Ted Nelson’s Dream of Xanadu

I often reminisce about my youth and the (relatively) early days of computing. When I was just starting my career, a man named Ted Nelson, son of a director named Ralph Nelson and a movie actress named Celeste Holm, wrote and self published a book. It was actually two books in one. On one side the book was called Computer Lib and on the other side, upside down, the book was called Dream Machines. It was published in an oversized format on newsprint.

Ted had a lot of revolutionary ideas. One of the most revolutionary was the idea of nonlinear text. He coined the term hypermedia to describe it. A hypertext consisted of prose that had certain key terms associated with different pages so that when you clicked on the original hyperlink, you were immediately shown the associated prose. This enabled the construction of text that could be  consumed at the whim of the reader instead of at the whim of the author.

We all know that when this concept was simplified and actually implemented by Tim Berners-Lee, it resulted in what we’ve come to call the world wide web. It is of note that the original hypermedia design, a project called Xanadu, consisted of bi-directional links and a micro payment system that allowed authors to collect micro payments for every one that clicked on and read any given hyperlink.  This system was never released in any practical implementation due to the lack of a feasible scheme to collect the micro payment.

If you ever find a copy of Computer Lib/Dream Machines in a used book store or yard sale, it is definitely worth a read. The ideas are for the most part still relevant and he assumes no knowledge of computers on the part of his readers. Many of his examples have inspired actual computer applications.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.