April 3, 2008

Programs Ted Nelson Likes

by Nick Montfort · , 6:37 pm
Nelson at WVU

I just got to hear Ted Nelson (inventor of the term “hypertext,” author of Computer Lib/Dream Machines and Literary Machines) kick off the Codework workshop with his talk here at West Virginia University. I did not take notes during Nelson’s talk. The basic ideas he expounded (as one might guess) were the ones expressed in his books and in the last talk of his that I heard, in 2001 at Brown. He showed some examples of cross-document connections and transclusion in Xanadu Space, and demonstrated the underlying data representation, ZigZag.

I will mention, though, the question I asked and the answer Nelson gave. I wondered if he – so influential in communicating to people how computers can be used to enlarge the mind and liberate people – could tell us a few programs that he encountered that showed him that potential. He mentioned the programming langauge Prograph and a language that gives the capability to produce executables for PC and Mac, REALbasic. When I pressed him to mention any programs – including small-scale ones like games – that influenced him, he said he wasn’t a game guy and just mentioned some other “full platforms” that aren’t computers: Tinderbox, Emacs, and Flash. Well, on the one hand, I was hoping to learn about smaller-scale non-applications that showed the potential of the computer. (Did he like Eliza? The animals “AI” game? Anything like that?) But, Nelson is not a games guy – he’s a meta guy, interested in platforms, programming languages, and development systems. So this was a fair answer. And I’ll have to check out Prograph and REALbasic.

6 Responses to “Programs Ted Nelson Likes”


  1. Ian Bogost Says:

    I’ve used REALBasic some, but I’ve never found that it really cashes out the cross-platform promise. Yes you can compile across platforms, but things don’t work as expected, or as desired. REALBasic’s origins as a Mac RAD environment (influenced by Microsoft’s influential VisualBasic, as the name suggests) might explain this somewhat. I guess if you are making forms-heavy x-platform business applications, REALBasic is probably a very good choice, but I am never doing that. In any case, I haven’t used the platform in a few years and its likely improved.

    For my own cross-platform interests, I’ve moved on to BlitzBasic, which also uses a BASIC syntax but offers much more useful and direct screen-drawing options, as well as optional RAD-style forms interfaciness.

    Now that I got this out of the way, maybe I can press you on your impression that this is a “fair answer.” The devil’s advocate might suggest that unless Nelson can cite concrete, specific examples of expressive computation, ones that cash out the promise of Computer Lib/Dream Machines, that the question remains hypothetical, or worse, the concerns of HCI alone. I wasn’t there, but I have long tried to find inspiration in Nelson’s work alone, rather than his framing of it in talks and lectures.

  2. blog.mignault.net » Blog Archive » Deeply tindertwingled Says:

    [...] Grand Text Auto » Programs Ted Nelson Likes: “When I pressed him to mention any programs – including small-scale ones like games – that influenced him, he said he wasn’t a game guy and just mentioned some other ‘full platforms’ that aren’t computers: Tinderbox, Emacs, and Flash.” [...]

  3. Mark Bernstein Says:

    It’s flattering to see Tinderbox (http://www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/) here. Tinderbox is a hypertext tool, and Ted is notoriously harsh on hypertext systems.

    I think Nelson is not so much thinking about the meta level, though, as emphasizing the value of tools that let people make the machine do what they want. Reconstructible interfaces and behavior have always held a special place in Nelson’s vision of personal computing. It is, at heart, a populist vision: “you can (and must) understand computers NOW!”. This is one of the things I’ve been trying to tease out in my call for artisanal software in “NeoVictorian Computing”, though in my more modest vision a lot of the work still gets done by specialists; Nelson, seldom completely happy with the tools we have been given, insists that we can and should craft our own.

  4. nick Says:

    Ian, I understand that you’d also like to know about this. I can just say that I tried (after the Q&A as well!) to find out what Nelson thought were some notable “specific examples of expressive computation” that aren’t tools, and I didn’t succeed.

    Mark, thanks for the link to Tinderbox, I put that into the original post.

  5. rascunho » Blog Archive » links for 2008-04-04 Says:

    [...] Grand Text Auto » Programs Ted Nelson Likes (tags: grandtextauto.org 2008 mes3 dia4 at_tecp Ted_Nelson hipertexto blog_post) [...]

  6. Mark Szpakowski Says:

    As a co-developer of Prograph, I am also flattered to have it included in tools that “enlarge the mind and liberate people”. Prograph was a completely pictorial (the diagrams _are_ the code) dataflow, object-oriented programming language, with dynamic execution and debugging (you could start executing, roll back, add code, roll forward, etc – rock and roll!).

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