June 2, 2003
In the Narrative as Virtual Reality comments thread, I’ve suggested rather strongly that those who plan to discuss hypertext should read the work of Ted Nelson — as both the term “hypertext” and the ideas it describes come from his writings.
Of course, such suggestions often lead to the question, “Where can I read Nelson’s writings?” Unfortunately, they aren’t found in the local chain bookstore, and perhaps not even in the local research library. So I’ve put together a few pointers.
- One of the best places to start, for understanding the meaning of “hypertext” (and the meaning of “hypermedia,” coined at the same time) is Nelson’s 1970 article, “No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks.” This was reprinted, in full, in Nelson’s seminal 1974/5 Computer Lib / Dream Machines. It is among the excerpts from that book reprinted in The New Media Reader — and the CL/DM chapter is one of those available in full from the excerpts page of the NMR website (as a pdf). CL/DM is, unfortunately, out of print (so the only way to read the whole thing is to find it used or in a library).
- In addition to the generic concept of hypertext/media, Nelson also worked to develop a particular hypertext system called Xanadu. This was conceived as a world-wide hypertext publishing network, on the scale of today’s web. Of course, Nelson was laughed at for years for thinking such a thing was possible (and that anyone would want it if it were). Now it seems a little less funny. Nelson also realized many of the implications such a network would have, and tried to think through them. For example, Xanadu included methods for preventing “not found” errors, a plan for a chain of what we would now call “internet cafes,” and an approach to dealing with copyright that was aimed at making creative re-use (remixing) seamless while keeping copyright holders happy. (The last of these will be the historical touchstone for my talk at “Copyright and the Networked Computer” in Washington DC this November.) All these ideas are outlined in his Literary Machines (originally published in 1981, and revised several times). The whole of Literary Machines 93.1 is available to read online, in the JFax format (you’ll probably need to download the reader). There are also excerpts from the 1981 edition of Literary Machines in The New Media Reader, but these are not available online. The whole book, in its 1993 edition, can be purchased from Eastgate Systems.
- Finally, there’s some very interesting “living” material out there. For example, if you want to try out some of the Xanadu source code that was open-sourced a few years ago, there’s a good resource at Sunless Sea. There are also some interesting things to read and links to follow at Xanadu Australia. Finally, I’m rather interested in a data model that Nelson’s been talking about in recent years: ZigZag.