BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Monday, 8 October, 2001, 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK
Visionary lays into the web
Ted Nelson is a visionary who is credited with coining the term hypertext. His ideas greatly influenced some of the developers of the World Wide Web. But as he told Tracey Logan of the BBC's Go Digital programme, he is highly critical of the internet.

A: Today we have a nightmare where the technical guys will tell you how wonderful it is. I am looking at it from the point of view of a harried user, which I am, and I believe that I am much more like the typical non-technical harried user than I am like the people who smoothly operate everything. Because to me, the user arrives running and must be instantly serviced and that is so different from the way everything is designed today. It is a nightmare.

Q: Could you take me back to your original ideas around how you might view text in new ways and when that was?

A: I was from a media background. By the time I got out of college, I had already produced a long-playing record, written a book, had my own magazine, had my own newsletter, written the world's first rock musical in 1957.

Q: What was the rock musical?

I took a computer course and that was like lightening striking. The heavens rolled apart

Ted Nelson
A: It was called Anything and Everything and it ran for two nights. I was very intensely concerned with all kinds of new media. I designed a magazine for example which was kite-shaped and had to be rotated while you read it. This sort of intricacy charmed me. It was the humour of the effect that I liked. I was very concerned about copyright already, because I had my own copyright certificate and yet on the other hand I tried to negotiate to re-use and re-publish material and I knew how difficult this was.

I thought I was going to be a filmmaker but at the same time I was an intellectual and I felt that I could make a contribution to some field, as yet, not invented. So in my uncertainty, I went to graduate school and there it all happened. In my second year in graduate school, I took a computer course and that was like lightening striking. The heavens rolled apart. This was it - it was obvious, the human race would spend the rest of its career at computer screens.

Q: What about the computer technology available to you at the time?

A: I never saw a computer during that course, I merely looked at the catalogues and the magazines and here was a picture showing a map on a screen. The guy who taught the course was doing textural analysis but essentially taking the text as input on cards and doing various analytical things with it.

But very clearly, if screens were going to be everywhere and if storage was cheap, then that does it, because now you can put the content on the screen. The four walls of paper are like a prison because every idea wants to spring out in all directions - everything is connected with everything else, sometimes more than others.

The point was to be able to have a medium that would record all the connections and all the structures and all the thoughts that paper could not

Ted Nelson
So, I was always frustrated having to write and having to cut things. Why should you have to cut anything? The ideas keep going, you have the material, you cut because there's a limit to the space allowed to you. And the space is limited because of some other constraints that have to do with money or printing or whatever.

But it seemed to me that as soon as you have computer storage you could put every point you wanted in - make the ones that are less relevant to your central topic, further away or allow the central topic to move as the reader proceeded. So, that notion of hypertext seemed to me immediately obvious because footnotes were already the ideas wriggling, struggling to get free, like a cat trying to get out of your arms.

So, the point was to be able to have a medium that would record all the connections and all the structures and all the thoughts that paper could not. Since the computer could hold any structure in any form, this was the way to go.

Here we were, completely misled by what the techies were saying. They were saying computers deal with numbers. This was absolutely nonsense. Computers deal with arbitrary information of any kind. The point is that you could structure this arbitrary information in any way. Well, given that, now we can write text that can go in all directions.

Q: So, you conceived of the idea of a form of text or a string of ideas that you can follow through according to your whim at the moment, a bit like having a conversation with a number of people where different people might chip in and explain things?

A: I think of it as a form of writing - and writing is essentially what I would call a two-God system, because God the author proposes and God the reader disposes. The author is completely free to do anything on the page that he likes.

We are using a degenerate form of [hypertext] that has been standardised by people who, I think, do not understand the real problems

Ted Nelson
Q: This was before the internet had ever been invented. Now, we are sitting here in the 21st Century using this text.

A: No. We are using a degenerate form of it that has been standardised by people who, I think, do not understand the real problems.

Q: So, this isn't hypertext? For instance, before this interview, I was reading a bit of a biography of you and I came across hypertext and I clicked on it and I was winged away to a background on hypertext - that's not your idea?

A: That's a trivial case of it. But I define hypertext as non-sequential writing - so of course it's hypertext but it is the most trivial form. The World Wide Web is not what we were trying to create. The links only go one way. There's no permanent publishing. There is no way you can write a marginal note that other people can see on what's in front of you. There is no way that you can quote freely.

To be able to collage freely is one of my objectives. So that you can just gather material in a new document, comment on it, annotate it, overlay it anyway you like and yet within a feasible copyright system - since we are not going to escape from copyright law - that allows this. That is what I have always tried to do.

[The web] is trivially simple - massively successful and it's like karaoke - anybody can do it

Ted Nelson
Q: There are so many things that I want to pick up on there. You were involved in Project Xanadu. Can you tell a bit about Project Xanadu?

A: Project Xanadu is essentially my trademark. It was originally, and has returned to my arms as that. Basically, Project Xanadu was simply the work I have been trying to do for hypertext that would allow freedom to collage, freedom to quote and inter-comparison of different versions - ease of editing that allows you freely to see what you've left in and what you've left out. All the things a writer would want plus permanent publishing and the ability for everyone to comment on everything. So, what we have now is a trivial case that has essentially gone in a different direction.

Q: Hypertext?

A: Well, the World Wide Web.

Q: But it's massively successful.

A: It's massively successful. It is trivially simple. Massively successful like karaoke - anybody can do it. What we now call the browser is whatever defines the web. What fits in the browser is the World Wide Web and a number of trivial standards to handle that so that the content comes. But the links can only go outward from a page. There is no way to have links coming in which can be seen from that page. We have so-called computer basics that are essentially lies.

Right now you are a prisoner of each application you use

Ted Nelson
The world is divided into word-processing, spreadsheet, database and other applications. Computers are hierarchical. We have a desktop and hierarchical files which have to mean everything. All of this is phoney. It is a system of conventions that have been established and we can have better conventions.

Q: You have said that we have settled for less basically. Because I have been brought up with computers the way they are, I can't see this difference or quite comprehend what you are talking about. What would it mean for me if we had what you're suggesting.

A: Right now you are a prisoner of each application you use. You have only the options that were given you by the developer of that application. So, what you can do in Microsoft Word is what Bill Gates has decided. What you can do in Oracle Database is what Larry Ellison and his crew have decided.

I want to create, however, a new breed, a new kind of computer system that is much simpler that allows kids to programme once again

Ted Nelson
All these things were created by people with different motivations and different ideas and different ways of trying to take over the world. The point is that these decisions they've made are partly for your convenience and partly for theirs and partly out of stereotypes that they carry with them from the conventions of the computer field.

Q: You haven't answered my question yet. How would life be different for me if we had?

A: I don't know. That's like saying how would the man in the street use a certain thing? I don't know your life and the point is you may now be sufficiently immured in the system that you now using anything else would be unsettling.

I want to create, however, a new breed, a new kind of computer system that is much simpler that allows kids to programme once again.

Ted Nelson
We have settled for less
See also:

14 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Web links that stick
15 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
BT goes to law over hyperlink patent
26 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Unweaving the world wide web
Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories