• COMMENT 2017-07-28 BY Ying Li

    Ted Nelson: Inventing the documents for the future

    Ted Nelson has just turned 80. He says he’s terribly busy and doesn’t like to travel. His schedule for the coming six months are all packed. He’s the author of Computer Lib, described by Steven Levy as “the best-selling underground manifesto of the microcomputer revolution”. He’s regarded as a pioneer of information technology and the creator of the widely used term-Hypertext. He sniffs at the idea of predicting the future of the Internet. But he’s still hoping to accomplish more.

    Ted Nelson has just turned 80. He says he’s terribly busy and doesn’t like to travel. His schedule for the coming six months are all packed. He’s the author of Computer Lib, described by Steven Levy as “the best-selling underground manifesto of the microcomputer revolution”. He’s regarded as a pioneer of information technology and the creator of the widely used term-Hypertext. He sniffs at the idea of predicting the future of the Internet. But he’s still hoping to accomplish more. One of his favorite quotes is from William Blake: I must invent my own systems, or be enslaved by other men’s!  Ted Nelson sat down with CyperLabs on a Sunny Friday afternoon, in San Francisco’s Internet Archive, to talk about his growth, his work and many unfulfilled ambitions. 


    Dr. Fang with Ted Nelson


    CL: Your undergraduate years were spent in Swarthmore. Why Swarthmore? What’s so special about it?

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    Ted Nelson: I applied different schools. And Harvard gave me a honorary scholarship. I went to visit Swarthmore. There is something special about this place. It’s a beautiful campus and very friendly. I went back and looked at it again. And I was shown around by a beautiful girl. She was a Student Council President. She used words I never heard before. That made me very happy. I said now I wanted to go. It was an explosion of ideas. I was interested in every subject and in highschool, the other kids didn’t like the big words I used. I finally saw I could use all the words I understood: people understood the words I knew. I followed my interest in many directions. Swarthmore was very much like conversation. In the hallway, you would see people talk in the hallway all afternoon after lunch, not going anywhere. A lot of conversations, a lot of thoughts and wonderful faculty, very friendly. There were several faculties I could just walk into, and it’s welcome. I just worked no harder than I have to and do media, because I was basically a media guy. When I was a child in the 40s, I read magazines, I studied comic books very carefully. I listened to the radio. There was no television. And movies especially. I wanted to be Walter Disney. I wanted to have my own studio. And I wanted to be a designer and movie maker.

    OHI  Team was interviewing Ted Nelson


    CL: Is it because of your parents?

    (Ted Nelson is the son of
    Emmy Award-winning director Ralph Nelson and the Academy Award-winning actress Celeste Holm.)

    Ted Nelson: I didn’t see my parents. I was raised by my grandparents. When I was six months old, my mother went away to her career in theatre and my parents were divorced very shortly afterwards. So my mother and I were raised by the same four people. They did everything they could to support her talent as an actress. And they did everything they could to support my talents in like way. It was a very literary home. People quoted Shakespeare and poetry all the time. People read things aloud at the table. So I had very strong sense of literary tradition. This then, led into, if I hadn’t had such strong sense of, first of all, the importance of writing and the difficulty of writing, I wouldn’t have done what I did. In high school, I learned to write. And writing was very difficult. Because it means you are taking thousands of possible things you could say and narrowing them down to one sequence, finding the beginning, finding the end and making paths between them, without side trails that confuse the reader. I got very good at it. But I wrote long papers in high school, because I couldn’t cut them down. In college I spread out. I had my own magazine. I was in plays and I wrote the first rock musical, which in 1957 ran for two nights as scheduled. The audience was smaller than the cast.


    OHI  Team was interviewing Ted Nelson


    CL;Did you realize from a very young age that you could be so different from all the other kids?


    Ted Nelson: Oh, from the first minute. Oh, yeah, because I didn’t know anything. My grandmother would take me to lectures and we would read aloud a great deal. And you know I would have a crush on different girls in the classes. But really there was nothing to talk to the other kids, because they didn’t know much. (laugh)

    OHI  Team was interviewing Ted Nelson

    CL: So back in the 1960s, the Internet was still an infant idea?

    Ted Nelson: No, no, no, nothing! No, there was no Internet.


    CL: We generally believe the world didn’t have any idea of the Internet until 1969….


    Ted Nelson: I assumed from the very beginning that there would be worldwide networking, because IBM said they would have soon. OK! But I didn’t imagine it could be so cheap, powerful and fast as it is now. But the concept of Internet, I have nothing to do with it. I was designing the documents. And my documents have visible bridges of connection. I also had jump links. I don’t say hyperlink, I say jump link. Because you are jumping, you don’t know where you are jumping to. So I was thinking about different ways of organizing writing, different ways of presenting, different ways of thinking about interfaces, all these things. You know, I don’t work in groups. I think on my own. I begin first from principles and figure things out. In 1965 I submitted five papers to conferences and they were all accepted.

    CL: Sociology conferences?


    Ted Nelson: No, no, no, computer conferences!

    CL:You are given the credit of creating the term Hypertext. How did it happen?


    Ted Nelson: From 1960, when I took a computer course in 1960, I saw you could put screens on them and you could make them interact. I thought that could be a new home for the human race. And I don’t think anybody else had that thought at that time. I know of four things we were doing: they had a pioneer project in Harvard; a pioneer project in MIT; missile control NORAD, People say that’s impossible. I said no, I knew exactly how it would feel. So I said: OK, we would do it this way. We would have the text move on the screen. We have flash and dots. We have this and that, and how we would arrange the screen. And all of these were started in 1960. So designing the documents for the future is my job. And I believe I have unique qualification. I still think so, because I understand writing, with the technical people. (Pause and laugh) Don’t quite. Technical writing is in an outline form, it’s hierarchical. While as real writing, for the New Yorker, or for a book, it begins with something strong and ends with something strong and finds a pathway, and carefully explains everything along the way. So how do you map this to the screen?It’s taken many years to become committed to my version of parallel pages with visible connections. I first photographed that in 1970. So that was, at Xanadu.com, you could see my 1970 photograph of that. It’s a simulation.

