© 2010 Theodor Holm Nelson. All rights reserved.
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Excerpts from POSSIPLEX.
Everybody wants to tell their story; I have special reasons. I have a unique place in history and I want to claim it. I also want to clear the air, substituting the true story for myth and misunderstandings about my life and work.
This is not a modest book. Modesty is for those who are after the Nobel, and that chance (if any) is long past. This is what I want known long after. Like Marco Polo and Tesla in their autobiographies, I am crazed for people to know my real story.
What the hell gave me the background and temerity to think I could design the documents of the future, and indeed conjure a complete computer world, on my own and with no technical credentials, when no one else in the world even imagined those things? And why do I still stand against thousands of experts who want to impose their own worlds on humanity? And why do I think I know the true generalization of documents and the true generalization of structure, when they don’t?
That’s what this book is about: how I came to the visions, attitudes and initiatives which have driven me for the last fifty years, and drive me still to keep trying though at first I haven’t succeeded.
I am a controversial figure, which means those who know my name either love me or hate me, mostly the latter. Most seem to regard me as a raving, ignorant, unconscious, delusional dreamer who was strangely and accidentally right about a remarkable variety of things.
I was never ignorant and there was no accident— I knew ten times more fifty years ago, when I started in computers, than most people think I know now. I considered myself a philosopher and a film-maker, and what I knew about was media and presentation and design, the nature of writing and literature, the processes of technical analysis and idea manipulation, and the human heart. I also knew about projects, and why one dares follow the inner urgings of a project, going where its nature wants to go.
I saw in 1960 how all these matters would have to transpose to the interactive computer screen. And I have been dealing with the consequences, including both the politics and the technicalities, straight on through since then.
• For five years I designed documents and interfaces for the interactive computer screen without ever seeing an interactive computer screen, but I understood perfectly well what it would be like, imagining its performances and ramifications probably better than anyone else.
• For five years I worked on interactive text systems without knowing that anyone else in the world imagined such things.
• For eight years I worked on methods for ray-tracing and image synthesis, without knowing anyone else imagined such things. (Now the film industry revolves around them.)
• For at least a decade I was designing hypertext structure without ever seeing a working hypertext. But I knew perfectly well how it was going to feel.
• For fourteen years I believe I was the only person in the world who imagined a world of personal computing as a hobby, everyday activity and art form—all of which I presented in my book Computer Lib in 1974— months ahead of the first personal computer kit, which started the gold rush.
• For nearly TWENTY years (until I convinced five colleagues), I believe I was the only person in the world who envisioned millions of on-line documents, let alone on-line documents being read on millions of screens by millions of users from millions of servers and publishable by anyone. Not only did no one else imagine it, I could not make them imagine it, though I lectured and exhorted constantly.
You might think this would give me a reputation for foresight, but many consider me a crank because I haven’t gotten on any of the bandwagons— Microsoft, Apple, Linux, or the World Wide Web.
Why have I not joined any of these parades? Because they’re all alike (heresy!), and I have always had an alternative. I don’t like their designs—what you see around you—and I still intend to get my designs running, so you can at last have a real choice. (Unfortunately most people don’t realize the computer world has been designed, so that’s an uphill battle.)
I believe my standing designs for a real alternative computer world— complete, clear, and sweeping— are better, deeper and simpler than what people now have to face every morning.
THE MYTH OF TECHNOLOGY
The world is totally confused—everyone uses the word “technology” for PACKAGES AND CONVENTIONS-- like email, Windows, Facebook, the World Wide Web. These all use technologies but are themselves just collections of design decisions somebody made without asking you. I see humanity as unknowing prisoners in systems of invisible walls— specific conventions created by hidden tekkies, sometimes long ago and never questioned since, by anybody. The myth of technology is the myth that the software issues are technical; whereas what matters is communicating to the mind and heart of the user, and that is not a technical issue at all.
I am certain my designs, in part and whole, as well as the story told here, will someday vindicate me (what a pisser! To have to seek vindication at the age of 73). But I can’t wait till I’m dead to tell the story and I can’t wait till I’m dead to make the software work; I want to implement these designs now, while they can still be done right (with my own detailing), and reduce people’s computer misery and quadruple the usability of computer documents. I want to improve the world that is.
This is a multithreaded story. I wish I could tell it in a decent electronic document—a Xanadu document of parallel pages with visible connections--
HOW THIS DOCUMENT OUGHT TO LOOK WHEN IT OPENS (links not shown, only transclusions).
A proper parallel hypertext in a possible opening view. The reader is able to read the full build (right), corresponding to this assembled book, or separate narratives and threads. Visible beams of transclusion show identical content among separate pages (stories, threads, and full build). Where are the visible beams of connection in Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat, the World Wide Web?
Unfortunately we have still not got decent documents working and deployed. (Part of the problem is that people don’t understand why they need parallelism, let alone transclusion and multiway links.)
Trapped here on paper, I am simulating this parallelism clumsily.
I do not embrace the World Wide Web, though many think it was my idea (my idea was better). Most people imagine that the Web is a wonder of technology, whereas I see it as a political setback by a dorky package. (As stated elsewhere, it is not technology, it’s packaging and conventions.)
To me the World Wide Web is an unfortunate presence which must be dealt with, like the Internal Revenue Service. It's all right for shop-windows, but not for the precious documents and thoughts of mankind, which it smashes into sequence, hierarchy, rectangularity, fixed views, huge wasted screen-space and locked lines of text (usually far too wide and in faint unreadable sans serif). The Web offers no way to underline, no way to make marginal notes (let alone publish them), no way to make visible links between the documents, and other profound defects I won’t get into yet. And it cannot be fixed. The embedding of markup is a one-way ticket to hell.
The alternative is still possible. And simpler.
Our apartment in
Jean and Pop and I, in
I had been left at six months’ age with my grandmother and grandfather, and named after him. These were entirely the right decisions. (I was Theodor Holm II, said a membership certificate on the wall).
Jean and Theodor
Holm (I am calling him Pop) were an elegant couple. She generally wore high heels and a veil; in
colder weather, furs. He was dignified,
warm and thoughtful, and wore a fedora. Both spoke with what people mistook for
English accents, but she was from
My family was very cultured and loving. Ours was a home of culture. We were members of the Art Institute of Chicago-- actually I, in my crib, was the member; when my grandmother went to buy a membership for the family, the person at the desk suggested getting the membership in the name of the youngest member of the family, and I, the newborn, was it. So said the certificate on the wall-- the life membership in the Art Institute of Theodor Holm II.
Leonardo, Shakespeare, Shaw were our household gods; Shakespearean quotes were bandied about frequently. There were family tales of contacts with Gurdjieff and Tagore, and memories of a debate Jean had had with Emma Goldman. (By "debate", I assume what happened was that Jean asked a question at a lecture by Goldman, and then there was some follow-on banter between them. I bet I could even reconstruct it, plausibly, but that is another story.)
Jean and Theodor Holm at their grandest, possibly on their wedding trip to
I had four main grownups. I lived with Jean and Pop in
The author's great-grandmother, Mrs. Edmund Jewett, née Blanche Eugenie Newell.
Edmund Gale Jewett, Blanche’s third husband, was not actually my great-grandfather; she had been twice widowed before marrying Edmund, but we called him my great-grandfather out of courtesy and love.
*Smith and Jewett, An Introduction to the Study of Science, Macmillan (originally published 1917).
Edmund Gale Jewett (the author's great-grandfather, on
the right) with his workmen at the Lain-Jewett Dry Kiln Company, ca. 1908. His beard was red then. We see the helical heating pipe being
assembled. It says on the back, “
Edmund was a science teacher, very reserved, with a white beard. He had invented the fundamental method of lumber-drying now in use, but the big lumber companies had stolen his invention and he got nothing for it. The 1920 edition of his science book,* still very good, is available for download (now copyrighted by Google).
