He coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia,” and long predicted the universal knowledge repository we now know as the World Wide Web. So why hasn’t Ted Nelson gained the recognition due one of the pioneers of the Information Age? Rather than being celebrated by the digerati, Nelson, currently a visiting professor of environmental information at Japan’s Keio University, is an exile from an American technology community that has largely shunned him.
His situation may have something to do with his constant, merciless critique of the state of computing, vexing just about everyone in the industry. That many of his perfectionist’s complaints are on target makes his words even more stinging. But it could also be the fact that in a 38-year epic quest to create Xanadu, his ultimate electronic publishing system, he has never managed to actually release a piece of software. Until now.
“One of the reasons I was bursting to tell you about this is it’s the first software deliverable I’ve ever had,” Nelson declares to a roomful of complete strangers at the 1998 International Conference on Wearable Computing at the Hyatt in Fairfax, Va. At 60, Nelson is still boyishly enthusiastic, owlishly handsome and as full as ever of showbiz bravado, befitting the offspring of actress Celeste Holm and TV and film director Ralph Nelson. Wearing a tuxedo, a hip pouch-sized PC on his belt and a Cyclopean head-mounted display, Nelson demonstrates ZigZag, his new software paradigm for organizing personal and professional data.
Not, of course, before availing himself of a few broadsides against contemporary computerdom. “Software as we know it has become a nightmare. Something happened on the way to computer liberation,” he says. In the next 10 minutes he rails against software applications with incompatible file types that cut users off from their data (“an obscenity!”); the myth of the Macintosh (“They took some very good work that had been done at Xerox PARC and nailed it on the world like a coffin lid”); and the metaphoric representation of sheets of paper on computer “desktops” (“It limits us to the connective structure of paper”).
At long last, Nelson, the perennial gadfly, can demonstrate a concrete alternative to this computer tyranny: “We are going to see a piece of software which represents a new topology of information,” he announces. He’s had to wait nearly two decades to introduce ZigZag.
ZigZag is to numerical spreadsheets, business databases and other applications what hypertext was to text–a fundamentally new, if initially disorienting, principle for organizing information. Think of it as a software designer’s Tinkertoy set with any given unit of information–or “cell”–a hub for countless links to other cells that can be programs, data, electronic post-it notes, you name it. ZigZag offers a multidimensional framework for software tinkerers to reinvent word processing, databases, even graphics applications. What’s more, ZigZag allows for entirely new ways of tying data together, though it will need a lot more work by skilled software adapters–much as Nelson’s ideas for hypertext had to await at least partial implementation in Apple Computer’s HyperCard and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web.
The demo itself is as unslick and non-hypermedia as modern computing gets. Projected against a Spartan black background, two side-by-side white-bordered windows display short bits of text linked by lines in white or yellow or highlighted with a green or blue cursor. The left-hand window is for menus. The right-hand window shows the selected cells along any three of many organizing axes or dimensions.