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Ted Nelson Predicts the Text in the Future

The visionary and internet pioneer has a better idea for structuring online texts.

Ted Nelson, coining the term "hypertext" in 1963, is a visionary and internet pioneer who does not like the construction of today's World Wide Web.

Many may assume hypertext is as old as the internet, or at least as old as the World Wide Web.

An online article with hypertext offers a deep reading experience unmatched by an offline one as hypertext contains links to related texts, pictures, and even audio or video materials on the internet.

The truth is, the term “hypertext” was coined before the birth of the internet, by Ted Nelson, in 1963.

“We did not have the internet when I coined ‘hypertext,’” Nelson said in a tiny conference room at the Internet Archive in San Francisco on a sunny July day, “That’s way before we have the internet or the web.”

Ted Nelson, who also coined the terms “hypermedia,” “transclusion,” “virtuality,” “intertwingularity” and more, is one of the first internet pioneers I want to interview for the Oral History of the Internet (OHI) because he is truly a visionary. An internet visionary may be defined as a pioneer who has foresight on what the internet should be even before its existence. Nelson fits the definition well. In fact, he fits so well that he is somehow disappointed at what the internet has been since its birth in 1969.

A Lonely Pioneer

Sitting down and having a conversation with a visionary like Ted Nelson can be intimidating, at least at the beginning, due to his piercing look. He may easily discover anything by giving a piercing glance.

“Happy Birthday!” became my greeting to him when we met on a late July day at the Internet Archive, where he works as an unpaid fellow.

“That’s long time ago,” he answered, with a smile. So anything happening last month could be a long time to Nelson, who turned 80 years old in June 2017. His smile was kind and warm, relieving most of my concerns.

In addition being an internet pioneer, Nelson is a person full of stories. He was born into Hollywood parents. His father Ralph Nelson was an Emmy-Award director who once offered young Nelson a job of being an actor in his movies, and his mother Celeste Holm was an Academic-Award winning actress. Ted Nelson turned down the job offer from his father.

“My parents did not influence me much as I was raised by my grandparents,” he recalled. “My parents divorced not long after they got married.”

Ted Nelson found himself very different from other kids at school and in his neighborhood as he often used “big words” they never did. Sometimes he felt lonely as he could hardly hang out with other kids.

“I am not a team player, and I like to work on my own,” he added. He keeps working alone in almost all his projects. But, obviously, Nelson is never short of followers and admirers.

He loved literature, music and reading “complex” books beyond his age. Nelson is good at writing since he was young, and loves reading his own articles when they are done. But he insists that he does not love writing as “writing is difficult.”

“A good article needs a strong beginning and a strong ending,” Nelson explained, “There are infinite ways to connect the beginning and ending by selecting certain details and excluding others.”

To Nelson, the paper is not a good media for writing, on which there is no way to connect one idea to other articles, but the connection of ideas is key to a better deep reading experience. Thinking of creating a better experience for writers and readers has been a dream in Nelson since he was very young. It surely pushed him to think more and eventually he came up with the term hypertext.

The first term that came to him was “jump link,” but it indicates something coming out of a spring board and jumping to nowhere. In the early 1960s, he finally had a better term, hypertext, which is not the one-way links that we get used to nowadays.

Project Xanadu

To understand Nelson’s concept of hypertext, one has to take a serious look at his Project Xanadu, which he started in 1960 before the internet existed. The project is named after Xanadu, the capital city of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Empire.

During the interview, Nelson keeps reminding of the difference between the internet and World Wide Web. But he used the best metaphors I even heard to distinguish the two, saying that “The internet is like the ocean, while the websites are like the boats on the ocean.”

To him, today’s websites are not a good medium for people to use. The biggest drawback is that online texts mirror the constraints of paper people have used for centuries. Nothing on the paper can be linked to another source. Nonetheless, the internet should offer us a system of multi-way links that would allow readers to see the context of any ideas or quotations the writers use. Reading in Xanadu Space might be more rewarding as the reader could also access prior layers or versions of meaning the authors created, not just the final version.

As a communication researcher myself, for instance, I often cite more than 100 scholars’ research papers when I write my own. When my article is online, the reader can only access to the final version. If one likes to explore more of the ideas I cited from other scholars and how I ground my ideas on others’, one must check the footnotes at the end of the pages or the references at the end of the manuscript, which are arranged in a linear and inconvenient way.

Assume the research paper is written in Xanadu Space, both writers and readers could see the links between the ideas in the articles and the ideas from other scholars cited. This seems an appealing idea to anyone who involves in a complex collaborative work, such as building a jetliner by thousands of engineers. Designing a modern jetliner requires engineers to work out all the details involving millions of parts and procedures. Using Project Xanadu offers a much easier way to track down, for instance, any errors made by an engineer in constructing the jetliner. It seems that Project Xanadu works better for those who involve in complicated projects but not necessarily so for others who treat their computers as a mere typewriter.

Nelson emphasizes, “Being able to see visible connections between web pages seems to me absolutely fundamental to writers and readers.” Project Xanadu featured by the hypertexts Nelson envisioned since the 1960s has yet become popular in the real world. I could figure out why it fails to go mainstream.

Perhaps due to timing? If Xanadu did not become a reality in the first 50 years of the Internet, will it be widely adopted in the next 50 years of the internet development? I got no answer from Nelson. But I am sure that time will tell.

A Rewarding Career

During out talk, I can see Nelson has a very rewarding career, but he said that it does not shape up his personality. His personality is shaped up by the women he loves, he added. When I asked him what he would do if he had a chance to start his career over again, he answered, “I may take my father’s job offer to be an actor in Hollywood.”

Finally, I asked him to predict what big changes could happen in the next 50 years of internet development, the visionary for over a half a century took a long pause, and laugh.

“I can predict nothing for the next 50 years,” he said with the same piercing look. “That’s true. I cannot predict something even in five years.”

Ted Nelson, a visionary and internet pioneer, is firm on his stand on the construction of today’s web, it is not only a nuisance to writers and readers but also crippling people’s thinking. To me, his belief in hypertext clearly reveals his prediction on the text in the future.

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