*Smith and Jewett, An Introduction to the Study of Science, Macmillan (originally published 1917).
Edmund was to teach me about evolution, astronomy (his great love), physics, algebra. But he also wrote beautiful poetry. One of his poems about evolution, written in the thirties, is still precisely accurate within today’s knowledge. My four grownups all treated me with great love and respect. In an early, hazy memory, I recall the four of us-- Jean and Pop, Blanche and Edmund—in the lower cabin at the farm, perhaps on a summer evening. When I would speak they would all fall silent. By the way they listened, they told me that I was very clear-minded, that my thoughts were special and that I expressed them very well. That is how I first learned who I was.
Many children fantasize that their real parents are faraway, glamorous people. For me this was actually true. Like Harry Potter, I had magical parents who were not present, and like Harry Potter I have been greatly punished for it. But that is another story.
My parents were young actors who needed a divorce almost immediately they were married, but my grandfather made them stay married until I was born so I would be "legitimate." Away went my parents to their separate remarkable destinies, but each would visit, separately, a few times a year.
Jean and Pop already had a rich history. On the eve of World War I, she headed to
Europe to document the coming war with her drawings, buying a ticket on the
However it may seem to you, I did not think I was having a privileged childhood. There was so much I could not have. And there was so much I did not like, especially school.
I do remember the day I learned to read. I knew the alphabet, of course, and we had been learning to spell words, but it had never been all put together for us. And I had not been pressured on the matter. On this day Miss Ferlette, my lovely first-grade teacher, handed each of us a pamphlet with a different story. (They were photo-offset in dark blue, as I recall.)
Now the words were in a row, and I saw how they were put all together, and I read the story, and the excitement filled me.
Miss Ferlette was very pleased when I asked for another.
She was especially pleased when I asked for a third.
CYNICAL AND OUT FRONT: the author, 4, leads kindergartners debouching the school vehicle, ca. April 1942.
Jean and Pop were not only elegant, but the dearest and most loving people I have ever known. Every night at bedtime one of them would read to me, sing to me or tell me a story. And we would read together—that is, Pop would read, while Jean would sit or sew; I would play with my blocks or kaleidoscope, or whatever. Pop read many books to us, including Just So Stories, Swiss Family Robinson, and a number of the Doctor Dolittle books. And my favorite early book, Paddle-to-the-Sea,* by Holling.
* My earliest visions of hypertext and hypermedia, in the 1960s, were closely related to Paddle-to-the-Sea. Each of its chapters has a text, a painting, an ink drawing, and a map. The reader (or the read-to) unites these in the mind, learning to connect different aspects of sight and story.
Pop had a beautiful voice and he would sometimes read for an hour or more. Those were happy times.
Summers at our farm, Blanche, my great-grandmother would read to me. I remember especially her reading animal stories by Albert Payson Terhune, and the Oz books that I so loved.
Love and Words
We had a home of wonderful words.
I loved every new word. A new word was a gift, a lens, a construction piece. Words were my toys and my best friends. (I also had occasional friends among children, but most of them knew very little, though I would fall in love with the girls and have to hide it.)
We spoke the best English in our home. I became aware that most people did not. “It is I,” we would say. The word “exquisite” had to be emphasized on the first syllable, as did “despicable”. However, we considered “tomayto” to be an an acceptable variant to our pronunciation of “tomahto”; many aspects of words were matters of taste.
We often used old-fashioned and Shakespearean phrasings, like “Art thou hungry?” The words thither and thence, whither and whence were part of our everyday vocabulary. But only at home, between us.*
* Linguistic pride and conservatism ran in the family,
it seems. Only recently did I learn that
one of Pop’s older brothers in
We talked about puns, spoonerisms, portmanteaux and teakettles, euphemisms and paraphrases, idioms and clichés, synonyms and antonyms, malaprops and misspellings, old saws and epigrams, anglicisms and anglicizations and ‘words which have no equivalent in English.’
Newly-coined words were always of interest, like someone a friend brings to dinner. I became aware that coining words was simply something one did, like naming children or pets.
I realized: Every idea needs a good word to swing it by.
The War Begins
I was only four, I remember the beginning of World War II. I was in Pop's lap, and we were listening to
the symphony on our cathedral radio, when the program was interrupted with the
news that the Japanese had attacked
Ralph Nelson, visiting father, dandles the author (left); probably spring 1943.
Flowers by Wire
(Data Structure, ~1942)
I was five. Jean, my grandmother, often took me to flower
How did they get the flowers down the wire?
I asked the flower-man how Flowers By Wire worked. He said, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t understand.’
The flower salesman wouldn't tell me, so I tried to figure out myself how they sent flowers by wire. I thought about it and thought about it. It was a hard problem.
Would they start with the stems first, or the petals? And what about the aroma?
I knew, obviously, that you could send a voice by wire; evidently flowers could somehow be sent as well.
I understood how phone calls went through the wire—there was something you talked into (I didn’t yet know that it was called a microphone) that translated the speech into some sort of event (I didn’t know the term “signal”) that went all the way to the other end, and there was something else (I didn’t know it was called a speaker) that translated the event back into sound. So I had a correct, if approximate, mental picture of telephony.
But how would that work with flowers?
You would have to have some kind of a device at each end, just as the telephone call had a device at each end.
I figured that the device at the starting end must take the flower apart, probably by grinding off a little at a time, and converting that into a signal which went down the wire, and then grinding till the whole flower was transmitted. And then at the other end there would be a device that reconstituted the flower fragments from the signals, and perhaps extruded the flowers like spaghetti.
But would they start with the stems first, or the petals? And what about the aroma?
These were difficult issues, but I felt I had a handle on the basics.
I believe these were my first deliberations about data structure, and that the analysis was rather good considering the information I had—in fact, that’s how many systems of scanning and transmission work today. But not for flowers.
If you had told me the real answer-- “How do they send flowers by wire? Someone at the first flower shop telephones the second flower shop, and asks the person at the second flower shop to deliver a bouquet to a specific address,” I would have been outraged that the flower-man withheld such a simple, stupid fact.
Still, it was a thinking and learning experience.
My Hand in the Water (~1942-3)
I trailed my hand in the water as my grandfather rowed. My
grandmother was in the front of the boat, wearing high heels as always. I was four or five, and this was spring 1943
at the latest; we were still in
Fuzzy shapes passed underneath. I studied the water's crystal softness. The water was opening around my fingers, gently passing around them, then closing again behind.
I considered the different places in the water and the connections between them, the places that at one instant were next to each other, then separated as my fingers passed. They rejoined, but no longer in the same way.
How is it, I wondered, that every instant's arrangement, in the water and the world, can be so much the same as just before, and yet so different? How could even the best words express this complexity? How could even the best words express what systems of relationships were the same and different? And how many relationships were there?
I could not have said "relationships" or "systems" then, let alone “particles” or “manifolds” or "higher-level commonalities," but those were my exact concerns. My questions and confusions were always exact, and fine distinctions concerned me greatly. They still do. In this book I will try to say exactly what I was thinking at different times: exactly, that is, in my vocabulary of now.
And how, you might ask, do I remember those floating swirling thoughts over sixty years ago? Because these are matters I have thought about ever since, in thousands of different ways, and I reconnect them even now with that early moment of floating crystalline study, rattle of oarlocks, sun-twinkle on the water, my grandmother clearing her throat, the thump of oars, my grandfather's earnestness; all with me as I write in the eternal Now and Then.
