Ted Nelson, way out

Like the fish that is unaware of water, Ted Nelson says computer users are blind to the 2D tyranny of paper. Herewith, a few excerpts from his thought-provoking paper....

Theodor Holm Nelson
Keio University and University of Southampton

The world you are brought up in has the seeming of reality; it can take decades to unlearn. "Growing up" means in part finding out what's behind the false assumptions and misrepresentations of everyday life, so that at last you understand what's really happening and what the well-mannered pleasantries really mean and don't. But must our computer tools also be such a masquerade to be unlearned?

The usual story about Xerox PARC, that they were trying to make the computer understandable to the average man, was a crock. They imitated paper and familiar office machines because that was what the Xerox executives could understand. Xerox was a paper-walloping company, and all other concepts had to be ironed onto paper, like toner, to be even visible in their paper paradigm.

There are still millions of people who believe that the Macintosh represents creative liberation. For this astounding propagandistic achievement we can thank the Regis McKenna public relations company, which sold the Macintosh to the world (in the famous 1984 video commercial and after) as smashing the prison of the PC. In fact the Macintosh was a newly-designed prison-a-go-go. And that prison's architecture has been devotedly copied to Microsoft Windows in remarkable detail.

Today's arbitrarily constructed computer world is also based on paper simulation, or WYSIWYG. That's where we're stuck in the current model, where most software seems to be mapped to paper. ("WYSIWYG" generally means "What You See is What You Get"-- meaning what you get *when you print it OUT*). In other words, paper is the flat heart of most of today's software concepts.

This too was a key legacy of Xerox PARC. The PARC guys got a lot of points with Xerox management by making the "electronic document" MIMIC PAPER-- rather than extending it outward to include and show all the connections, possibilities, variations, parentheses, conditionals that are really there in the mind of the author or the speaker; rather than presenting all the details that the reporter faces before cooking them down.

One result is office software that's incredibly clumsy, with slow, pedestrian operations. Think how long it takes to open and name a file and a new directory. Whereas video-game software is lithe, quick, vivid.

Why is this?

Very simple. Guys who design video games *love to play video games*. Whereas nobody who designs office software seems to care about using it, let alone hopes to use it at warp speed.

Even stranger is the "browser" concept. Think of it-- a serial view of a parallel universe! Trying to comprehend the large-scale structure of connected Web pages is like trying to look at the night sky (at least, in places that stars are still visible) through a soda straw.

Finally, we must overcome the tyranny of the file-- meaning stuck lumps with final names. While files are necessary at some level, users don't need to see them, and much less need to give their projects unchanging names and locations. Human creativity is fluid, overlapping, intercombining, and many creative projects overflow their banks time and again.

Computers aping paper, corporate learning aping school, popular songs aping wisdom:

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all."

Posted by Jay Cross at March 9, 2004 09:10 PM | TrackBack


I'd be interested to know, does Ted offer any solutions rather than just point out problems? This stuff typically sounds good, until you force the individual to get specific. Not particularly new either, Alan Cooper raised all of these issues (especially the tyranny of the file system) in About Face years ago...


Posted by: mindful_learner at March 10, 2004 09:21 AM

Hi Jay,

I love reading texts Ted wrote, e.g. "Biostrategy" is one really nice piece of Ted's work. But whenever I tried thinking his stuff one step further I always hit a wall. I think moving forward in small steps is the best way to cope with his arguments. Ted always provokes in a way only a revolution could solve his identified problems at one stroke. but a revolution in IT is not very likely, much more likely is an evolutionary approch. cell-phones are a valid example, because they just start combining more and more dimensions of communication (audio, images, text, video, ...)

browsing the web with some kind of interface that looks more like e.g. www.webbrain.com is nice, but at this point of time the calculation-power in the machines is just not enough.

MS Word really suckz! And the same is valid for files and organizing files. If you download one pdf per day from the net, you have 365 pdf's at the end of the year. but none of the names will be helpful to find that "killer report" about eLearning of the future written by this person... shit!

David Gelernter did something on this called "timestreams", to me it appealed much more helpful than using filenames to organize this stuff.

regards from europe,
helge staedtler.

Posted by: helge at March 23, 2004 04:25 PM

Ah, Ted.

