The tekkies have hijacked literature– with the best intentions, of course!-) – but now the humanists have to get it back. INDIRECT DOCUMENTS AT LAST! Now for a Humanist Computer Agenda
Hearing Ted Nelson at Open Tech '05 back in July wasn't quite the experience I was hoping for. When it comes to criticising computing-as-we-know-it, he was pushing at many an open door, but his sweeping criticisms were so inseparable from the weighty emphasis he placed on his life and the rejection of his vision that that vision itself came a poor second to his sense of being dis-regarded, misunderstood, under-appreciated …
broken promises of personal computing:
* easy record-keeping
* nothing lost
* simplify life
* easy programming
broken promises of hypertext:
* permanent availability
* deep connections
* profuse link overlays
* frictionless reuse (with copyright management, transquotation)
My notes from Open Tech '05 are peppered with comments in the same vein: 'Macs and Windows-based machines mimic paper-based life'; 'unexamined conventions in computing' abound, whereas the real issue is 'the representation of human thought'; 'computers haven't made life simpler for anyone'; the 'clipboard is an invisible, one-item buffer that destroys information about origins'; 'today's computer world is based on techies' misunderstandings of human thought and life'; 'WYSIWYG was designed backward from the office end-product, the printout' …
Against this, Xanadu, ZigZag, Transcopyright, TransQuoter, Transliterature. My notes again, this time peppered with stuff that was wildly suggestive and imaginative (Richard MacManus: 'If this is "simple", then it's a definition of "simple" from a parallel universe'): 'free-form tissues of flying islands, bridges and tunnels, arbitrary coupling amongst structures'; 'multitrack markup and links'; 'instead of hierarchical directories (folders), intersecting lists'; 'instead of files as big lumps, clusters of smaller, connected parts'; 'applitudes (not applications) — zones of function, deeply cross-connectible'; 'editing between documents, with content origins of all quotations and pieces optionally visible'; 'coupleable side-ladders for access'; 'step-by-step, deep Undo'; 'WYSIWYNC: what you see is what you never could' …
I was reminded of all this when reading Richard MacManus' post of yesterday, written after he had stumbled across Transliterature:
… today I came across the latest project of a man who wants to tear down Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web and replace it with his own vision. It used to be known as Xanadu, but has since morphed into Transliterature, A Humanist Design. I am of course referring to Ted Nelson, who invented the term "hypertext" in 1965 and is generally regarded as a computing pioneer.
Ted Nelson recently wrote an essay about "Indirect Documents", which got Slashdotted today. In the essay Nelson outlines why (in his opinion) the Xanadu project failed and he explains his new vision for Transliterature. He takes a number of potshots at Tim Berners-Lee's WWW on the way, e.g.:
"Why don't I like the web? I hate its flapping and screeching and emphasis on appearance; its paper-simulation rectangles of Valuable Real Estate, artificially created by the NCSA browser, now hired out to advertisers; its hierarchies exposed and imposed; its untyped one-way links only from inside the document. (The one-way links hidden under text were a regrettable simplification of hypertext which I assented to in '68 on the HES project. But that's another story.) Only trivial links are possible; there is nothing to support careful annotation and study; and, of course, there is no transclusion."
From the Transliterature site:
"Transliterature" is our name for a proposed new universal genre intended to unify electronic documents and media, erasing format boundaries and easing the copyright problem. It is an extremely simple design, intended to correct many things that are wrong with today's computer world and liberate our use of media. It should make possible a new crossover medium-- transpathic documents-- allowing you to step from content in one document to the same content in another document (which could be a movie, or radio show, or new media construction). This should bring new insights, new forms of anthology, and new forms of copyright and media commerce (see Transcopyright.org).
Ted Nelson is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. (I want to find out more about the Institute and see if we can't benefit from its closeness to us, at the very least by getting along to talks there.) The well-known, highly critical piece on Ted Nelson by Gary Wolf (Wired) can be found here and Nelson has a riposte ('Errors in "The Curse of Xanadu"') here. There's a brief but atmospheric mention here by Kevin Kelly (Wired again) of a meeting with Ted Nelson in 1984. Some photos I took of Ted Nelson and his presentation at Open Tech can be found via this link.