CONNECTION TO THE ORIGINAL (1)
That religious experience, the moment of my hand in the water, is with me always. Always I see the profusion of relationships, of connections, of ideas, of possibilities, as a great net across the world, across every subject, across everything.
All my philosophical thoughts since then derive from that insight in the rowboat, or perhaps some fundamental pattern in my mind that first projected into the water, some strip of mental film projecting outward from my inner center, from which that insight came.
The insight was sound. Profuse connection is the whole problem of abstraction, perception and thought. Profuse connection is the whole problem of expression, of saying anything. It is the problem of writing. It is the problem of seeing-- we see and imagine so much more than we can express. Trying to communicate ideas requires selection from this vast, ever-expanding net. Writing on paper is a hopeless reduction, as it means throwing out most of the connections, telling the reader only the smallest part in one particular sequence.
And this is what I have hoped to fix, or at least improve, through most of my life, giving the world a greater and better way to express thoughts and ideas. And that is what this book is about. This book is about the story of my life and thoughts, and of connections, and it is about the connections all-amongst life and thought, and how I have fought to bring about a better world of thought and its representation.
The Wonderful Future
My abiding interest was in the wonderful future and how great it was going to be. Everything would be all chromium and Art Deco; no longer would there be wood, or baroque curly decoration. Homes would be starkly rectangular. Robots would attend to our needs and whims. Automatic cars would take us everywhere on the ground, but rocket packs would take us further. Most of the time we would be off the planet, in spaceships.
Mainly everything would be different, and much, much better.
DESIGN INFLUENCES: Interface Horrors
The Exploding Pressure Cooker (~1946)
Pop loved his new pressure cooker, but one night he opened it without letting the steam off. My beloved grandfather was nearly killed as the heavy metal top flew past his head; his face was scalded by boiling-hot mashed potatoes; he would have been blinded except for his glasses, which were covered with boiling-hot mashed potatoes.
On the long drive to the country hospital, as my grandfather whimpered beside me in the back seat of our Model A Ford, I was filled with rage at the idiots who had designed that machine; even a nine-year-old—hell, even a five-year-old! could see how it could have been designed to be safe, making sure the pressure was released before you opened it. The designers chose instead to build a machine that could punish absent-mindedness by death. What fools! What bastard fools!
This was my searing introduction to interface design, and to the stupidity it invites.
The guys who designed that pressure cooker—or their spiritual heirs-- are in the computer business now.
I Become a Bohemian (1946)
Our home-room teacher in fifth grade was Mr. Vanderwall. We all loved him. He was playful and fastidious about language. If you asked him for a “piece of paper” rather than a sheet, he would tear off a corner and give it to you. He drilled us on the correct spellings of “supersede” and “surreptitious”.*
* How many fifth-graders today have even heard these words?
I was less fond of Mr. Bessenger, who taught us Geography for 15 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. (Mr. Bessenger was renowned for throwing books at students, but I never saw this.) All I remember of Geography was that Mr. Bessenger wanted us to recite the forty-eight states in one breath. I don’t remember whether I made it. On Tuesday and Thursday, in the same 15-minute slot, Mr. Bessenger taught us Opera.
* Now, you may think it strange that there was a course in Opera, and thinking back, so do I, but all courses are strange to kids, so who knew?
This consisted of having to learn the plots of famous operas. (I still have the little book of the 100 plots.) When we got to "La bohème", the book said it was aboht Bohemians. I asked, reasonably, “What is a Bohemian?”
“Look it up,” said Mr. Bessenger.
Surprisingly, the school library had the original novel (in translation) from which the opera had been taken— Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, as well as some history of bohemianism in .America.* I read these.
* Apparently not the Parry volume of that title, since the book also made me a great admirer of Joe Gould, whom Parry treats disparagingly. The very best such history now is Republic of Dreams, by Ross Wetzsteon, but that was written much later.
The history said that Bohemians were free spirits who were uninhibited about life and sex, and unfettered by middle-class conventions.
I already felt very fettered by middle-class conventions— especially the tension in the elevator of our apartment building, where we had to discuss the weather with other people in suits— and this sounded fine to me.
I decided: I’m going to be a Bohemian!
The book said that the center of Bohemianism in
* Some readers will be amused to
Bucky Says It All (1947)
Bucky Fuller believed we could have a new and much better and very different world.
This gave me something to hope for in a world I rather disliked. (I have always believed life should be completely different.)
He said the educational system was horrible—I totally agreed; and he wanted to fix the world by design—the design of his magnificent car, the design of his house that would come in by helicopter and be lowered on a pole.
Buckminster Fuller was my hero ever since.
Sophistication, Age 10
I believe that at the age of ten my favorite word was “ostensibly.” I know I could recite Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” and a few verses of the Rubaiyat; I could sing, write out (and accentuate correctly), numerous songs from Gilbert and Sullivan, the first verse of the “Marseillaise” and all four verses of the Star Spangled Banner.
Such it was to be a literate child in the nineteen-forties.
I believe that at ten I could have told you who had coined the words “tintinnabulate”1, “chortle”2, “robot”3, “serendipity”4 and “dymaxion”5.
4George Eliot, and I would have been wrong. Now I have learned it was Horace Walpole.
5Bucky Fuller, and I would have been wrong. It was coined by Waldo Warren, who also coined the term “radio”.
I was not a prodigy. I had no special direction. I was just very clever, high-strung, interested in a lot of things, disgusted with school and middle-class life, and a lover of reading and movies and ideas.
No one could have known, least of all I, that this bundle of traits would define the direction of my life.
Nexialist , 1950
I found a wonderful word in a science-fiction novel. In van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle, he defined a nexialist as 'someone who finds connections.'
I typed up a business card
and filed it.
My World, End of High School
Here is how the world looked to me then:
I was a New Yorker. I was
sophisticated. (The denizens of the
midland states, like
My favorite words were “concomitant” and “societal.” These were not showoff words, you could only
use them if you needed them and knew what they meant. I also loved jokey words I had found in the
dictionary, “transpadane” (meaning “on the far side of the
The three pillars of my identity were:
• The New Yorker-- deep sophisticated journalism far above what most people got to see.
• The Rand Corporation, which I had heard
about from Leo Rosten. I was deeply
worried about nuclear war, and that is where they made the policy; I felt I
might contribute. (I only found out
decades later that due to their own snobbery,
*One of the big magazines— The Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s-- ran an incredible issue
about a hypothetical nuclear war, which I read carefully. It had a vaguely happy ending—though
But to the
The enemy was
=== Summer of 1955 (I turned 18)
Onstage with Name Actors
For the summer of ’55 I went to a training theater in
Ralph was also up there with his new family; he was directing a
production of “Picnic” with Eva-Marie Saint. I played little parts at the
training theater, but twice I was given parts on the main stage, due to Ralph’s
influence (I realize now). I was given a
walk-on in “Member of the Wedding” with Ethel Waters, and played the court
stenographer in “The
I enjoyed being onstage, and felt comfortable, and loved the company of actors, who were in general outgoing, often boisterous.
But then college began, and that all was swept away. I forgot about the stage in the excitement of my new surroundings.
SWARTHMORE ERA, 1955-59
Seeker After Truth
Swarthmore was nothing like my previous experience of school. School, for me, had been horrible for fourteen years. I hated school from kindergarten through high school. (What does that say about the educational system? Why must the first years be horrible? I am sure they are for the majority of students.)
But now this was exciting. My mind was a bird set free. There were wonderful new words on every side, exciting conversations wherever you were, free lectures only a short walk away.