I don't purport to be a Ted expert. I read Computer Lib and was fascinated. For years I read lack-of-progress reports on Xanadu. A dozen years ago I was happy to attend when Ted addressed a very intimate SIG breakout of what was then Software Developers Forum. Another time he and I shot the shit at the opening of AMIX. When he was doing his Autodesk thing, I'd see him in Mollie Stone's supermarket in Sausalito. And I grab his stuff from the web when I come upon it. While I'm shallow, I do know a few things about Ted.

Ted's mother was Celeste Holm, the talented actress, and I think part of Ted is the result of actor DNA. He has been known to rent a stage and do monologues a la Spaulding Gray.

Ted is a provocateur. Promoting personal computers and hypertext at least a decade before other people had imagined such things is far out. That said, I don't remember Ted producing anything but books and papers; completion is not his strong suit.

Ted is a nut. I mean that affectionately. I'm a nut, too. Proud of it. But Ted has a peculiar concept of ownership. He feels you really own your own thoughts -- and should get credit if someone else uses them. Hence, Xanadu is not only an environment, it's also a global copyright management system. When Ted speaks, he records what he says. Rumor has it that containers around the Bay Area are chock full of old Ted tapes and notes. (I don't think there are new ideas, just new combinations of old ones.)

"MS Word sucks" depends on your context. For most applications, it's bloatware. I'd like something lightening-fast and easy to use. On the other hand, I've written books in Word. It's great to create an index at the push of a button or swap annotations with an editor. Compared to the ideal, I can say from experience that WordStar, Word Perfect, Ami Pro, and a bunch of others all sucked in their own way.

David Gelerter is an amazing guy. The Muse in the Machine is a wonderful book. Machine Beauty was inspiring. David has been pushing his time-based software for eons. It's a perfectly logical way to organize things. When he wrote a near-advertorial for the software in the New York Times last year, I downloaded the test-drive version. The UI didn't work for me. I simply couldn't get into it. I'm no fan of file folders, virtual or physical, but the time-based metaphor didn't get into my consciousness. I suspect a good search engine for one's hard disk is the optimal "system" right now.


Posted by: Jay Cross at March 23, 2004 10:03 PM

Hello Jay, thank you for your response.

I did not want to purport to be a Ted-"Expert", sorry if that appealed to you or others in this way - but hey, in a way it got your attention. ;-)

I really would like to get my hands on "Computer Lib", but as far as I know there do only exist some of them on paper, it wasn't digitized yet for availability on the net. And I think it will loose essential things if you do not have it on paper.

I read about you some weeks ago in an online-magazine of a german TV Channel ( http://www.heute.t-online.de/ZDFheute/artikel/7/0,1367,COMP-0-2106343,00.html ). There I read some statements where you claimed, europe has fallen back behind the US regarding eLearning. That pretty much got MY attention, because I did ask myself, in which aspects the US may be ahead of Europe?

You stated there in a talk about eLearning in Germany: "A couple of years behind", at least two years.

Perhaps the interviewer got that wrong, correct me if he cited you wrong. But after reading this article I just thought: "Wow, how can this guy state such a provoking thing without ever having seen what we are doing here?". I think you are right in saying that we perhaps have a lack in visible spirit. There also exist exceptions to this.

I am very deep in that eLearning thing, and I think that we are doing a great job on it. I would be so cheeky to say: "We are at least two years ahead of the US!". Because all the technological solutions the US provides - naming the big ones e.g. "Blackboard", "WebCT", miss the point if they think eLearning is equal to electronic page-turning.

How does this sound to you: "The web becomes editable!" or "WiKi on steroids." .
This is what I am trying to use at university, and this stuff is successful. It's sucessfully tested with students of ther virtual university of bavaria/germany. I have not seen any solution from the US which was capable in any way of allowing students to construct things.

Instead e-page-turning and multiple choice-testing are the secret weapons of those solutions. If we have a look at companies using eLearning skill-management or how I call it "skill supervising" gets added.

Never mind, but this does not seem to be two years ahead of our activities and solutions.

helge staedtler.

Posted by: helge at March 24, 2004 01:14 PM


As far as I know, Computer Lib is only available in paper.

Regarding the article in DF Computer, this is the first time I've seen it. While it is accompanied by photos that make it appear these were my public remarks, that is not the case. The comments about eLearning in Germany were made in a private interview with a free-lance reporter, and what was a minor discussion topic now appears as if it were my main point.

The headline Experte: US-Pioniergeist treibt E-Bildung voran - und Deutschland hinkt hinterher is incendiary, misleading, and off-target journalism, and does not represent my opinion whatsoever.

