Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext in 1963, described the “writer’s console,” or word processor, as “lonely and pointless.” Nelson began a revolution in composition arrangement that would, he thought, be far more significant than word processing.
It is the choice among [ideas and structures]… that is the process of writing…. You take a structured complex of thought… that you are trying to communicate, and you break it into individual sequential parts that can be put end to end, and this is a wholly artificial process… based upon the fact that it has to be published eventually in a sequence.
Nelson objected to the necessity of sequence not only in the writing process but also in the final text. Computers, he discovered, did not impose this format on text but instead allowed a much more diverse variety of arrangement in writing, including “branching literature” and new techniques for organizing and comparing ideas. While word processing can make the writing process less linear, hypertext can do the same to the product.
One of Nelson’s main arguments against the paradigms used to handle text on computers, including the word processor, is that they operate on metaphors drawn from our pre-computerized lives, metaphors that limit the range of things we can do with a computer. “Today’s arbitrarily constructed computer world,” writes Nelson, “is also based on paper simulation.… Paper is the flat heart of most of today’s software concepts.”
Nelson argues that rejecting metaphors altogether would be better, writing that “as soon as you draw a comparison to something familiar, you are drawn into that comparison—and stuck with the resemblance.” Because computers do not actually function in the same way as paper, it is not necessary that they follow the same constraints. The so-called technorati have often focused on the impact of the internet in terms of the ability to access a vast amount of information quickly, but Nelson has always focused on the importance of connections between this information. A self-described contrarian, he describes the World Wide Web as “watered down and oversimplified” because it lacks the permanent two-way links and annotation that would help make connections in an orthodox Nelsonian hypertext system. The Web, with rectangular pages, represents the continuing hegemony of paper. “We must,” declares Nelson, “overthrow the paper model, with its four prison walls and peephole 1-way links.”