I could choose my courses, and was surrounded by smart kids on a beautiful campus with very nice professors you could get to know well. In the afternoons and evenings there were public lectures on everything—by visiting great thinkers, by the faculty, even by students-- most of which there was no time for. Anyone could give a lecture and have it put on the calendar! I once did.
What would Sam Hynes have said? 1955/2010
I recently [March 2010] visited Sam Hynes in
“WE ALL WERE!” said Sam.
There was a legend at other schools— may still be-- that students at Swarthmore study all the time. This came about, I think, because weekend visitors to the campus saw the students studying. But that was the rhythm of Swarthmore life— weekends were for studying because the weeks were so busy.
At first I thought the campus would be one big happy
family, but it was harshly divided into factions—the extremes being (on one
side) the fraternities and the engineers, both well-stocked with louts from the
sticks, and (on the other side) the sophisticates and bohemian intellectuals,
many in the Mary Lyons dorms, who cynically flouted the rules about drink and
sex. The girls were divided correspondingly
between prissy-looking and promising. I
had found my
Only later did I learn that nearly everyone on campus flouted the liquor and sex rules, but the girls on the Bohemian side of the campus did so more stylishly.
What would Courtney Smith have said? 1955
At the Quaker Meeting House, a place for solemn gatherings, our class came together in its first great assemblage, to be addressed grandly by various members of the faculty.
“Take a look at the person on either side of you, because one of you won’t be here four years from now.” I don’t remember who said that.
“Those of you who arrived as Christians will leave as Christians, those of you who arrived as atheists will leave as atheists.’ That was Larry Lafore, the lovable tubby cynic and atheist historian.
But one thing was said that really hit home. Someone said, “Be a Seeker after Truth.” [Caps mine, since I didn’t see the notes.] That hit a glowing spot inside me.
To find the truth was exactly what I intended.
I don’t remember who said “Be a Seeker After Truth.” I recently (2009-10) asked some of my classmates. None remembered but several thought it was Courtney. (Everyone referred to Swarthmore’s president, Courtney Smith, as “Courtney” behind his back.) Courtney Smith was a clip-art college president: tweeds, pipe, thoughtful demeanor. He stayed aloof from student affairs, leaving dirty work to the deans, but at solemn occasions would always be impressively grave, gazing from on high.
Publishing A Magazine
I went to the organizational meeting for the college literary magazine, The Lit, and found the students in charge very pompous. They said they were going to have the highest, grandest editorial standards, and that the magazine would cost eight hundred dollars to publish.
I thought this was ridiculous. I was sure a magazine could be published for much less.
went to a printer in
I figured to do a little magazine—a very little magazine—on one legal-sized sheet, both sides. (I would cut and fold it myself.) I was told that would cost $32.50.
I did the magazine with a friend, Len Corwin—he contributed an off-campus mailing address and I did most of the work. I solicited contributions; I wrote most of it; I laid it out on big sheets; and I paid Russ Ryan, the great Swarthmore cartoonist, to decorate the paste-ups with his pictures.
The result was much better than I had originally hoped for. It was whimsical, wild, and full of clever cartoons.
It was called Nothing, and sold for five cents. It was not just a little magazine, but a very little magazine, the size of the palm of your hand. (Third issue is illustrated, later.)
A lot of people liked it. The issue sold out and I reprinted it.
* Eventually Nothing ran for three issues. (I later heard “three issues” cited as the criterion of success for a little magazine, but was not consciously trying to reach that number.)
Nothing takes its own shape (~ Feb 1956)
I don’t remember what concept I started with in my mind, except that it had to fit on both sides of one sheet of paper (that was given). Then I decided the cover (all four inches of it) should be blank. Then students from around the campus started submitting poetry! Some of it was very good.
Then Russ Ryan, Swarthmore’s great sarcastic cartoonist, agreed to do illustrations. I don’t remember what I paid him, maybe $10, maybe $25.
Ryan’s cartoons perfected the ideat. (As they did for Nothing #3, illustrated later.)
If I had started with an exact conception and stuck with it, the magazine wouldn’t have been nearly as good.
From this I learned: be open to project possibilities as they unfold; be ready to steer the project to follow your vision as required, but take heed of where the project wants to go.
What would Victor Navasky have said? 1956/1997
I ran into Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, also a Swarthmore alumnus, around 1997. He said, “Not THE Ted Nelson?” I politely waited to find out what that meant to him.
“Not the Ted Nelson who published Nothing Magazine?”
Ah, what an inner glow that gave me.
=== 1957 (I was 19)
A Kite-Shaped Nothing
Later that year I put out the third issue of my little magazine. I made Nothing #3 quite tricky—kite-shaped, and you had to rotate it as you read it, and with two-color printing. (Again I went to Russ Ryan, whose great drawings had so enriched Nothing #1, and again he festooned it with marvelous, cynical cartoons. )
I showed a mockup to Ned Pyle, my friend the printer, before we started to make the negatives, and he nodded approval; but when we assembled the first real one he was astounded. I thought he had given me the go-ahead for my design, but in fact I had done it all on my own.
Nothing #3 was a turning point in my life. I found out by accident that I could do stuff on my own that nobody else could imagine.
Kite-shaped Nothing #3, showing principle of rotary reading (right). The author is still mortified at having misspelled "Weltschmerz" on the cover.
NOW WHAT? (1959)
=== 1959 (I was 21)
College was winding down. My education was about to be interrupted by graduating.
I had used my opportunities to the hilt—pursuing every subject (except those for which I couldn’t do the math), and mainly extracurriculars, where I had sampled everything and gotten the taste of creative control.
I had not found a wife yet. I was looking for a brilliant intellectual companion, a sexual adventurer, a wonderful mother to my children, and an Olgivanna* to my projects.
*Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s third wife, was a ferocious organizer and ally in his wrangles.
I would find them all, but not at the same time.
I was hyperambitious, but I did not know for what. I knew a lot about media (the term had not yet been popularized) and their creation. I was good at writing, photography, stage direction, calligraphy; I had won prizes for poetry and playwriting, published my own magazine and my first book, created a typefont (as paper cutouts) and produced a long-playing record. (I had not yet tried the one remaining medium, the one I loved most.)
I understood the different career ladders of authorship, show business, publishing. They did not immediately appeal. (I had a special talent for advertising, but that was absolutely unthinkable, the quintessence of Selling Out—and while I found it fun, certainly not interesting in any deep way.)
Most of all I knew about projects, and about momentum. New projects were my heart and soul, and I dared not lose momentum. I was supercharged, but I knew how hard it was to reach that level of energy and I knew that if I lost it, I might never get it back again.
My father had offered to start me on a career in acting, which I had wanted all my life until college. Now I saw a bigger world. Also, I wouldn’t be that good as an actor. I had stage presence, but a horrible voice and deep acne scars. I didn’t have great acting talent—Steve Gilborn, a classmate, was a far better actor. In the big world, there were great actors like John Barrymore and (later) Johnny Depp; I would be embarrassed to pretend to a place in that world.
I wanted to be the best, and to do something that had never been done before.
THE ACADEMIC OPTION
Of course I would be writing and doing media, I knew not what; that was given, and the opportunities were everywhere. But I could not leave the intellectual world.
sheer excitement of all the world’s ideas still filled me. And in these four years I had found my way to
the new edges, the precipices of thought: Bruner in psychology, Whorf and other
linguists (Bloomfield, Chomsky); romantic extenders of the linguistic ideal
(Whorf, Edward Hall, Pike. What more new
ideas would be out there? (Nothing that
would get into the intellectual laymen’s magazines like Harper’s or the
I had not learned enough, there were fields about which I knew little, and I dared not lose intellectual momentum. I had seen what happened to people who let their minds go to seed. And there were still so many things I had to know in courses I hadn’t had a chance to take. Why couldn’t there be a five-year or six-year bachelor’s?* But in what field should I continue? In graduate school, the enforced next step, there was no such thing as an undeclared major, or General Studies. You had to pretend you were going to be something, and pretend to choose a field (though of course few people ever end up in the field they study there).