My translator (Uta and I married in Heidelberg) is on the road, as am I, but I'll respond more fully upon her return. I prefer to read a native translation of the article rather than Google's version (half of which is gibberish).

I've given lengthy interviews to reporters from Greece, the UK, and France. All have promised to send me a copy of their published articles. None have followed through. This nonsense has just ended. If you're a free-lance amateur looking to create news by stirring up conflict, please don't knock on my door.

Posted by: Jay Cross at March 24, 2004 10:20 PM


I am glad to hear this, because this would have been indeed a really provoking thesis. I supposed the journalists to be more correct on this. It's not that much a surprise to me, that they are seemigly not as correct as one might think.

As a docent at the university, working on my doctorate degree and at the same time pushing eLearning-innovation forward in germany, I was pretty much surprised reading such a headline. I have in no way any ambition to stir up things here. I am also in no way doing journalism.

This headline simply hit me, and I thought: "Wow, you have to find out, who fed the information for this amazing headline." People in europe/germany do think about such headlines, and especially in germany things like this are a fast-selling item.

So I just wanted you to know about this fact - nothing more. I hope I have been of some help giving you a different perspective of your representation in media, by submitting the URL to you.

You are also invited to drop me an eMail directly - if you would like to. Thanks for your detailed answer. I wish you also an ongoing good journey on the roads in europe. You are welcome! :-)

helge staedtler.

Posted by: helge at March 25, 2004 10:27 AM

30 Poppy Lane
Berkeley, California 94708

1.510.528.3105 (office & cell)

Subscribe to this Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe. We vow never to share your information with anyone. No Spam.

Subscribe Unsubscribe

Reference Pages

Building Community
CSS, Semantic Mark-Up, and codes
First Principles
How People Learn
Knowledge Management
Learning Links
Learning Standards
Making It Work (Implementing)
Metrics & ROI
Social Software
String theory
The eLearning Museum
Visual Learning


Our Infrequent Newsletter
Sign up for our sporadic newsletter.

Entries by category...

Customer care
Emergent Learning
Just Jay
Recycled from Blogger
The Industry
Workflow-based eLearning


Internet Time Group

© 2004 Internet Time Group

Click for Berkeley, California Forecast
Berkeley, California

Recent entries

New Blog
Blogger Experience, Housekeeping, Something New
Loosely Coupled
Above all
Demographics is destiny
Are you setting the bar high enough?
Virtual Apps
Aerobic Learning
Work as Video Game
Oracle and Macromedia, Sitting in a Tree
The Blogosphere
ASTD Silicon Valley
Performance Support
Kingsbridge Conference Center
First Post by Email
Inactive Blog
RSS Feed for New Site
Comment Spam
Testing ... testing ... 1...2..3
IT Doesn't Matter - Learning Does.
All blogging is political
Mutlimedia Learning
Damn, damn, double damn
Nonverbal impact?
The New Religion
Wolf! Wolf! Wolf! Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!
Business Process Management (2)
Really Big
Business Process Management Conference
Don't Lose a Common Sense: LISTEN
It's only natural
Go with the flow
Time Out for the Fair
Informal get-together in SF this Wednesday
Repetition, reverb, and echoes
Who Knows?
Cognitive Mapping
Push vs pull
The Big Picture on ROI
Art Break
TDF Finale
New Community of Practice Forming
More TDF04
Training Directors Forum 2004
A Rare One-Liner
PlaNetwork LIVE 2
PlaNetwork LIVE
ASTD 2004 Leftovers
Worker Effectiveness Improvement, not KM
Upcoming Events
eLearning Effectiveness?
Jay's Talk at ASTD
Mintzberg & Cooperider
Lest ye forget
ASTD International Conference & Exposition 2004
Knowledge Tips
What is Workflow Learning?
ASTD msg 1 of n
Look out, it's Outlook
Collaboration at ASTD Next Week
Tell me a story
User indifference
The shortest presentation on metrics you will ever hear
Back to Blogger
Windows fixes
The Alchemy of Growth
Grab bag
Very loosely coupled
E-Learning from Practice to Profit
Robin Good kicks off Competitive Edge
China Bloggers
Sonoma Dreaming
Upcoming Events
Emergent Learning Forum: Simulations
The Best Things in Life Are Free
Metrics and Web Services
OpEd: ROI vs. Metrics
e-Merging e-Learning
Loosely Coupled
Search me