Ted Nelson is part of the reason you're reading this today. His
early research into hypertext and his dogged determination to make
computers accessible to the masses contributed greatly to the eventual
invention of the World Wide Web. Not that Ted would take credit for
it, as he hates the way it all turned out.
Born in 1937, he got a BA from Swarthmore in philosophy, a
Maters degree from Harvard in sociology, and later a PhD from Keio
University in Media and Governance. In 1960 he started working on a
word-processor type program that would enable multiple documents to be
linked together. He coined the word hypertext in 1965 in a paper
submitted to the Association for Computing Machinery.
His ideas were wonderful, but they were far ahead of their time and
he had a hard time communicating them in a way that technical
people could implement. In 1967, he named his visionary system
Xanadu and hired the first of what would be generations of programmers
to work on it. As of this writing, Xanadu is still being developed
In 1973 he wrote the cult classic Computer Lib/Dream
Machines. The book is an ecclectic, hypertext-like collection of
snippets that both explained computers to the masses and expressed
Ted's vision for the computerized future. In many ways the book was
He still holds on to his counter-culture value system from
the 1960's; which he has boiled down into four maxims: "most people
are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and
everything is wrong."
As for the WWW, Ted has this to say:
The Web isn't hypertext, it's DECORATED DIRECTORIES!
What we have instead is the vacuous victory of typesetters over
authors, and the most trivial form of hypertext that could have been
Of course, the difference is that the Web
works, something Xanadu
never quite managed.
Here's what Xanadu is supposed to do that the Web doesn't:
What we still need are stable publishing links that can be followed
in both directions, a variety of link types, a micropayment system for
buying small parts of documents at a time for very small amounts of
money, a copyright system permitting republishing of unrestricted
quotations, and a way for documents to change without invalidating
connections to them. These are the persistent goals of Project Xanadu;
our new methods turn our old methods inside-out for today's Internet
Who knows? Someday, he may make it happen.