Ted Nelson, Xanadu, and Why Rhetoric Matters

Quinn WarnickNew Media Seminar

Last week I learned that it is much harder to lead a reading discussion with faculty members than it is to lead one with undergraduate students. Everyone had smart things to say about Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines, but I struggled to keep the discussion lively and on topic. (Gardner makes it look so easy!)

Even more frustrating was my failure to articulate my negative reaction to Nelson’s piece. During our discussion, I think I came across as dismissive or even hostile toward Nelson, but that wasn’t my intention. After thinking about it for a week, I’ve come to the conclusion that Nelson’s writing rubs me the wrong way because he packages amazing ideas in antagonistic prose. Yes, Nelson is a visionary, and we owe him a great debt for kickstarting the development of hypertext and the internet. But he’s also a bit of a bully, unwilling to compromise or acknowledge the contributions of others. He positions himself against the “computer priesthood,” the experts who “generally enjoy putting people down,” (p. 304), but he fails to see how his own combative approach alienates those who might have been his allies.

Consider just a few (admittedly decontextualized) examples:

  • “Any nitwit can understand computers, and many do” (p. 303).
  • I am ‘publishing’ this book myself, in this first draft form, to test its viability, to see how mad the computer people get…” (p. 303).
  • “Engineers and ‘human factors’ people speak as though there were some kind of scientific or determinate way to design control systems. Piffle” (p. 322).
  • “Be prepared for every possible form of aggressive defensiveness from programmers, especially, ‘Why would you want that?’ The correct answer is BECAUSE, damnit!’ (p. 326).

I recognize that Nelson designed Computer Lib / Dream Machines to be a manifesto, and I’m not suggesting that all writers should permanently adopt a conciliatory stance, but I do think Nelson’s lone-genius-in-the-wilderness approach directly affected his ability to turn his vision into reality. I wonder how the history of hypertext might have been different if Nelson had been willing to compromise and collaborate. It took Nelson 38 years—years!—of working on Project Xanadu to release an unfinished product. And even after 47 years of development, XanaduSpace exists as an abandoned Windows-only application.

It’s a shame that Nelson is known primarily as “the guy who coined the word hypertext” when his dreams for the future were so grand. In addition to showing us what could have been (and what still might be coming), Computer Lib / Dream Machines stands as a reminder that it’s not enough to be a genius — you have to play nicely with others, too.