Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thoughts on Ted Nelson

So there was a conference in honor of Ted Nelson last week. I watched some of it on livestream until it cut out. Ted was an incredibly important influence on me, for better or worse. I got to hang out with him in Evanston when I was a young computer nerd in the late 70s, and helped him open one of the first computer stores, the itty bitty machine company. I also narrowly avoided being sucked into the doomed Xanadu project, but by that time MIT was exerting more of a gravitational pull on my eccentric orbit.

The reason why Xanadu failed has been hashed over in many places, but to me it seems like yet another instance of the same Worse is Better phenomenenon that explains why my favorite programming language Lisp didn՚t take over the world like it was supposed to. That is to say, in the evolutionary struggle between technologies, replicabilty beats quality every time. This is not a lesson I like at all, but I՚ve come to grudgingly accept its validity.

Ted՚s vision, whatever its merits, did not have an obvious path to implementation, and required too much central control of the design, and so never managed to get off the ground. Whereas a fairly stupid and basic scheme like Tim Berners-Lee՚s HTTP and HTML protocols was so simple that it could spread like wildfire. You didn՚t need to be a genius or a very deep thinker to make a web site or browser. The rest is history, and the result of this history is an understandable touch of bitterness in Ted՚s attitude towards engineers. But that bitterness doesn՚t override the more important point, which is that he was striving for an integration between technology and the deepest of human concerns. That goal remains valid even if his chosen path to it has failed.

Ted, contrary to a common misconception of him as some kind of intellectual lightweight, had actually thought quite deeply about important issues in how computers should be used to support human thought and communication. Issues that he pushed to the forefront, such as object identity and micropayments to support content creators, were simply ignored by the WWW. Of course, once the web has spread to its current size, those issues come back with a vengeance. The lack of reliable identity and micropayments is an enormous factor in the structure of the web and hence the economic and intellecutal structure of the world. Now people are trying to graft them onto the primitive and unruly and poorly thought out world they have built themselves.

Jaron Lanier՚s talk interestingly tied his own obsessions into Ted's. The reason we have Google and Facebook, according to him, is that we failed to build in their functionalities into the architecture of the web the way Ted would have done it. They have more or less successfully layered their very important functionalities on top, but in a way that not only creates vast economic and control centralization, but simply can՚t work as well as a well-designed system would have.

Brewster Kahle՚s talk reminded me of another basic way in which the web failed to live up to Nelson՚s dream: whereas the web and other present-day digital technologies are something of a paradise for media consumers, Ted՚s main focus was on the creater, that is, writers and thinkers. He wanted a system that would support writers and generate new forms of writing and discourse; forms that would contribute to the collective intelligence of humanity. That too doesn՚t seem to have happened. Web media seems to favor the trivial and immediate over deeply structured content. There is lots of good writing available, but formal innovation in content structuring is pretty absent (the highly touted startup Medium, which was supposed to be some bold innovation in writing and publishing, truly appalled me for how very little it did).

The real takeaway: Ted՚s dream of using computers to improve the collective thought processes of mankind is not dead. Although the tech world is awash in trivia and consumerism, that doesn՚t really matter in the long run. The vision that gripped him 50 years ago or so, that we can and must put computers to use for human creativity still lives, although you have to look hard to see it amidst the noise and advertisements.

[update: well, after skimming around in Ted's autobiography Possiplex, I remembered just how I parted with the Xanadu project -- he wanted everyone involved to sign non-disclosure agreements, which made me uncomfortable and worried about conflicts with my day job on MIT research staff, so I bowed out at that point. Now I'm comparing Ted with RMS: they are both mad genius software visionaries that I've had some personal dealings with. It is very weird that Stallman turned out to have been the more successful social engineer, nobody would have predicted that back then!]