Orality and Hypertext: An Interview with Ted Nelson

Jim Whitehead

Early last June we received a gripping email, originally from Ted Nelson, forwarded via a friend, concerning an article in Wired magazine. Our copy of Wired still lay unread in our growing "read sometime" pile, though we had noticed the article on Xanadu, Nelson's hypertext project. The email left us reeling:

The June issue of WIRED magazine contains an extremely nasty and mean-spirited article entitled "The Curse of Xanadu," by Gary Wolf, which purports to be the obituary of Project Xanadu. The article is an affront to the alumni and veterans of the Xanadu project, some fifty of us over the years, contriving to make our endeavors look impossible and asinine ...

Some background will help put this message in perspective. While most folks credit Vannevar Bush with the first description of hypertext-like capability in an article titled, "As We May Think," published in 1945, the system he described (which he called Memex) was based on microfilm. In 1960, Ted Nelson invented computer-based hypertext for a term project while a graduate student at Harvard, and thereafter became increasingly consumed with his vision of global hypertext, which he called the Xanadu system. He coined the term "hypertext" and presented a paper on "zippered lists," a key algorithm in his Xanadu system, at a national conference of the Association for Computing Machinery in 1965.

Given the dramatic growth of the World Wide Web (which still lacks many key features of the Xanadu system), you would think that Nelson would be accorded the same respect as other scientists and engineers whose work has dramatically entered our lives. However, due to early high expectations placed onto the Xanadu project, combined with a series of wrenchingly tragic setbacks, the Xanadu system is still struggling to reach market, decades after its conception.

Even though Nelson is not one to mince words, the intensity of his email message still took us by surprise. Digging out our Wired, we read through the offending article, and had to agree: the article is indeed a carefully crafted slam of Nelson and Xanadu (the article can be accessed via the WWW at http://www.hotwired.com/wired/3.06/features/xanadu.html). Feeling that the mission of KUCI is to give marginalized voices a powerful outlet, we approached Nelson about appearing on the Cyberspace Report. A mere week after receiving his stunning email, Ted Nelson was our featured guest. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Cyberspace Report: What inspiration led you to develop hypertext?

Ted Nelson: Well I was always, as a kid, into writing and reading and literature and movies basically, like a lot of people, and I had done a great deal of writing as a youth, and re-writing, and the intricacy of taking ideas and sentences and trying to arrange them into coherent, sensible, structures of thought struck me as a particularly intricate and complex task, and I particularly minded having to take thoughts which were not intrinsically sequential and somehow put them in a row because print as it appears on the paper, or in handwriting, is sequential. There was always something wrong with that because you were trying to take these thoughts which had a structure, shall we say, a spatial structure all their own, and put them into linear form. Then the reader had to take this linear structure and recompose his or her picture of the overall content, once again placed in this nonsequential structure. You had two it seemed -- and now I'm reconstructing because I don't know how explicitly I thought this out as a youth -- you had to take these two additional steps of deconstructing some thoughts into linear sequence, and then reconstructing them. Why couldn't that all be bypassed by having a nonsequential structure of thought which you presented directly? That was the hypothesis -- well the hyperthesis really -- of hypertext, that you could save both the writer's time and the reader's time and effort in putting together and understanding what was being presented.

CR: What was your inspiration for the Xanadu system itself?

TN: Well basically Xanadu has always been coextensive with my whole paradigm -- I gave a talk on this last night at Xerox PARC -- which was that you want to be able to keep track of your own creative output being able to see the differences between my own versions and say, gee if I move this from the beginning to the middle, and lets try it that way, but then try moving the middle to the beginning in another version, how does it come out each way? So on the one hand, you want as a writer or creative constructor of anything, those tools which will most contribute to your understanding of the consequences of your own design decisions. On the other hand, for a new publishing system of the future, and it seemed manifest to me in 1960 that we would be reading and writing on computer screens that were interactive and all this would be fed by a vast feeder network of digital digitalia around the world, since we're going to be publishing in a system of this kind, what would be the reward structure, what would be the document structure, and what would be the most beneficial extension of literature as we knew it. To me literature is the great ideal here, not some engineer's notion of information retrieval. The engineers seem to have the notion that you can take the documents that are written and dip them in some sort of technical acid and the facts will fall to the bottom and then these facts will roll into their appropriate slots. This is not so. Writing is the way it is because every word generally has some kind of meaning. It's finding these meanings and making them most useful to me that seems the great problem. So the issue is what will be the extension of literature into the great realm of interactive, multi-dimensional, many-threaded presentational forms. So Xanadu basically has been my name for an evolving but essentially centrally the same system for the supply and presentation of material with two basic relationships: what we would call the link, which is an unchanging connection between objects, or parts which are different, and the transclusion, which is a maintained connection between parts which are the same.

CR: It sounds like the Xanadu system, many many years ago solved a lot of the really pertinent problems that are just only starting to surface in the World Wide Web today. But yet the WWW has managed to become by now the dominant hypertext paradigm. For the vast majority of people in the United States right now when you say hypertext they think of Netscape or Mosaic and that is their notion of hypertext. Now that the WWW is so dominant, how does Xanadu have to change, to modify itself to fit into the new reality of a WWW world?

