June 16, 2005

Over the last couple days I've been watching videos from the WWW@10 conference held last year at Rose-Hulman. I've been focused on the two pertaining to Ted Nelson - his appearance on a panel of Pioneers, and his talk about his history and the hypertextualisation of literature as DeepLit.

It's very interesting to see the interplay of Nelson and his fellow panelists on the former session. His work with hypertext started long before theirs - they come from the CERN era of web based hypertext, a form of hypertext of which Nelson is often dismissive. But their work has gotten the lion's share of attention and traction; a bit of being in the right place at the right time, and what Nelson would probably classify as a faustian bargain of simplification (or as he puts it, one of the three great Dumb-Downs of computing). There are moments in the session where agreement seems to take place, but as telling are the moments where Nelson will start explaining his position and one or the other panelists will appear to bristle slightly in that "we've been down this path before, here it is again" way that happens.

The second video - of Nelson discussing the history of his development, the philosophy behind his work and his view of literature and hypertext- is a fascinating soliloquy. One man on a stage with a malfunctioning computer, railing against the now accepted best practices of hypertext and document structuring. He comes across as irascible in the best way, politely but firmly convinced of his point of view. The tools he presents - sadly, windows focused when one goes to the Xanadu website look fascinating. Difficult to corral, perhaps, but potentially powerful.

Looking briefly at the various presences Nelson has had on the web, he's been an itinerant thinker in the best tradition, a bit like a a renaissance or restoration philosopher traveling from court to court - that court being Autodesk, Xerox, a Japanese institute or a college at Oxford. The still stable core is Nelson's thinking and stream of refinements of ideas he first started presenting 30 or more years ago,

It all rushed back to me last night the first time I had encountered Nelson in the flesh. Nelson was living in or around in Austin or Houston, I believe, and I was in College Station, Texas while I was attending Texas A&M. The University had brought in Timothy Leary as a speaker, and Leary had picked up Nelson along the way. After Leary gave a talk about consciousness (as I recall, though I don't think I took notes) he announced that he had brought Nelson along as a special guest. Nelson then went on for a decent while about his work to that point in time. I had been a bit familiar with Nelson previously, as someone in my circle of pre-teen and teenage geeks had a copy of Computer Lib/Dream Machines in their home, which I had flipped through several times, but never fully digested. I don't recall if I got to speak with either part after the lectures - surely I would have tried to. I do recall getting some Xanadu flyer at the time, or maybe that was the second time I saw Nelson present, at OSCon for ZigZag's release...

It occurs to me as I write this that this would have been in 1986 or 1988, around the time which Nelson had just republished (by an imprint of Microsoft Press no less) that same book. The edition I would have read - a first edition or early printing - now goes for upwards of $200 or $300 on abebooks. Amazing.

The confluence of Leary and Nelson in my memory, so soon after reading the (to be reviewed) recent John Markoff book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer is striking. It was there in front of me, the connections which Markoff has nicely teased out. And then it was there behind me, unrecovered until the lattice realigned. It is these pieces of knowledge and thought that a proper augmentation system, I would think, would help us to retain and connect as humans.

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Posted by esinclai at June 16, 2005 05:59 PM |