    OHI  Team was interviewing Ted Nelson


    CL: How did you single out the word Hypertext among all the choices?


    Ted Nelson: There are various prefixes you can use in English, like super and ultra. Hyper has two separate connotations. In mathematics, it means multi-dimensions. In medicine, it means excessive and pathological. I chose the first meaning. I was thinking of hypercubes and hyperspace with mathematical concept of multidimensionality. I was thinking extended and generalized text that was very straightforward.

    OHI  Team was interviewing Ted Nelson


    CL: You are visionary and foresee many things before people even realize their importance. How did you manage to do that?


    Ted Nelson: I knew something about history. For example, I knew the history of movies. The first inventor of movie was Louis Lumiere in France, who disappeared mysteriously. So then there were black and white films. And then they brought in the piano. They added the sound. Then then color. And then the wide screen. So all these media change. They had telegraph. Then they had Morse code. All media evolve. I knew this. So I knew that the media of computer screen would evolve. And I wanted to be there influencing you. I thought my design to be the best. I still do.

    9: Let’s talk about your project Xanadu, if we may.

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    Xanadu is 400 kilometers north of Beijing. It’s a real place. It was the pleasure palace of the Kublai Khan. It was written about in the famous poem by Coleridge, which was considered the most romantic poem in the English language. While Coleridge was writing this poem, a knock on the door came, he was interrupted and he lost the rest of the poem. So Xanadu symbolizes a place of magic literary memory where nothing would be lost. That was the original concept. The poem begins:

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
    Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea.

    So twice five miles of fertile ground
    With walls and towers were girdled round;
    And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
    Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
    And here were forests ancient as the hills,
    Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

    But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
    Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
    A savage place! as holy and enchanted
    As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
    By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

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    CL: You have an ongoing project called ZIGZAG, right? What was the thinking behind the launch of the project?

    Ted Nelson:
    ZIGZAG is a database that doesn’t require regularity. Relational database requires extensive regularity, and it’s hierarchical. The real world is hierarchical in some ways, not in others. Why is a Spreadsheet regular? The periodic table of elements is not regular. It’s staircased. And you need to represent things the way they are, not forcing them into artificial structures of regularity. ZIGZAG is a database structure that’s not regular and at the same time extremely versatile. It basically lists, it crossed the lists. And so any two lists that are parallel, we call the same dimension. So in an element of list it has a predecessor and a successor, one thing before, one thing after at most. That’s all what ZIGZAG is. It allows you to have as many dimensions as you like. That turns out to have many powerful consequences which I believe I discovered.

    Dr. Fang with Ted Nelson


    CL: How did you get Computer Lib published?

    Ted Nelson: I published it. No one is publishing
     Computer Lib. I’ve reprinted it. I have a lot of copies for sale. But nobody is buying. I always favor self-publishing, because I’m not interested in having some editors changing my words. I don’t want to argue about the content. I published it in 1974. A friend of mine was helping distribute it. But he found it’s too much work. So I found a place in South Bend and they were distributing for a while. And they cheated me. And I was going to sue them. But then I got a high-paying job and I didn’t have time to sue them. So they sold 50,000, and that’s before 1985. So published by myself, 50,000 have been sold.

    Dr. Zhong with Ted Nelson

    CL: How did you get the idea of writing Computer Lib?

    Ted Nelson: First, I was gonna call it: The Idea of Computer. That was 1966. But the problem was how to sell it,how to get people interested. In 1974, I got hired for a year at University of Illinois. The person who hired me wanted me to work on something called Plateau System. I looked at it and I said: No, that’s no use to anything I want to do. He said then who you want to do. I said I would write a book. And then, inspired by Women’s Lib at that time, Computer Lib! That’s it! The title told me how to write the whole book. Because with that idea, we are gonna liberate computers and we are gonna liberate people with computers. So I put it very forcefully and it’s very forcefully written and very enthusiastically written. The writing took a year and a half to finish. No one knew what I was doing.

    Ted Nelson says it’s hard to know how he will be remembered because he doesn’t fit into any conventional stories. Orson Wells is the media guy that he likes most. They both have the experience of getting started at the top and then things went downhill. And they both dragged along many unfinished projects in their lives. He used to be bitter for quite a long time. Luckily, the love of a good one changed his outlook on life somehow. The Xanadu project almost succeeded in 1988. Then a big mistake occurred. Rodger Gregory was demoted from being in charge of the project. He would have delivered Xanadu in ’88, two years before the Web. He was hugely disappointed. In 1992, a lady who was a software designer came to one of his talks and invited him for dinner. They got together and stayed together for 23 years.

    (
    Douglas Engelbart performed the wedding ceremony. The lady loved his work and helped him in many ways. She died. And he married someone to whom he was engaged 30 years ago)

    Looking back, he says there is one thing he would have done differently. When he got out of college, his father offered him a career as an actor in Hollywood. But he turned it down. He reckons he would have been a moderately successful actor and got into directing and producing.


    Li Ying with Ted Nelson

    The Oral History of the Internet (OHI) project aims to Interview the 500 key persons who influenced
    the development of the internet around the globe.

    Documenting the first 50 years of the internet, embrace the next 50 years.

    Looking forward to your support!

    Interviewee recommendation and cooperation, please e-mail info@chinalabs.com


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