Wednesday, September 12, 2007


The final keynote came from hypertext pioneer and ZigZag guru Ted Nelson, whose work on "literary machines" and file structures for "the complex, the changing, and the indeterminate" I will teach in the opening of my social media class in the same week as Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think.”

In a talk peppered with neologisms, Nelson demonstrated the current version of his Xanadu system in which he could "sworf" (swoop and morph) in the space of interlinked documents that were characterized by "flinks" or floating links. In Nelson's history of hypertext, there are a few significant dates: 1945 (the year in which hierarchical directories and lump files with no overlap became the standard), 1960 (the year in which these structures were formalized by early operating systems), 1968 (the year of "The Great Dumbdown" in which one-way links were instantiated), and 1974 (the year of the Xerox PARC user interface). Nelson focused much of his invective on this last innovation, which featured "disconnected windows" and the elements of the early "desktop" with a waste basket and a clipboard that Nelson dismisses as a propagandistic device. Although Lev Manovich has argued that cut-and-paste operations are an essential component of the language of new media, Nelson mourns the "hundreds of thousands of valuable things lost every day" because only one object can be handled at a time that leads him to "feel emotional."

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of his talk was when Nelson compared Xerox in the seventies to Google now and discussed the relative hubris of their corporate models. As the daughter of a Xerox employee during its heyday, I well remember the expired patents that Nelson gloated over. Unfortunately Nelson couldn't help but make a regrettable dig at the company that claimed that Xerox didn't do real user testing in which he said they tested their wares on "secretaries" and "clueless people" who had "no intense involvement with document production. This kind of anti-feminism grates on my nerves, like J.C.R. Licklider's classic assertion that "one can hardly take a military commander or a corporation president away from his work to teach him to type."

In Nelson's alternative history, "XML is evil," and the World Wide Web represents a scenario like The Butterfly Effect in which each of his interventions produces the worst of all possible worlds. However, the audience seemed skeptical of the system that he demoed, although not as critical as the writer of the caustic "The Curse of Xanadu." Even Facebook friend Jim Whitehead at UC Santa Cruz seemed dubious that Nelson's system could actually be adopted by the general public.

Nelson also showed his student film, The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow, from his days at Swarthmore to argue that film editing had helped him conceptualize a hypertext document. Although he attacked the idea of lump files and hierarchical directories, he may have already lost the battle, in that widely used film-editing programs like Final Cut Pro read like those hated HTML files.

As someone interested in design issues, I also thought Nelson's autobiographical story of his grandfather's disastrous encounter with a pressure cooker that nearly disfigured him after it covered him with boiling mashed potatoes was a moment in which his mistrust of "techie traditions" seemed grounded in a deep emotional memory.

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