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Cult VIP: Ted Nelson

The lyrical philosopher who invented a utopian web in the 60s on the problems of the WWW.

It’s midnight in California, and Ted Nelson, lyrical philosopher, dreamer and pioneer of the early computer age, is speaking over a transatlantic phone line. Most famous for being the man who should have invented the internet, he could have been as well known as Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg. He should at least be rich; he isn’t, but doesn’t seem to mind too much. The 76-year-old’s ideas have become a touchstone for an increasing dissatisfaction with the future we’ve allowed the internet to make for ourselves – he accuses it of stunting the potential of the human imagination. In other creative fields too, Nelson has become a beacon for artistic experimentation, from music to literature to art. Whether it’s what we call mash-ups, samples or derivative works, his influence permeates many forms of art and culture, even if you don’t know it yet.

His life’s work is Xanadu, originally conceived in 1960 as a word processor capable of storing multiple versions of documents and displaying the differences between them. In 1963, he coined the term “hypertext” to describe his rapidly developing idea. “The web that we know is one form of hypertext,” he says. “Mine is different.” Nelson argues that the World Wide Web is a massive dumbing down of his vision of “a magic and constantly moving piece of literary memory.” We see our desktop and the World Wide Web hypertext as layered paper, one thing sitting on top of the other, linking to each other in the most linear manner possible. Xanadu would give our screens depth, like a constellation of stars. Rather than being stacked, all our information would be in orbit, floating in larger and smaller circles, but – and here’s the important bit – with everything connected and all the connections visible. Everything could be pulled down and arranged side-by-side so that information would always exist in context. He named the project in 1967 after the fantastical summer palace in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-laced dream-poem “Kubla Khan”.

Nelson’s Xanadu, just as lyrical and infinite in conception as Coleridge’s, is nothing like the product-dominated technology landscape we live in today. There’s no such thing as an iXanadu. The computer world never embraced Nelson’s system and for a while at least, the digital Xanadu has been a lonely place. But over the last few years there’s been something of a return to its ideas, as computer experts look to the past to analyse the present and a new generation of artists embrace Nelson’s theories as a means of mashing things up and moving things forward. So if, after all these years, Xanadu is still a place and Nelson is still there, should we be there too?

These days the maverick lives between California and New Jersey, occasionally touring the world on the university lecture circuit. He was born in 1937 to Emmy-winning director Ralph Nelson and Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm (All About Eve, High Society). So entertainment was in his blood? “Absolutely. But it wasn’t so much that I inherited it from my parents, as I rarely saw them. It was more an instinct of mine. Back then I got taken to a lot of plays and movies. I loved movies especially.” But his parents’ status as Hollywood royalty meant little to him as a child. “I saw them rarely, maybe like, twice a year, each,” he remembers describing his young, glamorous Hollywood mother as like a big sister. “She would come home and deliver a wonderful monologue about the theatre guild and the plots and plays of her movies. I do remember going backstage and wandering around the set of Oklahoma!, bemused by how different it was from being in the audience.” He was raised by his maternal grandparents, first in Chicago, then, from the age of six, in Greenwich Village, New York, although he wasn’t impressed with the cult hoopla of the infamous neighbourhood. “The legendary Greenwich Village of bohemian legend was a thing of the past,” he remembers. “It was very middle-class.” Even  then, he  craved new forms of human expression. “From a young age I was keenly aware of all media. Comic books, for example – I’d study the dots and the lettering and fall in love with them. Radio as well – the effects went right through me. I was perhaps more sensitive to media than to people.”

“With Xanadu, Ted invented the mash-up. He was way ahead of anyone else in 1960. At its very origin there was balance between the rights of the masher and the mashed” – Jaron Lanier

After high school, Nelson declined a scholarship to Harvard to attend the smaller liberal arts college Swarthmore, near Philadelphia. He studied philosophy, “the easiest major,” but there was an urgency inside him to produce something, a DIY mentality. “What I really wanted to do in college were these little projects. I made an LP, a film, three issues of a magazine, a newsletter. I put on what I believe was the first rock musical. It went on for over three hours and was terrible – the cast was larger than the audience. But all these things gave me a feeling of strength, imagination and ability.”

