Ted Nelson, Hypertext, and Hippie Modernism

Last Updated:Sunday, May 28, 2023

Over the past 50 years, American information technology pioneer Ted Nelson has made his fair share of eerily accurate predictions about computing and its impact on our lives. Case in point, Nelson coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” all the way back in 1963. 

At a time when computers were seen as niche research tools, he spoke of their inevitable general purpose use and the rise of a network like the modern Internet, a ‘docuverse’ where information connected in an endlessly proliferating web.

Yet somehow he remains a hard-to-pin-down figure in the history of computing. For continuing to work on his alternative Internet project Xanadu (beginning in 1960)⁠—sometimes regarded as ‘the longest-running vaporware project ever’⁠—he is even considered by some to be insane.

Ted Nelson, philosopher of the information age

“All I can say to the young is close your eyes.”

 — Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson was born in Chicago in 1937, the son of an Emmy award-winning director and an Academy Award Winning actress, both of whom had little to do with him growing up. At a young age, he was carted off to be raised by his grandparents in New York City. 

Growing up, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. He attended Swarthmore College where he graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 1959 and continued his education at Harvard where he earned an M.A. in sociology.

In 1959, he followed in his parent’s silver-screen footsteps and made a hilarious student film called The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow about the travails of college life. Because there was no location sound recording and no script, the actors were told to just say “parp parp” for now; they’d fill the words in later.

Nelson’s own epiphany, after making this wonderfully weird student film, was that he was now a filmmaker. Yet the generally accepted logical next step, that being… making another film did not occur to him. 

That’s because, while at Harvard, he took a course exploring computers for the humanities. At this time computers were clunky mainframe beasts taking inputs in a rudimentary Assembler programming language, well before word processors existed. Yet somehow, years before the Internet, Nelson was able to see the computer’s endless possibilities for human connection and self-expression.

At the time, few people outside of academic and military research contexts had even seen a computer, but Nelson already viewed its interactive screen as the natural successor to cinema. As a forward-thinking ‘filmmaker,’ it was thus only logical for him to invest his life in ‘directing’ for the computer.

Nelson came to consider himself a “systems humanist” and compared himself to the thinker, inventor, and noted geodesic dome enthusiast Buckminster Fuller, who built the famous United States Pavilion at Montreal Expo 67

Fuller, like Nelson, was perhaps a wee bit eccentric, not to mention relentlessly persistent. For example, Fuller chronicled every day in his life from 1917 to 1983 in his Dymaxion Chronofile, comprised of about 1,400 feet of mostly mundane objects (approx. 140,000 papers and audio/visual material totaling 1,700 hours).

He was also, like Nelson, an unflappable humanist. Fuller dedicated his whole life to answering the question: what can one individual do, if anything, on behalf of all humanity? 

For Fuller, society chugs along like a big ship, thinking it’s doing just fine without some contrarian visionary to tell it what to do, but this self-assuredness is ill-founded. Why? 

Because mentally dynamic people, like a ship’s “trim tab,” i.e. a mini-rudder that pulls the ship’s main rudder, are always quietly re-routing the giant vessel. The cocky main rudder people (government institutions, financial leaders, etc.) think they’re running the show, but the true agency for change lies in a few special visionaries. 

Nelson believed this too. He saw the society-changing power of ‘artisanal software,’ directed by auteurs overseeing small teams in the manner of an art-house film. For him, the little guy was more important than the big shots at the top of any corporate or government system, and he wanted to empower them to do their best and most creative work. 

And so, in 1960, he founded Project Xanadu, dedicated to creating a “magical place of literary memory” on the computer.

The next year, at a party thrown by John W. Campbell, perhaps the most influential science fiction author and editor of all time, Nelson got a chance to chat up author Isaac Asimov about his exciting new project. He spoke giddily of his future visions, telling Asimov his hypothesis that “people would soon be reading and writing on screens.” 

In turn, he received a sarcastic reply: “Yeah, sure.” 

This dismissal, which deeply wounded the young Nelson, was the first of many. Yet he remained stubbornly undeterred, both then and now. 

Hippies and hypertext

“Everything is deeply intertwingled.” 

— Ted Nelson

People started communes in the 60s, did drugs, and found “free love.” Nelson didn’t do any drugs and says he ‘couldn’t access’ free love, but he still found the ‘verve’ of the era, the sense of idealistic possibility, to be intensely liberating and facilitative of pursuing crazy ideas. 

The spirit of possibility that animated the 60s was present in computing as well.

Nelson envisioned the idea of the citizen programmer who boosted the world up with access to services and information. His Xanadu project would pursue the democratization of cyberspace, enhance citizen participation, and move artistic expression into the realm of software. 

Fundamental to Xanadu is Nelson’s concepts of hypertext and hypermedia. 

His idea of hypertext works on two levels. The first is through parallel connections between visible documents, wherein “this sentence is connected to that paragraph” and we can “see it as a visible strap or bridge.” Through the concept of transcluded documents, a user is able to jump from one document to another through in-text references on the same screen.

The other hypertext concept is “being able to click on something and jump to it.” This second concept, also known as ‘the jump link’, became popularly discussed in computing circles through the 60s and 70s. 

Then there’s ZigZag, first conceived in 1965, which Nelson defines as “a hyperthogonal structure… a multidimensional, non-hierarchical spreadsheet and application builder.”

ZigZag is not easy to quickly grasp, but a basic introduction would be that it’s a platform for “manipulating data and devices” which avoids the hierarchical file structure we’re used to. Instead of folders and ever-descending sub-folders, units of data are organized as cells, which are connected to each other through “dimensions.”

The idea is to “track the conceptual relationships between related information or versions,” and rebuild everyday software by starting from a different set of assumptions, one of which is that files, folders, and applications do not actually need to be the fundamental concepts of all software.

