’s view that “the current computer world is absolutely lousy.” He lays this primarily at the foot of Xerox PARC’s assumption that the computer GUI ought to imitate paper. Rather, it should enable rapidly changing links among the thousands among ideas and scraps. He shows some great examples of French literary works (e.g., Victor Hugo) literally cut and pasted together. But Xerox PARC called a simple hide and show operation “cut and paste,” thus making it harder to do complex rearrangement of pieces.

From the ’60s, Ted has had the idea that we should have a hypertext world in which anyone can publish, with automatic payment to the authors. “For the last 45 years, I’ve been trying to realize this design vision.” He focuses on the data side because it requires managing vast numbers of links, and paying the rights holders. “I want to make it possible for everything to be remixed.” (Xanadu is now called “Transliterature.”)

His point overall: The computer world is not technologically determined. It is an accident. We can thus change its basic premises.

Q: You are wrong to think that the market is a conspiracy against good ideas, and that freedom is being constrained by regulation and standardization. On the contrary, some regulation results in a greater good.

A: The market hasn’t had a chance for anything else.

Q: You’re like the techies you don’t like. You offer us ideas we should like better. E.g., I like editing on wysiwyg, paper-emulating word processors. And bad sw often results from the people specifying it not really knowing what they want.

I do believe in the great designer theory – Buckminister Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Orson Welles…

Q: The problem is with the market itself, which results in tech gear being created for a dollar day in China. You should be attacking the market, not the techies.

Ted: Good luck. [Tags:


I got to go to lunch with Ted. Between the noodles he demo’ed ZigZag, which is rather hard for us spatially-impaired to explain. But, here goes. It’s a database designed to permit multidimensional views of information. So, if you feed it information about the line of British royalty, you can view the info by, say, date, and it will arrange itself visually on the screen appropriately. Ask to see familial relations, and it will suitably rearrange itself. It is very much not a row-and-column view, a view Ted finds only occasionally suitable to the data. I think (but my spatial impairment keeps me from knowing for sure) that this would be a cool tool for visualizing facets.

7 Responses to “[Oxford] Ted Nelson”

  1. Great and neat, about Ted Nelson!

    Your reference to ZigZag is a little off: it’s ZigZag, not ZigZig, and the URL is:

    http://www.nongnu.org/gzz/gi/gi.html

    From what I can tell, ZigZag could represent facets, but wouldn’t limit each facet to being mutually exclusive terms.

  2. I love Ted Nelson, ever since I found his Computer Lib/Dream Machines book in Sausalito in the late 1970s. I had the privilege of meeting him and hearing him speak (more like watching him perform) a few years ago when he came to Toronto. Since then, I always identify him with Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Emmett Brown character from Back to the Future.

    I can’t help but think that his conceptions for organizing information, via both Xanadu/Translit and ZigZag, has much to do with his ADHD, and his need to attempt to gain some measure of control of his hyperawareness.

  3. I think Ted Nelson’s a pretty cool guy, but he’s way off base on Yeager/Von Braun, and that makes the other anecdotes suspect as well.

    There’s no way Yeager could have “gone orbital,” no friggin’ way. If if were that easy Burt Rutan would have done it already, and it’s simply not.

    There is a lot of political fighting in the history of America’s first orbital shot, and Von Braun could have gotten us there before the Russians, but that’s another story.

    Parochially, I’m sad to say it was Navy’s Vanguard that was the basket into which all our orbital eggs were laid, and when it became clear that no way was Vanguard ready for prime time, it was the Army and Von Braun’s Redstone that stepped into the breech.

    But no way was the Bell X-1 able to achieve anything remotely approaching orbital velocity (~17,000 mph).

  4. Regarding “He asks why programs insist on us not entering spaces or hyphens into phone numbers. “The real technical reason is the programmer is a jerk.” The engineer, says Ted, passively-aggressively requires the user to do something “rigorous.” This is the techie mentality at its worst.”

    While programmers might be jerks, it’s not mere desire to frustrate users. It’s that whole systems used to need to run in memory constraints less than what people now have on their keychains, and the languages were on the whole not friendly to string processing. Much easier to say “Don’t enter spaces or hyphens”, than to spend precious resources and introduce potential errors over it. One can punditificate “That’s wrong!”, and that the cost is worth it – but that’s a different argument, not that programmers are jerks.

  5. Jay, thanks for pointing out the error, which was a typo and which I have fixed. (I had initially typed “zigzig.”)

    Dave, thanks for the details. Ted conditioned his claim by saying that he was told this by someone who heard it first-hand from Yeager and that he (Ted) trusts the veracity of his source. Obviously, that doesn’t mean the story is true, but that’s the chain of evidence Ted presented.

    Seth, Ted was pointing to modern instances of “Don’t enter hyphens” where memory isn’t an issue. So, he may be wrong in his explanation but are you saying that engineers trained in days of memory scarcity have been unable to adapt to memory abundance? That seems pretty unlikely to me. So does your hypothesis that engineers think a using some regular expression code is likely to “introduce errors.”

    The no-hyphens policy these days strikes me as a case of design failure – someone along the way was a jerk – but I don’t think we need to conclude that the engineers committing it are passive-aggressive. Maybe they’re lazy, maybe the project was rushed, were required to follow inadequate specs, or maybe they think users ought to be asked to carry some of the burden, or something else. It’s hard to psychoanalyze people on the basis of their string handling (despite the Freudian overtone).

  6. The “British pilot did it first” meme is incorrect, too. It comes from an early David Lean film called “Breaking The Sound Barrier” which presented a fictional account of the first Mach 1 flight.

    http://imdb.com/title/tt0044446/

    Because Yeager’s flight was highly classified at the time, the film was many people’s first encounter with a story of a pilot breaking the long-thought-unbreakable sound barrier. They assumed it was based on fact, so the “British pilot was first” meme was born.

  7. David, regarding “modern instances”, how does he – or you – know how modern the system is? You’d be surprised at how much legacy code still exists in big companies. And even if some parts are modern, a rewrite of working code can be expensive (and if it’s not broken, don’t fix it).

    Look, turn it around. His statement doesn’t pass the sanity test. Does, he, or you, really think the main reason systems don’t deal well with entering spaces or hyphens into phone numbers is merely the sheer jerkiness of programmers? Are they that powerful, that an obvious interface ease-of-use spec can be stopped by their “passively-aggressively requires” at whim?

    Finding out the answer to why a given system is so “rigorous” might be an interesting investigation. It’s too easy to say that it’s because the programmer is a passive-aggressive jerk (this holds even if the programmer happens to be a passive-aggressive jerk – that still doesn’t necessarily make it the reason!).

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