* Answer: you actually can do this, especially at the larger universities. But it’s not acknowledged as a valid educational strategy, and it’s expensive. The main question is who pays. No one in my family would have backed it.
I thought I might get a doctorate, then teach for a while until my true vocation was revealed.
* I did not realize what a doctorate took, but that is another story.
Meanwhile, anthropology interested me strongly. I had the rough notion that I might bring to anthropology a new analytic clarification, perhaps straightening out Levi-Strauss, the metaphysical and sweeping theorist, with new tools of analysis and description.*
* To non-academic readers: for academia, this was a very ambitious thought.)
But deep down I thought I might invent a field that nobody had created yet.
I did not hang out with the big-time idealists on campus— the religious kids, or the disarmament guys. People thought I was just flippant and playful. In fact I had strong ideals, but because I was a total cynic I saw few hopes for the world. I was deeply worried about nuclear war, pollution, deforestation, the loss of books and libraries, the loss of native cultures and languages. (These causes have since all become fashionable, but they weren’t then.) And I very much wanted a change in the sexual system. (In those days, unmarried women could not get contraceptive equipment and there was no pill; anything but straight intercourse was illegal in most states; group sex was spoken of in horror.) All this would change, I hoped.
But what I saw everywhere was shallowness, conventionality, pomposity and smugness—the Four Horsemen of Respectability.* I saw the world as run by the shallow, conventional, pompous and smug. Those in power were shallow, conventional, pompous and smug, and so were those who supported them.
* My term, used here for the first time.
There were so few possible hopes--
• Politics was hopeless. It was always the same circle of tricks and speeches.
• Economics was hopeless. Communism had been horribly tried, socialism was impossible, and our existing system (whatever you wanted to call it) had its nasty side; but there it was, unchangeable. I also believed that capitalism offered more hope for change and betterment than anything else. A man like Howard Hughes, who could do what he damn pleased with his money, could take steps to improve the world that no official charity could hope to do. (Except, of course, he didn’t. But a some do, outside official charities.)
• Philanthropy was hopeless. Official charities and foundations were palliative window-dressing, small attempts to adjust what could not be changed. Most important, they were really defined and hemmed in by the tax rules, which guaranteed that they had to be run by boards of conventional people and that they would always be shallow, conventional, pompous and smug.
But here was the one hope I saw: there could be a cultural revolution.* And I hoped somehow to put my stamp on a part of that.
* This was long before the Maoists gave a Red spin to the term ‘cultural revolution.’ I had something very different in mind.
Especially, I wanted to change education. Why did the first twelve years of school—the ones most people got—have to be so horrible? Why couldn’t the excitement of ideas I felt in college be available to everyone? Surely there would be a way to break open the educational prison and show how really interesting everything all was? Some way of making clear all the exciting connections?
Not Narrow Down
Here is what they said as graduation approached: It’s time to narrow down, Ted!
I didn’t think so.
My strength was in not narrowing down, in doing something new and different every time.
And here were my central talents, which I’d come to know at Swarthmore: I believed I could analyze anything, show anything and design anything. And I could innovate, imagining what no one else could, and bringing that new thing forth through projects of new shapes.
But what? What should I analyze, show, design and innovate about?
There was no determinate answer. I was good at a lot of things but not a great talent at any one (except that my mind was very good). My uniqueness was in the combination of numerous abilities, and in my ability to see the big picture quickly.
I was a very clever fellow accustomed to picking up new technicalities as required, but I preferred to delegate technical details once I had decided them. I had had a taste of creative control and knew that I could not be an Idea Man on someone else’s projects. Deciding the details and finishing touches was what life was all about.
I knew this would make it harder, but what the hell, I was Ted Nelson.
I would not narrow down. That would be giving up and giving in.
Cocteau, Whorf, Bucky
I had very few living role models. I applauded my parents’ grand success, but I intended some much grander career, like various great names in history. I felt I was off to a flying start.
But at what? I was a writer and designer and showman. I saw myself becoming perhaps--
• a showman-intellectual,* like one of my heroes, Jean Cocteau.
* A recent nice term is showman-penseur.
• a theoretical explorer in some new area like my hero Benjamin Lee Whorf, an academic outlier (he was in the insurance business) who was nevertheless respected in academia, and created a field of his own.
• like my boyhood hero Buckminster Fuller, a “designer and thinker”.
Looking back, I tracked on the wavelengths of these three men surprisingly well. But little did I know what this agenda had cost Bucky, or what it would cost me.
Perhaps I could create a field of my own, like Whorf and Bucky.
Egotistical, you say? Of course.
But I was going to bet my life on it.
a Chance to Make a Movie
My grades were fairly poor. I had gone for breadth, not depth, and I thought it was my own business to judge my achievement, not anybody else’s. No one would care about my college grades in the afterlife of the so-called Real World. What mattered to me was studying what I chose, to the degree I chose, and pursuing the excitement of new ideas and projects.
So because of my slackness with regard to grades, and not having done nearly enough of the reading, I was worried about graduating.
However, something came up that was even more important than graduating.
Late in the year I realized: I still have a chance to make my first movie! I still have that $700 appropriation that Tony and I got! I can MAKE that movie! Tony would have wanted me to!
Exams were coming but I figured I could squeak by. This was far more important, a full-on chance to make a movie by myself. I knew other media moderately well; this would tell me whether I had any ability at film-making.
There was no time to write a script, and synching the sound would be an enormous problem, so I made the whimsical decision to have the actors just say “parp parp”, and postpone writing the dialog. I would write the script later on the basis of the film as shot, and synch it as best possible to the parping. The parping would look like “Huckleberry Hound”, where the characters just move their jaws vaguely to the script. It would of course look stupid but I thought it would be funny as well.*
* It turns out most people can’t stand this; they cannot accept such a movie as a genre, like “Huckleberry Hound” or fumetti. They can’t imagine it as a foreign movie shot in Parpland. It hits a cognitive wall. I bet if some famous person told them it was okay or clever, everybody would flip their perceptions and enjoy it.
As the lead I chose my friend Jody Hudson, who had a very expressive poker face, like Buster Keaton—showing a lot of emotion with minute variations of expression.
I didn’t plan, I just began. I would have to make up the movie as I went along. I would shoot whenever Jody and I were both available, and grab other actors and sets as best I could.
I had a story vaguely in mind, but I started with a classroom scene somewhere in the middle of the story. This was because it involved a large cast and had to be shot in an empty classroom, and so it had to be done on a weekend.
~ Making movies ~
THE FIRST SLOCUM SHOOT
I rounded up actors at Sunday lunch-- whoever could spare an hour or two. I just went around the tables and asked who wanted to be in the movie. We went to a basement classroom in Trotter Hall. I arranged the actors according to when they had to leave: I would shoot the full-room shots first, then the kids in front could leave as I narrowed down to the back rows, where I put the actors who could stay longer.
So it had to be shot out of order, and there were two sequences to keep in mind— the sequence of the intended final story, and the sequence of who had to leave when, which governed the order of the shooting.
I made up the story as I went along, starting with this basic idea: the hero, in a boring class, makes eyes at a girl in the front row, and his chair falls over.
Fleshed out as I shot, it went like this: the lonely hero (Slocum Furlow, played by Jody) sits doodling at the back of a classroom. The class is an idiotic mix of philosophy, sociology and nonsense. As the discussion drones on meaninglessly, Slocum catches the eye of a girl in the front row (played by Carolyn Shields). They make eyes at each other. He leans further and further back in his chair till he falls over, very very gradually. Everyone leaves. The girl is gone.
