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Ted Nelson’s Big Step

He dreamed up the idea of hypertext as a way to link all human knowledge decades before the World Wide Web–but never delivered a usable piece of software.
September 1, 1998

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.

“What we’re looking at is a cellular system. We use cells for everything,” Nelson explains. He keys through an example showing a three-dimensional arrangement of personal expenses, selecting cells’ content by month, day and type of expense, easily appending new data such as the cost of a long-distance phone call and then accessing a list of telephone numbers to identify the person called. In a spreadsheet with “integrated” database functions like Excel, it’s necessary to adhere to certain formatting conventions when creating files; ZigZag, as Nelson demonstrates, is truly free-form. He gets a laugh when he waxes metaphorical: “This is the sexual revolution brought to the spreadsheet. In a spreadsheet, society required that a cell have an up connection, a down connection, a left connection and a right connection. In this system each cell’s connections are its own business.”

He posits other uses: as an outliner for writing, or for control panels on cameras and other consumer devices (see sidebar: “Software for Wearable Computers: Ted Nelson to Go?”), providing easily grouped and branched options, like spokes on interconnected wheels instead of the exclusionary choices often encountered on menu- or icon-based readouts. Although the intention is to simplify, Nelson occasionally gets caught up in his own highly detailed vision; he uses with abandon words he invented–“negward” and “posward”–without pausing to explain.

All during his pursuit of Xanadu, Nelson took it for granted that it would be implemented. Such brilliant associates as lead programmer Roger Gregory and nanotechnology pioneer Erik Drexler wrestled with the practicalities of his dream while Nelson blithely acted as if it were just around the corner. In 1989, he testified in Washington, D.C., before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, chaired by Al Gore, about “the coming hypertext revolution.” Back when the Internet was still a rarefied tool for scientists, Nelson predicted: “The dissemination and preservation of prepared information packages that can include graphics, sound, video, statistics, laboratory information and anything else we ever digitize should seem no more exotic to us than the instantaneous delivery of the human voice across the telephone, or the instantaneous delivery of the human comedy by television.” Summing up, he said: “The Xanadu system, or something very like it, is inevitable….” That same year, Tim Berners-Lee was proposing to his employer, CERN, the European particle physics research center, a project that would become the World Wide Web, the “something like Xanadu” Nelson foresaw–but didn’t build.

Against this background of visionary vaporware, the ultimate success or failure of ZigZag may be less important for Nelson than the mere fact that it exists. Ted Nelson has his first nonvirtual software, and that will certainly enhance his credibility–although some will hold him to higher expectations. Already e-mails are streaming in from those who have mistakenly heard that he is demonstrating Xanadu. He’s not, but he does say his next deliverable is likely to be a long-promised part of Xanadu: micropayment for authors’ royalties, as a commercial product called HyperCoin. As for the copyright tracking Xanadu was supposed to enable, Nelson has spun off a doctrine of public-domain links and limited permissions for use of material on the Web he calls “transcopyright.”

Divvied up into more accessible programs, Nelson’s vision can finally transcend his all-or-nothing Xanadu, his albatross. “The Xanadu model is so simple, and yet people, instead of hearing it, insist on ridiculing the fact that we never got it out,” he laments during a conversation in New York’s Tribeca a few days after the Wearable Computing conference. To get more deliverables out now, he is “focused to a narrower plan,” he says. “Before there was no telling what to do next because the plan was broad and covered so many directions, and there were no resources.”

Although Nelson is now delivering his vision in smaller, easier-to-comprehend programming units, the size of his ambition hasn’t changed. He is still building his Xanadu, he’s just got a new approach: doing it piece by piece inside your computer.

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