The Computer World Could be Completely Different

Co-presented with the Department of Media and Communications, and Digital Cultures at the University of Sydney

6 April, 2011
Theodor Holm Nelson, Founding Designer, Project Xanadu

Fish, they say, aren't aware of water. Most people, including computer scientists, don't notice the hidden assumptions and traditions that have structured today's computer world and digital documents. These assumptions push the real problems into the laps of users and programmers. (Note that at this level, Windows, Mac and Linux, Iphone and Android are all the same.)

Almost nobody notices the consequences of this locked cosmology that includes

  • FILES. Lumps of data payload with short names. What is "metadata"? Data which is not in the payload–a silly distinction
  • HIERARCHICAL DIRECTORIES. These don't allow a file to be in more than one place, annotated or checked off, and don't notice when a file is moved.
  • LUMPDOCS. It is assumed that one document = one file; this forces a crude model of publication and pushes the problem of change management to the user.
  • THE PUI. (PARC User Interface, often called "The Modern GUI") turns the computer into a paper simulator, throwing away document structure (the original overlay links of Engelbart and others) in favor of cosmetics (fonts). Designed for secretaries and now imposed on the whole world, the PUI traps the user–proletarianised–no longer allowed to program, in a world of application prisons.
  • WALLED DATABASES. There is no available way to represent, and keep records about, the complex interwoven tangles of real life. Everything has to be simplified and connections have to be cut in all directions. Why?
  • ONE-WAY HYPERTEXT. The ayatollahs of the World Wide Web say that two-way links are too difficult. Translation: they don't know how to do it.

People are satisfied, or intimidated, because they don't know anything else is possible.

There is no right or wrong computer world; what is wrong is that there is only one computer world, with no other choices.

We will consider some alternatives.

Ted Nelson

Theodor Holm Nelson is an American designer, generalist, and pioneer of information technology. He coined the terms "hypermedia" and "hypertext" in 1963, and is also credited with first use of the words micropayment, transclusion, virtuality, intertwingularity and dildonics. He is the most important computing visionary of our time.

The main thrust of his work has been to create a different kind of electronic document which allows many forms of connection, instead of the "paper simulation" of Word, PDF and the World Wide Web. Nelson founded Project Xanadu in 1960, a project that has inspired a whole generation of computer programmers, hobbyists and developers. The effort is documented in his book Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974) and Literary Machines (1981). He has just published an autobiography, Possiplex.


Ted Nelson's visit to Australia has been supported by the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation.