Ted Nelson: Way Out of the Box

They imitated paper and familiar office machines because that was what the Xerox executives could understand. Xerox was a paper-walloping company, and all other concepts had to be ironed onto paper, like toner, to be even visible in their paper paradigm.

.. Even stranger is the “browser” concept. Think of it– a serial view of a parallel universe! Trying to comprehend the large-scale structure of connected Web pages is like trying to look at the night sky (at least, in places that stars are still visible) through a soda straw.

Ted Nelson on Xerox PARC: Paper Simulation

The usual story about Xerox PARC, that they were trying to make the computer understandable to the average man, was a crock. They imitated paper and familiear office machines because that was what the Xerox executives could understand. Xerox was a paper-walloping company, and all other concepts had to be ironed onto paper, like toner, to be even visible in their paper paradigm.

.. Today’s arbitrarily constructed computer world is also based on paper simulation, or WYSIWYG. That’s where we’re stuck in the current model, where most softwar seems to be mapped to paper. (‘WYSIWYG’ generally means ‘What You See is What You Get’ — meaning what you get *when you print it OUT*). In other words, paper is the flat heart of most of today’s software concepts.

The Curse of Xanadu

It was the most radical computer dream of the hacker era. Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project was supposed to be the universal, democratic hypertext library that would help human life evolve into an entirely new form. Instead, it sucked Nelson and his intrepid band of true believers into what became the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing – a 30-year saga of rabid prototyping and heart-slashing despair. The amazing epic tragedy.

.. The inventor suffers from an extreme case of Attention Deficit Disorder, a recently named psychological syndrome whose symptoms include unusual sensitivity to interruption.

If he is stopped in the middle of anything, he forgets it instantly. Only by running his own tape recorder could Nelson be confident that his words would not float off, irrecoverably, into the atmosphere.

.. Nelson’s anxiety about forgetting is complicated by the drugs he takes. For his ADD, Nelson takes Cylert; for his agitation, he takes Prozac; for sleeplessness, he takes Halcion.

.. Although inconvenienced by his disorder, Nelson is nonetheless proud of it. “Attention Deficit Disorder was coined by regularity chauvinists,” he remarked. “Regularity chauvinists are people who insist that you have got to do the same thing every time, every day, which drives some of us nuts. Attention Deficit Disorder – we need a more positive term for that. Hummingbird mind, I should think.”

.. He wanted to be a writer and a filmmaker, but he needed a way to avoid getting lost in the frantic multiplication of associations his brain produced. His great inspiration was to imagine a computer program that could keep track of all the divergent paths of his thinking and writing. To this concept of branching, nonlinear writing, Nelson gave the name hypertext.

.. “I have a terrific math problem,” Nelson said. “I still can’t add up a checkbook: I can add a column of figures five times, get four different answers, and none of them will be right. I’m very accident-prone and extremely impatient.

.. Nelson, with his unfocused energy, his tiny attention span, his omnivorous fascination with trivia, and his commitment to recording incidents whose meaning he will never analyze, is the human embodiment of the information explosion.

.. By the time Nelson reached college, his method of combating the regularity chauvinists was quite sophisticated; he put his teachers off with the theories of writer Alfred Korzybski, who denounced all categories as misleading. But this hatred of categories did not produce in Nelson a fuzzy, be-here-now mysticism. On the contrary, Nelson loved words, which were tools for memory, but he hated the way that traditional writing and editing imposed a false and limiting order. Nelson had no interest in the smooth, progressive narratives encased in books. He wanted everything to be preserved in all its chaotic flux, so that it could be reconstructed as needed.

.. He moved quickly into the most complex theoretical territory, asking questions that still challenge hypertext designers today. For instance, if you change a document, what happens to all the links that go in and out? Can you edit a document but preserve its links? What happens when you follow a link to a paragraph that has been erased?

.. Almost 20 years later, one of the Resistors, Lauren Sarno, who was 14 when she met Nelson, would become his personal assistant. In 1987, Sarno would spend thousands of hours reconstructing Nelson’s masterpiece, Computer Lib, so it could be reprinted by Microsoft Press.

.. Gregory’s dismissive contempt can be piercing, but Nelson’s speculative mania is indeflatable.

.. Gregory and his colleagues were trying to build a universal library on machines that could barely manage to edit and search a book’s worth of text.

.. While he knew how to fix and program computers pretty well, he was not a computer scientist or an élite researcher, and his persistent sadness compelled him to seek a destiny greater than tweaking corporate and commercial machines. In managing his depression, Gregory found that it helped to have something productive to do; the computer was always there, and when he felt his sorrow well up, he knew he could sit in his chair, stare at the screen, and begin to hack.

.. Around this time, Nelson contemplated suicide and got as far as holding the pills in his hand. He ended his revised version of Literary Machines with words of farewell: “We have held to ideals created long ago, in different times and places, the very best ideals we could find. We have carried these banners unstained to this new place, we now plant them and hope to see them floating in the wind. But it is dark and quiet and lonely here, and not yet dawn.”

.. Walker realized the Xanadu code was not finished, but he also noticed that Xanadu had never had the benefit of a serious, commercial development effort.

.. This arrangement was important, for while Nelson’s presentations were inspiring, his high self-regard and his pronounced difficulty organizing and finishing tasks made him an ineffective manager.

.. Regular paychecks allowed them to be revolutionaries and pay their rent.

.. Divisions were already brewing: on one hand, the Xerox PARC alumni favored the new programming language Smalltalk and found themselves often in agreement; on the other, the old-style C hackers, like Johan Strandberg, McClary’s closest friend on the project, tended to be more skeptical, traditional, and careful.

.. Ten years after the Swarthmore summer, Miller did not want to release a creaky and crippled version of the software he had helped design.

.. Nelson was frequently frustrated by his failure to convince casual questioners of the importance of his transclusion idea.


Miller noted that the current version of Xanadu handled transclusion in an extremely clumsy fashion. It also lacked the ability to keep track of different versions, did not scale well, had no multimedia capabilities, no security features, and performed poorly. The years of work Gregory had devoted to writing code seemed as much a burden as a resource. Miller wondered if it wasn’t time to wipe the slate clean and start again.

.. Soon after the Autodesk investment, the power to control Xanadu’s development began to slip from Gregory’s grasp. His erratic behavior prevented him from rallying support as Miller and Stiegler took charge.

.. “It was not rapid prototyping – it was rabid prototyping,” said one of McClary’s friends who watched the project closely. “They were just randomly hacking and coming up with these groovy algorithms.”

.. To get his bearings, he challenged the Xanadu architects to describe a typical customer for their software. He found their answers vague. In Miller’s view, the Xanadu technology was so radical that predicting its future uses was difficult.

.. One branch of General Schematics involved his Xanadu designs, but another branch was what he called “The General Theory of Status, Territory, and the Paradigm.”

.. A visitor to Nelson during his years at Autodesk recalls an evening when the inventor, wearing a velvet vest and a satin shirt, lectured about social status and its relationship to an internal, biological status regulator, called a biotstat. However, Nelson’s book on the topic, Biostrategy and the Polymind, which he considers the “foundation” for the next generation’s social sciences, was never published because he mislaid the computer printout with his revisions.

.. Walker marveled at the programmers’ apparent belief that they could create “in its entirety, a system that can store all the information in every form, present and future, for quadrillions of individuals over billions of years.” Rather than push their product into the marketplace quickly, where it could compete, adapt, or die, the Xanadu programmers intended to produce their revolution ab initio.

.. To industry analysts with influence over the price of Autodesk shares, the crisis at Autodesk looked like evidence of a battle between headstrong hackers who built the company, such as Walker, and professional managers who arrived later.

.. Nelson was startled by this turn of events. Every time the inventor had asked about Xanadu’s progress at Autodesk, he had been told that the system would be ready within six months. It was not until a Xanadu meeting in the summer of 1992 that he first felt the cold shock of reality. “This feeling came over me – my God, they are not going to do it,” he says. “I had believed them all this time.”

.. The new executive concluded that the key to Xanadu was its potential as part of a publishing and royalty system, and he reached out to a company that was attempting to manage an enormous number of royalty and copyright contracts – Kinko’s. Xanadu’s proprietary data structure offered the possibility of a unified tracking system for all the college material Kinko’s was printing.

.. Just as the negotiations with Kinko’s were getting under way, Nelson, whose lifelong dream was about to take its first step toward genuine, if diminished, realization, attempted to take over the company. The programmers, who had seen Nelson’s management style firsthand during the early ’80s, resisted.

“There wasn’t anything to fight over,” Shapiro says. “If we did not complete the technology and sell it, everybody would die. But Ted was determined to control it. The more determined Ted got to control it, the more determined the programmers got not to be under his thumb.”

.. But they were facing a master strategist who understood the power of escalation. Nelson soon found a way to provoke the desired crisis. “I nominated Roger Gregory to the board of directors,” recounts Nelson triumphantly.


Shapiro had come to represent, to Nelson, the narrow-minded managers and punishing authority figures the inventor despised. To Nelson, Shapiro was “an asshole.” To Shapiro, Nelson was “an arrogant bastard.” Nelson claims not to remember the details of the conflict, but according to Shapiro, the end came at a board meeting in the end of 1992, when Nelson said frankly that he was not going to cooperate with the plans of any company that had Shapiro in control.

.. By the time the battle was over, Kinko’s senior management had stopped returning phone calls, most of Autodesk’s transitional funding had been spent on lawyers fees, and the Xanadu team had managed to acquire ownership of a company that had no value.

.. The Xanadu philosophy had always held that if a perfect back end could be created, the front end would take care of itself.

.. “There were links, you could do versions, you could compare versions, all that was true,” Jellinghaus reports, “provided you were a rocket scientist. I mean, just the code to get a piece of text out of the Xanadu back end was something like 20 lines of very, very hairy C++, and it was not easy to use in any sense of the word. Not only was it not easy to use, it wasn’t anything even remotely resembling fast.

.. “I don’t have any sympathy for them. It is beyond my comprehension for somebody to quit just because they have not been paid for six months.”

.. He has baptized this system “transcopyright.” Transcopyright is not a technology; it is Nelson’s suggestion for a contractual solution to copyright problems. Nelson argues that electronic publishers should allow anybody to republish their materials, provided that republication takes place by means of a pointer to the original document or fragment.

.. Xanadu, the grandest encyclopedic project of our era, seemed not only a failure but an actual symptom of madness.

.. To Nelson, the swirling currents under his grandfather’s boat represented the chaotic transformation of all relationships and the irrecoverable decay associated with the flow of time. His Xanadu project was meant to organize this chaos, to channel this flow.


“Why?” I asked.

“Total insanity,” Gregory answered, both hands squeezing his face.

Wiki: The Curse Of Xanadu

The problem wasn’t time, it was a combination of things that add up to unprofessionalism: AnalysisParalysis, bad project management, chronic underfunding most (but not all) of the time, in-fighting, and worst of all, they actually finished it a bunch of times! Back when Autodesk was funding them. But they took a perfectionist attitude, and always decided to rewrite the code from scratch every time they finished something that worked even a little bit, rather than release it. I was at AutoDesk at the time and saw working code demoed. A whip-cracking no-nonsense project manager would have changed the history of Xanadu single-handedly (if humanly possible, given the HerdingCatsProblem) — DougMerritt