Orality and Hypertext: An Interview with Ted Nelson

Early last June we received a gripping email, originally from Ted Nelson, forwarded via a friend, concerning an article in Wired magazine. Our copy of Wired still lay unread in our growing “read sometime” pile, though we had noticed the article on Xanadu, Nelson’s hypertext project. The email left us reeling:

The June issue of WIRED magazine contains an extremely nasty and mean-spirited article entitled “The Curse of Xanadu,” by Gary Wolf, which purports to be the obituary of Project Xanadu. The article is an affront to the alumni and veterans of the Xanadu project, some fifty of us over the years, contriving to make our endeavors look impossible and asinine …

Ted Nelson: Biostatus

“My theory of human life is best begun with a rhetorical question having to do with morale, i.e., feeling good or fierce or ready, and its relation to our ability to function. Why is it that some days we can seemingly achieve anything, and other times we can hardly get out of bed? Why don’t we perform at peak efficiency all the time? There must be a reason, and it must have to do with gene benefit ..

.. We heed biostatus because we can’t help it: when you are depressed you can hardly function; meaning an inner evaluator says things aren’t working; when you are exhilarated you can accomplish things with ease, for the inner evaluator is saying Go For It.

.. When you’re succeeding, biostatus rises, saying “do more;” when you’re failing, low biostatus is nature’s way of telling you to slow down. This up and down are the biostatus system.

.. The biostatus system is a heuristic that has evolved to reward and facilitate success, and to punish and curtail failure. (Thus the downside of the biostatus mechanism, generalized discouragement in its many forms, is a strategy of avoidance and caution similar to pain and shyness.)

.. But where does this evaluation occur, especially since we are ways making excuses to ourselves (“ego defenses”)? Answer: there is also at least one unbribable Watcher (given various names by Freud and others), who rewards and punishes success and failure according to your true standards, as distinct from your pretexts. (And just finding out your true standards, as applied in Draconian style by such Watchers, can be a lifelong endeavor.)

.. The biostatus mechanism must indeed be administered by some punishing and rewarding superego, operating according to what are often secret standards, inaccessible to consciousness. But this view holds that this entire mechanism must work for long-term benefit in the majority of cases.”

Ted Nelson’s Passionate Eulogy for Douglas Engelbart

It got implemented. Autodesk funded an implementation. I knew the people who did that job. It just wasn’t very useful. It was a centralized storage and revision control scheme for text only (No pictures; Nelson was very text-oriented) tied to a micropayments system. You paid to read a document, and payments were parcelled out to everybody who’d contributed to the document.

The fundamental problem was that it assumed that most text documents were worth orders of magnitude than they are now. Pricing was intended to be comparable to what overpriced academic journals charge for online access today. Another part of the problem was that Nelson had very strong ideas about how it should be implemented, but didn’t know much about database technology.