Friday, November 23, 2018

"As We Will Think" -- The Legacy of Ted Nelson, Original Visionary of the Web

From Nelson, As We Will Think (1972 version)
The vision of the Web in 1945

From a recent email from the Editor of The Atlantic:
In July 1945, Vannevar Bush, then the director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development—the military’s R&D lab, the predecessor to DARPA—published an essay in The Atlantic that would become one of the seminal pieces of technology literature of the 20th century.
Entitled “As We May Think,” the essay laid out a vision for a new kind of relationship between human and machine. Bush introduced an idea he called the memex: a sprawling, shared store of humankind’s knowledge that could be used for social good, not destruction. In the following years, preeminent technologists—including Doug Engelbart, whose work eventually led to the invention of the mouse, the word processor, and hyperlinks; and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web—cited “As We May Think” as inspiration for their work.
The seminal re-visioning in the 1960's

It seems ironic that even the Atlantic seems to be neglecting Ted Nelson's role as an equally seminal visionary of the Web -- especially given that one of his early works was an explicit call to re-center on and realize Bush's vision, a work that plays off Bush's title as "As We Will Think."

I tweeted back to the Atlantic:
Some further tweets raised the question whether that was online somewhere, and it seems to be only in The Wayback Machine (, as a 1972 version -- and a poor copy at that, missing the original figures.

It happens that I have a better copy of the 1972 version, as well as another version that is labelled as being from 1968. So I am posting scans of both versions online (links below). I include some comments on provenance and on my recent email interchange with Nelson below (both of which lead me to believe the 1968 date is correct). But first...

Why Nelson matters 

A fuller explanation of  why Nelson matters is in my post from a few years ago, Digital Camelot - The Once and Future Web of Engelbart and Nelson, but here I caption its core message:

If you care about modern culture and how technology is shaping it, this is worth thinking about -- A powerful eulogy for where the Web might have gone, and still may someday, and the friendship of the two people most responsible for envisioning the Web*  --  Ted Nelson's eulogy for his friend Doug Engelbart, as reported by John Markoff in The Times -- with Nelson's inimitable flair.

As Markoff says:
Theodor Holm Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, has been a thorn in the side of the computing establishment for more than a half century. Last week, in an encomium to his friend Douglas Engelbart, he took his critique to Shakespearean levels. It deserves a wider audience. 
Dr. Engelbart and Ted Nelson became acquaintances at the dawn of the modern computing era. They had envisioned and invented the computing that we have come to take for granted.
I first encountered both of them in 1969, and what I saw set the direction for my life's work.  Engelbart gave "The Mother of All Demos" in 1968 (and I first saw him give a follow-up the next year, and read most of his work).  Nelson dreamed of hypertext and hypermedia, and wrote papers on what he called "hypertext" in the 'mid-60s and the highly influential Whole Earth Catalog of "Computer Lib / Dream Machines" in 1974.

As Nelson laments, both received a degree of recognition, but both were marginalized. Powerful as it may be, expediency took the Web in more limiting directions.

Their ideas remain profound and forward looking. Anyone who really cares about the future of media, intellect, and culture, and how information technology can augment that, should consider their work. Just because the Web took a turn to expediency in the past does not mean it will not realize its richer potential in the future. (One hint of that is noted in the next section [of that post].) ...

Nelson's insight

Ted's iconoclastic and visionary style is apparent from the opening of his "As We Will Think" (1968 version):
Bush was right, His famous article is, however, generally misinterpreted, for it has little to do with "information retrieval" as prosecuted today, Bush rejected indexing and discussed instead new forms of interwoven documents. 
It is possible that Bush's vision will be fulfilled substantially as he saw it, and that information retrieval systems of the kinds now popular will see less use than anticipated.
As the technological base has changed, we must recast his thesis slightly, and regard Bush's "memex" as three things: the personal presentation, editing and file console; a digital feeder network for the delivery of documents in full-text digital form; and new types of documents, or hypertexts, which are especially worth receiving and sending in this manner.
In addition, we also consider a likely design for specialist hypertexts, and discuss problems of their publication. 
Twenty-three years ago, in a widely acclaimed article, Vannevar Bush made certain predictions about the way we of the future would handle written information (1). We are not yet doing so. Yet the Bush article is often cited as the historical beginning, or as a technological watershed, of the field of information retrieval. It is frequently cited without interpretation (2,3). Although some commentators have said its predictions were improbable (4), in general its precepts have been ignored by acclamation...
In hindsight, it is obvious that Ted was right about Bush's vision. The memex pre-saged wonders far beyond the mundane notion of "information retrieval" as generally understood in the 1960s (even if not all of Bush, Engelbart and Nelson's visions have been embodied in the Web).

