Ted Nelson (the creator of HyperText) criticizes today’s Web, proposing humanistic innovations

I became a fan of Ted Nelson‘s visions and his «Xanadu project» through his book «Computer Lib/Dream Machines» many years ago. Here is the book’s front cover:

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Ted Nelson is the man who coined the term «hypertext«:

Whether the World Wide Web was my idea is a matter of controversy; but no one questions that I coined the words «hypertext,» «hypermedia,» «micropayment» and «dildonics,» among others.Ted Nelson in «MY LIFE AND WORK, VERY BRIEF«

Ted Nelson is universally acknowledged as the father of HyperText. However, he still maintains a highly critical stance towards modern implementations of his original vision, such as the HTML language:

«HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management». Ted Nelson in a Wikipedia quote

Nelson at at Keio University, Japan 1999 (image Belinda Barnet).
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Ted Nelson in 2002
«…the objective is to create a unified quotable world— that is, a pool of transquotable documents on the Internet, and that means including documents whose content is sold as well as free. Thus a key aspect of the plan is to build a microsale system, so that sold content may be offered under transcopyright by authors and publishers.» (Ted Nelson in «Transcopyright«)

Here is what Ted Nelson said to a BBC interviewer a few years ago (Red emphasis is mine):

«The World Wide Web is not what we were trying to create. The links only go one way. There’s no permanent publishing. There is no way you can write a marginal note that other people can see on what’s in front of you. There is no way that you can quote freely..(*)

  • (*) Now, this statement was made in 2001, and it is partly outdated: Today (2007) Web 2.0 «social tagging» and annotations are possible, and also shareable. However, most of Ted Nelson’s criticisms are still quite valid.

My own attempts (in the late eighties) to implement Nelson’s visions, made me accidentally hit across similarities between his ideas and today’s Semantic Web, about which only very recently I became aware: -Adhering closely to Nelson’s principles, I ended up with a data-structure for hypertext implementation, surprisingly similar to the foundations of the Semantic Web:

  • It was a rare, sunny British Sunday, in the summer of 1988, when I devoured Ted Nelson’s book -beginning to end- while enjoying the sunshine, sitting on a park-bench in Oxford (UK), where I had just started working in I.T. for a local company. On the evening of that same day, I hacked some hypertext code in a Prolog interpreter, running in an Amstrad late-eighties’ heavy-duty «laptop», with floppies but no hard disk.
  • My first Hypertext program (of 1988) was very crude by today’s standards: It was just a simple text-editor, where (by pressing certain keys) hyper-links could be inserted, edited, or deleted. The phrases chosen as links appeared in bold. By pressing Space they were replaced by other documents, implemented as clauses of a Prolog Database stored in RAM (since floppies were too slow and there was no hard disk!)
  • A couple of years later a new program emerged, a hypertext editor with multiple windows, implemented in PDC Prolog (as well as Assembly Language for speed): «Hyperion» was a DOS program, but it still works: You can download Hyperion-1 here. If you can read Greek (or tolerate… machine-translation pigeon-English) there is a Greek article about Hyperion and HyperText here.
  • «Hyperion-1» was finally released a few months later, through a computer magazine’s companion disk. It had multiple windows with scroll-bars, user-defined colours and multiple types of hyperlinks embedded in each high-lighted phrase. In fact, the data-structure of Hyperion closely resembled today’s «RDF triples» (in the Semantic Web), with three arguments in each hyperlink definition: (1) Source phrase / HyperKey, (2) Target-document and (3) Relation between them (user-defined, optionally using graphics or user-defined transformations of the Target-document)…
  • Today -in 2007- the Semantic Web addresses some (but not all) of the fundamental issues raised by Ted Nelson and his associates for a number of years, ever since HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) was invented. E.g. «Where the World Wide Web Went Wrong«.

(to be continued)

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