The result of that shoot was electrifying.
~ Making movies ~
Something happened to me as I shot that first scene of my film, that afternoon in Trotter Hall. My absent-mindedness and scattermindedness disappeared. I figured everything out in the moment, and made up the story as I went, keeping track with surprising clarity of what was done and what was not. I had never been so clear-minded. I still had to keep making notes on the back of my hand, but I was awake and alive in a new way.
As never before, I kept all parts of the problem in my mind, working very fast. I will never forget the clarity and the excitement of making up that scene as I fought the clock, positioned and directed the actors, took the shots, dismissed the actors, and narrowed down to only Slocum. I became a different person.
I HAD SUDDENLY BECOME THE PERSON I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE.
And I have always wanted to be that person again.
~ Making movies ~
The Ceiling Flies Away:
Slocum Rushes, May 1959
I kept shooting “The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow”— a scene every two or three days— but it took a week for the first rolls to be developed. I called in some friends to look at what I had shot.
I didn’t realize that most people can’t see a scene out of order and understand it in their mind. Here is what they saw: strange repeated shots of people lounging around and saying (silently) “parp parp”, and repeated shots of Jody falling down in his chair. Even though I explained the scene to them before running the projector, they were utterly mystified.
They didn’t know.
But for me, the roof flew off the building. I heard a roaring wind. My destiny had found me.
What I saw was the finished scene as it would be.* The scene was atmospheric. It developed characters. It had a plot. It was moderately subtle. It was rather funny. And it was warm—more like a foreign than an American film, like the films of Pagnol or Satyajit Ray.
* The finished scene—“Slocum Furlow Scene 7, The Classroom” may currently be found on YouTube.
Most people don’t like it because there’s no lip-synch (as in Huckleberry Hound)-- an unrecognized genre. If somebody famous said it was funny, everybody would suddenly appreciate it.
It was far better than I had imagined it could be, far better than I had remotely hoped.
Hero Slocum exchanges glances with the girl in the front row. From “Slocum Furlow Scene 7-- The Classroom”, currently on YouTube.
The question was not whether I could learn to make films. I already knew.
I was a natural. This was what I had been put on earth to do. Partly to make movies, and partly to be again that person I was when I was shooting. This was no longer about being Best at anything. This was about my heart, which I had found.
The only problem was that I wanted to be an intellectual too.
THE EPIPHANY OF TED NELSON
In that first year at Harvard, 1960=1, I took a computer course, and my world exploded.
What would Freed Bales have said? 1960
Freed Bales (he didn’t use the “Robert” socially) was a most amiable and pleasant psychologist in my Soc Rel department. His long-term research included a gut course that could be taken any number of times by undergraduates and grad students alike, in which they argued about interpersonal issues at any level of inanity they chose. Meanwhile, behind one-way glass, Bales’ research assistants were taking down and coding everything that happened.
Bales made the most trenchant remark on computers I ever heard.
‘The computer is the greatest projective system* ever created’, Bales said to me. Meaning that anyone looking at the computer would think they were seeing reality, but would see something projected from their own mind.
*A projective system is something which, like a Rorschach test, invites people to project on it their own personalities and ideas, often unwittingly.
For fifty years since then, I have marveled at how everyone projects onto the computer their own issues and concerns and personality.
I did too.
A Wild Surmise
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in
I was the first person on earth to know what I am about to tell you. I believe I thought of everything here in the fall of 1960, though some of it may have been in 1961, the second semester of that school year (before the summer of ‘61). I believe this can all be confirmed from my detailed notes of those days (though they will likely be telegraphic summaries and proposed articles to write explaining the ideas).
No one told me or suggested these ideas. I didn’t read them, and there was no one to confirm them with. (A few conversations with computer scientists on campus made it clear they had other obsessions.) But I didn’t need any confirmation. From all my background and daring, in media and in ideas and initiatives in many directions, I simply knew.* I saw the vastness of what I was facing, and the certainty of a new world to come.
* A longer list of reasons is given in Appendix 3.
A few words, a few pictures of people at computer screens, and the understanding that computer prices would fall—these gave me all I needed to know, a crystal seed from which to conjure a whole universe. And a good one. The only issue was how to shape the real world toward that good, because it could all go wrong in so many ways.
• They Had Been Lying
The public had been told that computers were mathematical, that they were engineering tools. This misstated things completely. The computer was an all-purpose machine and could be whatever it was programmed to be. It had no nature; it could only masquerade. The computer could become only whatever imaginary structure people imposed on it-- onto which they would project their own personalities and concerns.
Therein lay the glory and the difficulty.
This mathematical stereotype of the computer would continue to confuse everyone for decades—not just the public, but people in the industry as well, under the weight of their traditions.
The computer could handle text; alphabetical characters fit into the same memory slots as the numbers. Instead of adding and subtracting them, you could move them around. Text can be stored. Text could be printed. Text could be shown on screens. So far that was only done for technical purposes, but obviously there was no limitation on what text would be shown and how it might behave.
The computer did not contain ‘knowledge.’ Instead, it had to be programmed to simulate some unified arrangement of data. This data had to be represented by a lot of pieces of information placed in a lot of memory locations. Suitably organized, probed and updated, this collection of factoids could be made to appear as a unified body of information, but this too was a masquerade. (The term “database” did not yet exist.) The editorial problems for a collection of data—keeping it updated and consistent-- were just like the editorial problems of a research paper, just more formalized and pretending to more rigor.
There was no magic to this simulation of knowledge. It just took diligence and a lot of work, and a lot of choices about conventions and standards and consistency and authentication. The implicit choices made all over the paper world—by librarians, office supervisors, clerks, everybody— had to be made explicit and locked into software.
• Computers Were Electric Trains ;
This Meant Personal Computing
INSIGHT: Computers were electric trains! Why did guys like electric trains? Because you can make them do things—plan them and build them and watch them go around!
The computer aroused all the same masculine desires to control and to putter.
I wanted a computer; that told me every guy would want one. (The one I lusted for at the time was called the AN/UYK-1, was highly reliable and was narrow enough be lowered into a submarine through its hatch, and cost $75,000. But obviously the price was going to come way down.)
* Unfortunately this costfall took far longer than I expected.
And if every guy wanted one, that meant there would be a huge personal computer industry. When they got cheap enough, of course.
• The Future of Mankind Was at the Computer Screen
So much of modern life was about paper and its manipulations. But it wasn’t the paper that mattered, it was what was on the paper, and that could be turned to data.
It was obvious to me that for all clerical purposes and for all information, the interactive computer would become the workplace of the future.
• Eliminating Paper
It likewise seemed obvious to me that paper would be completely replaced.
The idea of “the paperless office” is widely derided and called an impossible myth. I totally disagree: it’s entirely possible. But paperlessness is impossible the way they’re thinking of it. Today’s systems imitate paper! You can’t have a paperless office unless you go to completely different representations and rich connective systems.
We may compare simulating paper to the swimmer holding onto the side of the pool—there will be no progress without letting go of it.
But offices were hardly interesting to me back then. What mattered to me was how papelessness could contribute to the creativity, the understandings, the intellectual excitement of human life.
• Magic Pictures to Command
Diagrams, maps, history, every subject (and the connections between subjects) could all interact on our interactive screens.
The problem was working out the rules.
Everyone should be able to contribute to a great world of interconnection, but not to wreck it. How could this be set up?
I needed a word for all these ideas.
