Ted Nelson, speaking at the Tech Museum of Innovation in 2011
June 17, 1937 |
Chicago, Illinois, United States
|Alma mater||Swarthmore College
University of Chicago
|Fields||Information technology, philosophy, and sociology|
Theodor Holm "Ted" Nelson (born June 17, 1937) is an American pioneer of information technology, philosopher, and sociologist. He coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia in 1963 and published them in 1965. Nelson coined the terms transclusion,virtuality, and intertwingularity (in Literary Machines), and teledildonics.
Nelson is the son of Emmy Award-winning director Ralph Nelson and the Academy Award-winning actress Celeste Holm. His parents' marriage was brief and he was mostly raised by his grandparents, first in Chicago and later in Greenwich Village.
Nelson earned a B.A. in philosophy from Swarthmore College in 1959. While there, he made an experimental humorous student film titled The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow, in which the titular hero discovers the meaning of life. His contemporary at the college, musician and composer Peter Schickele, scored the film. Following a year of graduate study in sociology at the University of Chicago, Nelson began graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University in 1960, ultimately earning an A.M. in sociology from the Department of Social Relations in 1963. During his graduate studies, Nelson was a photographer and filmmaker at John C. Lilly's Communication Research Institute in Miami, Florida, where he briefly shared an office with Gregory Bateson. From 1964 to 1966, he was an instructor in sociology at Vassar College.
During college and graduate school, he envisioned a computer-based writing system that would provide a lasting repository for the world's knowledge, and also permit greater flexibility of drawing connections between ideas. This came to be known as Project Xanadu.
Nelson founded Project Xanadu in 1960, with the goal of creating a computer network with a simple user interface. The effort is documented in his 1974 book Computer Lib / Dream Machines and the 1981 Literary Machines. Much of his adult life has been devoted to working on Xanadu and advocating for it.
Throughout his career, Nelson supported his work on the project through a variety of administrative, academic and research positions and consultancies, including stints at Harcourt Brace and Company (a technology consultancy and assistantship typified by the creation of the Xanadu moniker and an early meeting with Douglas Engelbart, who later became a close friend; 1966-1967), Brown University (a tumultuous consultancy on the Nelson-inspired Hypertext Editing System and File Retrieval and Editing System with Swarthmore friend Andries van Dam's group; c. 1967-1969), Bell Labs (classified hypertext-related defense research; 1968-1969), CBS Laboratories ("writing and photographing interactive slide shows for their AVS-10 instructional device"; 1968-1969), the University of Illinois at Chicago (an interdisciplinary staff position; 1973-1976) and Swarthmore College (a lectureship in computing; 1977).
Nelson also conducted research and development under the auspices of the Nelson Organization (founder and president; 1968-1972) and the Computopia Corporation (co-founder; 1977-1978). Clients of the former firm included IBM, Brown University, Western Electric, the University of California, the Jewish Museum, the Fretheim Chartering Corporation and the Deering-Milliken Research Corporation. He has alleged that the Nelson Organization was envisaged as a clandestine funding conduit for the Central Intelligence Agency, which expressed interest in Project Xanadu at an early juncture; however, the promised funds failed to materialize after several benchmarks were met.
From 1980 to 1981, he was the editor of Creative Computing. At the behest of Xanadu developers Mark S. Miller and Stuart Greene, Nelson joined San Antonio, Texas-based Datapoint as chief designer (1981-1982), remaining with the company as a media specialist until its Asher Edelman-driven restructuring in 1984. Following several San Antonio-based consultancies and the acquisition of Xanadu technology by Autodesk in 1988, he continued working on the project as a non-managerial Distinguished Fellow in the San Francisco Bay Area until the divestiture of the Xanadu Operating Group in 1992-1993.
After holding visiting professorships in media and information science at Hokkaido University (1995-1996), Keio University (1996-2002), the University of Southampton and the University of Nottingham, he was a Fellow (2004-2006) and Visiting Fellow (2006-2008) of the Oxford Internet Institute in conjunction with Wadham College, Oxford. More recently, he has taught classes at Chapman University and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The Xanadu project itself failed to flourish, for a variety of reasons which are disputed. Journalist Gary Wolf published an unflattering history of Nelson and his project in the June 1995 issue of Wired, calling it "the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing". On his own website, Nelson expressed his disgust with the criticisms, referring to Wolf as "Gory Jackal", and threatened to sue him. He also outlined his objections in a letter to Wired, and released a detailed rebuttal of the article.
As early as 1972, a demonstration iteration developed by Cal Daniels failed to reach fruition when Nelson was forced to return the project's rented Data General Nova minicomputer due to financial exigencies. Nelson has stated that some aspects of his vision are being fulfilled by Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the World Wide Web, but he dislikes the World Wide Web, XML and all embedded markup - regarding Berners-Lee's work as a gross over-simplification of his original vision:
Jaron Lanier explains the difference between the World Wide Web and Nelson's vision, and the implications:
A core technical difference between a Nelsonian network and what we have become familiar with online is that [Nelson's] network links were two-way instead of one-way. In a network with two-way links, each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. ... Two-way linking would preserve context. It's a small simple change in how online information should be stored that couldn't have vaster implications for culture and the economy.
In 1965, he presented the paper "Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate" at the ACM National Conference, in which he coined the term "hypertext".
In 1976, Nelson co-founded and briefly served as the advertising director of the "itty bitty machine company", or "ibm", a small computer retail store that operated from 1977 to 1980 in Evanston, Illinois. The itty bitty machine company was one of the few retail stores to sell the Apple I computer. In 1978 he had a significant impact upon IBM's thinking when he outlined his vision of the potential of personal computing to the team that three years later launched the IBM PC.
From the 1960s to the mid-2000s, Nelson built an extensive collection of direct advertising mail he received in his mailbox, mainly from companies selling products in IT, print/publishing, aerospace, and engineering. In 2017, the Internet Archive began to publish it online in scanned form, in a collection titled "Ted Nelson's Junk Mail Cartons".
As of 2011, Nelson was working on a new information structure, ZigZag, which is described on the Xanadu project website, which also hosts two versions of the Xanadu code. He also developed XanaduSpace, a system for the exploration of connected parallel documents (an early version of this software may be freely downloaded).
In January 1988 Byte magazine published an article about Nelson's ideas, titled "Managing Immense Storage". This stimulated discussions within the computer industry, and encouraged people to experiment with Hypertext features.
In 2001 he was knighted by France as Officier des Arts et Lettres. In 2004 he was appointed as a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, and associated with the Oxford Internet Institute, where he was a visiting fellow from 2004 through 2006. In 2007 he celebrated his 70th birthday by giving an invited lecture at the University of Southampton. In 2014 ACM SIGCHI honored him with a Special Recognition Award.
Nelson is credited with coining several new words that have come into common usage especially in the world of computing. Among them are:
Many of his books are published through his own company, Mindful Press.
Errors in 'The Curse of Xanadu', by Gary Wolf
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