He was searching for a design challenge of the highest order. “I knew I could design things, and academically I got a strong sense from my professors that I could analyse things. So I had these different prongs in my outlook. If I had only wanted to go into movies I would have done so, but I just couldn’t leave academia. The result is I combined them when I saw what computers could do.”

Nelson finally enrolled at Harvard in 1960 to do a Master’s in sociology. “Harvard was a wonderful place to be; there was a real sense of being at the right place at the right time. That fall we elected our boy John Kennedy, also a Harvard man.” Later Harvard men would include computer geniuses Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who famously began coding billion-dollar empires between studies. Nelson sees a lineage. “I still hadn’t seen a computer and wouldn’t for years. But there’s a certain constellation here: in all three cases, myself, Gates and Zuckerberg, there’s this combination of technical understanding and recognition of the power of an idea.”

In 1960 Nelson collected his beliefs, declared computer design a form of art and finished his first paper. He was considered a radical from the word go. “You have to understand something quite strange,” he says. “Artificial intelligence was almost a religion in those days. A lot of the earliest computer guys, because of their early successes, thought that they were going to develop some marvelous mentality that would care for us and understand us better than we did. I was seen as radical in those days simply for saying, ‘This isn’t going to happen. We’re going to unify screens with interaction and have online documents.’” It was a prediction that was both human and true.

Over the decade, his life’s main work gathered momentum, funded by some unlikely jobs – he spent a year in the mid-1960s as a dolphin researcher, for example, filming what he describes as the first ever dolphin sex movie, Mating Behavior of Tursiops Truncatus. (It depicts a dolphin called Elvar splashing around in the tank with an erection, while another dolphin, Cheechee, teases him.) All the while though, Xanadu was taking shape, and he published his ideas in the books Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974) and Literary Machines (1981). The former inspired a generation of DIY computer enthusiasts.

HIs ideas predated the modern conception of remixing. Instead of always reading a text in its original form, a sequence of derivative work can be read without losing the value of the original. It’s a remix, but with every reader as a potential mixer. “Ted invented the idea of the mash-up, period,” says philosopher and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who dedicates an entire chapter to Nelson in his latest book, Who Owns the Future. “When someone is said to have invented something you can usually find a number of various origin pieces, but he was just way ahead of anyone else in 1960. The most important thing about Ted Nelson’s idea is that at its very origin there is balance between the right of the masher and the mashed.” This would not only lead to new kinds of collaboration, creativity and expression, Lanier argues, but if the link back to the original could always be traced, then people could actually get remunerated for their input. We could all contribute to the information online and get paid for doing so. For Lanier, Nelson’s original ideas offer the foundations to the online economy of the future. The totality of culture as one huge remix.

There is an obvious connection between a computer system and the desire musicians, artists, filmmakers and authors have for sampling pieces of someone else’s work and mashing everything together, making new meanings from the strange juxtapositions that occur when you put things side-by-side. Nelson has suffered from attention deficit disorder throughout his life, and Xanadu – where everything is linked as if by string – could perhaps alleviate the stress of all the invisible links and dead-ends in today’s internet. Perhaps Xanadu would help make information more human and traceable? “We’re being lobotomised by the current format,” he insists. 

But there’s still time to make a change. These days, Ted is optimistic but reserved. “Xanadu is one concept that I’ve tried to move forwards at different times and in different ways. There was a catastrophe based on a couple of mistakes I made. We would have been the World Wide Web if I hadn’t made those mistakes.” This is without doubt true. Xanadu was always a project that only a very few people could ever seem to grasp. “As it turns out, people have zero ability to visualise what they haven’t seen,” Nelson adds. “I was shocked.” One of the people that could visualise Xanadu was programmer Roger Gregory, a disciple of Nelson’s who became his key collaborator. After working on Xanadu together for nearly a decade, they received funding to make it a reality from software firm Autodesk around 1988. The stakes were high – everyone out there was working on something special. But an episode of confusion at the office caused Nelson to demote Gregory, the man he describes as “the pilot”. “I heard he was going crazy. Throwing things. He was right to. They wanted to start over and redesign Xanadu on different principles.” Soon after, Xanadu unravelled, a few years later the World Wide Web was born and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yet Nelson’s ideas are beginning to resonate. It’s no surprise that one of his heroes is Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the moveable-type printing press. “I just wanted to make people smarter and deeper intellectually. Everything I’ve done has been about providing tools for the mind that might make that possible.”