(It did not come soon. Sometime in spring 1961, I think, I came up with splandremics. By which I meant—
• the design of presentational systems and media
• the design of interactive settings and objects
• establishing conventions and overall frameworks for these designs
The place where you would work—your screen setup and computer, or whatever else it would contain—I wanted to call a splandrome.
Nobody could imagine what I was talking about.
*It started with the "spl-" pseudo-morpheme, which connotes splintering, and splendor, and other outgoing situations. And “emics” from “phonemics” and “morphenmics.” And it sounded good, I thought.
In the nineteen-seventies, I came up with the word fantics, from the Greek root meaning "show" that also gives us "fantastic" and "sycophant." By which I wanted to mean "all aspects of the art and science of presentation. " Nobody could relate to that either.
In the nineteen-nineties I started using the term virtuality, which correctly means the opposite of reality—the design and abstraction of imaginary worlds. My old* Webster’s dictionary puts it this way:
Unfortunately Jaron Lanier’s popularization of Artaud’s term "virtual reality" has taken all the oxygen from the word “virtual”-- many people use the term "virtual" for 3D, literal 3D. This is an unfortunate loss of an important meaning.
* I think Merriam-Webster 1905; regrettably not on hand as I write.
• New Non-Sequential Tools
Being able to hold ideas in new structures meant we wouldn’t have to make them just sequential or hierarchical any more. This had ramifications in every direction, and it created many more directions, too.
I wanted to make movies, but the idea of a fixed script pissed me off— so much happened while you were shooting, in the inspirations of the moment, and so many ideas might come later. What I wanted was a way of holding movie scripts that would show a number of alternative possibilities, and make it easy to rework the structure as scenes were shot.
I had not at the time thought of the word possiplex.
• New Non-Sequential Media
We could have texts that branch and interpenetrate.*
* By interpenetrate I mean transclude.
I had not at the time thought of the words hypertext and hypermedia.
Why should a movie have only one ending? If we could handle possiplexity, we could have movies that branch.
• Ideas in Flight
We could free text from rectangularity and sequence; this meant we could free readers and writers from the constraints of paper and of typesetting. (How silly it was to have ‘space limitations’ on an article, when it could go on and on! The point was to have some new way to organize it so the reader could grasp the whole in digest or overview form, then take a long or winding route depending. But there had to be a literary structure that made this clear.)
We would be freeing both reader and author. The author would not have to choose among alternative organizations; the reader could do that, choosing among the author’s different organizations and perhaps adding his own. (What system of order would allow this was still not clear.)
We could also free up the educational system. If readers could choose their own paths through a subject, they would be far more interested (as had been my own college experience, skimming and flipping excitedly rather than slogging sequentially). The educational system could still have tests and strong criteria of learning; but we could give the student freedom to choose the means and style of learning a subject. This would be a very powerful motivator. (It had been for me.)
Unfortunately, pre-college education as we know it (and inflict it) is a bureaucratic system for fulfilling lists-- scheduling seats, classrooms, student movements, teacher movements, and tests. It is intrinsically and deeply hostile to what I am talking about here.
• Parallel Documents
While I was learning to write in high school, I had been boggled by the number of different possible ways to organize any piece of writing.
But in a suitably general new medium, the structure could represent those alternatives all at once, for different readers, and so the author would be freed from having to choose among many bothersome alternatives.
For instance, in a conventional history book, the author must choose a sequence to present events which were actually happening in parallel. In conventional writing, these go into different chapters, or have sentences that effectively point to the different event-streams. But if we can have parallel document structure,* the different event-streams can be in different text streams, coupled sideways; this structure should make clear all the relationships to the reader.
* I am not sure that the genre of parallel documents occurred to me in the 1960-1 period.
• The Manifest Destiny
Obviously, writings like this would be far superior to ordinary writings on paper, and nobody would want the old forms or writing any more. But of course the old writings themselves could be brought forward as re-usable content for this new genre.
Nonsequential writing—the term “hypertext” had not yet been coined—was obviously the manifest destiny of literature.
I foresaw a sweeping new genre of writing with many forms of connection; and of course that was the genre in which I would want to create all my own works of the future.
Any reader who still thinks these ideas have any resemblance to the World Wide Web should probably take a hot bath.
But it was vital that this new literary genre would have to be simple, clean, elegant and powerful.
I saw this as the manifest destiny of literature.
I still do.
In case the reader doesn’t get to that point in the book, I would like to acknowledge here that this design was finished, or perfected, by Gregory, Miller and Greene in 1979-80.
Because of numerous political setbacks, described later, I have had to abstract out a simplified version, which is the present Xanadu design—implemented in 2006 as XanaduSpace, and (at this writing) pending implementation in a client version in Flash or Silverlight.
• The Vast Publishing Network
Obviously, the future of publishing would be publishing on line.* A publishing house would have a system of servers (a term not then in use) and vast storage to hold its offerings.
* I don’t think the term “on-line” existed yet, or even the concept. However, “data communication” at that time was already in use by the military and for air traffic control, so the idea seemed obvious to me.
A request for a particular document—or part of a document-- would have to go to the publisher of that document. There would have to be some system of payment, whereupon the content would be delivered.
(Some, like a certain vicious journalist, have implied that I could not have known in 1960 that a world-wide electronic publishing system of interconnected documents could ever be possible. That is ridiculous. Data transmission was in the air, it was discussed everywhere. It was not standardized or generally available, but it was going to happen in some form, and whatever form it came in, I intended to use it.)
I believed passionately in self-publishing, and still do. The publishing industry has always catered to, and been run by, the shallow, conventional, pompous and smug, with attitudes generally obtuse and behind the times. I wanted to free authors to publish on an even footing with big companies.
My great-grandfather self-published his poetry. My grandmother self-published her poetry, novels and drawings. I had self-published in college and intended to go on doing so, but this would be the real way to do it.
(I have generally self-published out of choice [various bitter anecdotes omitted]. If self-publishing was good enough for William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Burton the explorer* and T.E. Lawrence, it’s good enough for me. The revenue is a lot less but I there’s no need to fight with editors, to compromise or dumb down.)
* Richard Francis Burton.
• Copyright and Royalty
This system of on-line publishing could not be free. Publishing has always been a system of commerce (what’s the alternative, the government?)
I already knew a thing or two about copyright, principally that
• it was a pain in the neck to get reprint permission
•copyright would not go away, being thoroughly entrenched in the legal system.
The question was how to transpose copyright to this new world of on-line electronic documents, and whether this transposition would be beneficial and benign, or ugly and clumsy and forbidding.
A micropayment system would be needed— not just for whole documents, but for little pieces of documents. Why should you have to pay for a whole document—especially since documents might go on forever, since there were no space restrictions?
• New Kinds of Anthology
The heartbreak of intellectual life is that there is no time to read everything. Since boyhood I was sad that there was no time to read everything— and so many wonderful books and articles, more every day.
Textbooks and anthologies try to help. They show us see quotations, and excerpts, but we get no sense of the whole documents they were excerpting. Every quote is cut off from its original.
But now, in this new world, anthologies could be different. Every excerpt would stay connected to its original context! Whenever you wanted, you could step from the excerpt to the original!-- and browse, and delve.
This would be a total change in study and learning, especially of history and literature. It could deepen our understandings of everything. We would think less in stereotypes.
• A Movie Machine!
The computer was obviously a movie machine.
What are movies? Events on a screen that affect the heart and mind of the viewer. What would the computer present? Events on a screen that affect the heart and mind of the viewer—AND INTERACT! The movie screen would fly into this new dimension of interaction, but the fundamental issues were the same: the heart and mind of the viewer. And who knew these better than a movie director?
Interfaces and interaction are not “technology.” They are movies.
