December 11, 2019

Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee


Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson


Ted Nelson is a maverick and regarded by many, including himself, as a visionary. Nelson coined the term "hypertext" for the concept of "non-sequential writing". The debt to Vannevar Bush and his seminal paper "As We May Think", published in 1945, was acknowledged by Nelson when he reproduced the paper in its entirety in his own book "Literary Machines".

Nelson developed Bush's theme of data linking using non-linear patterns that bore some semblance to human thought. He proposed an audacious plan for a hypertext publishing system, a storage facility for all human knowledge. The key to realising this plan was to be the inherent power and speed of modern digital computers.

Project Xanadu was initiated in 1965 and continues in the, many would argue vain, hope that one day this unified document storage system will be completed. However many of its themes of a global, pluralist, low cost, networked data system, bear more than a striking resemblance to the World Wide Web. Like Bush, Nelson's thinking has had far reaching implications, influencing the Web's creator, Tim Berners-Lee. Interestingly both men share a memory retention problem.


Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee


In stark contrast to Berners-Lee's pragmatic, engineered solution, Xanadu remains an unfulfilled dream. Ostensibly both the Web and Xanadu employed hypertext to resolve perceived problems. Whereas the Web solved the issue of data storage at CERN, Xanadu seems, in comparison, grandiose, heroic and ultimately doomed to failure.

The Web has grown at a phenomenal rate for several reasons. Significantly, it was constructed in a simple manner enabling users to easily write documents using HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language). Furthermore full, clearly written, documentation of the construct was readily available. This led quite swiftly to the creation of the Mosaic browser and with it the rapid increase in the number of Web users.

Contrast this with Nelson's opaque references to "Xanalogical storage", "transclusion", "humbers" and "docuverse". Nelson said, "The project is well known, but not well understood. Its greatest aspiration, a universal instantaneous hypertext publishing network, has not been generally understood at the technical level and has created various false impressions." There is something of the poet in Nelson. Compare this with the pragmatic Berners-Lee who was none too pleased with the introduction of the image tag in Mosaic's implementation of HTML. Nelson champions more unorthodox thinking. Yet ironically it is Berners-Lee's creation that has succeeded in harnessing the extraordinary range of content that can be accessed on the Web.

This contrast of characters resonates with the Kildall-Gates episode. Two men, one the visionary and romantic, the other supremely practical, making significant contributions to an evolutionary process. Technical innovation throughout the ages has always harnessed apparently conflicting approaches to problem solving. We should not decry Nelson for dreaming the impossible. We should also be thankful for the disciplined and less poetic practitioners who enable us to experience the possible.




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