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Ted Nelson: Ongoing Beginnings

Ted Nelson first experienced "hypertext" as a Greenwich Village vision some thirty years ago. His first book, "Computer Lib," to some a cult classic, is copyrighted now by Microsoft. His first and ongoing software, an online hypertext commercial publishing system called Xanadu, was started in the 'sixties and is now copyrighted (but still unreleased) by Autodesk. No one owns the copyright to Ted himself though ;-), and he continues simultaneously to live and pursue his vision.

We imagine that his personal "docuverse" is proving no pure "pleasure dome;" it contains millions of documents with no software tool yet invented to enable the disparate docs to associate into an autobiography at the hands of future readers. The story and the means to tell it, in the insubstantial bits of electronic communication (in true hypertext in other words), remain Nelson's substantial work. He lives and works in Japan now.

The founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, first pointed me towards Nelson and his Xanadu in early 1993. Following the panel Tim and I were on, Dale Dougherty asked to reprint the paper I delivered, "Online Publishing: Threat or Menace?" in his new online magazine, "Global Network Navigator." When I visited the O'Reilly offices to check out their rendition of my work on a new browser called Mosaic, I learned more about Ted Nelson, and his book "Literary Machines." I couldn't find it in bookstores, and forgot about it until a week or so later, when a casual acquaintance for some unknown reason just dropped it on my doorstep. Reading "Literary Machines" led me to accept an invitation to present at an AAUP conference in Utah, where I met Nelson and began to learn firsthand about "Xanadu."

Ted Nelson is truly a multimedia man. Claiming a poor memory, he records his life with stick-um tags, video recorder, tape recorder, note pads. Talk to him, and "Silver Stands" begin to pop up around the landscape like Burger Kings; "zippered lists" serve our knowledge needs like voluntary DNA strands making and remaking our recorded culture; "transclusions" point towards the ordered evolution of ideas. He writes and speaks in trademarked words (mostly his own), and to read his work is to begin to appreciate the delightful meshworks of collective consciousness towards which global hypertext leads us.

Laura Fillmore
December 1995

[ Author of the Month: Ted Nelson ]