TN: That's a good question, I'm still muddling with it. First of all, I think the WWW was a brilliant simplification. As I understand it, and maybe I have this wrong, but Tim Berners-Lee came and we had lunch, in, oh I guess it was 1989, 90, something like that, in Sausalito, and I really liked the guy, and he'd done this very simple thing, and it sounded too trivial to me {laughs} but he certainly was a nice fellow and I expected to keep in touch with him, although I am a very bad correspondent, and the next thing I knew suddenly the thing had caught on. And what it turns out to be is simply an extension of file transfer protocol, in other words it's saying you can anonymously go in and dip in and take out this file and here is a proposed way to look at it. This is called HTML. You have to undestand the HTML/SGML kind of format where you've got all these warty little knobs and boogers in it that are formatting codes -- this is absolutely contrary to the Xanadu idea that you have clean data undefiled. However, it works, it's very simple, and you can always take those things out, so that's OK. But all it is is FTP with lipstick so that you can look at these things and the jump addresses are hidden and the formats and you have paragraph levels and stuff and it's basically what people needed and frankly I think it's much better than word processing. I'm really happy now that I'm planning to switch from Microsoft Word to HTML just because there's no need not to. It's a perfectly good format, and it makes everything simpler to browse in.

CR: You've obviously been at one point a visionary...

TN: At one point? When did that end?

CR: Even now with the WWW your ideas are taking on sort of a new reality in some way shape and form...

TN: Or seemingly more real to some people.

CR: If some people who have what seem like visionary ideas right now, how would you encourage them to go about turning them into reality based on your own experiences?

TN: What would I recommend to a young visionary today? {laughter} Very straightforward, learn to deal with short term goals and not delegate. I trusted them {laughter} famous last words. These are people I still love and respect, but if I had been able to hold it together and {pause} not try to overstretch and overgrab and managed short term goals better, things would have been very different. But again I took a big goal as a single unit and then I turned it over to others who took it as a single unit and made it a bigger goal and thus postponed dealing with a well-defined situation.

CR: Well, certainly the Xanadu system has had sort of a checkered, and some would say, tragic history...

TN: Well I would agree with the tragic, but the past tense I don't agree with. We're having a meeting right now as to how best to put the system on the web because it's still working better than it was in 1992, and as far as I know it can be finished.

CR: There was a recent article in Wired magazine which took a very critical view of the whole Xanadu project to date. I know I've received email from you where you were saying that you thought the article was almost libelous...

TN: Not almost, definitely.

CR: OK, definitely libelous. Would you care to comment about your objections to the Wired article, which many of our listeners probably have access to?

TN: Sure. Well it comes down to a great deal to personal viewpoint and personal integrity. People see the world differently and the reporter, whose name is Gary Wolf, makes his biases extremely clear in the article, but they were by no means clear when he so charmingly inveigled his way into my confidence. Now of course I've generally taken the point of view that posterity would like what I did and so I've trusted journalists as sort of ambassadors from posterity and this has been a mistake in general but, ahem, Mr. Wolf did not make his biases in any way evident when we saw each other. It turns out that the three things he most dislikes as far as I can tell are idealism, untidyness, and immodesty, all three of which he found in profusion in the Xanadu project. For myself, I have always hated things in people, well the people who I've regarded as shallow, conventional, pompous, and smug. So each of us hit the jackpot in the other. But as I say, he got to strike first, in this extremely scurrilous and nasty piece.

He emailed me recently saying, gee I seem to have overlooked all the positive statements, which is interesting because in my eight or so readings of the article I did not find one positive statement which was not immediately taken back by sarcasm or innuendo. What I object to as actually libelous in the piece of course has nothing to do -- well of course it has something to do with it -- but is not directly a matter of its tone or its nastyness. Libel consists of damaging, false statements which are being promulgated either maliciously or negligently. Now as a reporter your standards for negligence may be rather slippery but this man had definite access to a great deal of information and I believe he was extremely, shall we say, disingenuous in the use of that information and how he passed it on. For example he very amusingly talks about us as if we are blundering hobbyists and says that computer scientists would not have agreed with us, therefore according to Wolf we were not computer scientists, right. He says of Roger Gregory, my good friend whom he impugned and was much nastier to than me, he says Roger Gregory was not an elite researcher or computer scientist. Yet a few paragraphs later he mentions that Roger had developed a new addressing scheme based on transfinite arithmetic. Now I do not know what Mr. Wolf means by computer science, but within my world, someone who invents an addressing scheme based on transfinite arithmetic is not stamp collecting. That's computer science, or it was that week, and this is serious stuff. By elite researcher I suppose he means "annointed researcher" such having PhD's or working at Xerox PARC or being licensed to kiss the feet of so-and-so. But we basically, on our own, were doing important, strong work at the forefront and Mr. Wolf has made a point of trashing us and ignoring any indication we were not a bunch of deranged hobbyists. For example, he does not mention the contributions of Eric Drexler to the team precisely, I think, because eveyone agrees that Eric Drexler is a scientist, and therefore obviously doesn't fit into Mr. Wolf's thesis.

CR: Do you have any final, last words for our audience?

TN: No, but just thank you very much for listening Orange County, and I'm with you in spirit and good luck with the bonds.

A complete, digital copy of this interview can be accessed from the Cyberspace Report WWW page.

Copyright © 1996, Jim Whitehead