More important than re-constructing familiar, historically entrenched organizational hierarchies and expectations, he noted, was improving the conditions of working lives for people performing ever-more complicated tasks for an ever-more complicated world. This technology offered the chance to realize a better future and make us better, rather than cynically building new programs and devices around the perceived limits of the average human’s intellect, behavior, and tolerance for change. 

Like his contemporary, American computer engineer Douglas Engelbart, Nelson had the singular dream of making people more powerful and giving them the tools to realize their dreams. 

Engelbart’s oN-Line System (NLS), which was shown at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco (and has since been dubbed “the mother of all demos”) demonstrated a personal computer system with hypertext links between documents, information retrieval via mouse, word processing, and the ability to do collaborative work on the same file. 

NLS represented the first practical implementation of some of Nelson's Xanadu ideas. Like Nelson, Engelbart was all about “keeping the links outside the files,” favoring flexible structure and collaboration in what he dubbed his ‘open hyperdocument system.’ Engelbert also shared Nelson’s desire to use computing to advance collective intelligence and elevate humanity.

Take, for example, Nelson’s humanist computing manifesto Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974), which is two books stuck together like Siamese twins, a double-barrel counter-culture blast in the style of a DIY punk zine. Computer Lib makes a case for mainstream computer literacy to initiate social change, loudly declaring “you must understand computers now!” Dream Machines speaks about the transformative possibilities of computers to power creativity, exploring the concepts of multimedia, hypertext, graphical user interfaces, and knowledge sharing.  

After outlining his core ideas in these two books, Nelson created the Xanadu Operating Company in 1979 to develop his vision into real software. He wrote another book shortly thereafter, Literary Machines (1981), a thorough exploration of what Project Xanadu was all about. 

Acknowledging his debt to WWII-era tech visionary Vannevar Bush, who conceived of a mechanical version of hypertext called a memex, Nelson’s Literary Machines reproduces the entire text of Bush’s 1945 seminal essay As We May Think

Legacy and ongoing projects 

“The enthusiasms of the present and the future have to be tempered by an understanding of the enthusiasm of the past.” 

— Ted Nelson

In the first decades of postwar computing growth, Nelson found himself misunderstood by the multitudes. 

Take this 1979 CBC Radio interview, for instance, where the program host simply refuses to see the point of extending the use of computers beyond applications in mathematics and statistics.

In this fascinating exchange, Nelson also explains how the computer is an anti-gadget that can integrate and tie in others, correcting the design flaws of predecessor machines and the awkward relationships between clunky physical devices that weren’t necessarily meant to work together. Nelson even predicts the Internet of Things, noting the possibility of dimming your lights from a computer. All this seems outlandish, and annoying, to his interlocutor. 

Of course, now everything he says appears to us as totally reasonable, and totally on-point with what has actually happened to computing and the Internet. Cloud computing has de-frictionized access to apps, files, and data across devices and geographical divides. If we really want to, we can turn on our home A/C while driving, directly from our phones, or verbally cue up music with Alexa.

Given how completely ‘right’ Nelson was, it’s frustrating to see, in so many historical documents like this, a near-total aversion to what he has to say. 

Nelson’s hypertext idea, likewise, was eventually implemented and is something all of us use every day. It just wasn’t him who got most of the credit. 

Instead, the honors generally go to CERN computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who put the Internet together out of existing parts in 1989—DNS, email, and TCP/IP—then used hypertext to tie everything together. 

Berners-Lee’s version of hypertext was thus not an original, but rather the 6th or 7th version of the concept. This time, it caught on. In Nelson’s opinion, that’s because it was “a clean job with the clout of CERN behind it,” and not at all because it was the best iteration so far.

For Nelson, hypertext as it was, and is, popularly implemented—as a means of clicking and jumping from one page to another—is a one-dimensional use of his idea.

This is especially annoying, as Nelson suggests that things could have been very different if Project Xanadu had beat Berners-Lee to creating the Internet. He thinks the Project Xanadu team could have been ahead of him by a year if he was still in charge in the late 80s.

Nelson’s legacy is thus largely one of missing the limelight, for reasons of bad timing, lack of funding, and his admittedly idealistic, non-business-like mentality. Yet he has received due appreciation from some high places.

In 2001, Nelson was knighted by the French Minister of Culture, becoming an Officier des Arts des Lettres. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak praised him in a surprise appearance at the 2014 Intertwingled Conference at Chapman University. While interviewing him for his 2016 Internet documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog, comparing him to the other techies they’d been talking to, called him “the only one around who is clinically sane.”

Nelson has continued to be active, some might say ‘hyperactive,’ public figure, appearing at conferences on the reg. His zany YouTube channel features him commentating on everything from the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the mythical creator of bitcoin, to The Wizard of Oz.

Meanwhile, Project Xanadu continues. After 54 years, Nelson and company finally put out a working release in 2014. 

The future will be intertwingled 

We all get into habits and stick with what we’re used to. For Nelson, this is the main obstacle to further exploring the radical decentralization promised by hypertext and the Internet.

While it may seem crazy to think of the current, corporately-centralized Internet order being usurped, Nelson admonishes us to remember that programming languages die, just like human ones. Thousands have gone to the graveyard and more are on the way. 

Long story short, the Internet will change again. 

Nelson, like Tim Berners-Lee, views the contemporary Internet as a wrong-turn from its original humanistic vision and hopes we can still do better. He wants us to have a future network that is not hijacked by local considerations, scaremongering, and narrow-minded thinking.

His shared citizen vision of the Internet’s possibilities is one that has not come to pass, for any number of reasons. But perhaps in time it will, and Nelson will once again be totally right in hindsight.