05/12/2021

024 – Hyper-thought – 1963

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The good news about computers is that they do what you tell them to do.
The bad news is that they do what you tell them to do.  Ted Nelson

One of those inspired by Vannevar Bush and Memex to emerge in the 1960s was Theodor Holm Nelson.  Half Norwegian, he grew up in Greenwich Village. 

This was the birthplace of beatniks and it is important to realise that much of the early development of PCs took part deep within the counter-culture of that time.

Nelson became something of an IT-philosopher.  He deliberately  styled himself as an outsider, self-publicising his thoughts to the joy or irritation of others in the early PC business. 

He was keen to tell anyone who would listen that he was a genius and he readily summed up his rather pessimistic philosophy in a very Greenwich Village-esque manner, ‘Any fool can use a computer.  Many do.’  ‘…most people are fools, most authority is malignant.  God does not exist, and everything is wrong.’

From as early as 1960 he prompted the development of a computer network that would use a much simpler and user-friendly interface to broaden its appeal. 

In 1963 he was the first person to coin both the terms hypertext and hypermedia.  Hypertext is the use of on-screen text which includes instant links to other text.  In this way the material becomes more interactive and useful to the user, allowing branching through text rather than following it serially.  Hypermedia links are not just to other text but also to graphics, audio, video…

In 1965 he founded Project Xanadu.  This appeared to be some Utopian concept, a dream more than reality – until a year later when Andy van Dam, a co-founder of Brown University’s Computer Science department in Rhode Island, pursued Nelson’s thinking.

van Dam worked with Nelson and others to develop the Hypertext Editing System. 

NASA subsequently implemented HES at the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center for the documentation of the Apollo space program.  Van Dam later produced the File Retrieval and Editing System, an improved system that was used only by Brown University.

1968 Hypertext was a key element of Doug Engelbart’s ‘mother of all demos’.

1980 Tim Berners-Lee used hypertext to develop Enquire, a stepping stone that led him to the World Wide Web.

1981 Nelson launched Operation ZigZag and the ZigZag virtual machine to develop his concept further.  He did appreciate the problems his work faced, ‘Paradigm confrontation is rarely fun for people; new ideas tend to be unpleasant and threatening.’

Nelson’s books have usually been insightful and timely.  He published ‘Computer Lib’ in 1974, then ‘The Home Computer Revolution’ in 1977 and ‘Literary Machines’ in 1981. 

1977 and ‘Literary Machines’ in 1981.  These were to be followed much later with ‘The Future of Information’ in 1997 and ‘Geeks Bearing Gifts: How The Computer World Got This Way’ in 2008. 

In each book he reported on what he believed to be happening and he forecast what might happen next; often showing a good degree of accuracy and insight.

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