This was not about technicality; it was about the user’s experience, to which all technicalities were subservient.
Many tekkies want to believe that “interfaces” are a branch of computer science. They are not. They are a branch of movie-making, because they are all about what the user thinks and feels, and inviting the user to think certain ways (understanding menus, for instance) and feel a certain way (excited and participatory, rather than oppressed).
Only lately (ca. 2009) has the true issue been made manifest in the computer field, with a new slogan expressing my views of the last fifty years: User experience design.
• A Philosophy Machine!
The computer was obviously a philosophy machine.
What is philosophy? The search for the best abstractions.
What was the fundamental problem of the computer? The search for the best abstractions. Everybody in the field was taking initiatives in different directions, looking for the best fundamental units, the best fundamental methods. It was philosophy written in lightning.*
* I allude here to a famous remark on seeing
This is not a technical issue, but rather moral, aesthetic and conceptual. Finding the right abstractions is the deepest issue, and computer scientists wrangle endlessly over it.
It is also a political and marketing issue: because eventually the different abstractions—call them, say, “Macintosh” and “Windows”—fight it out in the marketplace. This is marketing and politics.
I thought that with my training in philosophical analysis I was especially well-prepared for this issue, and perhaps I was, but getting political leverage was quite another problem. I knew it would be but that did not help.
• Doing it Right, on the Cheap
I had the mentality of a low-budget filmmaker: the right way to get this going was without backing, because backers want to change things and it’s always a fight. (I had seen this personally in my father’s fights with sponsors over the details of TV shows, right up till air time.)
But there is nothing more powerful than an idea. Everybody said this and I believed it. The problem was to get the idea across, and the way to do that was to get it working.
• A Complete Literary System
This software had to be an entire literary system-- not just a document format or a transmission format, but it had to have --
• ownership (ownership of copyright and ownership of copies)
• well-defined literary forms of connection
• a complete system of commerce.
• The Posterity Machine
This would obsolete libraries. It meant that the heritage of humanity would be stored on many computers in many places. This had many problems.
• Literary Structure
as a Moral Issue
The point had to be: to make all contents interweavable—linkable, annotatable and re-usable, with every context of origin visible.
Note that things have gone in the opposite direction, with today’s nightmare of incompatible document formats, and no proper generality of linkage or permitted vast quotation.
This is still a moral issue, not just technical.
Many would oppose such a system for selfish reasons, but mankind had to have it. This plan could not be hostage to narrow concerns of different interest groups.
• Simple, Elegant Design
DESIGN INFLUENCES: IT ALL LED HERE.
From influences on every side since my boyhood, the idea of simple, elegant, minimalist design had become part of my soul. Clean design without exceptions was my ideal. There will always be temptations to make special cases and tangled design, but obviously these were to be avoided wherever possible.
Here were some examples of clean design and structure stamped on my soul--
• Frank Lloyd Wright
• the Theremin
• Le Corbusier
• the Bauhaus
• my grand-uncle Danckert’s “Guidler” invention
• the Bloomfield-Sapir revolution in linguistics, which unified all language into a few simple concepts, with no special cases
• a negative lesson: the unfortunate overdesign of my rock musical, “Anything and Everything,” in college, with too much cumbersome loose stuff
• Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, which tried to assimilate all mathematics to a couple of simple concepts, with no special cases
• the Sheffer stroke function in symbolic logic, reducing the Russell-Whitehead model to a single concept
One reason to seek such elegance was making things clear to the user.
Another was just as important: clean implementability.
(This was before Dijkstra’s Structured Programming and the Nassi-Schneiderman diagrams created new simplicity, and before Object-Oriented programming created new complexity.)
• How Improve on Paper?
I tried to imagine the best generalizations of documents and literature.* What forms of connection would we need, and how present them?
* Inspired by the best forms of generalization I’d seen—Bloomfield and Sheffer.
One thing was clear: we certainly did not want to imitate paper on the computer screen. Nothing could be more stupid or retrograde. The prison of paper, enforcing sequence and rectangularity, had been the enemy of authors and editors for thousands of years; now at last we could break free.
I could not have imagined that two decades later later that others would imitate paper, or that the imitation of paper would become the center of the computer world!
The Macintosh, in 1981, brought font play to the masses; and two projects coming out of Xerox PARC (Project Bravo and Interpress) were brought to the public as Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat. Now the world thinks electronic documents should look and act like paper—paper under glass.
• Politics of the Future
It was clear that there were many dangers. The heritage could be wiped out by electrical glitches or well-placed bombs. Governments would try to censor. Special interests would try to control information, as they always have. There would be bad guys.
This was where my idealism faded and my anger kicked in.
• A Feel for It
From the beginning I could feel the way things would look on the screen. I could feel my interactive designs.
I have generally had absolute confidence about the way my designs would feel, and I have generally been right. Indeed, I have designed backward from the feel I wanted to achieve.
According to conventional wisdom, this is impossible. They say that you can’t know what software (or an interface) will be like until you try it.
Ah, but you see, there are people with special talents. My favorite example is this: Hitchcock did not look through the lens. He knew how a shot would look, from a certain angle and with a lens of his choice, without having to look. (I have not heard this about any other film director.)
It has been the same with my software. Shaping the design in my mind (sometimes wiggling my fingers on an imaginary keyboard), I can imagine each variant and what it will do to the feel.
This is not to say I can imagine other people’s designs from a description; only that I can work out the feel of my own in advance.
As explained in Chapter 20, I consider interactive software to be a branch of film-making. I think my talent in this area is somehow related to Hitchcock’s, and the fact that I had been thinking about film-making all my life before I met the computer.
• My Own Renaissance
I came out of Swarthmore determined to be a Renaissance man-- generalist, showman, designer, author, Thinker. But I would still have to fit somehow into the so-called Real World-- the world of money, publication, film distribution, occupational structure and society that were already there.
But now, I thought, this would turn the tables and change the game completely. All those things were going to change in this new world. I was going to design and build my own Renaissance.
• The Sword in the Stone
In the legend, young King Arthur comes upon a sword-handle sticking out of a stone. He pulls it out because it his destiny. It is his destined instrument. The rest follows. The sword is called Excalibur.
I saw these discoveries as my Excalibur—beyond calibration!—with which I would carve the future; and with which I would slay the dragons of evil, shallowness, conventionality, pomposity and smugness.
All Conflicts Gone
I had been waiting for a sign. I had been for I knew not what, but somehow I had expected a revelation. I had expected some life mission to reveal itself to me, though I was expecting something more along the lines of an intellectual discovery. What now was all this? Fate was daring me to do something entirely different, something unheard of, something very important that only I understood and only I could do. Where was that unique intellectual life whose revelation I had been awaiting?
But then, wasn’t this an intellectual discovery? O my god! THIS WAS IT! This was everything I was searching for!
I knew a handle sticking out of a stone when I saw one.
I had thought earlier there would be a great philosophical revelation, or some great film to make, or that I could somehow fix education. This could be all these things and more. All my conflicts of long-term goals were resolved.
I had felt a conflict between being an idealist and making money. (Not an uncommon conflict for a young man.) No more. This would make the world a far better place and make me tons of money on the way. Here was a single path to everything I believed in and wanted. What more worthy goal could a brash young man choose, than to rebuild civilization anew?
I figured that programming the system, deploying it and revolutionizing the world would take about two years. I was impatient to get done with that. Then I could get back to movie-making, and I would be able to finance my movies myself without having to deal with backers.
There has never been any other plan.
I wanted to be the Gutenberg of this new medium that only I imagined. And the Griffith and the Disney. Especially the Gutenberg.
Little did I know that Gutenberg had gone bankrupt.
[The book continues for fifty more years.]