For an interesting update that theme, see this 2016 Quartz article and its reference to Werner Herzog's interview of Ted for his film Lo and Behold, and a short video of Ted expanding on what he spoke of. Both provide a nice live demos of the "parallel textface," much as shown in the above image from Ted's 1972 article. This also explains Ted's ideas of "transclusion" of elements from one work into another, as a rich kind of mashup that retains the identity of the original elements.  He explains how that can support creator rights to what is linked in, and micropayment-based payment/compensation models.* I have often heard people speculate about some of these exciting ideas, thinking they were new (and sometimes that they invented them). Few realize that Ted described all this in the '60s and '70s,

Those trying to invent this "deeply intertwingled" future might want to stand on Ted's shoulders. Ted may not have had the entrepreneurial genius of Steve Jobs, but his inventive vision is second to none.

The Atlantic might want to talk to him...

1968? really? -- it seems yes

Nelson actually wrote previously about his ideas for hypertext (in the mid 1960s), so the exact date of this particular paper may not be of great importance, but its earliest provenance is a be a bit of a puzzle.

I recently corresponded with Ted by email, and he was intrigued by these finds -- happy to have the full 1972 version and puzzled by the "1968" version. He said he did not recall a formal publication from that date, but that he might have provided a version at the ACS Annual Meeting then.

Both papers are from my hard copy file, just as they appear in the scans now posted (with the hand annotations apparently being mine, from when I first read them). I believe I had ordered them from my company library and that the label "ACS Annual Meeting 1968" was the citation information with which I ordered that copy. (I presumed that referred to the American Chemical Society, which seemed a bit far afield, but Ted did have a wide range.) So it seemed to remain a puzzle.

However as I was drafting this post, I noticed that the 1968 version says "Twenty-three years ago..." while the 1972 version says "Twenty-seven years ago..." That would seem to be compelling evidence that my "1968" version actually was from that year.

To add more personal history, I had the pleasure of meeting with Ted in 1970 to explore assisting in an experimental hypertext implementation under Claude Kagan's direction, as part of my masters degree fellowship work at the AT&T Western Electric Research Center. That project did not materialize, but chatting with Ted about hypertext was one of the most memorable hours of my career.

Early works by Ted Nelson from my collection

The following are items by Ted that may not to be generally available online. I collected these from 1969 onward, and plan to post scans of all them as I get time (after checking whether comparable copies are already accessible elsewhere).
  • As We Will Think ("ACS Annual Meeting 1968" version
    (unable to confirm citation and date)
  • As We Will Think ("Online 72 Conference Proceedings" version 
    (fuller than the scan at, includes original figures/photos)
  • “Hypertext Editing System,” published by Brown University on 5/6/69 for the Spring Joint Computer Conference, 5/14-16/69
    (My first exposure to hypertext. I clicked a link and saw the future. It was at the IBM booth running on a "mid-sized" IBM 360/50 mainframe with a 2250 vector graphics workstation equipped with a light-pen. Coincidentally, I knew Andy van Dam and some of the developers from my time at Brown the years just before.)
  • Short Computer Lib “$5 First Edition” ©’73, on typewriter paper hand-duplexed, 12 pages including Dream Machines flip-side.
  • A File Structure for the Changing and the Indeterminate, ACM National Conference 1965
  • Xanadu Draft Brochure, 27 November 1969
  • Computer Decisions 9/70  -- No More Teacher’s Dirty Looks
  • Hypertext Note 0-9, various dates in ‘67
  • Decision/Creativity Systems dated 19 July 1970
  • Hypertexts 20 Mar 70
  • Getting it out of our system, in Schechter, ‘67
  • A 14 December 1970 PDP10 teletype printout of Ted's “final report” for Claude Kagan of Western Electric (maybe incomplete with related fragments) -- as noted above, I met with Ted around that time to discuss assisting in this project while in my master's degree fellowship program. (I suspect this was not distributed beyond Ted, Claude, and me.)
(Copies will also be placed on Google Drive.)

*An innovation of my own is relevant to this use of micropayments. Micropayments have a long history of enthusiasm and failure. The problem is that micropayments add up to macropayments, resulting in the shock of a nasty surprise when the bill is presented, or the fear of such a surprise. My short answer to how to fix that is to make the micro-payments variable, including some form of volume discounts and price caps, and to provide forgiveness when the value received is not satisfactory. Details of how do that are in this recent post on my other blog: "The Case Against Micropayments" -- From Fear and Surprise to The Comfy Chair.

Historical Clarification:  I should note that my original tweet, above was imprecise in saying "bringing Bush to the attention of those you name." I gather that Engelbart arrived at the basic idea of hypertext independently, and only later became aware of Ted's work. However my understanding is the Tim Berner-Lee was influenced by Ted, as referenced in his proposal for the WWW.

1 comment:

  1. OMG does this bring back memories. This was the background against which we started working on 'interactive services" in the early to mid 70s. But we didn't meet hyperlinking in the real world until years (15/20?) years later....
    "Ancient Interactivist: - Hilary Thomas